The other day I went out fishing in a lake in Zhejiang. At the edge of the lake I met an old man and his wife who were living on a sampan. They were sitting at either end of their boat, patiently hooking tiny worms at intervals onto two long, long fishing lines. Apparently this takes them several hours every day. The old man had a mug of tea to sip as he worked, and a pack of cigarettes. In the small living space in the well of the boat were their simple possessions: rolls of bedding, a few clothes in a bundle, a calendar, an old-fashioned wireless and a clock. Some half-shelled soybeans were lying in a bowl on the floor.
The fishermen I was with say that just a few decades ago the only way to get around this area was by boat, along the canals and through the lakes, and that boat-dwellers were fairly common. These days there aren’t many left. The old man I met, who grew up on a boat, said his three children were all migrant workers in cities – he’s the last of the line (if you’ll forgive the pun).