Feature: Life and death in a communal kitchen

by Xinhua writers Wang Ruoyao and Hu Chenhuan

NANCHANG, Feb. 12 (Xinhua) -- Over the past months, Li Jia has anxiously taken care of her mother who was in hospital in the final stages of cancer. By cooking soup in a communal kitchen she has been able to find a moment of peace.

"The act of cooking is part of an ordinary, quiet life," said the 18-year-old, who dropped out of high school and travelled with her mother from Wan'an County to one of the best cancer hospitals in Jiangxi Province.

Nearly every day, she cooks soup, the only dish the cancer patient can eat, in an outdoor kitchen tucked away in a shantytown only meters from the hospital in the provincial capital of Nanchang.

Like Li, many family members of patients use the communal kitchen, believing home-cooked food is the best way to care for their loved ones and because it is cheaper than the food sold in the hospital. As many have travelled from other areas for the best hospital care, they sleep in their family member's hospital room or cheap hotels without cooking facilities.

In China, cancer can financially ruin an average family, as medical insurance only covers a tiny amount of the bills they must pay.

The kitchen is a godsend for those who are cash strapped. They pay one yuan (0.16 US dollar) per dish to use the facilities, bringing their own ingredients.

To date, nearly 150,000 dishes have been produced on the kitchen's five stoves since it opened in 2003, according to owners, Wan Zuocheng and his wife Xiong Gengxiang.

As the Spring Festival draws near, the kitchen will be busier than usual, as food is an important part of celebrations of the Chinese Lunar New Year.


Wan and Xiong set up the kitchen to sell fried dough sticks, or youtiao, a popular breakfast food in China.

"One day, the family of an inpatient at the hospital asked to use our stove, and we said yes. Then, more families came. We only charge them enough to cover fuel and water," said Wan, who is in his 60s. The couple support themselves by selling youtiao.

A heart-wrenching part of running the kitchen is saying goodbye.

On a chilly evening in January, Li cooked soup at the kitchen for the last time before taking her mother home. Her mother was discharged from the hospital that day as doctors said there was nothing more they could do for her.

Li carried the bowl of soup to her mother's bedside at a budget hotel near the kitchen, followed by Wan and Xiong, as well as the families of other cancer patients, who came to bid them farewell.

As she tasted the broth through her feeding tube, the older woman smiled.

The last thing the couple want to see is when someone who usually cooks light soup and vegetables switches to meat dishes, as many prepare their family member's favorite foods for their last meals.

Wan remembers a woman in her 50s who suddenly cooked her sick husband stewed fish and roast duck. "The next morning, she told me that he was too weak to take a bite. All the food went into the trash," Wan said.

Three days later, the woman stopped showing up in the kitchen.

In 2017, 8.2 people were diagnosed with cancer and 5.4 died from it every minute in China.


Cooking brings comfort and strength to family members who are far away from home.

"People often sympathize with us, but we don't need that," said a man in his 40s, who declined to be named. "We are all in similar situations here and often meet up. We understand each other and feel like family," he said while helping a young woman gut a fish.

Xiong remembered a woman named Xiao Aimei loved cooking dumplings. Xiao was diagnosed with breast cancer and did not have a family member to care for her in hospital.

"She said dumplings are what a family eats to celebrate the Spring Festival. That was why she loved them," Xiong said.

The couple takes time to comfort the family members who come to use the kitchen, especially during their first visits.

"When a 30-year-old woman first came here, she was too sad to hold a knife. My wife listened and talked to her. After some time, she could finally slice a turnip," Wan said.

In the couple's bedroom next to the kitchen, handwritten telephone numbers cover the wall.

"They hope that we can visit them someday. They said, if we do, they will cook for us in their own kitchen," Wan said.

[ Editor: zyq ]


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