The Rooftop Playground Without A Staircase

A family story of China’s failed experiment

Lisa Lau
6 min readMay 11



My mother remembers exactly the moment when her childhood ended.

Life had already fallen apart in China when my mother was born in 1948. The Japanese invasion had ravaged the country for eight years in the midst of the Chinese Civil War that ended with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking control of the country in 1949.

At one years old, my mother and all her countrymen were re-solidified as one people under Mao Zedong who declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

As the new nation entered a tumultuous period of state building, normalcy was contained in a three story apartment in a middle class neighborhood in Guangzhou.

My mom grew up in a building owned by my great uncle. His family lived on the first floor, tenants rented the second floor, and my mom’s family of eight, which included my grandparents and their six children, lived on the third.

The third floor had access to a terrace, where a set of steel staircase led to the rooftop that opened to a garden and playground. There were two swing sets, a see-saw, and a small pond with goldfish.

The rooftop was an idyllic hub for activity and entertainment. In their leisure, my mom and her siblings chased each other up the staircase and hopped on the play sets. As they flew through the air on the swings, they could see the views across the neighboring rooftops.

Like them, other children also bustled around this outdoor space. Erudite adults read and discussed current events in proximity to the listening ears of their young children.

After work, my gong gong (grandpa) returned home to attend to his rooftop garden, accompanied by his children. Sometimes he would invite friends over. In gusto, my mom would lead the guests to the rooftop, where she and her sisters entertained them with song and dance.

Life proceeded as usual until one day, several men in dark plain cotton garb arrived to the house. Without warning, at least not to the children’s knowledge, the men began to dismantle the steel staircase to the rooftop. Silently, the children watched as the strangers banged away and…



Lisa Lau

Insomniac, knowledge thrill-seeker, leisure and cathartic writer


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