"Widows" of China say goodbye to their men

The quest by Chinese for riches thousands of miles away has gone on for centuries - and the rewards have always outweighed the risks
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The Independent Online

The fierce clack of tiles on table announces that a mah-jong game is under way in the village of Willow Grove. The group of young women play hard, until mobile phones distract their attention.

The fierce clack of tiles on table announces that a mah-jong game is under way in the village of Willow Grove. The group of young women play hard, until mobile phones distract their attention.

Mah-jong is a passion in southern China, often played between members of the same sex, but there is something unique uniting these players. Their husbands and other male relatives escaped China to go and work in America and Europe.

So many have gone that Willow Grove has earned the nickname "widows' village".

As with hundreds of other villages up and down the Fujian coast, the young men of Willow Grove are chasing the dream of riches overseas. The rewards are plain to see - a building boom is transforming the countryside.

For the residents of Changle and other counties that were home to the Dover truck victims, villages like Willow Grove are an everyday sight. Yet they would astonish the majority of China's peasants, scrambling to make even £500 a year.

"Willow Grove looks more like a city than a village!" says local resident Zhang Sheng proudly, from the roof of a six-storey mansion. All of the garish constructions below him have been built for the nouveaux-riches with relatives working abroad.

Topped by satellite dishes, the new houses are coated in tiles and blue glass, the interiors awash with marble staircases and fancy chandeliers.

For between US$100,000 and US$200,000, you can have the house of your dreams. These homes are the ultimate expression of filial piety - most are inhabited by lonely old people, their children far away in foreign countries.

And so, for the chance to earn up to US$2,000 per month, more and more Chinese are paying "snakeheads" for the expensive and dangerous ticket to the West.

The migrants' pride in Willow Grove is symbolised by the US$1m restoration of the village's grand ancestral temple, entirely financed by overseas money.

Their hard work is sponsoring a religious revival. Local folk temples are flourishing, while traditional Chinese tombs spread over a hillside dominated by a Christian church.

When the bodies return from England, the funerals will be lavish affairs; locals commonly spend a minimum of US$12,000, far above China's average annual wage.

"How are you?" shouts a young man on a motorbike. He has just returned from the Bahamas, he tells me, following a stint at a Chinese restaurant there. After securing a real passport, he has returned to visit his family.

"We Chinese are just crazy about money! People here don't want others to look down on them, so they'll go anywhere to earn more. I might try again in the future, maybe England. What's it like?"

Willow Grove's coastal location has encouraged emigration for centuries. Once they receive word of the travel arrangements from local snakeheads, just prior to departure, migrants gather on one of hundreds of islands off the Fujian coast.

They are then smuggled on to small boats that connect to larger ocean-going vessels out at sea. Networks of overseas Chinese, many from Fujian, organise the onward passage, often through Guatemala and Mexico to the US.

Families of those who died on the way to Dover will not dare approach the Chinese police. Not only have they broken the law by sending people abroad through underground channels, they fear reprisals against relatives already in the UK, and especially against migrants still in transit - snakeheads rarely let their cargo return home alive, for fear they will incriminate them.

Trafficking is so widespread it has spawned its own language - the infamous "snakeheads" and their willing prey, the "human snakes", eager to toudu, or "sneak across" to North America, Europe, Australia or Japan.

There's a growing queue to master another language - "Emigration English" - offered at the Changle English Training Centre, and a dozen other schools in town. Song, a teacher, was laid off by a state-owned company in 1990, but soon found a more lucrative business from parents keen to prepare their offspring for life abroad.

While Song himself would struggle to be understood on the streets of London or Los Angeles, he slowly leads his students through the wellworn textbook, A Trip to the USA.

Practice dialogues take budding immigrants through the whole process, from passing customs to finding a job in a restaurant. Except that those passport-control phrases will be unnecessary for most.

"I'm going to join my uncle in New York," boasts 18-year-old Chen Hong, acknowledging it will cost her family US$60,000 to smuggle her into the US. Chen will need at least five years to pay off that debt, through work in a restaurant, sweatshop or even a brothel.

Only one of Song's class has heard of the Dover tragedy, and she is the only one heading to the UK, some time later this year. Zhang Yi, 17, betrays no knowledge of her future home.

She has never even heard of Orphan in a Foggy Capital, the popular translation of Oliver Twist that remains the defining image of London for most Chinese. But she is determined to go, and confident it will be safe. "I'm going to fly, it won't happen to me."

The family of Jin Xicai, a possible victim from another Changle village, held the same innocent hope, until they learnt the snakeheads had switched to an overland route.

They have had no news since a call from the Netherlands, prior to the final push to the UK. Yet the odds are on Zhang's side. Most illegal immigrants do make it to their destination, albeit starving and exhausted after weeks of confinement.

And, at a later date, the money starts coming home, bringing more students to Teacher Song, and creating more "widow villages" along the Chinese coast.