Cameron Hack, a Beijing-based photographer behind the Humans of China project, is 'exploring China, one person at a time.' Having already shared with us his encounters with some of the last surviving ladies in Beijing with bound feet, this time round, he hears stories of love and loss from one elderly Beijinger. Check out his WeChat account (ID: Humans-of-China) for more extraordinary tales from seemingly ordinary people.
I fell in love during the 1960s. He was my neighbour, from a well-off family and, during that time, he and his family were punished. They lacked water, food and even a place to live so I tried to help them as much as I could. He didn't stick around for long though, as they were hard times for him – he left China and went to Germany to work. I was so sad at that time, and I always said that I never wanted to find another relationship in the future. When I was young, I was very pretty and many boys liked me, but I wasn't really interested at that time. I only really liked that one man.
The interviewee as a child.
When I was 11, there was something wrong with my arm and many doctors couldn't cure me. They said that they'd have to amputate, but I refused and I eventually found a doctor who could help me treat the problem, and she did – for free. After she helped me, I stayed with her for a while learning about traditional Chinese medicine and treatments like acupuncture and cupping. Later, I continued to learn how to treat sick people from a famous doctor in Beijing, learning more about how to help people conceive and a few other things. The only thing I didn't really learn was how to mend broken bones, but I wish I had.
In the 1970s, I met a man whose wife had already passed away, who had three kids and was sick. Using the knowledge I had learned from working with the doctors, I helped him recover from his illness. I was 31 years old and he was 16 years older than me. The man liked me very much and eventually fell in love with me, maybe because I saved his life. He asked one of his friends to ask my mother if he could marry me, but my mum was extremely angry, because he was older than me, he had kids that were just a few years younger than I was and he had already been married. I didn't have a clue that he liked me and I was just as surprised as my mother.
Her adoptive parents at the Tiananmen Gate.
My mother refused to let me marry him, which made me angry; I argued with her and decided to run away and not return home. They wouldn't let me take any of my things, but I managed to grab my residence permit that showed I was native to Beijing, a quilt cover and my bike. I was young, still angry and scared, as I didn't know where to go, where I'd sleep or what I'd eat, but while roaming the streets, I bumped into the man who wanted to marry me. There and then, he asked me myself to marry him and I said yes. We married without my parent's permission and I felt so happy to be with him. He eventually managed to talk to my parents, who finally came round to the fact that he really liked me and I really liked him and that we were happy together. They kind of agreed that we could be together.
With her husband on their wedding day.
We had one child when I was 36 years old and we lived happily together. If he was still alive today, he'd be around 85 years old but he has since died. He looked after us very well. I can't cook, so each day he cooked for me and was really good to have around the house. He died in hospital and I was there by his side. He asked me to tell him that I loved him before he died, but I didn't say it. It was foolish for me not to have said it, and it is one of my biggest regrets. I don't know why I didn't say I loved him, because I did, but the words just wouldn't come out. The happiest times of my life were with my husband and our son. We travelled to many places together and I have many photos of us and our family that I treasure.
I think I am 67 but I don't exactly know. I also don't know my parents, as my mum and dad who raised me weren't actually my real parents. When I was young I heard them talking about it; they thought I was sleeping but I wasn't, and I heard them talking about my real parents. They looked after me very well and told me a little bit about my family history. They said my real mother died while giving birth to me and my father was killed fighting in North Korea. I don't know where they found me, but I know that my real father and my adopted father fought together in the army.
With her adopted mother and brother.
Now I still live in Beijing, and I still work as a doctor treating people for free. After many kind people helped me when I was studying and sick, I think it's good to give something back. My door is always open and people travel from far and wide to stay with me for a couple of weeks or just a couple of hours. They pay me no money. I don't want any money, I just want to help people, but they do bring me some gifts like fruits or flowers, and also cook for me. I am a very relaxed and laid-back lady. I love my country and I am very proud to be Chinese. I hope I can continue to help people and let the list of around 3,000 patients I've treated keep growing.
Interview by Cameron Hack