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Scraping by on the mean streets of Xi’an

By 20 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Kelly West

Downward mobility: Rural homeless gravitate to China's booming cities | Photo by Kelly West

When Li Zhuyou was 19 years old, his house, literally, came falling down around him. The collapse of the shoddily constructed building injured his leg so badly that he’s walked with crutches ever since. For several years he still managed to work on the wheat and corn crops in his village, but three years ago the physical strain proved too great and he had to abandon his plot. And with it, his dignity.

Li, now 39, is a beggar in the streets of Xi’an, China. “Begging isn’t a good way to live, but it’s my only choice,” said Li, freckles decorating his sun-weathered face.

He sleeps alongside a handful of other panhandlers on the granite staircase of a long-closed hotel on Miao Hou Jie Street in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. Together, they form a ragtag group of at-times-cared-for, at-times-harassed rural migrants who are elderly, disabled, or both, and who troll the alleyways hoping to pick up a few kuai in handouts.

Though exact figures are hard to come by, homelessness appears to be a concern for the Chinese government. In the fall of 2008, officials announced that the number of children’s homeless centers would double by 2010, from 150 to 300, serving 150,000 homeless children per year, according to China Daily. After a highly publicized fatal beating of a homeless man in police custody in 2003, the “compulsory custody and repatriation” policy for transients found outside of their home regions was abandoned for a more socially-progressive aid system including the government-funded homeless centers.

When government assistance isn’t enough, many down and out Muslims seek the generosity and tolerance of cities with a large Muslim presence, like Xi’an.

Lan Aiyin, or puopuo (grandma) as she is known by her neighbors, keeps her bedroll next to Li’s. She is a conscientious neighbor, keeping her area tidy, putting down a small piece of cardboard for the many visitors who check in on her every day to sit on.

Lan sits on her stoop mending a pair of trousers a neighbor gave her. Her milky eyes squint as she threads a needle and works her way around the zipper, reinforcing a fraying seam.

At 78, Lan said, her life hasn’t worked out the way she thought it would. After the death of both her husband and son and with no one else to take care of her in her old age, she made her way to Xi’an from Xian Yang – a primarily Han city within Shaanxi Province -  to eke out a living on the streets. “I like it here,” said Lan. “It’s not too hot and not too cold and it’s a Muslim area so no one bothers me here.”

Li agreed that it was a better community to be homeless in, but lamented that life was still quite difficult. “The worst part [of this life"] is the money,” said Li. The Chinese government gives disabled citizens 1,000 RMB per year, or $143. In addition to this government salary, beggars make anywhere from 10 – 30 RMB, the equivalent of $1.50 – $4.00. The total amount doesn’t come close to supporting Li and his family.

Renting a room costs at least 100 RMB a month, then there are taxes and medical care – there is no discounted care for the disabled or homeless.

When Lan Aiyin had a stabbing pain in her back on a recent evening she went to the hospital to seek relief. The doctor asked 100 RMB to give her medicine, so she turned away and went to the smaller clinic that charged 70 RMB. Lan went back to her stoop to ask her friends for loans, finally cobbling together enough to get an injection.

Now Lan estimates with her continuing back pain it will take her about two weeks of begging to be able to pay back her loans.

One of the reasons homeless beggars like Li and Lan seek out the Muslim Quarter is for its tradition of taking care of the less fortunate. “It’s better to be in the Muslim area because it’s part of our religion to help others,” said Li.

The three mosques within the Muslim Quarter offer no official social services for the homeless but Mohamed Damudai, the administrator at the West Mosque on San Jingao Road, said they often give food and clothing to the poor.

In addition to the material support Li gets from living within the Muslim community, Li gets comfort from his faith, believing that in the end he will go to heaven. At least four times a day, Li makes his way to the West Mosque to join his fellow Muslims in prayer. And, if he’s lucky, someone occupying an adjacent prayer mat will give him money.

Though many homeless highlight the generosity of their neighbors, their presence is a thorn in the side of many Muslims. Some are quite accepting and help, but others can be less charitable.

“When it’s late in the day they call out, ‘Why are you still out doing this? Why don’t you go home?’” said Li.

When a reporter asked a local businessman for his views on the local homeless population, he curled his lip in response. “They are just lazy – they don’t want to get a job like everyone else,” said the Mosque-goer, who declined to give his name.

Beggars anywhere frustrate local business people, who not infrequently fear they will scare away customers, but Muslim beggars face added pressure. Already a minority in society, Chinese Muslims fear the presence of Muslim homeless will further enhance negative impressions non-Muslims may harbor about their community.

Li is worried that the Chinese Han and foreigners that see him beg will think he is a typical Muslim. “I don’t want to bring a bad reputation to our community,” he said.

Though inner-group tensions might trouble their daily lives, few consider venturing out beyond the Muslim Quarter to beg. “Muslim beggars can’t beg anywhere else,” said Mohamed Damudai, sitting in the West Mosque office after prayers on a recent Friday. “Their lifestyle is too different.”

Damudai estimates that of the approximately 80,000 Muslims who live in Xi’an, 40,000 live within the cramped alleyways of the Muslim Quarter in the city center. Most are from the Hui minority, listed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as one of the world’s at-risk minorities because of clashes with the Chinese government over religious sovereignty.

Reluctant to acknowledge the presence of homeless among their midst, Mohamed claimed there were only two beggars within the neighborhood. Three stood a hundred feet away at the Mosque entrance.

Li, on the other hand, guesses that at any given time there are 10 – 20 beggars circulating through the Muslim Quarter, many coming and going between Xi’an and their home provinces throughout the year. The numbers seem to be increasing, though, which worries even the homeless population.

“There are too many beggars here,” said Lan. “People don’t want to give money any more.”

Lan planned to leave Xi’an in ten days’ time to return to her home province to try her luck there.

Photo by Kelly West

Unlooked for life: "Grandma" Lan ekes out existence in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter |Photo by Kelly West

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