China’s fabled migrant workers migrate into our backyard

The “floating population of China” – the tens of millions who leave grueling peasant life behind to take their chances with a quasi-legal existence in China’s cities – wears many different hats in Tianjin, but construction crews or factory workers are probably the most typical. This is the second time work crews have pitched camp literally right outside our stairwell entrance. Most of these photos were taken just last week from the kitchen window (click the photos for a larger view).


Workers often live at their temporary job site in big green tents. Most of the ones we see are tucked in neighbourhoods like ours, digging up pipes, installing manholes and fire hydrants, or in this case, TV cable, which you can see in spools littered on the lawn and piled outside the tent’s back right corner. The striped tarp wrapped around the tree and light pole may have been the bathroom.


The banner announces that the “Great Wall Broadband” company is doing work in the neighbourhood, and politely asks everyone to pardon the inconvenience.


Their camp is a few notches above the previous work crews’, as evidenced by the washing machine. Since these are country guys, their stares at the foreigners are more blatant. I had these guys targeted for a language practice session, where I prep some specific grammar and vocab and then go try and use it on people that it would fit more naturally, and was really looking forward to properly meeting them. But they didn’t stick around too long. As usual, when the job’s done they throw everything on a truck and drive off:

Peasants can’t just up and move their hù kÇ’u (户口 – legal residence) from rural to urban districts. The whole hù kÇ’u system was originally designed to restrict population movement in the first place. This puts migrant workers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to urban social services, such as getting their kids into schools, though it’s reported that things are being done to address these problems. China’s cities need the cheap labour for the unbelievable amount of building going on, but can’t fully accommodate the extra population. Migrants are ineligible for many social services available to registered urban residents.

Here’s a look inside their tent as they were packing up:

You can see the beds, some playing cards strewn on one of them. This was their home for two weeks in our neighbourhood. I have no idea how long they’ve been living in this tent, or how long they’ll continue to live in it. They might not even know either.

It’s estimated that at it’s peak, roughly the entire population of Canada migrated into China’s cities every year. However, there are only so many working age people in China’s countryside, and the numbers of new migrants are dropping. This means that cheap labour will start to become not quite as cheap, and rural areas are already noticing the lack of younger, able-bodied farmers.

Getting your hù kÇ’u (户口) changed is not always easy, even if your request is legal, as we witnessed a local friend trying earlier this year. It requires filling out the various forms of different relevant parties, which in the West can be annoying but is still guaranteed to go through if you fill out the forms properly and you qualify. Not so for our friend. Submitting forms means anticipating the need to convince the various relevant administrators to actually care enough to “chop” (red official stamp) your paperwork. Any one of the people involved could quite easily block the process for virtually no reason without fearing recourse if the applicant is merely an anonymous member of the public. Our friend prepared a large sum of money in advance in addition to the set administrative fees and his travel expenses, so he’d be prepared to present “gifts” at the appropriate times. His story of successfully transferring his hù kÇ’u (户口) to Tianjin is one of navigating the bureaucracy by eventually relying on some guān xì (关系; “connections”) to get the job done. That means and old associate put in a word with someone who knew someone of consequence in the relevant department, and his paperwork made it through after a few twists and detours. Migrant workers from the countryside, however, are not eligible to apply for urban residency.

9 thoughts on “China’s fabled migrant workers migrate into our backyard”

  1. Yeah, every time I see one of those tents I think about those summers we used the army tents for camping. That was really fun. Plus it sure made people stare when they walked past our campsite…like, what do they have going on in there, a 3-ring-circus?!? Especially that time we had 2 of the canvas tents. :D

    Hey, first comment on our blog…way to go Dad! Keep making more!

  2. The thing they use for heat looks like this:

    It’s called a 炉子 (lú zi). You put one or two of those black coal cylinders inside and you can heat a room and cook. Most of the lunches I eat are cooked using this kind of coal.

  3. Heh, this reminds me of the migrant worker camp that set up shop in the lot next to my apartment. Somebody in my building even ran a power line out to them! Sometime in the last week they were evicted, probably by police.

  4. I’ve never seen them bothered by the authorities in our area. They always seem to be pretty high profile, and often doing big projects, for the city (installing pipes, manholes, etc.). This was the second or third group to set up camp underneath our kitchen window.

    Can’t say the same for the street food vendors – sadly, they are fewer and fewer. You can see the contrast here.

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