Chinese ‘ghost village’ offers determined visitors a green encounter with the past

Former inhabitants of island community tell of a more prosperous past, before isolated location and decline of fishing left it abandoned and cloaked in foliage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2018, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2018, 8:31pm

Blanketed with greenery, the ghost town is perched atop cliffs looking west into sea mists obscuring the horizon. Abandoned homes ravaged by weather and creeping vines stand silent but for the sounds of surf, mosquitos and birds.

Houtouwan, Mandarin for “Back Bay”, is an abandoned fishing village on the far eastern island of Shengshan, 90km (56 miles) off the coast of Shanghai.

Small groups of tourists on a recent weekend braved muddy footpaths through overgrown gardens to chase foggy photographs and answers to the question: What happened to the village?

The story of the Wang family may provide one answer. Wang Yi left the village at the age of five when his family moved to access better services in the island’s main town.

When he returns to Houtouwan, the 27-year-old college graduate gathers honeysuckle for a fragrant tea that reminds him of his birthplace before it was engulfed by nature.

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Memories of village festivals draw infectious laughter from his mother, Zhu Mandi, who admits her dreams are haunted by a childhood among the mist-shrouded mountains near the sea.

“I’ve dreamt of playing here, and it looked like it did when we played here when I was young,” Zhu said, pointing at her former family home. Vines have since wound through the three-storey house and ivy has crept through the now broken wooden front door.

The island draws tourists from the mainland intrigued by the village’s unique devastation. Ivy cloaks some buildings completely but, on many Houtouwan houses, beautiful roof tiles still gleam and broken verandas offer majestic views of the stormy sea.

Visitors must take a boat to Shengshan then a taxi up a hill to a cemetery overlooking the village, and then descend down perilous footpaths into the mist and ivy.

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Huang Dan, a 22-year-old student, was among the visitors on a recent weekend who said she wanted to photograph the beauty of human structures subsumed by roots, rain, vines and wind.

“It feels like this place belonged to nature from the very beginning, and the old invaders finally left and nature finally made it back,” she said.

The village is not entirely abandoned. Five people still live there with a relaxed pack of dogs that roam the empty homes.

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Sun Ayue lives in a small home just off the main path through the old village. The 62-year-old former fisherman remembers the village’s boom times and its bust.

China is the world’s largest fishing nation, but poor enforcement of fishing regulations has led to a rapid decline in fish stocks. Wang Yi said fishermen’s catches were steadily falling even before China imposed seasonal moratoriums on fishing in the late 1990s to protect stocks from further depletion.

Most of the village’s 600 families ultimately left Houtouwan because it lacked proper roads and a school, according to Yet Sun.

“Transport was inconvenient,” he said, adding that it was difficult for teachers to get to Houtouwan from the main town Shengshan.

“It was too far away. They arrived in the dark and left in the dark.”

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Houtouwan is “a microcosm of the entire Chinese society”, said Zhao Yeqin, an associate sociology professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. The village reflects a broader migration trend in which countless Chinese have moved from rural areas to urban megacities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

In Houtouwan’s heyday, Lin Fazhen ran a small shop in 1984 catering to fishermen. He sold cigarettes, alcohol, fishing supplies, canned food, biscuits and fruit that he imported on boats from the mainland.

“They went to the sea when the boats were sailing, and they came back when it got windy. They played mahjong,” Lin said while taking a drag from a cigarette.

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When the people left, he began planting cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, celery and basil. He says he now farms more than 1,300 square metres (a third of an acre) of various plots scattered across abandoned gardens, gardens and terraces.

He chuckled when asked if the village was haunted.

“People got scared and said ghosts were living here, so it was called ‘ghost village’,” Lin said.

“I’ve lived in this world for such a long time, and have never met one.”