Sunday, November 27, 2011

Toddler tragedy still haunts market

The red ink marking the spot where the tragedy took place has grown so faint it is barely visible. The police have stopped coming by to question witnesses. The media throng has disappeared.

By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief, In Foshan (Guangdong)

More than a month after toddler Wang Yue died after being hit by not one but two vehicles here in an incident that shocked China, much of Guangfo Hardware Market has regained a semblance of normalcy.

But probe a little deeper and the shopkeepers of this sprawling wholesale centre are still struggling to shed their collective cloaks of shame.



'Unless they are my suppliers or my customers, I don't talk to them. That's just how it is here. I've been here for 10 years but I hardly know the guy next door.'

MADAM XU RUIFANG, whose electrical cables shop is adjacent to the spot where the toddler was run over. Most shopkeepers in the area do not know one another.

Many Chinese pointed fingers at the people in this industrial market, accusing them of being cold and apathetic.

The belief was that the 18 passers-by who ignored the dying two-year-old nicknamed Little Yue Yue, before a rag-and-bone collector picked her up and called for help, were from the market.

Clearly, such criticisms hurt. Several of those in shops just metres from the accident refused to be interviewed by The Sunday Times.

Others quickly said they were not around when the girl was run over by the vehicles.

'I wasn't here. I found out about it on TV, just like you. I left just before it happened,' said Madam Xu Ruifang, whose electrical cables shop is just adjacent to the tragic spot.

A sealant shop owner, who wanted to be known only as Madam Li and whose table faces the spot just a few steps away, also said she had closed her shop when the incident occurred.

Another shopkeeper, from central Hunan province, said he was around but did not hear or see the accident, even though his shop selling hard hats and screwdrivers had a clear line of sight.

'A car blocked my view. A rack also blocked me from seeing anything. It was raining heavily that evening and I didn't hear a thing,' he said, raising his voice as he smoked a cigarette. He declined to be named.

He swore that he would have helped if he had witnessed the incident. 'I would have made a call. It doesn't cost much these days to use your mobile phone anyway.'

He did not know Yue Yue or her parents, who used to run a shop in the market but have since closed it down and reportedly moved to nearby provincial capital Guangzhou.

Neither did any of the other shopkeepers. In fact, most of them do not know one another too.

In this massive market as big as 56 football fields, there are migrants from all parts of the country. Most stick with those from their hometowns and do not even know their neighbours.

They flocked to coastal Guangdong province to make money and improve their lives, but share little else in common.

'We do chat sometimes but don't ask me their names. We just call one another 'boss',' said Madam Li.

'I'm from Guangdong but most of the people here are from other provinces and we speak different dialects. It's hard to communicate.'

They do not share meals either. Most of them cook on makeshift stoves in their shops and wolf down their lunches, sitting on stools with a few colleagues.

There are more than 2,000 shops in the market but little sense of community under the metal roof.

There is no common area to gather. When night falls, the shopkeepers pull down their shutters, retreating upstairs where some of them live or driving off in motorcycles or small vans.

As the Hunan shop owner said: 'Talk to others? Where am I going to find the time? I'm here to run a business, you know.'

Analysts believe the Guangfo market is a microcosm of China as a 'society of strangers', where people are indifferent to those who live and work near them.

This came about as the Chinese enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of movement, leaving their familiar rural communities of longstanding personal relations for urban surroundings where kinship and friendship are usually secondary to the pursuit of wealth.

Madam Xu, who is from central Hubei province, explained their alienating world: 'Unless they are my suppliers or my customers, I don't talk to them. That's just how it is here. I've been here for 10 years but I hardly know the guy next door.'