A Visit to a Basement Flat

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One happy family: Mary with husband (left) and son (middle).Photo: UBSCP/David Yu

China — the new economic power where prosperity abound in cities like a proud peacock on display. Yet poverty lurks round the corner for those willing to see. Poor folks still remain and continue to struggle to make ends meet.

Mary (not her real name) is a Christian who comes from Anhui province. She belongs to a Christian fellowship with around 15 believers, mostly women who, like herself, are migrant workers. The weekly Bible study is held at night as the members work during the day. Work is a must if they are to make ends meet.

Not every member in the group owns a Bible, and if they do, it is usually old and worn. A few of these believers are illiterate but that does not stop them from participating in these meetings. Stools, hymnals and a few old Bibles are laid out for those who need them. They meet at the living room of a fellow believer. It is a place of hope, joy, solace as well as a meeting point for fellowship.

We were introduced to Mary at the end of the weekly Bible study. She is a cheerful lady with a happy disposition and a warm heart. She wears a big smile and completes most of her sentences with, ‘Thanks be to God!’ Mary lives in a basement flat; a curiosity for most people. It is for this reason that we came. As Mary leads us to the space she calls home, we quietly ponder what it would look like.

Communal kitchen situated outside Mary’s basement flat. Photo: UBSCP/David Yu

Home for Mary is located in a damp, dark basement. This is where Mary has lived with her husband and a 16 year-old son for the past 4 years. We accessed the place by walking carefully and slowly down a rather steep concrete ramp using only the light from our cell phones to guide us. If not for the light coming from their rented room, darkness would have engulfed us. The rental shelter is a 3.5m by 2.5m wide partition made up of flimsy plywood. Security for their home comprises of a cheap padlock on the outside of their door.

Furnishing for Mary’s family is just a small table, a fridge, two beds made of planks of woods topped with a thin mattress and a plastic wardrobe shared among the three occupants. There is neither a toilet nor a tap. The kitchen is a dirty space located outside their front door shared with a neighbor who rents a smaller 2.5m by 2.5m space.  In this particular basement, there are at least 5 other such partitions. The basement provides neither light nor warmth as its original function was to store bicycles. When winter sets in, the flimsy partitions cannot block out the bitter cold. It is here the poorer of the poor live.
Mary rents this room for 300RMB (USD48) a month. She, like many other migrant workers, has moved to the city (Nanjing) in the hope of finding a way out of poverty. Mary, states as a matter of fact that she works as a cleaner because she has little education and has difficulty finding other types of employment.

Still, she played the perfect hostess that day, welcoming us into her home. She offered us a drink but we declined saying, ‘We do not want to be a bother today but we will come back another time for a meal.’ Mary was greatly pleased with our answer and quickly replied that we are most welcome to share her portion of porridge (she cannot afford rice) with her the next time.

Although Mary is poor, her willingness to share with us is heartwarming. Her openness to show us her home set us at ease and lessened our awkwardness. Poor she may be, but Mary lives in dignity. Her faith centers her as she works hard to bring up a family to the best of her ability. She is a joyful and proud mum and every compliment paid to her is directed and completed by her favorite phrase, ‘Thanks be to God!’

Written by Jenise Lee
Edited by Pamela Choo