Eighteen year-old Chen Yongzhuang returned home to Guangxi on Jan. 20 but intends to come back to Dongguan after the Spring Festival. Her one New Year’s resolution is to get another job after her miserable experience working in a wool mill in Dalang Town for the past year. She has never been to any other part of Dongguan, works six days a week, and in her free time only has the energy to stare at her phone. When asked to describe her life in one word she says “lonely.”
2013 was the year that saw two books about Dongguan become big hits in China. One was a translation of Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” and an account by the poet Ding Yan of her 200 days spent working in two electronics factories and one injection molding factory.
Over the same time period, Nandu Daily followed the lives of four people in a similar position to those described in the books – migrant workers in Dongguan who have “monotonous” factory jobs.
The paper got in touch with recent high-school graduate Chen Yongzhuang in February 2013 after she came to Dongguan, having left her hometown of Yulin for the first time. Chen promptly landed her wool mill job which requires her to sit for nine hours a day wielding a pair of scissors. “I didn’t know anybody, I was terribly homesick, and I would often cry to myself,” she told the paper.
Chen Yongzhou at work, image courtesy of Nandu Daily
The mill is five storeys high and has 400 workers. The first three floors are all workshops, the fourth floor is the canteen and the fifth is the dormitory. Living conditions in her five-person factory dorm room, with its built-in air conditioners and adjoining bathroom, are better than those Chen had in her school dorm. But the factory dorm lacks the friendly atmosphere and camaraderie that she enjoyed in her school dorm. “People here barely talk to each other,” she tells the paper, adding that her phone is her best friend.
In her five-person dorm room, the closest person to her in age is a 29 year-old mother of two from Ganzhou in Jiangxi Province. Another roommate is a 43 year-old Anhui woman whose daughter is older than Chen and has a child of her own. Although the other women occasionally sit up at night talking about their husbands and families, Chen uses an extra blanket to cordon herself off and play with one of her phones.
She has one phone for making calls and another for using the internet. This, she claims, saves money. Her favourite online activities are chatting on QQ and reading romantic novels. Like a lot of teenage girls in China, she is a fan of online novelist and teen pop idol Guo Jingming but although she has devoured Guo’s novel “Tiny Times,” she has never been to see the movie because she has not taken time to venture out and find a movie theatre.
Most factories in Dongguan have a six-day working week. On Sundays, Chen Yongzhuang just lies in bed and plays on her phone, only if her eyes start to hurt will she go out for a walk. Having such a simple lifestyle, she manages to keep her living costs down to 1000 yuan a month. With her monthly income always between 3000 and 4000 yuan, Chen hopes to one day save enough to go back to her home town, have her own house and open her own shop.
Having said this, Chen cannot say for sure whether she likes or dislikes Dongguan. “I don’t know,” she tells the paper with a chuckle. “I have never left Dalang. But I don’t like Dalang.”
The post-80 family woman
Chen’s colleague Cheng Caihong, who was born in Hunan’s Yongzhou in 1985, does not have the luxury of being able to spend hours playing on her phone. Like most of her post-80 co-workers, she has already started a family. And as is the case with many migrant workers, Cheng seldom sees her daughter who has just started primary school or her two year-old son as they are both in Yongzhou.
Cheng Caihong during one of her 11-hour shifts, image courtesy of Nandu Daily.
Before her daughter was born in 2007, Cheng would have time in the evenings and at weekends to go to an internet bar and watch Korean TV, go skating, play arcade games or go to KTV. Now, she has to work 2 hours overtime every day (bringing the total to 11 hours a day) to keep feeding herself and her family. “After finishing work I don’t even have the strength to speak,” she told the paper.
The only thing she looks forward to is Sunday. On that day she can talk to her kids on the phone and sit outside the convenience store below her rented apartment to gossip with fellow married women of her own age about who is getting a place in their hometown, how many tens of thousands they will spend to do so, and who is lucky enough to be returning to their hometown to start a business. Like her work, Cheng’s dream is predictable.
The veteran migrant worker
In 2013, Luo Yuanyong’s wife of 12 years mentioned getting a divorce. The reason she gave was that he gambles too much, but Luo is convinced that the actual reason is that he is too poor and she is attracted to somebody else. For most of their married life, they lived in a 15 square metre apartment with no amenities other than a bed and a table.
Luo Yuanyong in his current job in a textiles factory, image courtesy of Nandu Daily
Born in Sichuan’s Guangyuan in 1974, Luo is a prolific gambler. He regular plays majiang and a variety of card games around Dongcheng. It is his only interest, but he is not entirely ill-disciplined about it. The year before last he lost 950 yuan in one night, just two days after pay day. At that time, that accounted for half of his salary. Now, if he is down 100 yuan, he quits for the night.
In his 20 years in Dongguan, Luo has worked in nine factories large and small. In the early days there were no internet bars and very few KTVs. The main form of entertainment was shooting pool and Luo regularly played with a colleague from Hubei. One time, the colleague brought along his younger sister to watch, Luo liked what he saw and eventually wooed her to become his wife.
The couple have one son and for years they looked certain to be saving enough to buy a house. Then in 2008, Luo’s father was in a car crash. An only child himself, Luo stumped up the 60,000 yuan that was needed to save his father’s life, and with house prices going the way they are, it became obvious that the couple will never have a place of their own.
Their divorce was finalised in May last year and, having had over six months to recover, Luo is now registered with a matchmaking service. He describes himself as being in love with the bright lights of the city and seeking somebody to share his days with.
The migrant worker with a musical dream
Wang Wei, 23, who works in a hardware factory carries himself differently from his colleagues. Originally from Jiangxi’s Yongxin City, he also sees himself as different. “I am not the same as them. Even though I am physically in the factory, I have dreams of my own.” His dream? To be a rapper.
Wang Wei, looking trendier than his colleagues, image courtesy of Nandu Daily.
Wang describes discovering rap music when he was still at school as similar to love at first sight. He spends all of his free time either practicing rap or discussing it with local performers with more experience than himself.
His dream is not as unrealistic as it may sound. Last year, Wang entered a provincial singing contest for migrant workers, easily passing the audition and the preliminaries. He wrote his own song with the lyrics: “I am a warrior in the battle of life, lyrics are my bullets and the mic is my gun, in this noisy city of blinding lights, as long as you have a dream the world is your heaven.” His notebooks and his mobile devices are full of such lyrics.
This is not the only competition he is taking part in. One, founded by the Tangxia Government is called “The More You Sing, the Hotter You Get.” Many of the participants, like Wang, are simply migrant workers with dreams.
Having been good enough academically to get into a prestigious high school in his hometown, Wang went off the rails somewhat when he discovered computer games. After following his migrant worker parents to Dongguan, he couldn’t hold onto one job for more than a few months. But having now discovered a genuine passion, he is determined to straighten up.
Most migrant workers to return to Dongguan after holiday
As unappealing as these individuals lives may sound, they will all still be in Dongguan after the holiday. Chen Yongzhuang is the only one who will be coming home for New Year at all. This is in keeping with the overall trend.
China Daily reported this week that more than 90 percent of migrant workers in Dongguan who are returning home to celebrate the Spring Festival will come back after the celebrations.
The number of migrant workers who intended to return to Dongguan after the festival, which falls on Jan 31, increased by 2.4 percentage from a year earlier to 91.5 percent, according to a survey by the city’s human resources authority.
According to the survey, which covered some 100,000 workers in 133 companies, more than 70 percent of migrant workers planned to go home for their family reunions during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.
They obviously see some future for themselves in Dongguan.