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'Oshin' residents dream of a better life

Update: December, 11/2005 - 00:00

‘Oshin’ residents dream of a better life

All work, no play: The cleaners tidy up their shelters when they have free time. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

Taking care of others: One den mother boils water outside the damp room.


by Phan Thuy

A small street nestled near the busy railway line in the heart of old Ha Noi plays host to a unique bunch of nocturnal residents, and though these inhabitants have no official address, locals have dubbed the dwellings the Oshin commune.

The term Oshin comes from the name of a famous Japanese television series character, who toiled away cleaning houses and washing dishes for a living. And like the character’s occupation, many residents from the Oshin commune also perform a similar line of back-breaking work.

Unfortunately, their meagre pay does not allow for a lavish lifestyle, and many are forced to huddle together for survival, taking shelter in the humble and overcrowded living quarters of the Oshin commune.

During the day, the area appears to be a ghost town to an outsider, showing very little signs of life, even though around 80 women and children call this place home. When night falls on the rundown dwellings, the area finally comes to life as the residents return home from the city after a hard day’s work.

But their home is not exactly a warm and welcoming place to return to after a hard day cleaning up after others, as the 80 residents must bed down each night in the cramped quarters. The commune consists of a row of neglected houses that run parallel to the city’s busy train line, and each house contains one or several small, damp rooms with minimal furnishings. There are around 20 rooms providing shelter for around 80 people; each 10-sq.m space can sleep five to eight women on two mattresses.

Despite their line of work, the inhabitants of this commune also have another thing in common – many have travelled from other provinces to try their luck in Ha Noi. While monthly rental rates of VND400,000 may seem like a bargain when shared between six or so people, the reality of the situation paints a far different picture.

Many nerves are frayed due to the overcrowding, and personal space is a luxury that is very rarely afforded. Most residents also compete on a daily basis for space for hanging clothes, which, if hung outside, will suffer the fate of sticky fingers.

Sharing one bathroom also tests the patience of many, especially during the summer months when water often runs out, and during the winter when boiling water over fires fills the areas with smoke.

When asked about safety issues, most residents said they remained unmolested and felt safe in their dwellings. The modest rooms belong to the neighbours across the streets, so most residents are registered with the police.

"The residents show me their identity cards, and I let them reside temporarily. Often we make arrangements for longer contracts," says landlord Huyen.

"The tenants are usually law-abiding and we rarely receive complaints," says a local policeman, for the commune has a system of its own.

The place manages to function with some civility and order, and each room abides by some simple rules to maintain this unique and fragile arrangement. Each week, one person is responsible for cooking and cleaning, and there is an unwritten code about personal property and theft. Problems and arguments are addressed in a timely manner, reveals one Phu Tho Province resident.

Newcomers are common, and after learning the rules, many are tested with sleepless nights from the constant noise from the passing, clattering trains. However, they soon adapt and the noise fades into the background, some even claiming that the trains help put them to sleep each night.

Communal cliques

The commune’s inhabitants tend to stick to their own Vietnamese houses usually have a matriarch who rules the roost, and the Oshin commune is no different. Resident Hop, from northern Phu Tho Province, is considered one of the den mothers and provides guidance and assistance to many of the younger ladies also from her homeland.

Anyone from Phu Tho looking for a job just approaches 58-year-old Hop and asks for her help.

"All they have to do is telling me what they want to do and what kind of skills they have, and usually within a week I can find them a job," she says. Working as a cleaning lady and job finder for 10 years, Hop has earned credibility amongst her neighbours and potential employers.

"I have a reputation to uphold so I choose carefully and train them to do the job well," she says. When Hop’s husband died and left her with three children, she moved to Ha Noi so she could earn money to support her family. Even though her kids are now grown and married, Hop continues to work.

"I like working, and this job gives me a chance to earn money without depending on my children," she says.

Everyone in the commune has a story, and most are sad.

Ngan, who is also from Phu Tho, left her three children with their grandparents so she could earn more money in the capital. While she was away, her youngest son drowned in a nearby pond, and no one knew where he was for weeks until his body surfaced. Wracked with grief, Ngan must continue to work for the sake of her other children.

Twenty-something Quyen moved to the capital and became a nanny for a family with a new baby. When the mother was not at home, the father would take advantage of her. She needed the money, but eventually couldn’t stand it and quit.

"The neighbours glared at me. They think I am so poor and I will do anything for money," she says.

Those from the northern city of Nam Dinh often collect rubbish for recycle, and most of them are only 5-17 years old. The kids go out to pick up trash, and share their sales with their "foster mother." At night they stroll aimlessly around the restaurants near Phung Hung Street, selling chewing gums or polishing shoes.

Lan plays mother to about 10 of these children; she lets them sleep in her small room and provides them with meals. Khoi, 10, lost his parents when he was very young. To him, three meals a day and a place to sleep are good enough.

People from central Thanh Hoa Province usually work in the restaurants on Phung Hung Street, which are famous for their flavourful hot pots and overly solicitous proprietors.

"After finishing work at midnight, we return to the commune to sleep, and then wake up early to go back to work. This boring routine earns me about VND 500,000 to VND700,000 a month," says one worker.

Huyen from Thai Nguyen used to send money home to her husband and two sons. While she was away, her husband would spend all the money gambling and drinking and abusing her boys. They eventually ran away, becoming thieves and drug addicts. She doesn’t know where they are now. She says sometimes she doesn’t want to go on living, but her housemates convince her that things will improve.

Though life is hard in the Oshin commune, the spirit of comradery and the small sense of hope keep the residents focused on the future, and the promise of a better life ahead. — VNS

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