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Crying in the rain on city streets paved with flowers

The temperature has dropped, and the city's flower girls have at last headed home. For the first time since last spring, venturing into some of Peking's best-established Westerners' restaurants no longer involves negotiating the pleading eyes of the urchins as they thrust out bunches of roses for sale. "Buy a flower. Five yuan [40p]," they would insist.

I stopped buying flowers after two girls explained that four of those five yuan would go to the adult "bosses" who ran the flower children. It made more sense to give them money for food, though their idea of dinner was ice-cream and chocolate, whatever the season.

Many evenings, Tang Danan, 12, and Li Jinxian, 13, could be found outside a string of restaurants opposite the Workers' Stadium. Over the months, these two girls consistently told the same story: they were part of a group of about a dozen girls, some as young as 10, from different villages in You county, Hunan province, about 1,000 miles south of Peking. And they had been brought to the city by some adults from their county who persuaded their parents to let them come. Under the deal, one yuan per flower sold was supposed to be collected and sent back to the parents. When the temperature plummeted in December, they would be allowed to go home.

For Tang and Li it has been a miserable year. To our Western eyes, both looked about nine years old, dressed in dirty jeans and layers of sweaters against the cold and rain. Tang is the prettier of the two, and has had more success selling flowers. Li, a stunted girl with bandy legs, has had a tougher time. "It is better to stay home. Here the boss is nice only when you sell flowers. But if you can't sell any, the boss curses us," said Li.

The flower girls live on the western outskirts of the city, and travel in every lunchtime with bus passes provided by the bosses. They are given 23 flowers a day during the week to sell, and 30 at the weekend. They ply their trade until nearly midnight. "When I go back, the boss will count the flowers. If he finds that I ate with the flower money, he will fine me 50 yuan," said Li.

The children work independently. "One day I sold eight and she only sold two. She cried and said the boss would curse her if she went home, but I persuaded her, don't do harm to yourself. I told her to come back home," said Tang.

"That's because you sold so many," said Li. "The boss's wife cut my hair as a punishment." She pointed to her stubby fringe, cut to make her look younger.

"It makes her look like an old granny!" said Tang.

"Just because I did not sell as many flowers as her," said Li, stifling her sobs.

Tang was sent to Peking with her twin sister, leaving one sister at home in the village. Li has a younger brother who is at home. In an area as poor as You county, peasants often need little encouragement to send their young daughters out to work. But, needless to say, most of the money that was supposed to be sent to the girls' families never arrived. "I sold flowers for seven months, my family has only got 1,100 yuan [pounds 84]," said Li.

Both Tang and Li left school when they were nine. Said Li: "When I was in school, I didn't like it. But after I dropped out, I saw other children go to school with bags, and I wanted to go back again." Tang nodded: "The bosses are rich, so they send their own children to school, not to sell roses."

In July, during the Yanda (strike hard) crackdown which was supposed to be directed against serious crime, Li was arrested. "The detention house was very dirty and smelly. I was only given corn bread. A lot of people seemed like lunatics."

Tang remembered: "When she was sent back, she was very thin and dirty. She washed twice but was still not clean."

By now, the flower girls will be back in their villages. The last time we talked, I asked if they had any dreams for the future? "I don't want to be a tailor like my cousin, I want to be a baby-sitter, because children are lovely," said Tang. Li just shrugged. "When I grow up, I'll know what I want to do."