Chapter One
Homebound workers and holidaymakers

IN 2013, Zhao Peng and Wang Yongqiang left China for Singapore. They got jobs as construction workers for Chip Eng Seng Corporation, a mainboard listed company which builds Housing Board flats.

On March 7, 2014, when their one-year contract ended, the two men headed back to Dingzhou in Hebei province.

Sturdy brick houses line the streets of Dingzhou’s dusty villages, thanks to men like Zhao and Wang. Since the 1980s, fathers and sons have left the wheat and corn farms in droves to work overseas. The money they remit from doing construction and carpentry work in South-east Asia and Africa has allowed their families to build homes stocked with modern amenities like refrigerators and video cameras. These houses are the envy of those who have chosen to stay behind, tending to the farms that surround the villages.

Notices and posters are plastered on the walls of many of Dingzhou’s villages, offering middlemen services for those interested in going abroad. In Lujiazhuang village of just 3,000 people, 500 men are said to be working overseas, making the village Hebei’s top exporter of labour.

Instead of flying to China from Singapore, Zhao and Wang took a Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 7 and then caught a flight to Beijing. It was cheaper, by a few hundred dollars.

It had been a long day.

The friends, who had met in China while undergoing training for their construction jobs, had set off at noon and it was another long wait before they could board the plane. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was scheduled to take off only at 12.35am on March 8. From Beijing, it was another three-hour train ride to Dingzhou, a city of 1.2 million people.

At 10.30pm, Zhao, a thin, tanned young man with a toothy smile, called his wife in Anjiazhuang village.

“He sounded happy that he was coming home after so long,” Zhang Jing later recalled about their video call. “He wanted to talk to our son but he was already sleeping and I didn’t want to wake him up. I told him ‘you will get to see him soon anyway’,” she said.

“I promised him I will be waiting for him at the train station in Dingzhou.”

Zhao, 25, a junior high school graduate, had worked in other cities in China, including a stint as a cook in Beijing. Going to Singapore was the first time he had travelled so far from home. He was planning to spend time with his wife, one-year-old son and parents before setting off for his next overseas job. He was also hoping to find work for his father and younger brother.

Construction worker Zhao Peng, seen here with his wife, Zhang Jing, came to Singapore a year ago to work for Chip Eng Seng Corporation. He was returning to Hebei on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.


A new wedding ring for his wife

Wang Yongqiang, 30, Zhao’s friend, missed his family, especially his wife of seven years and their five-year-old daughter. Wang’s family live in Majiazhuang village, about 5km from Zhao’s home. The family house is made of bricks with a high black and orange gate. A large dog roams the neat courtyard.

The only son and the family’s main breadwinner, he was known among villagers to be mature, filial and sensible.

He and his wife, Yang Rong, were matchmade. He fell in love with her at first sight. Her first impression of him was that he was tall. “My family was initially concerned because his family circumstances were not very good, but when I met him I felt that we were a good fit,” she said. “He was very good to me and we never quarrelled in our seven years together.” He always gave in to her, she said.

Life had been hard for Wang. His mother, racked by a painful illness, had committed suicide about four years ago by drinking pesticide. An aunt had also killed herself the same way a decade ago, to escape poverty. His father, a fishmonger, suffers from a bad back and has difficulty walking.

The financial burden of his father’s medical bills and the school fees of his daughter, who recently enrolled in kindergarten, nudged Wang to give up his life as a farmer, where he earned less than 2,000 yuan (S$400) a month. As a construction worker overseas, he could take home 7,000 to 8,000 yuan a month.

His brother-in-law, Tang Liming, 35, who lives in nearby Tangjiazhuang village, said Wang decided to go to Singapore as he felt “it was safer and had rule of law”.

Wang asked his wife what she wanted from Singapore. She said that anything was fine. He got her a gold ring with a flower design. It came in a red box and cost him 1,800 yuan. He was so happy with the ring he couldn’t wait to get home to show it to her — he sent her a photo of it a week before he flew back.

“Tell all our relatives I am coming home. I can’t wait to see everyone,” he told his family in a phone call before he set off.

(Left) Brick houses line the streets of villages in the city of Dingzhou, China, the hometown of Zhao Peng and Wang Yongqiang. (Right) Pictured is the front door of Wang’s home in Majiazhuang Village in Dingzhou in Hebei province. -- ST PHOTOS: ESTHER TEO
Wang Weihong, 31 (left), whose brother, Wang Yongqiang, was a passenger on Malaysia Airlines MH370. With her are their relatives. -- ST PHOTO: ESTHER TEO


It’s going to be another long night

Also at KL International Airport that March 7 night was Feng Dong, another worker from China who had worked in Singapore.

Before boarding MH370, he updated his QQ account, an instant messaging service popular with Chinese netizens. “Haven’t been sleeping well for the past few nights,” he wrote. "It’s going to be another long night.”

Feng was going home with mixed feelings. He had left his village in the port city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province for Singapore last October to work as a construction worker. His father recalled: “They all said you can make more money in Singapore.”

Feng was hoping to make enough money to repay debts his parents had incurred for his wedding two years ago. But things didn’t work out so well. His actual pay was lower than what was stated in the contract, and he missed home terribly. He terminated his contract.

His last call home was on March 6. He told his mother he would be home on March 9, in time for lunch — and to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Chinese worker Feng Dong (top) from Lianyungang told his mother he will be home in time to celebrate his 21st birthday on March 9. Feng posted a message: “Haven’t been sleeping well for the past few nights. It’s going to be another long night,” on his QQ account (bottom) before boarding MH370. -- PHOTOS: INTERNET


See you in smoggy Beijing

Elsewhere at the airport that Friday night, other passengers of MH370 started streaming in. There were 227 passengers waiting to board the flight. Among them were 153 from China – with eight from Dingzhou, all having worked in Singapore. There were also 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French nationals and three Americans.

The oldest was 76-year-old Chinese calligrapher Liu Rusheng who was in Kuala Lumpur for a cultural exhibition with 23 other feted Chinese artists; the youngest was two-year-old toddler Wang Moheng from Beijing. His parents and maternal grandparents had taken him on a holiday to Malaysia to escape Beijing’s pollution. His father, Wang Rui, 35, was a graduate from the prestigious Tsinghua University and worked for the Boston Consulting Group, while his mother Jiao Weiwei, 32, worked in a Chinese software company. Other families from Moheng’s day-care centre were also on the trip but they took a different flight home. Their parting words to the Wangs in Kuala Lumpur: “See you in smoggy Beijing.”

The Chinese capital was French teenager Hadrien Wattrelos’ second home. The 17-year-old moved to Beijing from Paris with his family after his father, a senior executive at a French cement and building materials company, was posted to China.

He was travelling with his mother Laurence, 52, his sister Ambre, 14, and his girlfriend Zhao Yan, 18. They had spent four days at a beach resort in Cherating in Malaysia — a nice break from the chilly spring weather in Beijing. It was back to school for Hadrien and his girlfriend, a French passport holder. They were students at the French School in Beijing.

Hadrien’s father had missed out on the holiday because of a work trip to Europe. But he was flying back from Paris on the same day to meet his family in Beijing. Hadrien’s older brother, who lived in France, did not join them.

Malaysian couple Norli Akmar Hamid, 33, and Muhammad Razahan Zamani, 24, didn’t mind the idea of a smoggy Beijing. The couple, who got married in 2012, had chosen the Chinese capital for their long-overdue honeymoon, and their first plane trip. But just weeks before the vacation, she suffered a miscarriage.

Malaysian couple Muhammad Razahan Zamani and his wife, Norli Akmar Hamid, were heading to Beijing for their honeymoon. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK

They decided to go ahead with the trip, thinking it would be a good break. They picked Beijing because it is the hometown of Norli Akmar’s favourite star, singer Leon Lai. She wrote in a Facebook post before leaving for the trip: “Leon Lai, wait for me.” Another photo showed one of her cats trying to sneak into her luggage.

Also boarding the plane that night were Chen Wei Hoing, 44, who had a renovation business, and his wife Tan Sioh Peng, 43. They were going for a one-week holiday in Beijing and had promised their elder son Eric that they would be back in time for his 15th birthday on March 21.

A week before, Eric had posted a note to his parents on his Facebook page: “My birthday is coming, hope dad and mum could make it back in time to celebrate for me. Even if you are going to be late, I will still wait.”

Eric and Elvin, 11, were used to their parents travelling. “They loved to travel and they could travel up to five times a year. They had been to Korea, Thailand and many times to China,” said Eric.

His mother’s last words to them before she left home for the airport were “Be good and listen to your grandparents”. Said Eric: “My dad told me to work hard and earn enough money so that I can travel to see the world when I grow up.”