Inspired by the Factory Girls: Voices from the heart of Modern China
With stories as real as they can be, phrases Leslie T. Chang used so appropriately to describe the stories I hear, the sights I witness in this ‘Modern China’ as they claim to be.
Long journeys at the railway stations, where the passengers pour off trains after rides that have lasted twenty or thirty or fifty hours. Alone they may be, or with parents tired from their life of farming and a bunch of siblings, dragging suitcases or backpack or a coarse burlap sack that once held rice. The vast plaza in front of the station seethes with travellers and the first thing you hear is the jangle of announcements for people who, newly arrived, are already lost. Someone from Henan, your brother is looking for you. Older brother’s wife, come to the exit area. Welcome to the Beautiful Flower City! Now a bus company is offering tours but the city does not look beautiful and there are no flowers here.
Buses are packed, and they smell of sweat and of clothing that have been worn everyday and slept in at night – the smell of migrants. Buses race down the elevated highways and often as we look out of the scratched windows, we see balconies blooming with laundry.
Everywhere is construction and motion, jackhammers and motorcycles, drills and dust; at street level the noise is deafening. Sometimes I wonder if this is a city built for people… or for machines?
Sometimes when you overhear conversations, you question why people here speak not of human beings but as if of the makes of cars.
Today in the companies that white collars work in, today in the land of full-throttle industry, it is these glimpses of nature that are unsettling. Many working together with me are migrants, the lowest of the low in many others’ eyes, for they have travelled a thousand miles from home but have still not left the farm behind. There lives their old parents, their childhood, their sufferings in their eyes as they rampage for new lives out of that area.
Occasionally you see girls roam in cliques, wearing frilly tops with their arms hooked around one another’s. Boys travel in smaller packs, the sleeves of their factory shirts rolled up under their armpits. Couples parade apart, the girls proud in ownership, the boys slouchy and nonchalant.
At times I imagine lives in factories. The long avenues of factories, as I roam the neighbouring ancient towns on weekends, pass my eyes as the bus race and jerks. Packs of men and women, girls and boys are swallowed up inside. Knowing that they work so hard for so long, their wages are docked for the silliest things: being a few minutes late in the morning, or taking a half day off for feeling sick, or having to pay extra when the winter uniforms switched to summer ones. Seeing post offices and banks crowded with them wiring money back to families, I know it’s most probably their pay-day. They say getting into a factory was easy but the hard part was getting out. Workers sleeping twelve to a room in bunks crowded near the toilets, with rooms dirty and smelling bad, with food in the canteen bad as it can be: a meal consisted of rice, one meat or vegetable dish and watery soup. Talking on the job was forbidden and carried a 5 yuan fine. Bathroom breaks were limited to ten minutes and required a sign up list. They are like birds in a cage, frequently running to the bathrooms just to look out of windows, the green mountains standing there that reminded them of home. No wonder this is true why our products are generally labelled with ‘Made in China’ today.
Workers making 400 yuan a month which is an equivalent of $50 and close to double that with overtime, the pay was never on time, often late. The legal working age was 18, though 16 and 17 year olds could work certain jobs for shorter hours. Generally only the very blackest factories, employers that freely broke the labour law, would hire the young ones.
I often wonder if people in this country wake up already angry at this world. They speak in one of the loudest decibels and utter words of disrespect at times. But this is them, cultured in their own country.
Buses and trains stop operating early, an injustice to the many others who cannot afford another form of transportation known as taxis, especially as I complete the petty cash requests of fellow colleagues.
Young men on the bus smelled of gamy sweat, the scent of people who walked long distances outdoors and never managed to enjoy the luxury of air conditioning yet. The young women were immaculate: They never smelled but their hair was always sleek and shiny, an indication that maybe the last time they washed their hair might just be last week. On every bus, there were definitely a few holding plastic bags to their mouths and throwing up quickly. As puzzled you may be, motion sickness was the terror of people from the countryside, who were not accustomed to car travel. Passengers on the buses carried an amazing variety of things, in the way of the countryside that nothing was to be thrown away or that they bear to.
It is appalling and unbelievable that this country (or the world) has morphed into a ball of inner struggles, clinging onto hope that life will get better somehow or that ‘this is my life, my fate, my destiny’. Yet this is the reality today.
With that… I put a halt to this part of China Stories and as I continue exploring in these 2 months to go and I’ll complete this then.