Migrant worker blues: Who cares?
by Bruce Humes

Bruce Humes reviews two recent books about migrants in China:
I Shall Shed No Tears (我的眼泪不会掉下来) by Wang Lili and La Promesse de Shanghai by Stephane Fiere.

Written in Chinese and French respectively, neither book is yet available in English.

Migrant worker blues: Who cares?

By Bruce Humes

"We have invited you [migrant workers] to help the artists do a piece of artwork, what we artists call ‘ performance art’. The art pieces will be in the hallway or on the stairs. Everybody can stand or sit down. Just pose like the sculptures [e.g., worker holding a brick]."
--- Performance Therapy
Together with Migrants? Danwei TV episode (click on image at left to play or go here for large version)

Real estate development magnate Pan Shiyi and Unesco recently co-sponsored an unusual event aimed at bringing the residents of Beijing’s upmarket Soho housing estate together with the construction workers—largely migrant workers—who lay the bricks for such buildings.

Captured on camera by Danwei TV, this act of performance art gave these migrant workers from all over China a rare chance to meet the yuppies who now people the modernistic Soho high-rise complex. Migrants were encouraged to pose as construction worker sculptures or lounge about, chat and…just be themselves.

Good fun seems to have been had by all. But in reality, does the typical city dweller in China sympathize with or even notice the migrant workers who have flooded their cities to work in factories or in low-paid, physically demanding industries like construction?

Two Shanghai-based writers out there want to tell us the story of these 21st century min’gong (民工), but neither has yet been published in English: One a Henan native who writes movingly about her life as a dagong mei (打工妹) in Shenzhen, and another a Frenchman based in Shanghai. Light years apart in terms of culture, when seen from the perspective of a migrant worker living from hand-to-mouth—admittedly via works of fiction—the two cities seem depressingly similar. Exploitation is the name of the game.

I Shall Shed No Tears (我的眼泪不会掉下来) recounts the hardships of Wang Chuchu, a young Henanese who flees south to "S City" in the wake of her traumatic failure to win a place at university. Thanks to her English skills, she eventually wins a place in the sun as an assistant to a foreign manager in a cosmetics factory.

But along the way she experiences life on a production line a la Shenzhen: Her employer confiscates her identity card, making a job switch almost impossible; She announces her intent to resign but is ordered to return to her workstation, pronto; Her last month of pay is docked when she leaves anyway; And a senior male manager, initially a sympathetic character who commands her respect, makes a pass at her.
“Some factories in S City are simply prisons. They’re hell,” says one factory director. Indeed, so it would seem.

It bears reminding that this is a novel, not a worker’s diary. So where does reality end and fiction begin? Author Wang Lili isn’t fond of this topic, perhaps because journalists in Shanghai where she is now comfortably ensconced like to classify her as a dagong mei writer. She resents this stereotype, because she sees herself first and foremost as a novelist who experienced factory life first-hand, put it down passionately in black and white, and then moved on to publish several other imaginative works unrelated to the struggles of the lumpen proletariat.

But the novel is undeniably semi-autobiographical. Wang Chuchu, like the author, hails from Henan, and Wang Lili did serve as a production line worker and a guard at factories in Shajing outside Shenzhen several years back. Having lived in Shenzhen for a decade myself, her description of the systematic exploitation of factory workers—though nasty and engaging—strikes me as politely understated. The recent severe shortage of migrant workers applying for work in Shenzhen’s factories testifies to how hard life there can be.

One could even say that No Tears is not really a tale of factory life seen through the eyes of a working-class woman fated to remain part of the underclass. Wang Chuchu sympathizes with her co-workers, but one senses a distance from them due to her education and sense of mission; she is bound for something greater. The occasional reference to Cantonese as “bird-talk” (鸟语) aside, the narrator speaks in highly standard, educated Mandarin. Whether it is in her private thoughts or in the conversations she reports, there is nary a trace of the earthy, even crude lingo one hears among peasants who have been forced to abandon the countryside for a stint on a heartless production line.

No, rather Wang Chuchu is a heroine, armed with a fierce dedication to justice and fighting for respect in a Special Economic Zone world dominated by unfeeling managers, themselves manipulated by greedy and lawless Hong Kong and Taiwanese capitalists. “All you know how to do is to sit there, surveying us,” she scolds her production line manager. “You curse us out as if we weren’t human beings. Think about it: You are workers too, you are human beings. We are human beings too. Why don’t you treat us workers as human beings?”

Written in first-person from the point of view of a “rootless peasant” (mingong), the cynical and witty La Promesse de Shanghai by Stephane Fiere is radically different from No Tears in tone. One French reviewer refers to it as a “picaresque” novel, i.e., a genre of fiction which “depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society” (Wordnet Dictionary).

Unceremoniously thrown off the land they tilled outside Xi’an to make way for new tourist attractions (besides the already famous terra cotta warriors), the narrator and his father are drawn to Shanghai, which “attracted us like a lighthouse or a lover. Or a venomous spider.”

Lucky enough to get long-term job offers as (albeit miserably underpaid) construction workers on the site for the Xintiandi entertainment complex, “a new version of the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s” (HK developer’s PRspeak), things turn tragic when the father dies in an accident trying to make some extra cash. But life goes on, and the Shaanxi min’gong eventually shacks up with Aiguo, a scheming, beautifully constructed karaoke hostess, and escapes the hell of construction work by working as a barman in—you guessed it—A Table!, a French restaurant in Xintiandi.

It’s dog-eat-dog in the Shanghai of La Promesse. On the construction worksite, arrive a few minutes late and your job is history. Your first few months of pay go to purchasing a temporary “official” residence permit recognized everywhere in the city as a fake, making job-hopping a tad problematic. When his father is cremated, the protagonist receives someone else’s ashes, since the hospital is in the corpse-recycling business. To top it off, unbeknownst to him his beloved Aiguo employs their lovely new flat—rented with the money he creams off his equally unsuspecting foreign boss at A Table—to entertain a stream of wealthy male admirers during her “off” hours.

Just about everyone takes a thrashing, but the Shanghainese, Taiwanese and French bear the brunt of Fiere’s humor. Based in Shanghai where he lives with his wife from Shandong, this fluent Mandarin speaker captures the locals in various true-to-life poses, e.g., regaling us with a vignette wherein a Shanghainese complains loudly, bitterly and at length about the quality of the food and the wine…all simply to win a discount on the bill. As for their compatriots across the straits, “The Taiwanese conduct themselves here as if in a conquered land, the height of absurdity,” muses the min’gong. “Just wait until the day when our soldiers and tanks land on their beaches. After we sack Taipei, they will be less disposed to mess with us once we have reunited them with the Motherland.”

Fiere lets his imagination soar as he mines the thought-processes of this Shaanxi min’gong. Arguably some of the most cutting and amusing parts of the novel are references to foreigners from the point of view of this uprooted peasant. “I recall very well the first time I saw an elephant’s nose,” he begins the novel. This seems to be Fiere’s very own take on what some Chinese call foreigners, i.e., “big-nose” or gao bizi.

“One sees more and more foreign friends (老外), in all sorts of sizes and colors… they stroll through our streets, enter our stores, shoot photos. You would almost believe they are at home here. But nonetheless it’s still a shock. Why have they come back, and what will they steal this time round?”

And why choose Shanghai’s Xintiandi as the backdrop for the novel? “For me, Xintiandi is the symbol of what is wrong in China nowadays. It’s all appearances and zero substance. It is as genuine and authentic as the reconstitution of a Parisian street at Universal Studios in LA,” laments Fiere, who holds an M.A. in East Asia Regional Studies from Harvard. “But then you have expats and tourists going there, partying, eating food with obscene price tags, as if it were a genuine Chinese place or environment. Chinese tourists visit the area as if it were a natural park or reserve…or even their own version of Universal Studios.”

Bleu de Chine, the novel's French publisher, is now seeking a publisher for the book here in Chinese. But one can’t help wonder: Is China ready for Monsieur Fiere’s Shanghai?

Bruce Humes is a Chinese-to-English literary translator always on the lookout for Chinese writing of interest to readers in the West. Contact him at

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