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Gimme Shelter

Deep in downtown Jilin, the Five Yuan Women’s Dormitory was a home for the city’s poor, destitute and homeless for over two decades - before suddenly shutting its doors

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Day workers wait outside Hubei Labor Market in Jilin city, Jilin Province, November 10, 2020

When the reporter visited Five Yuan Women’s Dormitory on November 10, 2020, it was alive with conversation and laughter over the steady drone of Buddhist chants played on a loop.  

No longer. The dorm abruptly closed in late December after operating for nearly a quarter of a century. The reasons behind the closure are still unclear. However, the dorm was unlicensed and operated in a gray area of municipal policy.  

Sun Shiqing, 68, ran the dorm from two 50-square-meter apartments she owns on the second floor of an old seven-story walk-up in Jilin, the capital of Northeast China’s Jilin Province. 
One apartment served as a dorm for women that cost 5 yuan (US$0.76) per night. A bed in the neighboring apartment for men cost 6 yuan (US$0.91). 

The dorm was home to nine women and four men who worked odd jobs during the day. When they returned at night, the place came to life.  

At first, the dorm only charged 2 yuan (US$0.30) per night. Qi Xiaoguang, a reporter for Jilin Television, first visited the dorm in 2005. She spent five years filming the documentary The 2 Yuan Women’s Dormitory (2010) about the place and its residents at the time, three of whom lived in the dorm until late 2020. The documentary’s success generated more media attention. Perhaps too much.  

Sun only increased the rent by 3 yuan (US$0.46) in a decade. These prices were realistic in Jilin: a single room at the cheap hotels that surround Jilin Railway Station costs 20 yuan (US$3). There are at least five unlicensed dorms that charge similar rent within a 500 meter radius of Sun’s place. They are mostly near the city’s eastern business district - a prosperous commercial center since the 1930s, now lined with skyscrapers and shopping malls.  

The dorm has seen many come and go: battered wives seeking a safe haven from their abusive husbands, migrant workers who left their home villages to find work in the city and many homeless. Most stayed for one night, some for years. A few thought they would spend the rest of their lives there.  

Men Across the Hall
It was -7 C before dawn on December 9. More than 200 migrant workers stood by the road in front of Hubei Labor Market waiting for work. Wrapped in face masks and thick cotton coats, they quietly rubbed their hands and stamped their feet to keep warm. Occasionally they exchanged a few words with each other.  

One of the men walked toward the reporter with a smile: Xu Haifeng, a 58-year-old lodger at Sun’s dormitory.  

Xu’s story is heart-breaking. He married at 35, considered very late in the villages of Northeast China. But Xu’s wife left him, then his only son drowned in a reservoir. He was 10.  

Grief stricken, Xu left his village and wandered from city to city.  

“I went wherever I felt light-hearted and relieved. I had to do something to make this dead heart feel alive again,” Xu told NewsChina.  

Xu’s parents passed away last year. Among his remaining relatives, he is closest to his older sister. In the past, Xu would return home to visit. He rarely goes back now.  

“If you don’t make much money, people back home look down on you and think you’re a failure. Home is a place that is easy to escape but hard to return to,” Xu said.  

The dormitory was where Xu could find a little solace. “In the day, I went out to find work, then at night I went back to the dorm and chatted with my roommates. You don’t feel so lonely there,” Xu told the reporter.  

Sun Hongtao, who lived in the men’s dorm for 13 years, was also homeless once. After he got divorced and lost custody of his son in 2004, Sun left his village for Jilin. He found work at a construction site but was later diagnosed with tuberculosis, leaving him unable to do any heavy work. He now works odd jobs.  

A resident for over a decade, Sun saw the dorm as his home. He never reconnected with his ex-wife or son, and does not expect his son to support him in his old age. “I didn’t raise him. How can I expect him to care for me in the future?” Sun said. 

Sun Shiqing's flowers sit on the windowsill in the dormitory, Jilin city, Jilin Province, November 10, 2020

Suffering Endured
On a wooden door in the women’s dormitory hang four yellowing posters with encouraging aphorisms of enduring life’s suffering with patience and acceptance. 

A devout Buddhist, Sun Shiqing feels this philosophy speaks to many of the female tenants’ outlooks on life. 

“There are two kinds of women in the world: those who live for their children and those who live for themselves. The women who lived here are the former. You can’t find a woman here whose life is completely her own. If you’re looking for people who live for themselves, you’re in the wrong place. Try a mahjong parlor instead,” Sun told NewsChina.  

On the evening of November 10, the women in the dorm chatted as they swiped through short videos on popular app Kwai. 

Zhang Aiwa was drawn to a video of a little girl singing the song “Mama, Don’t Leave Me Alone” in a shabby room.  

“Mama, why did you leave me alone at home? You said you’d suffer for my sake…” the girl’s sorrowful song tore at Zhang’s heart.  

“The kid sings so well. What a poor girl. She must be a left-behind child of a migrant worker family,” Zhang told the reporter in a solemn tone.  

It was Zhang’s ninth day at the dormitory. Two weeks before, she left her village in Huadian County for the city, expecting to find a job as a nanny. Every morning she went downstairs to Sister Tiao Homemaking, a domestic staff agency, and waited for work. The middle-aged woman hopes to earn enough to cover her son’s mortgage. Most of the family’s financial burdens rest on her shoulders as her husband has a heart condition.  

Li Guilan, 78, has lived in the dorm for more than 20 years. The round-faced and amiable woman comes from a village in Shulan County, Jilin Province. Li has four children - three work in other provinces. Unwilling to burden her children but not used to living alone in the city, Li settled on Sun’s dorm. She had been there ever since.  

Like Li, most tenants are migrant workers from surrounding counties. Along with the wave of urbanization that followed the reform and opening-up policy, many villagers left for Jilin, the province’s capital and second-largest city, for work at the bottom rungs of society.  

Wang Lin, 68, is another 20-year tenant. In her silver necklace, silver earrings and leather pants, Wang was the most fashionably dressed woman at the dorm.  

Wang told NewsChina that when she first arrived, she had just divorced her abusive ex-husband after he had been sentenced to eight years for assault and robbery. Her ex’s family was granted custody of their son, which made visitation difficult.  

After settling in the dorm, Wang mainly worked as a babysitter. Living at the dorm was a way to ease her feelings of loneliness. The only relative she keeps in touch with is her niece. She has called her son many times, but he never answers.  

Farewell, Old Home
When Sun Shiqing said she never saw the documentary nor read articles about her dorm, the reporter pulled one up online. Sun put on her glasses, turned on a small light, and slowly read it, word by word:  

“More than 20 women packed the dorm like sardines in a can. Their bed sheets were so worn out they were almost rags,” Sun read, then laughed.  

“But indeed, the people here all had hard times,” Sun told NewsChina.  

Sun first had the idea of opening a dormitory in 1997, a time of economic reforms when layoffs at State-owned enterprises were common and migrant workers flooded the cities.  

She bought an apartment near the Hubei Labor Market and charged 2 yuan (US$0.30) per night for a dorm bed. A month later, the room was full. 

Initially she was earning tens of yuan a day, which “was quite enough to live very comfortably at the time.” Several years later, she bought another apartment on the same floor and opened a dormitory for men.  

“She developed deep bonds with her tenants. Sun’s son, 43, married a former tenant. The couple has a 15-year-old son. The family now lives in a 158-square-meter apartment and keeps a spare room for her. 

But Sun did not intend to move. “These [tenants] are really good people. I don’t want to leave them,” she said.  

Compared to hotels, nursing homes and shared flats, Sun’s dormitory was not just about business. It gave residents a sense of warmth, companionship and belonging. It was more like a space that allowed groups of rural migrant workers to live and socialize in a traditional way commonly found in rural society.  

Sometimes Sun took in homeless women free of charge. Every day at noon, one of Sun’s friends, also a Buddhist, came to the dorm to share steamed buns.  

Every Spring Festival Eve, instead of having dinner at her son’s place, Sun spent it with her lodgers. Sun is vegetarian after becoming a Buddhist in her 60s, and would prepare vegetable dumplings - a traditional holiday food - with her tenants to celebrate the coming year.  

In the second half of 2020, media reports about the dormitory and the work Sun was doing became more frequent. In December, less than one month after our interview, Sun closed her dormitory.  

“I closed it just because of health problems,” Sun told NewsChina. “I was too tired and needed some rest,” she said, refusing to elaborate.  

“The dormitory was once a place where lonely souls could gather and find companionship. By the end of the year, its tenants, old and new, were again scattered and faded into the crowds of the city. 

Bunk beds in the women’s dormitory. Most of the tenants are elderly