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Lives on pause

By Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-30 17:58

Lives on pause

He Beiyuan, 77, and his wife Chen Dahui, 67, still live in their cracked and damaged house near the clock tower in Hanwang town, Sichuan province, after the 2008 earthquake. Huang Yiming / China Daily

A pensioner couple whose house was damaged in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake are stuck in their damaged home, eking out an existence amid the ruins. Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling report in Hanwang, Sichuan.

The iconic clock tower in Hanwang town is stuck at 2:28 - the moment the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake ravaged Sichuan province.

While the clock is frozen in time, life tells a different story, and the town's survivors have largely moved on and into new modern homes.

Lives on pause

But 77-year-old He Beiyuan and his wife, 67-year-old Chen Dahui, are the exception. They are stuck in time, just like the clock they live beneath.

"Nothing has changed for us since the quake," He says.

The couple still live in their cracked and damaged house at the start of a stretch of ruins that became a national memorial last year.

They buried their 41-year-old son and 10-year-old grandson behind the building after the quake. Now, tourists scuttle in front of it. They not only live among the quake relics but also have become relics themselves.

Some call the pensioners the clock tower's guardians. "We're not guardians in a real sense," says Chen, a former farmer. "We do nothing all day, every day. We're waiting for land for our new house."

The couple lived in Hanxin village until the local government acquired the land in 2007 and they moved into their house near the tower.

There were about 1,700 people in Han-xin, including 15 households near the clock tower, when disaster struck. More than 80 villagers died in the quake, which led to nearly 90,000 people dead or missing in Sichuan.

Wealthy villagers later bought their own houses or rebuilt on the original site.

"Chen and her husband wanted to reconstruct their damaged house on the original site but didn't get permission," Mianzhu city government spokesman He Pengfei explains. "The house is in the quake ruins, which the government wants to protect as a historical memorial. No buildings can be constructed there."

More than 100 households, totaling some 200 people, have neither purchased houses nor rebuilt on the original sites.

"We want to build on the vacant land that contained the village's farm fields before 2007," He Beiyuan says. "The plot is about 1.5 km from the clock tower and offers good transport links."

The local government has allowed the villagers to construct houses there, but exactly where is disputed. Most want to live close to the road for easier transport.

"Construction can't start until it's decided who gets to live by the road and who doesn't," He Beiyuan says. "Until then, we must stay in our damaged home. Even though it's a relic, nobody has forced us to leave."

The only signs of habitation are a vegetable garden and a dog tied up in front of the building. He says burglars have plagued their home.

The couple received running tap water last year, thanks to the construction of the quake memorial museum on the other side of the clock tower. But they still have no electricity. "We have to go to bed very early because there's no light and nothing to do," Chen says.

The guards watching over the Dongfang Gas Turbine Plant's ruins charge the couple's cellphones. They use a bucket for a toilet and cook meals over wood fires.

"It's easy to find kindling in the ruins," says Chen, who must walk 2.5 km to the nearest vegetable market.

He Beiyuan worked as a miner at the State-owned Tianchi Coal Mine. He receives a monthly pension of more than 1,000 yuan ($160) and his wife receives about 1,500 yuan.

The couple collects recyclables, such as water bottles and waste paper, to make ends meet. Their three surviving sons live about 2 km away in the new Hanwang town. "They don't have stable work so they live there, where it's easier to find odd jobs," Chen says.

Her husband adds that the couple is eager to live elsewhere, too. "I hope our situation changes," he says.

When it does, he and his wife can restart their lives paused beneath the frozen clock tower.

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