On January 9, 2011, the 91-year-history of Dajin Leprosy Hospital came to an end when its last residents left their island home off the coast of Jiangmen City in China’s Guangdong Province. All 44 residents, average age 75 and including 30 amputees, were bound for Sian Provincial Leprosy Hospital in Donggan City, Guangdong.
The journey was not an easy one. Since the island lacked a proper wharf, the residents had to stumble down to the stony shore on crutches and artificial limbs. There they boarded a small boat to ferry them to a larger boat for the 90-minute passage to the mainland; from there, it was a further three-hour bus ride to Sian Hospital.
At its peak Dajin housed 600 patients, looked after by a handful of medical personnel. Over the years, a number of attempts had been made by the provincial health bureau to persuade the residents to move to Sian Hospital, but they had always chosen to stay put, since they had made Dajin their home.
Four years on, many now seem at home in Sian, although their number has dropped to 32 out of the original 44. They include Mr. Liu Zhuquan, who is a residents’ leader, and Ms. Huang Shao, affectionately known as “beautiful mother,” who has found fame in Sian and beyond with the publication of a book about the move from Dajin to Sian in which she features prominently.
On one wall of the Sian Hospital museum is a large representation of a clock, its hands depicted by wooden crutches that once belonged to the Dajin residents. The crutches indicate the exact time that the last resident left the island: 10:35 a.m.
As we focus our attention on the clock, we feel the gaze of 44 people watching Dajin receding into the distance. We also appreciate how the clock symbolizes the passage of time and the long years they spent on the island. But it also marks a break with the past — signifying when their old way of life ended and their new life began.