Liu Daihe, 43, lights a cigarette passed by his cousin Liu Daishu and spreads the mahjong tiles over the table. Puffing smoke into the 20-square-meter temporary house, he settles down to idle away another day with friends and relatives.
It is a typical snapshot on the 11,000-household interim community to the north of Mianzhu, one of the most damaged cities of the May 12 earthquake that left more than 80,000 Chinese dead or missing. Liu and the 40,000 inhabitants are enveloped in an atmosphere of both hope and ennui that contrasts with a clearly felt grief eight months ago.
Demands of life
Before the catastrophe, Liu was a phosphorous miner for many years at Qingping town of Mianzhu. But the mine, one of the local pillar industries, was swallowed by the quake along with Liu's job.
As the breadwinner of the family, Liu looked for jobs elsewhere, but was turned down because of his age. "I'm not competitive on the market. More importantly, I don't have technical skills, except from doing hard labor in the pit."
The assistance is also dwindling. Last year, the government handed out 200 yuan per person a month for eight months and 33.5 kilograms of grain per head for three months, but all the financial and material support ended in January, says Liu. "Nowadays, around 15 percent of the people in the community live on what they had before," his cousin says.
The price of commodities has climbed due to rising transport costs, and Liu and his wife, Chen Mingfang, have to rack their brains to make ends meet.
What worries the couple most is their 14-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, who are studying at secondary school.
Changying, the daughter, will take the national college entrance examination this summer, meaning a lot of money will be needed if she is enrolled into university. This term alone, she paid 2,000-plus yuan for tuition fees and living expenses.
Her brother, Chenglin, pays 9 yuan a day for three meals in the school canteen as part of a boarder scheme.
Liu's mother-in-law, who lives under the same roof, is covered by neither a pension nor the rural cooperative medical care. Liu is relieved that the past winter was mild compared with the previous year.
"Otherwise, she might have caught a severe cold," he says.
In the end, Liu was forced to accept employment in a private mine hundreds of miles away in Yibin, southern Sichuan, where he was paid 80 yuan a day to work from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m..
The pay was satisfactory, but the toil and loneliness in a strange city were intolerable. The man of few words killed time by playing mahjong with his colleagues, and sometimes, small-time gambling.
Unlike many parts of Sichuan where the natural conditions are harsh, Mianzhu has fewer people moving to big cities like Beijing or Guangzhou for job opportunities.
"Before the quake, Mianzhu was blessed with favorable conditions, with no storms or landslides, and most of us preferred to stay in our hometown," says Liu Daishu.
Adding to their sense of security was the multitude of industries sprawling across the city, such as the national key companies Dongfang Turbine, Lonmon Chemicals and Jiannanchun Distillery, which absorbed a large number of local workers." We are used to the pace of ease here," says Daishu.
Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Resources and Social Security of Mianzhu confirm that around 20,000 people are working outside Sichuan Province, accounting less than one tenth the total labor force.
Before the Spring Festival, Liu returned and worked at another small mine in the adjacent city of Shifang, which was set up by one of his fellow villagers.
Picking up the pieces
Employment has been a top priority since the earthquake. In the past year, the Mianzhu labor bureau has offered more than 18,000 public-welfare posts at modest salaries, such as warehouse store work or street sweeping.
Meanwhile, training programs in sewing and construction have covered around 6,000 people, according to Chen Shanyong, the bureau chief.
Jiangsu, which is responsible for the point-to-point assistance to Mianzhu, offered another 50,000 jobs at five large job fairs, and 6,000 locals were taken to the coastal province.
"In spite of the earthquake, we didn't encounter major problems in employment creation last year," Chen says.
But the reality turns out to be less positive. Liu's niece, Jiang Mingyu, says it is difficult to set up her own tailor shop, as she wishes and the government encourages.
"Where can I get the initial funding to launch my business? It's true that they have in place micro credit loans, but the plan targets university graduates or young farmers.
"We don't have cash in the pocket for a change of life, so it's better to stay at home and do nothing as it saves money."
Women face much greater disadvantages. During the day, Chen Mingfang goes to the nearby construction site to do odd jobs like mixing cement or carrying bricks, but even such basic labor is not readily available. "I often move around different places," Chen says, wiping her brow in the kitchen shared by 10 families.
Meanwhile, the re-location of Donggfang Turbine from the Hanwang town of Mianzhu to Deyang City is viewed as a deadly blow, as many small businesses surrounding the large factory had relied on it for revenues. Export-oriented companies like Shengda Clothing and Lonmon Chemicals have been hard hit by the financial crisis.
If jobs are the first priority, then second is housing. "A stable house drives home a sense of security, doesn't it?" says Liu Daishu.
For the moment, the 40,000 inhabitants on Liu's community have no clear idea where their permanent homes will be, as the town plan is yet to be drawn up.
The government of Mianzhu has agreed to provide a 16,000- yuan subsidy to each family, but that is far from enough to build a house, says Liu.
The cost of construction materials is a worry. Bricks have risen from 0.6 yuan to 1.4 yuan in price. Calculated this way, the cost of building a house has reached 820 yuan per square meter, estimates Liu Daishu, "which is unaffordable to most of us".
A survey by Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) of the 1,600 households in Qingping in February suggests that each family lost 60,000 yuan in assets on average.
"The most difficult time the psychological pain is over, but it is replaced by confusion about the future," says Zhu Yuxin, a social work teacher from Sichuan Agricultural University, who heads the Assets-based Community Reconstruction program in Qingping under the sponsorship of HKPU.
"Our central guideline is to explore and integrate the inner strength of the fractured communities, so that effective means of livelihood will be secured.
"Right now, I'm also caught up by the complexity of problems. All that we can do is to make a detailed survey, right from the beginning," he says.