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Memories set in stone
By Lin Qi (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-19 11:48

Memories set in stone

Hu Huishan Memorial is a 19-sq-m room in a small wooded area near the Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial Museum in Dayi county.[China Daily]

The room is drenched in pink. It's on the walls, a pair of sport shoes and a scarf patterned with strawberries. There's a pink photo frame and a photo of a girl with pink lips and fingernails; a Hello Kitty music box; pink MP3 player with a cracked screen; and a pink footstool.

Pink was the favorite color of the person for whom the room was intended - 15-year-old Hu Huishan, a student from Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyuan.

Hu never lived in the room as her young life was abruptly cut short when her middle school collapsed in the catastrophic earthquake that hit Sichuan province on May 12, last year. The 19-sq-m room is a memorial hall, probably the smallest of its kind in the world, designed and built by architect Liu Jiakun, 53, from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan.

Located in a privately-owned museum compound in Dayi county near Chengdu, the small room stands amid the magnificent buildings that house many of the country's historical and cultural relics. A zigzag path paved with cobblestones leads to the memorial, hidden in the woods. In front of it stands a cinnamon tree, in keeping with the wishes of Hu's parents.

"Like the many thousands of quake victims, she (Hu) too leaves behind no extraordinary stories," says Liu. "But she will always remain precious in her parents' hearts."

"I did not want to create a mournful air in this space. I just wanted to turn an ordinary girl's room into a tranquil corner."

Liu got to know about Hu three days after her death. He was then volunteering his services at the Juyuan Middle School, where parents claim shoddy construction was mainly to blame for the death of about 900 students. The school became a mass of debris, through which rescue machines plowed, as scores of miserable parents stood by clutching their child's photo in their hands.

That's when the architect saw Liu Li, Hu's mother. The 40-year-old laid-off worker, dressed in black, was holding a plastic bag, in which she had preserved the girl's umbilical cord and baby teeth. Incoherently, she recalled her daughter. "We love her deeply," she said, choking on her tears. Her husband, Hu Ming, 43, wore no expression but kept mumbling, "so many kids have gone."

Liu tried to comfort them by offering them money, but was turned down by the proud father, a taxi driver. They exchanged telephone numbers, and for a long time, the couple were haunted by Liu's memories.

Memories set in stone

Chengdu architect Liu Jiakun who designed the memorial for 15-year-old Hu Huishan.[China Daily]

"I am a father of an 8 year old. I can hardly imagine what it would be like to see my son under that rubble. I really wanted to do something for the family," he says.

He considered convincing them to take money so that Liu Li could have her asthma cured. Finally, he came up with the idea of building a memorial for Hu Huishan.

But he hesitated to broach his idea to the couple. What if they misunderstood the intentions of the man who had previously designed art museums and public spaces?

"It did sound impractical. No one had ever done such a thing for an ordinary person," Liu says.

For weeks later, he worked on a project that involved collecting rubble for reconstruction work.

"Every day, I had to work with hard and cold debris. But when I took a rest, I couldn't help recreating in my mind a tiny and warm memorial hall for a young girl," he says.

He finally put forward his proposal when he met the couple in a relief tent, a month later. He didn't dare look them in the eye for fear of being rejected. But to his surprise, they agreed and also offered to provide their daughter's belongings for display.

"It took me only five minutes to gain their support, but several nerve-racking months to find a place for the memorial," Liu says.

The delay weighed heavily on him until one day it occurred to him that Fan Jianchuan, one of his acquaintances, owned a large museum cluster in Dayi, and was planning to build a memorial museum there.

Fan directed Liu to a small wooded area near the Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial Museum.

On the day that construction of the small memorial for Hu began in February, Liu received a text message from Liu Li saying she was pregnant.

The memorial looks plain and gray from the outside. "It is not a work of art, but an attempt to commemorate a most ordinary girl," explains Liu.

But the space inside comes alive with color - with Hu's favorite pink. Many construction suppliers chipped in with free materials. The whole project costs Liu less than 100,000 yuan ($14,630).

Standing in the room, one can hardly sense grief. The photos on the walls trace Hu's short life - from her toothless infancy, to shy awkwardness and finally an energetic teenager. A pair of badminton rackets and a taekwondo costume hint at her athletic interests. Her favorite magazines, classics, fairytales and novels sit neatly on a bookshelf. A composition reveals her aspirations for the future: "When I am 25, I will have a husband and a child. My husband will love me very much, and my kid will be awfully cute."

"This memorial is all about the sweet memories of a young girl and how a desperate family is coping in the aftermath of the disaster," says liu.

Recently, the parents took a trip to Yunnan province, something they had planned to do with their daughter. They have decided to name the baby Liu Li is now carrying after her sister, if she gives birth to a girl.

Word about the Hu Huishan Memorial hall is spreading. But it is opened up only when visitors ask for a look inside.