Tianmen: Many Leave, But Few Come Home Again

TIANMEN is a town the overseas Chinese forgot.

Like the flourishing coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, Tianmen over the years sent out streams of emigres to search for better fortunes, including the Liu family. Many, like the Lius, made dentures for a living, a specialty Tianmen has exported to countries all over the world.

But the weathered farms and rutted roads underscore the divide between China's booming seaboard and this proverty-stricken heart of inland Hubei Province. Absent are the skylines of construction cranes and the glossy new stores - emblems of the prosperity Chinese have brought back.

The small city of 1.5 million people, half of whom city officials say have overseas connections, can only boast a new hotel for overseas Chinese, a repaired main road, a government guest house with the town's only satellite dish, and a video shop.

For Tianmen, with its bleak history of food shortages and frequent floods, has always been a place from which to escape.

``We didn't know very much about the outside world, but we did know one thing: The outside world was better than this world,'' says Lu Fancheng, an elderly Liu family relative. ``Tradition has been to go to Nanyang [Southeast Asia] not to settle down, just to earn money and return.''

But few ever did come back to this inland pocket of cotton farmers and overseas Chinese emigres. Although some other Chinese clustered overseas in singular enclaves of bicycle-makers, jewelers, or other tradesmen, the denture-makers of Tianmen are unusual in their inland origins and their particularly fierce clannishness.

``They come from an unusual place.... They stick to what they know and do well,'' says Wang Gungwu, a cultural historian in Hong Kong.

Relatives of the Liu family, who lack television sets and the trappings of other overseas Chinese families here, wonder openly why their overseas kin do not visit and, more importantly, send money. The two brothers who transplanted the Liu clan in Indonesia left in the 1930s to escape poverty and conscription into China's civil war.

Liu Jinfu, a nephew of one of the brothers, produced a faded letter written by one of the brothers in 1965. In the letter, the brother reports the return to China of four of his nine children with the remainder to follow soon. They never did.

The Liu family, which has no interest in investing in Tianmen, periodically sends $100 to help out, touching off rivalries to claim kinship with the overseas Lius. ``It's terrible. All they would do is nag me,'' says Liu Jinfeng, who has no desire to visit her father's native town.

But occasionally, some Tianmen natives do return. Chen Yinbang, an elderly, retired denture-maker, returned twice from Indonesia, the first time fleeing the Indonesian independence struggle against the Dutch and the second time after the massacres following the 1965 coup attempt.

``I suffered a lot of discrimination in Indonesia,'' said the old man doffing his Mao cap. Should he have come back to China? ``It's hard to say. I'm very old. It is hard to think of that now.''

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