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59 years of waiting in dire straits

THERE is little to remind visitors that tranquil Tongbo Village in coastal Fujian Province was once known as the "widows village."

Children and dogs play on the narrow village path, lined by neat houses on two sides. The path leads to the beach along the Taiwan Strait, troubled waters for several decades.

The separation of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan in 1949 left a bitter legacy in this southeast coast village of 200 families.

Families parted

Late on May 12, 1950, Kuomintang troops, defeated in the four-year civil war and planning to flee to Taiwan, conscripted all males aged between 17 and 55 in the village.

At that moment, the People's Liberation Army had not reached the small fishing village, even though the People's Republic of China had been founded seven months earlier.

Among the 147 men taken from Tongbo to Taiwan, 91 were married. Most didn't see their wives again for at least 38 years.

"All of these wives did not marry again. They devoted themselves to their children or in-laws," says Huang Zhenguo, director of the Widow Village Museum on a highway that connects the village to the outside world. It opened 10 years ago.

"This was a very traditional village. These women took care of their families and never gave up, even though they knew their husbands might not come back," he says.

Not all lived long enough to see personal visits resume across the Taiwan Strait in 1987. "These couples never reunited. Either the husband or wife died," Huang says.

Few happy endings

Not all the survivors found happiness: Many of the husbands had started over in Taiwan. They came home with the women they had married on the island, and the children of those new marriages. After a short stay in Tongbo, they had to return to Taiwan.

"There were very few who did not marry and who returned to live with their mainland wives," says Huang. Only 19 husbands returned to resettle in Tongbo.

Chen Qiaoyun, now 89, is one of the lucky wives. In 1988, her husband returned home, at the age of 74.

"I hardly recognized him. He was 36 when he left. Our son was only five months old then," recalls the diminutive woman, who only speaks the Minnan dialect. Her aged hands show she has led a tough life of hard work.

"We were very poor at that time. There was no man in the family, so this was hard for me. I couldn't even get enough food for my son," she recalls.

It wasn't until her husband returned that they began to rebuild their home, transforming it from a shabby cottage into a two-story concrete house.

The eight-room dwelling is still home to Chen's large extended family: her daughter-in-law, two grandsons, their wives and three grandchildren. Her husband did not enjoy it for long.

"He only lived here for two years before he died," Chen says. The old man's picture hangs high on the living room wall, next to a photo of his son who died in 2001.

Among the returning husbands, only three are still alive.

"Sometimes I spot one of the old couples in the village. They go out for a walk, hand-in-hand. It is moving, but it also reminds me that such happiness will not last long," says Huang, who also lives in the village.

"This is not 'widows village' any more. The old ladies depart this life every year," says Huang. "Only 18 of them are alive."

The younger generation seldom mentions this chapter in the village's history.

"Villagers do not like the name 'widows village.' It represents a sad era and they want to forget it," Huang says.

Memories persist

But widows' families donated letters, family pictures and souvenirs to the museum that opened 10 years ago.

On display are a stone mill, a pair of old shoes, a pen and many other ordinary articles that bear witness to the past.

Once in a while, a few tourists stop by on their way to the picturesque beach near the village.

Inside the museum hangs a mirror, broken and repaired.

"This is the symbol of 'widows village'," Huang says. "This tragedy was not unique to Tongbo. It happened in many places on the Chinese mainland. This is just a typical example."

But in the past two decades, the village has also benefited from close family connections with Taiwan.

With money sent across the Strait by relatives in Taiwan, villagers built homes and started businesses, years before the rest of the Chinese mainland began to boom.

"The first TV set in the village was brought by relatives from Taiwan," Huang recalls. "But things have changed. Our lives have improved a lot and we don't really need their help. We just hope they can visit their hometown more often and we can see each other more often."

Retired ghostwriter

Huang had a special connection with the widows before he became director of the Widow Village Museum.

"Many of these women were illiterate, so I wrote letters for them," he says. He was a ghostwriter for more than 30 years, starting as a teenager.

Before 1987, postal services were prohibited across the Strait. Letters from the mainland had to be sent to relatives in foreign countries and then forwarded to Taiwan.

After postal service was resumed, via Hong Kong, Huang could write the address in Taiwan openly on the envelope. "But letters were forwarded in Hong Kong, and they took at least 11 days to get to Taiwan," he says.

December 15, 2008, was a big day for him - direct postal service was finally realized.

Although letters move faster, hardly anyone needs him to write for them anymore.

Telephone and Internet services connect people on both sides.

"People say I 'retired' as a ghostwriter, but I am happy that communications have become so easy," he says.

The latest letter he wrote was to help a son persuade his father in Taiwan to move back to Tongbo Village.

The man returned in late March this year, Huang says.

These old men who came home often take a stroll to a small plaza in the village and sit under an old banyan tree, where their wives used to watch the sea and hope their men would return.


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