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Everything is a work in progress

Huangbaiyu The Project

Chinese-American Sustainable Development Dumplings

Nestled deep in between two ridges at the end of the Changbai mountain range in Eastern Liaoning Province, a string of hamlets hug the mountain slopes in a narrow valley known as Huangbaiyu.  These mountains have long served as a dearly sought after barrier from the outside world, as the families who chose to settle here were all running from the pangs of hunger or chaos of war. The steep ravines and serpentine valley protected its residents from being discovered in these once forbidden lands of the Qing Dynasty’s sacred forest, safeguarded them from enslavement in the Japanese iron and coal mines of newly conquered Manchuria, and insulated them from one of the great battles of China’s civil war just kilometers away. 

Life continues much as it has for generations on a waning autumn day in October 2005. The hand-numbing work of pulling corn cobs from stalks and stripping the husks from the ear of the corn is at last done for the day, and an impromptu group of friends crisscrosses the concrete floor of Yi Wen’s house, relieving sore muscles with the massage of verbal jabs as they prepare the dumplings that will soon fill their bellies.

That I walked through Yi Wen’s door—invited by the small sign announcing that the front room of his home was in fact a makeshift restaurant for local passersby—is testament that the world residents of Huangbaiyu had long come here to avoid, had found them. Indeed, a hungry woman from beyond the mountains (and a very big ocean as well) standing at Yi Wen’s doorstep was just the latest sign that his village was now visible on a global map. But times have changed. Outsiders arriving in Huangbaiyu in the new millennium are not looking to save themselves by escaping an unpredictable and dangerous world by making homes for themselves in this remote valley. Now Chinese government officials, international organization managers, Fortune 500 business representatives, and journalists have come to Huangbaiyu to dream about a “green” future, and to save their own way of life and homes in worlds far away from here through the construction of a new, master-planned “sustainable community” in this valley.  Presumably, this new eco-houses in a new eco-town will replace the unsustainable houses and hamlets in which the valley’s residents currently live.

Yi Wen’s restaurant stands just across the road from the formal entrance to this new prototype. I had come here to wait for Dai Xiaolong, the head of the village government and local developer of the project to arrive. I had been waiting all day. Despite his government and business roles, he did not live in Huangbaiyu, and so I was waiting for him to drive in his new black Toyota Prado to the village where everyone else walked. I was not allowed to idly sit and stare out the window long before my hands were tasked with helping Yi Wen and his friends prepare their early dinner.

That afternoon I got more than a lesson in how to make dumplings. I received my first lesson in how the people whose lives were to be improved by residing in the model village perceived the new development across the street, and the international partnership that was behind it.

As I joined the process of tucking and pressing the circles of dough around dollops of Chinese chives, the local second grade teacher announced that these were now “Chinese-American Harmonious Dumplings!”  Despite the public pronouncement of harmony, all was not well with my dumplings.  I was neither tucking nor pressing properly.  The cook, who served as the village’s Communist Party Secretary for 12 years, teased that when the dumplings were boiled, everyone would know which ones I had made—“The American ones will fall apart!” I received several hands-on lessons, but my tucking and pressing never met the local standards.  Ignoring my deficiencies, every time a new person entered the one-room restaurant, the production of “Chinese-American Harmonious Dumplings” was announced to great hurrah.  After another critical review of my process, it was decided that while my dumplings might hold together in the boiling water, they probably would not taste good.  Another woman chided the group, saying, “Even if they are not good, they must be eaten!  They are Chinese-American Harmonious Dumplings after all!”  Having heard the last interchange, another resident who had just stepped in declared: “They are not just Harmonious Dumplings, they are Sustainable Development Dumplings, and Chinese-American Sustainable Development Dumplings always succeed!  We shall eat them all!”

In the end, we did not eat them all. Despite all the hurrahs, an American partnership did not improve the quality of the work, as everyone in the room has already guessed. The ones that I had made were easily avoided at dinner that night, as most had indeed broken in the cooking water. But there was anxiety amongst these farmers that night that the houses across the road may just have to be “eaten,” despite the fact that all of them doubted whether such houses could improve their lives. The glamour of the promises made to them by the local government and developer of new lives in magical houses where they would no longer need to labor to feed fires to survive the winter had tarnished when they saw the first phase of the model sustainable development village built. Given the cracks already rending through the cement walls even before the first freeze, none held out hope that the houses would last 10 years, let alone the 50 that they expected the houses they had each built themselves to last.

It was the tiny walled yards of the model village’s identical houses that worried them the most. They were farmers, after all, and all but Yi Wen made the majority of their money from the land, be that from selling kernels of maize, cashmere of goats, schools of fish, or pupa of silkworms. Each of these businesses requires either more space than the yards allow, or closer proximity to the mountain slopes or streams than permitted by the master plan designed to improve their lives. Yet they knew that under certain conditions they may be given little option but to reluctantly eat those houses, just as they had to “eat bitterness” during the various political campaigns that had frequently come to countryside and reorganized families and land in the name of improving their lives. And now, not only did they realize that the houses would severely affect their ability to earn a living, they were also expected to pay for the privilege of living in their “modern” facilities. Since the Communist revolution, each time a new political campaign swept through their countryside, some families benefited and some families suffered. But this time, building a “harmonious society” with a “sustainable development outlook” appeared to the residents of Huangbaiyu to only be benefiting one person: Dai Xiaolong, the very man for whom I had been waiting for that October day.

Interested in more moments from Huangbaiyu? Read about The Opening Ceremonies or The Business of Leaders and Commoners