The City: Chongqing, China

Article excerpt

Byline: Hong Ying

Hong Ying on sweet dreams in a place of suffering.

I was born in the year of China's Great Famine and grew up in a slum on the south bank of the Yangtze River in Chongqing. It was a place crowded with small wooden hovels, rotten and blackened houses, narrow alleys, and deep, twisting courtyards. The area had no plumbing or drainage facilities, so polluted water ran through channels alongside pedestrian walkways and flowed downward along mountain slopes. It was a place where rubbish piled up randomly along the roadsides, waiting to be washed away into the Yangtze River when there was heavy rain, or to decompose in the hot weather.

My family had only a 10-square-meter main room with a small wooden window facing south, just like a prison cell. The window was blocked by another house, and an electric light had to be turned on even in the daytime. My father made two beds, placing them in the loft for us six children to sleep in at night. My parents used the main room under the loft. When a bed was placed in it, the leftover space in the main room was only big enough for a five-drawer cabinet, an old cane chair, and a dining table. Our family's six children had only one pair of heavy plastic rain boots between us. So whenever there was rain, whichever of us moved the fastest would be able to grab that pair of boots to wear, while the others had to wear gym shoes and get wet feet.

I was an illegitimate child, born of the love between my mother and another man. Because of this, my mother was rejected and attacked by all of society back then. My father was blinded during the years of the Great Famine, so my mother had to do manual labor just like a man, to keep our family life going. When I was a young girl, I never had any new clothes, playmates, or anyone who wanted to talk with me. I had to struggle forward in the darkness alone.

Local people worked hard during the day and slept at night; aside from that the only excitement was to go down to the riverside to watch dead bodies floating by. That was when the Cultural Revolution was going on, between 1966 and 1976, and Chongqing was the most badly affected city in China in terms of armed conflict between rival factions. Occasionally, when they could not bear the interrogations and forced confessions, people jumped into the river to commit suicide.

When such people drowned, according to Chinese folklore, their dead bodies would float on the river's surface for seven days and blood would flow from their eyes, nose, and mouth when the corpse was witnessed by anyone--friends or enemies alike. …