Sunday, June 27, 2010

Migrant Beats: Observations on a Slow Train

There are four classes on a typical train in China – the soft bed (ruanwo), the hard bed (yingwo), the soft seat (ruanzuo), and the hard seat (yingzuo). The soft isn’t as soft it could be, and the hard isn’t as dreary as its lower price suggests. The Lonely Planet quotes most of its train prices by hardbed prices because the soft beds and seats have to be reserved sometimes several months in advance, preparation that most intrepid travelers do not want to do. Not that I’m brave or think very far into the future. I

did buy my train ticket to Suzhou as soon as I got to Beijing, and found two yingzuo tickets, one on a slow train (manche) for 88 RMB and the other for 700 RMB taking a seemingly aerial time of less than 12 hours. I wasn’t in any hurry to arrive in Suzhou, so I bought the former.

I passed through railway station security and found my seat with time to spare. The night before, a friend in Beijing kept on warning me I should lie that I lived in Liaoning or some northeastern province should any fellow passenger curiously ask my origins. “It’s for your safety – those yingzuo can be full of sketchy people,” he said. I was pleasantly surprised to find seating in my booth instead three old ladies on their way home to Jinan, a high school teacher, and just one teenager who carried a punkish air of rebellion that I was instructed to watch out for. After a few greetings, everyone slowly settled into states of hibernation seen only on long train rides in China.

Some immediately broke out their snacks of apples, cucumbers, sausages, breads, ramen noodles and sunflower seeds. Some fiddled with their cell phones or handheld Playstation players. Some just looked outside at passing trees, factories and railroad tracks. Some struck up conversations – parents on their children’s education, elders on gifts of medicine and sweet delicacies for their family back home, students on their summer plans, migrant workers on the increasingly stifling summer heat. Electric fans hanging overhead buzzed forth pockets of cool air. The sun eventually rendered all eyes droopy, and heads rested on small booth tables and strangers’ shoulders. Besides the occasional click of some cell phone or whimper of a hidden baby, the train fell silent.

An hour later, the hibernation resumed. Aromas of salty noodle soups filled the cramped train car, sliced by frequent slurps and burps. A few returned to sleep, content from the warmth of the soup in their bellies and of the sun on their skin. The man next to me sighed while enviously observing a couple of kids playing card games. “Xiaomo shiguang,” he said, “why is it so hard to burn time on a train…” The elderly grandmother trio in my booth chuckled.

The man turned his attention to me. “Where are you going?” he asked.

Suzhou,” I replied.

“Ooh, that sucks. Are you going back home?”

“No, just to see a few people and take in the sights.”

“I see. Where are you from?”

“Um,” I paused. “The northeast.”

“Really? Which province?”


“Interesting. What were you doing in Beijing?”

“I’m in college.”

“Which one?”

“Tsinghua.” (Well, this was true, when I was still attending IUP.)

“Whoa, one of our national geniuses. What are you studying?”


“Whoa! That’s a good major. I have a kid in high school who…”

I’ll end this pointless dialogue of lies here.

There is another class that I forgot to mention. The cheap standing ticket offers some sort of spot on the train, whether in the smoking sections between the train cars, a crouched space on the ground, or a lucky seat departed by a passenger. I woke up sometime around nine in the evening to find new personalities all around me, including a corpulent teenager to tired middle-aged man searching for a comfortable sleeping position on the way down south. In other booths and on the car floor, unfamiliar faces sat munching on ramen noodles. Many took off their shirts and rolled up their pant legs to allow more of their sweat to catch some sort of breeze.

We’re still twelve hours away from Suzhou.

We are now at Nanjing. Changjiang swirls below.

Agh, almost got off at Wuxi in my drowsy hurriedness!

Never again.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Migrant Beats: Skin Village

“Where’s bus number 641?” Fangrong asked himself as he glanced through the bus schedule plates. We arrived at this bus station after pulling out a complicated list of directions from Sanyuanqiao to Picun. A street cleaner in an orange jumpsuit passed by. “Excuse me, is this where take 641?” I asked.

“641? 641…It’ll come,” the street cleaner replied, not looking up from the pile of dust he swept into

this portable dustbin.

“But there’s no sign here,” says Fangrong.

“It’ll come.”

Twenty minutes later, the mystery bus actually came. Past the fourth and fifth ring roads in the northeast of Chaoyang near the border of Beijing and Tongzhou, it took us to a small country stop called Picun, literally Skin Village. At the stop, the assistant curator and manager of the museum, Mr. Zheng Zhixi, awaited us.

“Get in this van and it’ll take you directly to the museum,” he said, handing the driver a small

bill. “I’ll follow behind on my bike.” He walked over to a pink and white bike parked in front a barley field.

The van stopped at a small neatly paved square with buildings colored with paint drawings done by children’s fingers. The Beijing Migrant Arts and Culture Museum, as I found it online, was more peaceful and less-visited than its pictures suggested. Mr. Zheng opened the museum door. A wave of trapped stale air went up my nose. The artifacts and documents spread throughout the exhibition quickly aroused my attention and ignore the dead scent.

The museum seeks to cover the history of the migrant worker, from its identity as the nongmin (farmer), to the nongmingong (rural migrant worker) and finally the xingongren (the new

worker). It started from the establishment of the household responsibility system in 1981 and the development of the special economic zones in the south, and fades into a bittersweet conclusion on the current hardships that new workers face through discussions on recent grassroots NGO development and changes in Chinese labor laws. I tried to take pictures of letters written by migrants to their factory bosses that they promise never to be late and work hard even after lasting through 22-hour shifts, but Mr. Zheng prevented me doing so. Instead, I bought the museum’s periodical, aptly titled Xin Gong Ren, and a qualitative/quantitative survey called “Research Report on Migrant Workers’ Residential Status and Future Perspectives.” The poetry contained in the periodical will be pertinent later on. The research report seems more relevant for those inclined to a social science essay, but it still contains valuable details on migrant life.

The basic layout of most migrant villages is similar. A grand gate with the village name in flowing xingshu calligraphy stands before a long road of small produce and butcher shops, clothing stands and secondhand electronics stores. Branching off from the main artery, vessels and veins of brick and cement houses that are hot during the summer and cold during the winter form a surveyor’s nightmare. Open waste containers piled with garbage and feces rot under the Beijing sun. And, even though the villages are all set to be demolished within two to three years, landlords continue to build houses and offices.

“The local landlords get compensated by the government for every usable square meter that is taken,” explained Mr. Zheng. “If they build, then the extra floors of usable space a

lso count. That’s why the walls are so thin – to maximize space. It costs about 500 RMB to build something per square meter, and compensation is around 1000 to 1200 RMB per square meter per floor… it’s a destructible investment.”

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Migrant Beats: Back in Beijing

I like airplane cabin weather better than Beijing weather. I felt like I was sluicing through a jelly of warm air, fighting my way through the customs gates and to the baggage claims. The terminal still hasn’t changed – unfortunately. While passing through the departure terminal in the electronic tram, I noted that the gates were still numbered in disarray, so that gate 1 is next to gate 72, 23 to 45, and so on. How many other people missed their flights because of the airport’s inefficient layout, I do not know.

This time in China, I am beginning field research for my senior thesis on literature written by internal migrants. As early as during the 1980s, rural migrants to major special economic zones like Shenzhen and Yanhai had recorded their reactions to the strange urban environments, their thoughts on migrant life and, and their witnessing of cruelty upon and discrimination of migrants. Described to “write while surviving” to accent the initiative that some have taken to jot passing thoughts and events despite the exhaustion from working long hours, the initial diaries and short stories created an entire “migrant literature” genre and the diverse physical forms of expression, from novels and poetry to expository essays and movies. During the 1990s, the genre died with a wave of younger migrants who did not care to write. At the turn of the century, literary prizes specified for migrant literature injected new interest in the genre, with award-winning works published in major domestic literary journals. Because migrant writers still lack connections with major publishing houses, some upload their works directly onto literary forums, while some print and distribute independently. With the support of the Robert Bates Fellowship at Yale University, I will interview writers and major literary critics of migrant literature in cities around China while collecting periodicals and books for my senior thesis in Chinese literature. In this blog, I will record my visits to museums and interviews of curators, migrant workers and writers.

For now though, I am still soaking in the changes in my old neighborhood. Wudaokou has changed again. Houbajia Village is completely razed, a microcosm of thousands of migrants reduced to white cement chunks and broken bricks. Northern sections of it are being turned into a park, while the rest of the area will be redeveloped into another residential zone with 20-floor apartments for Tsinghua’s professors and students. However, because the village stood on what was originally a graveyard back in the Ming dynasty (I think), the superstitious elderly of Tsinghua refuse to move out, even if the apartments there will be better. Two more 25-story buildings now stand across the west gate of Dongwangzhuang. Late at night, the shouts and gurgled vomits of Korean students complement the occasional taxi honk.

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