Christchurch earthquake: The shidu parents who lost everything and are pleading for help

Among those grieving after the Christchurch earthquake were a group of Chinese parents who lost their whole world – their only child. Olivia Carville (words) and Mike Scott (visuals) travelled to China to hear their story.

Bo Tu cries over the death of his daughter in his Wuhan home. “Not a single day has been spent without pain and sorrow,” he says. Photo by Mike Scott

“I can’t get out. My legs are stuck under concrete.”

It was a Tuesday morning in Guangzhou, southern China, when Zhi-Ping Lai answered his daughter’s call.

“Dad, there’s an emergency. An earthquake,” she said.

Quake parents seek visas to tend graves

Chang Lai, 27, was calling home, like she’d done every day since she moved to New Zealand seven months earlier.

But this time she was buried alive. Trapped in the dark, pinned beneath tons of mangled concrete.

“It’s hard to breathe,” she said.

Zhi-Ping Lai started pacing in his small one-bedroom unit. His daughter was 9561km away. He told her help was coming.

“Nobody can help,” she said.

He told her not to panic; he said it was all going to be okay.

Then the phone went dead.

• • •

Xiling Han was a fiercely independent little girl.

She wouldn’t let her parents walk her to primary school in Nantong, preferring to discover different routes on her own.

She grew into a model nursing student who earned the praise of patients and tutors in Shanghai.

In late 2010 when she decided she wanted to study English in New Zealand, her parents let her go, but not without asking the 25-year-old about the earthquake that had struck Christchurch a few weeks earlier in September.

It’s okay, she said. The principal of the language school she was going to study in had told her New Zealand buildings were a lot stronger than those in China.

Hui Yun Tu’s body was reported as one of the first to be pulled from the wreckage of the CTV building on Madras St, Christchurch.

The 22-year-old was found just a few metres from the front entrance, her parents were told. She almost made it out.

The possessions she was carrying at the time of the quake were sent back to her hometown of Wuhan.

Her brown leather wallet, full of New Zealand cash and ANZ bank cards, still feels damp all these years later.

The notebook, full of Mandarin to English translations, is slightly burnt and smells like ash.

• • •

The parents of Chang Lai, Hui Yun Tu and Xiling Han are now shidu parents.

Shidu is a Chinese word that translates to “lost only one”.

That is not to only lose one, but to lose the only one.

China’s need for such a word is poignant, given it’s the only country in the world that has ever enforced a one-child policy.

This 35-year-old law ended on the first day of 2016, leaving “shidu” to define a generation of parents who lost the only child they were ever allowed to have.

Shidu parents have been left childless in a country with weak social welfare systems and a strong tradition of filial piety – children caring for their parents in old age.

For some, the injustice doesn’t end there.

Zhi-Ping Lai and his wife Xiuqing Feng lost their daughter, Chang Lai, 27

A small group of shidu families lost their only child in the only building that completely collapsed in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

It’s been six years since the quake but no one has been held accountable for the failure of the CTV building, which claimed 115 lives, despite a Royal Commission highlighting numerous engineering deficiencies with the building.

To these families, New Zealand embodied a progressive, safe, First World country with world-class health facilities, strictly enforced building regulations and a firm rule of law.

They cannot understand how justice has not been served.

Late last year, the Weekend Herald travelled to China to meet the shidu families.

“We sent our children to [a] Western country to study and work. Our hopes were destroyed,” said a disabled father who has been left homeless since his daughter’s death.

“The pain is immense,” another father sighed.

“In a democratic and legitimate country like New Zealand, shouldn’t the government be taking responsibility?” cried a mother.

One child, one building

The remains of the collapsed CTV building. Photo by Geoff Sloan

The earthquake tore through Christchurch just before 1pm on a sunny, summer’s day.

Within seconds it had snaked through the city, toppling spires, ripping up roads, swamping suburbs and stealing lives.

The most dangerous place in the city was the six-storey CTV building that twisted, tilted and pancaked to the ground, igniting a fire deep within the rubble.

King’s Education language school was on the third floor. Seventy-nine staff and students from the school died that day, almost half the total number of quake victims.

Twenty-three of the students who died were from China and the overwhelming majority were an only child.

Many of their parents couldn’t speak English but boarded a plane and left China for the first time in their lives to search for their missing children in Christchurch.

The parents of Xiling Han, the model student from Shanghai, and Chang Lai, who called her father from the rubble, saw the smoking ruins of the CTV building days after it collapsed.

Seventy-nine staff and students from the King’s Education language school died when the CTV building collapsed. Photo by Geoff Sloan

They were on a bus loaded with other Chinese families which drove through the cordon and parked about 20 metres from the site.

“What we saw was this completely collapsed building. Only the bottom two storeys were left,” says Chang’s father, Zhi-Ping Lai. “Everyone was crying.”

Once he got over the initial shock, he recalls looking around and realising no other buildings had collapsed.

“It was the only one.”

The scene of the disaster filled Xiling Han’s mother, Wang Lu Xia, with anger and “a lot of questions”.

“Why? The surrounding buildings were basically unaffected. Why did this building collapse into pieces?” she asks.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry answered her questions in 2012.

The three families – from Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan – have all read the commission’s report, many times over.

Each can list the string of failures it highlighted, including the building designer not being competent for the task; the Christchurch City Council irresponsibly handing out a building permit when the design didn’t meet the code in 1986; and how three council officials – none of whom was an engineer – green-stickered the building, allowing the public to re-enter, after the major quake in September 2010.

Not to mention revelations that the building’s construction manager, Gerald Shirtcliff, faked his engineering degree by stealing another man’s identity. Engineer Alan Reay, who owns the firm that designed the building, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Over the past six years, police have been investigating whether criminal charges should be laid over the CTV collapse.

The investigation, described as one of the most complex technical inquiries undertaken by New Zealand Police, is in its closing stages and a draft lies with the Christchurch Crown Solicitor for review.

Police anticipate reaching a decision over whether to prosecute sometime this year.

Life has changed irrevocably for the shidu parents during this lengthy investigation.

Their health has failed, with some suffering brain tumours and heart attacks blamed as being caused by “youlv guodo” – “overwhelmingly sad” feelings. They have had to borrow money from friends and some have been forced to sell the homes their children grew up in.

While police investigators reconstructed building materials and called on international experts, the shidu parents woke in the night, teardrops staining their pillowcases, and isolated themselves from society, fearful of an uncertain future.

“I hope before my passing away I can see the day when the truth comes out,” says Bo Tu, the physically disabled father of victim Hui Yun Tu.

Xiling Han, 25.
Xiling Han, 25.

Xiling Han was buried twice.

Fragments of her body were found nine days after the quake and buried in Christchurch.

A year later, more of her remains were discovered and her father flew back to New Zealand to collect and bury her once again.

A coroner ruled the direct cause of Xiling’s death could not be ascertained “due to fire damage and fragmentation of the body”.

 Chang Lai, 27.
Chang Lai, 27.

Chang Lai was buried alive in the rubble of the CTV building for at least an hour, but her injuries were such that her cause of death could not be ascertained by a coroner.

She too was buried twice.

Her legs are buried in Guangzhou, a 30-minute drive from her parents’ one-bedroom apartment.

The rest of her remains, which were discovered months later, are buried in the Avonhead Memorial Cemetery in Christchurch.

“She should be put together, but it was too late to open the grave for cultural reasons,” her father, Zhi-Ping Lai, explains.

 Hui Yun Tu, 22.
Hui Yun Tu, 22.

The body of Hui Yun Tu, who was only 22, was pulled out of the rubble on the day of the quake.

Her parents were told they should be grateful her body was recovered in “relatively good shape” because some victims burned to death or were crushed so severely their remains have never been identified.

A coroner ruled Hui Yun Tu died as a result of chest compression and asphyxia. She was buried in Wuhan.

A shidu generation

Xiling, Chang and Hui Yun were all born in the 1980s.

Their parents belong to the first generation subject to China’s one-child policy, which came into effect in 1980 as a solution to gross overpopulation.

The government enforced the law strictly, with international reports describing Chinese women being forced to have abortions at up to eight months pregnant, sterilised against their will and fined up to tens of thousands of dollars for violating the rule.

Chinese authorities have boasted that during the policy’s 35-year span, it prevented 400 million births and helped the country claw its way out of the Great Chinese Famine, which killed more than 15 million people in the early 1960s.

Shidu families did not start emerging on a significant scale until about 10 years ago, as the first generation of parents started growing too old to fall pregnant again if they lost their first child.

The law changed last year and Chinese families can now have two children.

But, this has come too late for far too many.

Until Chang Lai moved to New Zealand she lived in her parent’s one-bedroom apartment in a concrete social housing complex in Guangzhou, sleeping in the open-air loft above the kitchen.

Zhi-Ping Lai and his wife, Xiuqing Feng, sent their daughter to New Zealand to learn English in 2010. “All of our hopes were on her shoulders,” he said in Guangzhou. Photo by Mike Scott

She was married in July 2010, the month she left for Christchurch.

Chang was training to be a dentist at the Guangdong Stomatological Hospital and decided she wanted to learn English after struggling with language barriers while treating patients from Western countries.

“A lot had been spent on sending her out [to New Zealand]. As for us, the elderly couple, all of our hopes were on her shoulders,” Zhi-Ping Lai says, sitting at the kitchen table below Chang’s loft bedroom.

“But in the end she could never come back to us.”

“To tell you the truth, according to the Chinese tradition, the reason we have children is that our children provide some help and support when we get old. Now our daughter is gone, we don’t have anyone to rely on.”

There are more than a million shidu families in China.

These parents have to face the economic and social hardships that go hand in hand with being childless.

They struggle to get operations in hospitals, admission into nursing homes or to secure burial plots in cemeteries without children to act as their guarantors. They are frequently cast out from social circles and blame themselves for ending their family line and failing their ancestors.

In recent years, shidu families have petitioned the Chinese government for more financial support, arguing they deserve to be compensated for obeying the one-child law by receiving part of the fines collected from violators of the policy.

They’ve had little success.

Bo Tu cries over the death of his only child in his Wuhan home. “Not a single day has been spent without pain and sorrow,” he says. Photo by Mike Scott

In 2002, the National People’s Congress forced local governments to “provide necessary assistance” to shidu parents and they are each now eligible for an additional monthly pension of 340 yuan, or $17 a week.

In the aftermath of the quake, the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand called on our government to compensate the shidu families appropriately and take pity on them given the one-child policy.

This plea was refused.

The only financial support these parents have received from the New Zealand government is a $5540 ACC grant to cover their children’s funeral costs.

They were not eligible for further financial aid from ACC under current legislation, because they were not deemed to be “dependants” of the deceased – a term that usually describes spouses or children.

An ACC memorandum obtained under the Official Information Act which was prepared at the time of the embassy’s request, states that the term dependent is “not a status that can be applied to potential future arrangements, such as where the deceased claimant may have financially supported their parents”.

This meant the government didn’t have to provide any further financial aid to the Chinese parents, under New Zealand law.

More than $100 million was donated to the New Zealand Red Cross after the disaster, with the 185 victims’ families each receiving a $20,000 grant. But, again the money went to spouses ahead of parents.

So parents of unmarried Chinese children received $25,540; those with married offspring only got $5540.

• • •

In a drab and overcrowded concrete apartment complex in Wuhan, a window on the fourth floor has been left ajar every night for the past five years “no matter snow or rain”.

Left open so the spirit of Hui Yun Tu, 22, can come home.

When we visited last October, her bedroom was as she left it. Her handbags still hanging on the back of the door; her red bow-tied teddy bears still smiling on the bed; her pink wallpaper covered with white cats in pink ribbons still covering the walls.

Bo Tu and his wife, Liqin Chen, kept their daughter’s room exactly as she left it. In December they were forced to pack it up and move out of their home because of financial woes. Photo by Mike Scott

“In the heart of the common Chinese people, souls are real. In our deepest hearts we think these souls will revisit old places someday,” says her father Bo Tu.

“We leave windows and doors open for them, hoping they will come back. It’s a hope from the bottom of our hearts.”

In December, Bo Tu was forced to move out of his family home and close his daughter’s bedroom window for the first time since her death.

He suffers from a spinal deformity which has left him physically disabled and unable to work. His wife, Liqin Chen, recently underwent an operation to remove a brain tumour after falling sick following Hui Yun’s death.

They had to sell the home and move in with a family member to pay for their medical costs.

They’re afraid the memories of their daughter will fade as they pack up her belongings and settle somewhere else.

Despite the pain and the awkward process of speaking through a translator, talking about his daughter makes Bo Tu happy. His twisted shoulders shake as he laughs, remembering his little girl.

“I have experienced a lot of humiliation because of my disabled body,” Bo Tu says.

“But [Hui Yun] never felt like I was an embarrassment. She always escorted me in front of everyone. Other children would laugh at us, wondering why she would escort a weirdo. She didn’t react nor avoid others’ eyes. She always assisted me with her hands. Everywhere. Us hand in hand, hand in hand.”

Hui Yun wanted to study English in New Zealand and start working as a nurse to make money for her parents and learn how to care for them as they grew older.

“We were counting on her to support us and she was confident to do so, proving she was no inferior to a boy. I raised her like a boy, had her live like a boy, becoming the pillar of the family. But that dream was shattered, gone, in pieces,” he says.

She left for New Zealand in December 2010.

She called them every day from Christchurch, telling them about the people and the places she had visited. She told them the air was clean, the sun was bright, the ocean was beautiful.

She talked about the freedom she felt living in New Zealand and how she hoped one day they would be able to join her.

Three months later she was dead.

“When we think about our daughter we hide somewhere and cry, not letting the other one know. When we think about our daughter we’re afraid to cry together because the tears would not stop,” Tu says.

“She cries indoors; I cry outdoors.”

‘We need help’

In north-eastern Shanghai, a university professor wakes up in the night, “teardrops on my pillowcase”.

He cries as he dreams of his daughter, Xiling Han.

Xiling, the model nursing student, grew up in Nantong and moved to Christchurch in late 2010 – on the same day as Hui Yun Tu.

Her mother and father were both at work when they heard about the quake. They called their daughter’s cellphone repeatedly, but she never answered.

Siyin Han, left, and Wang Lu Xia lost their daughter in the CTV building collapse and say they have been living in “deep depression and fear” since her death. Photo by Mike Scott

“We were extremely sad and such sorrow has lasted till now,” her father, Siyin Han, says in Shanghai.

“My daughter’s death has been a huge blow to my life and fear has crept into my heart,” says her mother, Wang Lu Xia.

“I don’t know how to properly express that the national pension system in China is far from perfect,” she says.

“We have been living in deep depression and fear. We need help.”

The families of Xiling, Chang and Hui Yun, made three pleas to the New Zealand Government and the public.

First they want, and believe they deserve, some form of financial aid from New Zealand, regardless of the legislative restrictions. They claim as parents they were dependants of their deceased children and believe the Western definition of the term discriminates against Chinese traditions.

Second, they want help securing open-ended visas, allowing them an easy passage into New Zealand to visit their children’s graves for as long as they are able to travel.

“Part of my daughter was buried in a cemetery near Christchurch Airport. To tell you the truth, I have not come back to visit her grave since then,” says Zhi-Ping Lai of his daughter Chang.

“What makes things difficult is the procedures of entering and leaving New Zealand are troublesome. I would like to suggest the New Zealand Government grant us a long-term entry permit or an annual visa exemption for the convenience of tomb sweeping,” he says.

To sweep the tombs and remove the weeds from graves is a Chinese tradition of respecting the dead.

Every April China celebrates the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, where people visit and tidy loved ones graves, pray, burn incense and offer their ancestors food, tea and wine.

On his last visit to Christchurch, years ago, Zhi-Ping Lai spent four days sweeping the abandoned CTV site and it brought him comfort to clean the place of his daughter’s death.

After his daughter’s death, Zhi-Ping Lai suffered from a heart attack. He said it was because he missed his daughter too much, “with my heart.” Photo by Mike Scott

“What we wish for is to mourn our beloved family member,” he says.

Chinese citizens are eligible for three-year entry visas into New Zealand, but immigration policy does not allow for exemptions for life time visitor visas.

Third, and for them, most importantly, they want justice over the collapse of the CTV building.

“Natural disasters are forgivable, but human errors are not,” says Bo Tu.

Prime Minister Bill English was sent an email outlining the shidu families’ requests and criticisms. His press secretary referred the email on to Earthquake Commission Minister Gerry Brownlee.

Brownlee’s office said Immigration and ACC Minister Michael Woodhouse would provide the official response.

“The Government sympathises with everyone affected by the quake,” Woodhouse said in a written statement to the Weekend Herald. “However, it is not considering special assistance to Chinese families,” he said, adding that overseas relatives received help from the government to travel to New Zealand at the time and the course costs of all deceased students were refunded.

The response is unlikely to satisfy the shidu families.

“It’s been six years and [the New Zealand Government] keeps telling us the investigation is under way,” Bo Tu said in October.

“We respect your laws and believe the government should ensure justice be served, not bury its head in the sand and do nothing.”

The Herald‘s travel to China was funded through a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Special thanks to translator Huailin Li.

NZ Herald