Eating Bitterness: an intro to the unprecedented Chinese migrant worker phenomenon

If you’re unfamiliar with the urban migrant phenomenon in China — as in, the people who make the stuff you buy and their lives — then China’s Urban Immigrants: A Diet of Bitterness is a fine overview with lots of links for further reading.

“Chinese metropolises are now home to an estimated 200 million rural-to-urban migrants . . . who occupy a precarious place in the urban hierarchy: while urbanites appreciate their labor, they are less enthusiastic about the migrants’ presence in their cities.”

For more on this topic you can browse our Migrant Workers category, or if you like documentaries, see these reviews of two good documentaries on migrant workers:

China documentaries (Pt.2): rivers, migrants & entrepreneurs

I’ve recently been on a China documentary kick, so here are some brief reviews of Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze, and Last Train Home. Part 1 covered China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. Which important documentaries are missing from this list? I’d love to hear your recommendations! We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library.

Young & Restless in China

Young & Restless in China follows nine individuals over four years (2004-2008), from migrant workers to a super-successful internationalized businessman, though no factory owners or gov’t officials. It’s like viewing nine core samples of Chinese society. If focuses on how their personal lives intersect with their careers (or lack thereof) and the current economic and spiritual state of Chinese society. In the people, their circumstances, and the places, we see a lot that we recognize from among our Chinese friends and experiences in China. For me personally, seeing how overseas-educated-and-experienced businessmen each find their own compromises with the deeply corrupt business and bureaucratic cultures of China, how aspiring female professionals and factory workers try (and sometimes fail) to balance career, freedom, marriage and motherhood, and the juxtaposition of countryside and urban realities all make this fascinating film.

Young & Restless in China was created by the same people who did China: A Century of Revolution.

Up the Yangtze

Up the Yangtze is as much art film as it is documentary, and it doesn’t seem to attempt to provide any kind of representational anecdote for what’s happening in any given sphere of Chinese society. The sparse narration provides only the bare minimum information and context, and watching it feels a lot like showing up in China for the first time, seeing a lot but not being able to really understand what you’re seeing. It’s beautifully shot, but of all the documentaries listed here it taught me the least.

It focuses on two teenagers who get jobs on a Farewell Cruise: a cocky, spoiled, male, middle class only-child and a daughter of dirt poor illiterates who live in a shack in the flood path of the soon-to-be-dammed Yangtze river. The film has its poignant moments: the family moving out of their shack as the flood waters seep in, the frustration of the daughter as she watches her hopes for a better future evaporate when her family makes her get a job instead of continuing her education, and the solitary songs and prayers of a poor and ancient-looking Christian woman. The social class contrast between the two teenagers is stark, as is that of the Western tourists and the Chinese crew.

Last Train Home

Last Train Home (归途列车) is a painfully intimate look into how the pressures of the migrant worker life tear at the fabric of one particular migrant worker family. With virtually no narration or subtitles but a few off-camera discussion prompts, we see a lot about migrants’ unbearable travel and working conditions but learn even more about what migrant work can mean for Chinese village families. While news reports typically highlight the impossibly huge train station crowds or abusive factory conditions, Last Train Home includes those things while emphasizing the migrant workers as family members — showing them less as workers and more as fathers, mothers and daughters, with grandparents and children left behind in the village. It humanizes migrant workers better than anything else I’ve seen or read.

Last Train Home is sometimes similar to Up the Yangtze in style; there’s zero narration and long, patient shots in which the viewer can try to soak up the feeling of a scene. But Last Train Home, I think, teaches us more; its characters and their general situation are representative of more people, even if the situations of most migrant families might not match this family’s situation in every aspect. Like China Blue, it shows the personal stories of specific migrant workers, but where China Blue focuses on economic injustice and migrant-employer conflict while giving us migrant worker family life as back-story or sub-plot, Last Train Home focuses on the migrants’ relational and economic realities and the strain the migrant life inflicts upon the family.

I will add a Content Warning: Last Train Home contains one scene of domestic violence.

For more about migrant workers, see our Migrant Workers category, which includes:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Last Train Home, with Young & Restless as a close second.

China documentaries (Pt. 1): blue jeans and revolutions

The arrival of my big-budget Jackie Chan Chinese propaganda history epic movie debut prompted me to brush up on some Chinese history, so I recently re-watched China: A Century of Revolution, and that’s put me on a Chinese documentary kick. So here are some brief reviews of China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. I’ll review Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home in Part 2. We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

China: A Century of Revolution

China: A Century of Revolution is a 6-hour sweep of China’s 20th century history from 1911 to 1997. That’s a lot of complicated history to cover in not very much time, and perhaps this film’s greatest weakness is that it leaves a lot out. But the details it does include — the interviews — are priceless. From ancient-looking Mao-suited peasants recalling the adventure and tragedy they experienced in pre-Liberation China to former Red Guard and Tiananmen leaders, from true believers in Mao to controversial figures like Li Zhisui, watching people who have experienced the history I’ve read about tell their stories was powerful. And the people interviewed are interesting characters themselves — some funny, some heartbreaking, all memorable. It’s also packed with great archive footage. There is no way it’s not banned in China, but thanks to the largely unregulated black market for rip-off DVDs, I bought a copy at a store in a shopping centre on 紫金山路 in Tianjin for about $3. It was being sold next to the old revolutionary operas from the Cultural Revolution.

For more about China’s modern history, see our Chinese history category, which includes:

China Blue

China Blue portrays life in a denim factory for three village teenage girls who’ve migrated to the coast in search of work to support their family. It’s a surprisingly intimate and exposing look at the conditions and management of a typical (actually better-than-average) Chinese factory. I don’t know how they pulled it off, though they were apparently interrogated by the police on numerous occasions and had film confiscated. Although the film shows rather than tells, it certainly has an axe to grind — Chinese workers are blatantly abused and the fault ultimately lies not with the Chinese factory owners, but with the organizations who benefit most from the labour exploitation: the Western corporations who insist on rock-bottom prices and high-pressure deadlines, whose halfhearted auditing of their suppliers’ working conditions is really just for P.R. and legal coverage back home, not for the workers’ protection. Basically, the film draws a damning direct causal connection between exploited Chinese teenagers in sweatshops and Western corporations and consumers.

They managed to film all kinds of things, funny and dramatic, including:

  • workers wondering about the people who would wear the jeans and how incredibly big they must be;
  • an emotional confrontation between overworked, unpaid workers and the boss, co-led by an experienced 14-year-old;
  • business negotiations between a foreign customer and the factory boss, illustrating where the pressure to abuse workers past their breaking point comes from;
  • a Spring Festival village family reunion, what all migrant labourers look forward to but some can’t afford;
  • both the boss’ and workers’ first-hand opinions of the other.

While the consumer connection to Chinese labour exploitation is the biggest theme, China Blue has other significant and interesting things to show us. The girls talk a bit about (and we see throughout the film) what it means to be a girl when your family wanted a boy, and the pressure on rural migrants that causes them to tolerate the coarse, abusive conditions of the factory. The factory consumes everyone from the top management to the factory floor; even the boss looks and sounds exhausted when the shipping deadline looms on large, rush orders. The film seems to compare the various ways people try to retain their humanity in such an environment: the boss practices calligraphy in his roof-top garden, one teenage worker analogizes her migrant labourer life through kung-fu stories in her journal, another pursues romance. A Spring Festival village family reunion for one girl shows us the good side rural Chinese life, and what the workers look forward to and save for all year long (while the main protagonist can’t afford to return home for Chinese New Year because her first month’s pay was held as a “deposit”). The relationship between worker and consumer is, I think, powerfully highlighted near the end in when two of the girls discuss the risk of slipping something into a shipment of jeans.

One grain of salt worth pointing out: when reading the fine print, you’ll find that the voice-overs are not done by the workers themselves, but are based on their journals and interviews.

For more on Western consumers and Chinese factory worker abuse, see:

Declassified: Tiananmen

I stopped paying attention to History Channel productions a while back, since, to my mind, they put the “taint” in “edutainment” (as in, “taint one nor the other”). Their Tiananmen documentary from 2005 is par for the course. The narration is so hyped and over-dramatized that the blood lust is just palpable. However, I grudgingly suggest you watch it solely for the video footage, much of which you don’t see in Century of Revolution. You can see it for free on YouTube.

For more about Tiananmen, see:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Century of Revolution if you’re into history, and China Blue if you’re into social justice and contemporary global issues.

Factory Girls, communal village life, and the growth of individualism in China

Millions of young Chinese are developing a sense of individualism. That’s one of the insights revealed in the pages of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. The author suggests that the previously unknown degree of personal freedom offered by factory work in a city far from one’s village is a big reason that migrants are willing to tolerate the conditions in the factories and the lifestyle that comes with it. She compares the suffocating social world of the village (and the traditional Chinese subjugation of the self to family and nation) to the new-found degree of independence in the migrant worker life:

When I read my grandfather’s diary, or watched the adults gang up on Min and her sister during a village wedding, I felt as if I were witnessing over and over where China went wrong. The concerns of the family and nation were overwhelming, and they trapped a great many people–millions upon millions–in lives they never would have chosen. …it was also why my father suppressed so much emotion. It had led my aunt Nellie to express her feelings through poetry, and it had driven Lijiao’s children to diminish the past. Only Zhang Hong had chosen to remember, and for him this memory had become a kind of torture.

And perhaps I, too, am more Chinese than I knew. Because now I understand all of them–understand why a person would choose not to tell her story, or be unable to tell it, or not admit to any feeling, because the emotion would overwhelm you otherwise. [p.382]

The Chinese countryside is not relaxing. It is a place of constant socializing and negotiation, a conversation that has been going on for a long time and will continue to go on after you are gone. Spending time in Min’s village, I understood why migrants felt so alone when they first went to the city. But I also saw how they came to value the freedom they found there, until at last they were unable to live without it. [p.293]

There was a lot to dislike about the migrant world of Min and Chunming: the materialism, the corruption, the coarseness of daily existence. But now there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate, to imagine a different life and make it real. …their purpose was not to change China’s fate. They were concerned with their own destinies, and they made their own decisions. If it was an ugly world, at least it was their own. [p.383]

I’ve heard people point to the often sub-human treatment of strangers as evidence that individualism is on the rise in China. I think that’s backward; the way Chinese treat outsiders comes out of their communalism, not individualism (though individualism is certainly no guarantee that strangers will be treated well; and in certain contexts communalism can encourage great hospitality toward strangers — though obviously, not in China). And even the sprouting individualism described in Factory Girls still has a long way to go before it reaches the point of actually ascribing value to the individual (and I don’t at all assume that that is inevitable). Still, young people making personal life decisions based on personal, rather than other people’s, desires is a huge step.

Here’s some related stuff:

Empty chairs: the pain of rural China’s Moon Festival

This collection of “family portraits” gives a visual representation to the pain rural Chinese families feel during the Moon (Mid-Autumn) Festival, which was today, and traditionally a time for families to celebrate together. Due to the unique nature of urbanization in China, the majority of rural families are split between countryside and city, and spend the Moon Festival apart. Usually it’s the old people and small children who are left behind.

“In an effort to bootstrap themselves out of poverty, many peasants have to embark on an arduous adventure alone in the cities and leave their families behind in the villages.”
[Link: Empty chairs become the pain of rural China, especially on Mid-Autumn Day]

The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

Watching the street vendors and the chéngguǎn do their little dance at the street market near our apartment provides an interesting anecdote for two crucial Chinese cultural concepts: 人情 and 面子

There’s a colourful, bustling, crowded and filthy street market near our neighbourhood (see here for more photos), and I suspect its days are numbered.

Every time I go recently in the late afternoon there are chéngguǎn (城管:”city management” by-law enforcers) cooperatively hassling the illegal vendors who choke the roads leading to the Jade Spring Road Vegetable Market (玉泉路菜市场). By “cooperatively” I mean it’s a big game. The chéngguǎn deliberately and obviously drag their feet. Their van inches around the corner at the far end of one street, giving the vendors plenty of time to yell, bundle up their stuff, and, sometimes laughing, sometimes running, make a show of clearing off. Or they cover up their produce and act like they’re just hanging out… next to closed boxes full of tomatoes. The chéngguǎn take their sweet time pulling around, parking, and getting out. Then they saunter up the street, and as soon as they’ve passed by the vendors roll their sacks back out on the pavement and re-stack their cabbages, fish, rabbits, fruit, or whatever. The day I took the following photo, three of the chéngguǎn were sitting on the side of the road having tea with a couple vendors who had boxed up their stuff and had it stowed away right there beside them. I would have taken their photo, but we had our daughter with us and they were smiling and making faces at her. In the picture below, a chéngguǎn (on the left) ignores a vendor who has obediently folded up her produce in blankets in a pile beside her. She’s just waiting for them to leave so she can uncover her vegetables and start selling again.

I have seen a chéngguǎn in this market get a little mean (it was the guy in the picture above, about 30 seconds before I took the picture), and it was when a cucumber seller decided to ignore him and not make a show of clearing off as he approached. That seemed to make this particular chéngguǎn a little angry and he lunged for the guy’s wooden vegetable box, which was quickly yanked out of reach by a rope and dragged off down a side street. No attempt to pursue, even though he would have easily had it in about two or three steps.

“Humanity” 人情 and “Face” 面子

I described all this to one of my Chinese coworkers, and he explained it with two terms: 人情 and 面子“Human feelings” 人情 is how he explained why the chéngguǎn carry out their orders to the absolute bare minimum ‘letter of the law’ degree, and how they can sit down and chat over tea with the same people they’re supposed to be hassling. They recognize a lot of these people, he said, and don’t want to stop them from trying to make a living; they personally couldn’t care less whether there’s a street market here or not. It’s nothing personal. But they have their orders, and the point of orders in China is to do just enough so that you can tell your superiors that you did them. The actual purpose of the order, the ‘spirit of the law’, is entirely beside the point, especially when your superiors are only giving you the order because their superiors gave it to them and they want to make their superiors happy because they’re working on a promotion.

The other key term he used was “face” 面子。 Why do they bother with the silly charade of bundling up their cabbages in full view of the chéngguǎn (who’s walking toward them maybe only a few meters away), and scooting off down an alley only to come back a few minutes later? It gives face to the chéngguǎn. It’s an acknowledgment of who’s in charge. Chéngguǎn can give these kinds of people all kinds of trouble if they want to; sometimes they can be brutal (see here, here, here and here). Sometimes the vendors fight back. The vendors are almost all illegal migrants near the bottom of society and without legal protection. They’ll yell and run and make a sincere effort to clear off as quickly as possible when they sense that they need to; they aren’t always laughing and you do sense fear sometimes, depending on the circumstances. But at least for now, in our particular street market, all the chéngguǎn require is a little “face”, a show of deference, a lack of defiance, tails between legs, and they’re satisfied.

These streets are easily the most lively (热闹) in our area, but with the consistency of the harassment, half-hearted as it appears, I bet it’s only a matter of time before this one goes they same way as the street markets near our old place.

There are more street market photos in the Our Tianjin 2010 photo gallery, which I just now finally finished uploading. So if you’ve seen it before there’s some new stuff (like sheep brains and an explosive dog). You can also see video of what it’s like to try and ride a bike through this market here: Tianjin Street Market Dash video.

Related stuff from the blog:

Related stuff from the web:

Not all morning commutes are created equal

For every one Chinese skyscraper there are thousands of these guys:

I took this just before 9 this morning as I was walking from the subway to work thinking about how cold and brutal it was (-13’C with a sharp, dry wind). Remind me not to complain about my commute!

Migrant workers in China would be the bottom of urban Chinese society if they were actually included in society. They live a brutal parallel existence far from their hometowns, where the rural life they left behind was even tougher. Without the millions of migrants filling the factories and building the skyscrapers, there would be no new New China.

This is the original:

For another, happier Chinese-migrant-workers-in-the-back-of-a-pickup photo, see here.

Related Migrant Worker posts: