Explore an abandoned Chinese village now engulfed by nature

  • Jun. 7, 2018 9:00 a.m.

HOUTOUWAN, China — Blanketed with greenery, the ghost town is perched atop cliffs looking west into sea mists obscuring the horizon. Abandoned homes ravaged by weather and creeping vines stand silent but for the surf, the whine of mosquitos, and birdsong.

This is Houtouwan — “Back Bay” in Mandarin — an abandoned fishing village engulfed by nature on the far eastern island of Shengshan, 90 kilometres off the coast of Shanghai.

Small groups of tourists on a recent weekend braved muddy footpaths through overgrown lawns to chase foggy photographs and answers to the question: What happened to the village?

The story of the Wang family may provide one answer. Wang Yi left the village at the age of 5 when his family moved to the island’s main town to access its better services.

When he returns to Houtouwan, the 27-year-old college graduate gathers honeysuckles for a fragrant tea that reminds him of his birthplace.

Memories of village festivals draw infectious laughter from his mother Zhu Mandi, who still dreams about her childhood among the mist-shrouded mountains next to the sea.

“I dream of playing here, and it looked like it did when we played here when I was young,” Zhu said, pointing at her former family home. Vines have since wound through the three-story house and ivy has crept through the now broken wooden front door.

The island draws tourists from the mainland intrigued by the village’s unique devastation. Ivy cloaks some buildings completely but on many Houtouwan houses, beautiful roof tiles still gleam and broken verandas offer majestic views of the stormy sea.

Visitors must take a boat to Shengshan then a taxi up a hill to a cemetery overlooking the village, and then descend down perilous footpaths into the mist and ivy.

Huang Dan, a 22-year-old student, was among the visitors on a recent weekend who said she wanted to photograph the beauty of human structures subsumed by roots, rain, vines and wind.

“It feels like this place belonged to nature from the very beginning, and the old invaders finally left, and nature finally made it back,” she said.

The village isn’t entirely abandoned. Five people still reside here with a relaxed pack of dogs that roam the empty homes.

Sun Ayue lives in a small home just off the main path through the old village. The 62-year old former fisherman remembers the village’s boom times — and the bust.

China is the world’s largest fishing nation. But poor enforcement of fishing regulations has led to a rapid decline in fish stocks. Wang Yi, the college graduate, said fishermen returned from the sea with emptier and emptier nets before China imposed seasonal moratoriums on fishing operations in the late 1990s to protect fish stocks from further depletion.

Yet Sun says most of the village’s 600 families ultimately left Houtouwan because it lacked proper roads and a school.

“Transportation was inconvenient,” he said, making it difficult for teachers to get to Houtouwan from the main town Shengshan. “It was too far away. They arrived in the dark and left in the dark,” he said.

Houtouwan is “a microcosm of the entire Chinese society,” said Zhao Yeqin, an associate sociology professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. The village reflects a broader migration trend that has seen countless Chinese move from rural areas to urban megacities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

In Houtouwan’s heyday, Lin Fazhen ran a small store in 1984 catering to fishermen. He sold cigarettes, alcohol, fishing supplies, canned food, biscuits and fruit that he imported on boats from the mainland.

“They went to the sea when the boats were sailing, and they came back when it got windy. They played mahjong,” Lin said while taking a drag from a cigarette.

When the people left, he began planting cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, celery and basil. He says he now farms more than 1,300 square meters (a third of an acre) of various plots scattered across abandoned lawns, gardens and terraces.

He chuckled when asked if the village was haunted.

“People got scared and said ghosts were living here, so it was called ghost village,” Lin said.

“I’ve lived in this world for such a long time, and have never met one.”

___

If You Go:

To reach Houtouwan from Shanghai, take a bus from the Nanpu Bridge bus station or taxi to the Shenjiawan Dock, about 90 minutes’ travel time, and purchase ferry tickets to Shengshan. Weather often grounds boats, so check ahead. The fast ferry takes 90 minutes, while the slower boat takes four hours to traverse the Shengsi Islands on its way to Shengshan. Hotels line both ports and offer rides up to the entrance to Houtouwan. It is a 2-hour rigorous hike through the village.

Just Posted

Alberta government staff to take day course on Indigenous history, culture

EDMONTON — A three-year program to help government staff better understand Indigenous… Continue reading

Study says exercise can foster brain health for kids with autism and ADHD

TORONTO — A new report says kids with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity… Continue reading

US could back 1st pot-derived medicine, and some are worried

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A British pharmaceutical company is getting closer to… Continue reading

Competition heating up for price-sensitive passengers as Swoop set to launch

MONTREAL — Competition is heating up for Canada’s most price-sensitive travellers as… Continue reading

Not too close with Trudeau, Bellegarde insists as AFN race gets underway

OTTAWA — Experience usually helps when it comes to getting a job… Continue reading

WATCH: Central Alberta High School Soccer League champs crowned

Lindsay Thurber girls’ team and Notre Dame boys’ team won Saturday at Edgar Park Field in Red Deer

Smoking hits new low; about 14 per cent of US adults light up

NEW YORK — Smoking in the U.S. has hit another all-time low.… Continue reading

On a big night for ‘Panther,’ Boseman honours real-life hero

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The MTV Movie & TV Awards gave “Black… Continue reading

Geraldine McCaughrean wins Carnegie children’s book prize

LONDON — British writer Geraldine McCaughrean on Monday won the prestigious Carnegie… Continue reading

Tears flow as gay military veterans tell judge about ruined careers, lives

OTTAWA — Gay military veterans are telling a federal judge they were… Continue reading

Shotgun wounds show homeowner shot Indigenous man at close range, court told

HAMILTON — Either one of two shotgun blasts that hit an Indigenous… Continue reading

When it comes to tipping for service, millennials are cheapest

U.S. millennials are quick to whip out their wallets for pricey avocado… Continue reading

Compulsive video-game playing could be mental health problem

GENEVA — Obsessive video gamers know how to anticipate dangers in virtual… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month