Growing up my sisters and I would always hear our father tell stories about his own childhood. How difficult and miserable it was. How much poverty he suffered before succeeding through hard work and perseverance. You know, the typical Abraham Lincoln fable: He had to walk miles and miles to school, in unbearable heat, without any shoes. He had to scratch, claw and fight for everything.

Of course, in my upper-middle class cocoon, where everything was provided for and more, I dismissed his tales of woe with a roll of the eyes. Sure, sure dad. Whatever. Now let me get back to my GI Joes. How much poverty could my father have really suffered? We were living in an affluent neighborhood, an island that was figuratively and literally shielded from other people’s suffering, misfortune and pain. I figured his stories were tall tales, half truths intended to scare his children into studying more and finishing their homework.

I was wrong.

My father, who was originally born in Wuhan and living there, moved in with his eldest sister and her family in Guangzhou when their mother, my grandmother, committed suicide (another story for another time), leaving him an orphan at age 9 or so.

My aunt and her family lived in a former mansion that used to be the home of a privileged family. Around the time of the Communist takeover, the three-story building had been subdivided, converted into a quasi-apartment building. But conditions were — and still are — hellish. Several families lived in the building, but everyone had to share one bathroom, one shower, one kitchen.

I walked into the building and was shocked at the conditions. It was dark, dank, dismal. The air was stale, putrid. Perhaps that’s why residents were burning incense at the front door and in the main entryway, it was a way to honor the gods and mask the smells

My father lived in the “mansion” until he left for Hong Kong when he was 20. Every night, I’m told, he would stay up until 11 p.m., studying. Eleven p.m. might not sound late, but most people went to bed by 9 p.m. back then. Why? There was no electricity. He studied by candlelight. I can understand his reasoning: he wanted to get the hell out of there.

My aunt lived there for nearly five decades, moving out only six years ago. Her children and some of her grandchildren also called it home. My cousin made an interesting point when we were touring the dilapidated building: Back then it didn’t seem poor or pitiful because nearly everyone lived in similar conditions. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

People are still living there, still sharing one bathroom, one shower, one kitchen. Rent is about $50 bucks a month, $600 a year.

There was some one sleeping on the main floor when I visited during midday:


The shared kitchen:

None of the other pictures turned out well; it was pitch black in there because each family had curtained off their own section, blocking the sunlight.

As my cousin and I left, I tried to lessen the impact as much as I could. He had spent a couple years of his childhood there, after all. I told him it was “pretty sad.” He was quick to correct me.

“It’s not just pretty sad,” he said. “It’s utterly pathetic.”