Ghosts under Water: China's Three Gorges Dam Inundates a Way of Life

Article excerpt

Until last year, I had only witnessed the destruction of old Fengdu in photographs. In the early stages, only the blood-red symbol "tsai" marked the buildings that would be torn down and submerged by China's massive Three Gorges Dam, which has turned the fierce waters of the Yangtze into a giant bathtub.

Old Fengdu had been surrendering to pickaxes for several years, and I arrived on New Year's Day 2006 to look for her stragglers, the elderly and infirm who refused to move out, as they could not afford the higher rents in the new town. I was drawn to hear their stories, and I was also returning to the homeland that my father fled more than 60 years ago. I wonder what it is like to be a refugee in one's own land, to be forced from one's home, which encompasses more than wood and brick and mortar, but a sense of belonging to the place where one's ancestors are buried.

My driver took me across the river, through a thick fog into the ghost town. I stared at the shell of a high-rise emerging from the flattened landscape, dotted with men who were steadily chiseling away at the concrete edifice. Along the remaining road in town, there were huge bales of wire, like tumbleweed, and long copper rods bundled together. These had been salvaged from the wrecked buildings. All around, as far as the eye could see, the old city was a mass of rubble, with a few pockets of life. The apartment buildings I came to find were gone, the stragglers having lost their battle to the indomitable tide of change. Old Fengdu would be completely submerged in a few months, its rubble sinking beneath the silt-laden brown waters of the Yangtze in summertime.

I stopped where a woman and her child were standing outside their shack. It was constructed of plywood with a red-white-and-blue striped tarp commonly used on construction sites. "How old is your child?" I asked in Mandarin.

"Oh, he's two," she replied. "I found the child. His mother had left him when he was seven days old. It was the middle of winter, and I found him in the snow." I stared at the boy, Chen Huei Nien, whose cherubic face lit up when his mother gave him a hot bun. The woman's encampment was the only one visible in this part of town. The humble abode was equipped with a bed, some clothing, a small coal heater, and a small bamboo chair. Her husband was on the demolition crew, and they went home to the new city each night.

When I took her son's picture, she gave me a mailing address in the new city. What compelled her to spend her days here if they had a nicer home across the river? She did not speak of remorse or longing, yet I sensed that deep roots tie her to this place, and those memories would remain far after the entire old town disappears under water.

Down the road, a demolition crew hacked away at remaining buildings, stone by stone, brick by brick. …