We took the bus to meet Feng’s family (yes, there were more members to meet!) in the suburb of Shenyang. The forty-minute ride took us through the city, across the river. The furthest we went, the flatter the scenery was—goodbye new tall constructions, welcome to older one-storey buildings.
It was a world apart from the city, a world where people still live in a tightly knit community, with chicken and dogs roaming free, very basic bathrooms and huge pipes running from one building to another to bring hot water. A world where people ride bicycles instead of motorbikes, play mah-jong instead of computer games, live with their elderly instead of moving to another province for better opportunities.
“They are going to stare at you,” Feng had warned me. “Most people have probably never seen a Westerner before.”
They can stare all they want, I was probably staring too.
Shenyang’s suburbs weren’t a huge shock to me. We’ve traveled quite a bit, from Singapore’s shiny malls to Bolivian shanty towns, from Sydney’s cosmopolitan Darling Harbour to street markets in Honduras. The cool air and the smell reminded me of Guatemala, actually.
There was the old movie theatre where Feng used to go when he was a kid and when movies cost a few cents. The building was empty and abandoned—we stepped in through a broken window. There was the old steel factory where his mother worked for twenty years, with its loudspeakers broadcasting the news from the top of the building. A navy blue uniform and a cap with a red star were hung at the entrance, probably the gatekeeper’s.
Chinese apartments are small but pretty functional and spotless. There are “fu” characters hung at the door to bring luck and happiness, and you may find several bicycles parked in the grim hallways. There is always a faint smell of food in the air—a neighbour cooking, people having a bowl of noodles outside, a cart selling sweet potatoes.
It’s another world just at the door of the city.
It probably won’t exist for long, for better or for worse.