Gambling With Time Along the China-Laos Border
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2017-01-18 04:02:03

At 4 p.m. every Friday, 12-year-old Wang Chao and his classmate Li Xiaojin finish class in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, gather their belongings, and set off on foot toward the Lao border.

An hour later, the boys reach the border checkpoint that divides the Chinese town of Mohan, where they attend and board at school during the week, and Boten on the Lao side, where they live with their parents on weekends.

Chao was 5 years old when his parents brought him to Boten, which was then famous for its glittering casinos that drew tens of thousands of Chinese tourists across the border each month. His family entered Laos legally during the boom as part of a stream of Chinese workers who migrated to take advantage of the thriving economy.

Every Friday, 20 Chinese students cross the China-Laos border to return to their homes in Laos. By Jia Yanan and Chen Xi/Sixth Tone

Yet the paradise they envisaged didn’t pan out. The tourism industry in Boten collapsed after the casinos closed in 2011, following a number of anti-corruption stings and police raids because of crime surrounding gambling debts. Despite continued attempts from the Lao government to revitalize the area, and sizeable investment from Chinese companies, the once-bustling border town is still waiting for throngs of tourists to reappear.

Chao’s family now live as undocumented migrants in a legal gray area: The Lao authorities generally leave them alone because they consider Chinese residents beneficial to the region’s development, but the Lao police can fine them if they attempt to cross the border without entry-exit permits. The family have let theirs lapse because they can’t afford to renew them.

Work opportunities in the border town are limited, and the family has been forced to relocate time and time again within Laos to make room for land development initiatives. Fewer than 1,000 people remain in Boten, 90 percent of them Chinese. Yet migrants like Chao’s family are reluctant to return to China, believing their luck might finally change with a recent cross-border cooperative development project, and the high-speed railway soon to come to the area.

In any case, Laos has always been a gamble, and they can’t help but hope they are close to a win.

Border Crossings

There are no schools in Boten, so Chao and Xiaojin cross the border each week to attend school in China. Mohan’s Shuangyong Hope Project Primary School began to admit Chinese nationals living in Laos in 2009 and Principal Li Yinghai estimates there are now 20 students from across the border.

The checkpoint is only open at certain times, so the students usually live on campus during the week before returning to Laos on Friday. The cost of entry-exit permits to cross the border adds up to roughly 1,800 yuan ($260) per year. To avoid paying the fee, Xiaojin spent his entire fifth-grade year going to and from school via a small jungle path that was built when the gambling industry was at its height. A wooden sign at the path’s entrance reads: “Only for use by those 14 and under. Violators will be fined.”

A student returns home on a jungle path in Mohan City, Yunnan province, Nov. 20, 2016. Before these students received temporary entry-exit permits to cross the border, they resorted to taking the path from school in China to their homes in Laos every week. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

A student returns home on a jungle path in Mohan City, Yunnan province, Nov. 20, 2016. Before these students received temporary entry-exit permits to cross the border, they resorted to taking the path from school in China to their homes in Laos every week. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Once, when Xiaojin’s aunt came to visit from neighboring Sichuan province, Xiaojin met her in Mohan and tried to take her back to Laos along the small path, only to be caught by the Lao police. The two of them were detained at the border-inspection station for four hours until Xiaojin’s father arrived and paid 5,000 yuan for their release. “I cried; it was so scary,” Xiaojin said.

Like Xiaojin, Chao spent his sixth-grade year using the jungle road that he describes as gloomy and claustrophobic. When it rained, the path would turn into a river of mud. The remaining stones were covered in moss, and the tall, densely packed trees towered overhead. Unmarked graves lined the path, supposedly the remains of people who couldn’t make good on their gambling debts.

With the number of cross-border students growing, principal Li recently negotiated with the checkpoint staff on both sides to issue the students with temporary entry-exit permits that they must get stamped on the first of each month, allowing them to cross the border legally for free, even when the checkpoint is closed.

Faded Splendor, Floating Life

On a recent Friday, Chao returned to Laos for the weekend to yet another unfamiliar house. Since coming to Boten, the family has moved four times, building their own houses on unused land only to be driven away by encroaching development. Their latest home is a simple prefabricated structure built from plastic and metal sheeting, provided by his father’s employer. 

Wang Chao (top) and his family in a temporary house offered by the development company where his father now works in Boten, Laos, Nov. 19, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Wang Chao (top) and his family in a temporary house offered by the development company where his father now works in Boten, Laos, Nov. 19, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Chao’s father, Wang Kaiyong, now 45, first visited Laos in 2002. Wang had left his native Wenshan, a city in southeastern Yunnan province, and crossed the border into Laos hoping to profit off of the region’s rubber-tree forests. However, he ran into trouble with the law over a land-ownership dispute and was sent to prison for two years.

Yet in 2008, Wang returned to Laos, wanting to try his luck again. He’d heard that Boten held the promise of wealth. “There were casinos, lots of people, and lots of money to be made,” he recalled being told.

Wang was not alone. Boten had been declared a Special Economic Zone in 2003, and in 2006, a Chinese businessman from the eastern province of Fujian had opened a casino in Boten, kicking off a golden age for the town as visa-free travel and lure of gambling — illegal in China — led tens of thousands of tourists to cross the Yunnan-Laos border each month. Chinese workers and businessmen also flooded into the region to service the booming tourism trade.

To Wang, a father of five, Boten sounded like the opportunity he needed to build a financially stable future for his family. At the time, Chinese who moved to Boten were allowed to farm on any uncultivated land, so Wang and his wife claimed about 4,000 square meters on which to grow vegetables. For the first couple of years in Boten, Chao remembers that the wide, brightly lit avenues were always filled with people.

Wang Chao’s younger brother stands in the street, while migrant workers gather nearby in Boten, Laos, Nov. 19, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Wang Chao’s younger brother stands in the street, while migrant workers gather nearby in Boten, Laos, Nov. 19, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Xiaojin’s father, 58-year-old Li Fukai, also came to Laos in pursuit of riches. Originally from southwestern China’s Sichuan province, he arrived in 2007 and began raising ducks and chickens to sell to the casinos and other Chinese-run restaurants in town. When business was good, he made 500 to 600 yuan a day.

But things started to sour quickly. At the end of 2009, the news broke that a Boten casino had detained several hundred Chinese nationals, allegedly for failure to pay off debts. While these hostages were eventually freed, many of the Chinese who had opened businesses in the area closed up shop and returned to China. Twelve casinos shuttered, and the rest were rebranded as hotels or jewelry markets. 

The Empty Fields

After the casinos closed, the majority of Boten’s population moved on. Li had trouble finding customers and moved southwest of the town to grow vegetables. The casino industry has since been replaced with tourism-oriented programs, but so far visitors are few, and farmers like Li feel they haven’t benefited from the new initiatives.

Instead, six months ago, tourist-site development took over Li’s land, and he had to move his family into an abandoned house in an overgrown field outside of the city. Yet bulldozers continue to close in, and now they’ve dug up the earth only a few dozen meters from his home. He has no choice but to move again. “They can take what they want,” he said hopelessly.

[The developers] can take what they want.

Wild gray hair hangs over Li’s eyebrows, and one eye is completely bloodshot. The plot of land Li once farmed currently sits unused, waiting to be turned into a golf course. The amount of available farmland continues to shrink, so Li and other Chinese residents have taken to buying food in bulk across the border and reselling it back in Lao, but profits are poor. Some days Li makes as little as 100 yuan for a day starting with a border-crossing at dawn through the jungle path. 

“I can’t even sell vegetables anymore; it’s enough to drive a man mad,” Li said, anxiety creeping into his voice. 

At the market, Laos walk by his stand, but Li can only muster a few sentences of Lao. He pushes his son to study the local language; if he can master it, he could make money working as a translator for Chinese businessmen.

Li Xiaojin (back) rests his hand on his cheek during math class at Shuangyong Hope Project Primary School, Mohan City, Yunnan province, Nov. 18, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Li Xiaojin (back) rests his hand on his cheek during math class at Shuangyong Hope Project Primary School, Mohan City, Yunnan province, Nov. 18, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Recently, Li decided to apply for a job with Yunnan Hai Cheng, the Chinese company that took over the development of Boten in 2011, but he was rejected. “They said I was old, that they didn’t want me,” he said. “I bet I’m still a much better worker than any of those sissies down there.”

Fortunately for Wang’s family, the development company hired him and his wife to plant flowers and grass. Wang will earn 1,200 yuan each month for pulling weeds and watering flowers every day. After a 10-hour workday, Wang hurries home to plant and harvest his own garden, and tend to the family’s pigs and chickens. “I have five children,” he said. “I have to work hard for their sake.”

Sunk Cost, Capsized Dreams

Wang doesn’t consider Laos his home. He has spent countless nights telling himself that sooner or later, he will return to China — though he cannot say when.

Li can’t avoid the realization that he has become an old man while chasing the promise of wealth. “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get rich,” he said.

After moving house five times, Li Xiaojin and his family now live in a cottage in Boten, Laos, Nov. 20, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

After moving house five times, Li Xiaojin and his family now live in a cottage in Boten, Laos, Nov. 20, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone

Not long ago, Li heard someone say that Boten will make a comeback in the next year. The rumors are all over the city: “Once the high-speed train is built, the people will come back and business will start booming again.”

They mean the high-speed railway project connecting Yunnan provincial capital Kunming with Lao capital Vientiane, which began construction in December 2015 with a cost of more than $6 billion. One of the stops will be located in the Boten economic development zone — though it’s not certain if the region will be able to attract tourists without the pull of gambling.

Though business is slow in the meantime, after having spent so many years in Laos, Li and his family have decided to try and wait it out. Perhaps Boten really will make a comeback. Perhaps their luck will finally change.

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

(Header image: Every Friday, Li Xiaojin, Wang Chao, and their classmates cross the China-Laos border to return to their homes in Boten, Laos, Nov. 18, 2016. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone)