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Read an introduction and overview to Hsiao-Hung Pai’s work on the lives of Chinese workers here.
I visited the village of Juwei, in Yinxi district of Fuqing town. It has a population of under a thousand and looks like an old housing estate tacked to the edge of town, but I saw new houses being built and a playground being dug up, with bulldozers around. Juwei is the home village of a Chinese migrant worker I knew from the UK, Xiao Lin. Xiao Lin, now forty-five, is one of the politest men I’ve ever met. He has a studious look, spectacles, a soft-spoken manner, and the nickname Bookworm. We met in 2006 in London’s Chinatown, where he was working as a casual labourer unloading food products from factory vans for the supermarkets. I approached him to ask him about his work. He was open and articulate. After that, Xiao Lin and I would meet occasionally—sometimes at my home and others at his—and he’d share his thoughts and talk about his experiences working in London. In the entire time I’d known him, I had never heard him complain—not when he was dismissed for no reason from a bean curd factory in north London after two years of employment, nor when he was owed a week’s wages by a British Asian restaurant on Whitechapel Road in east London. (He eventually got paid, after I visited the manager and warned him I’d have him up before a tribunal). Xiao Lin seemed always to take life as it is.
Xiao Lin had told me a lot about his past and how he’d migrated. But it wasn’t until I visited his home village that I understood the force that drove him. His wife, Ah Fen, met me on the main road by their village and took me to their apartment. She was the same age as Xiao Lin, and looked worn out. Deep lines of hard work were written in her brown face. She was warm and hospitable, holding my hand as she walked me through the village and led me to a first-floor apartment, newly built, made possible by the money Xiao Lin sent. They’d just moved in, from their old residence on the other side of the village. The first thing she did when I sat down was prepare a plate of guangbing, a flat sesame bread filled with seaweed and minced pork, a local specialty.
Guangbing are named after Ji Guangqi, the general who drove the Japanese invaders out of Fujian in 1562. It was invented because the general didn’t want to slow down their marching speed for meals—the breads were shaped into rings so his soldiers could wear a string of them around their necks. Following the general’s victory, the recipe for this bread became popular—minus the hole in the middle. They tasted delicious and are good as an appetiser before your first Fujianese meal.
Ah Fen had been selling guangbing for a living when her husband attempted to migrate to the West for the first time. She’d picked up the food business again during Xiao Lin’s stay in England. She had been running her own street food stall until a month ago. She said age was catching up with her, and as the family’s economic situation had improved with the money Xiao Lin was sending, she felt that she could afford not to work for a while. ‘I’m on a break,’ she said, with a tired smile.
Xiao Lin went abroad for the first time in 1995. Before that, he and his wife had owned a piece of land, on which they grew rice and sweet potatoes. But their farming income was too small to support their aging parents. One day, the local authorities announced that they were taking over the land of the village for commercial use—the village committee had decided to sell it to a developer to build private properties and department stores, without consulting the villagers. No compensation was promised. The villagers were outraged. They got together and went to protest to the committee. They demanded proper compensation for the 200 households in the village. Fearing that the protest might escalate, the village committee said that the villagers would be given a one-off compensation of 7,000–8,000 yuan per mu. Most villagers had only two or three mu. This one-off compensation was much too cheap, Xiao Lin said. Villagers would be left without means to survive. They had no choice but to carry on their fight against this land grab. Xiao Lin helped to lead a protest that lasted three years. Every day, the protesters held village meetings and organised demonstrations in front of the village committee building.
There was no further response from the authorities. The villagers’ land was taken from them by force. To continue the fight, the villagers elected three representatives, one of them Xiao Lin, to go to the land bureau in Beijing to hand in their petition against the land grab. The six-hour train trip from Fuzhou to Beijing was paid for out of money put together by all the villagers for their action. When they arrived at the land bureau, they presented their petition, but the officials told them that they needed to visit the central discipline committee instead. So they did, but officials there ignored their demands and wouldn’t even look at their petition. ‘Go back to talk to your Fuqing municipal government,’ they were told. Predictably, the Fuqing city government ignored the petition, too. In response, Xiao Lin and others organised a protest attended by 300 people, who marched together to the city government building. ‘Return our land!’ ‘Save our livelihood!’ the protesters shouted out their demands. For an answer, the city government sent the police. Two protesters were arrested and detained for six months. The villagers realised that they were powerless in the face of the authorities. They returned home, dejected. Although some still fought on, others accepted the offer of a small piece of land (just under ten mu were allocated for the entire village), without proper compensation in money. Then many disillusioned villagers began to borrow money from relatives and moneylenders in nearby villages, in order to leave the country and seek other means of livelihood. Xiao Lin, then twenty-nine years old, decided he must leave, too. He felt that he had run out of choices. The majority of the villagers had opted for going abroad, because then they’d be able to earn ten times more than they could in local cities like Xiamen. The investment was seen as well worth it. Xiao Lin, following advice from other villagers and decided to try his luck in the US, like so many others.
He borrowed $20,000 from his relatives in and around the village. It seems an unthinkable amount of money for people with so little, but migration was such a tradition in Fujian that people would always help family members to go abroad, trusting that the migrants’ achievement would benefit the entire family. He used it pay a well-known Changle ‘snakehead’, or man-smuggler, to arrange his journey. Different snakeheads charged different prices for passage to the US. Migrants were willing to pay whatever it took to leave China. Those from Changle were charged more than those from Fuqing, since there were stronger social networks of Changle migrants in the west coast cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, giving new migrants from the same city a greater chance for success there. Fujian’s smuggling trade was also dominated by Changle snakeheads, because they were the first group of smugglers in the province. In those days, Changle migrants went to the US, using the UK only as a transfer point, because they had few social networks established there. (For similar reasons, most Fuqing migrants went to Japan.) The average price for US passage then ranged from $20,000 to $30,000; today it’s $30,000 to $40,000. It usually took a migrant three to four years to pay back the loan, borrowed from relatives or moneylenders (or, quite often, both). Normally, the migrant paid the smuggler a third or half the fee before setting off. On reaching the agreed-upon destination, he or she called the family in Fujian and asked them to pay off the rest.
The day before his departure, Xiao Lin spent half a day packing his clothes. His wife Ah Fen insisted that he take his winter jacket—and packets of instant noodles and shredded dried beef. And, of course, a bag of her guangbing to sustain him over the next couple of days. There was no embrace and neither of them shed a tear. Xiao Lin felt anxious about going on a small boat across the Pacific, but he didn’t share his worries with Ah Fen. He felt that she had already a lot on her shoulders: a two-year-old daughter to raise on her own. Xiao Lin wasn’t sure when he would return home, but thought he’d come back after a few years if he made enough money. The snakehead had given him no instructions except in which cities he should change buses, how to get to the port, and which hotels he should book into in various places along the way. Xiao Lin had no idea what the journey would be like, not even which US city he was bound for.
He set out alone from Fuqing, boarding a bus to Guangzhou. It was the first time he’d ever seen that city. Following the snakehead’s instructions, he waited in a hotel room near the train station, paid for by the snakehead. He began to feel more anxious about the trip, and spent most of his next two days smoking alone in the cheap, tiny room. The hotel staff hadn’t even prepared clean bedding here. In the evening, Xiao Lin ate two of the guangbing his wife had prepared for him. Each one was large and stuffed with much meat, and would keep him going. Two days later, still following instructions, and came down to the train station to meet his pickup man, who was thirtyish, had a Fuqing accent but wasn’t interested in conversing with Xiao Lin. They went to the bus station, where the man picked up three other migrants from Fuqing. He then put the four of them on a bus heading to Taishan, a small town by the sea, 140 kilometres west of Hong Kong.
Xiao Lin liked the look of it Taishan—the streets were clean and there was green space aplenty. He knew that the town was famous for being the ‘home of the overseas Chinese’—he had heard about Taishan being the birthplace of the overseas Chinese game volleyball. Taishan has always had a tradition of migration: the overseas Taishanese population has reached 1.3 million, and up to 500,000 Chinese Americans claim Taishanese origins. Xiao Lin walked around town with his three Fuqing co-travellers all day. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve and people were at home with their families—and most shops were closed. The four men all telephoned their own families. Xiao Lin told Ah Fen that he would be on the ship quite soon, and that everything would be fine. Then he and the others strolled up and down the port a few times. What’s on the other side of the ocean? One of them said that he was feeling excited about the trip. The other two chatted merrily about what they’d like to do once they’d reached the US. But Xiao Lin kept quiet. He only hoped that they would actually get there. His companions had come from another village and had paid a different snakehead. The pickup man who had led them here met up with them at 10pm that evening, just before putting all form of them on a small fishing boat. Within two hours, the fishing boat had ferried them to a huge cargo ship, about ten meters long, parked in the middle of the ocean. Xiao Lin could almost hear his heart beating. He and the other three migrants had no idea where they were—they had heard from the pickup man that the cargo ship wouldn’t be too far from the Philippines, but no one could really tell them.
A long rope ladder hung down the side of the cargo ship. A man on board told the four migrants to climb up. ‘Hurry,’ he said to them. Xiao Lin could hear people talking—it sounded as if some migrants were already on board. The four from Fuqing climbed up the long rope ladder, slowly, one by one. It took three minutes for the first man to reach the top and get on board. It didn’t look easy; he was waving and shaking as he climbed. When it was his turn, Xiao Lin had to throw his small bag of food away—the packets of noodles and other snacks that Ah Fen had prepared, so as to hold tight to the ladder and not fall into the deep, dark sea below him. He’d never been so frightened in his life.
When they were finally all aboard, they found they’d been only the second group of migrants to arrive. There were many more fishing boats to come with people from Fuqing and Changle. They had to wait for five to six days before the ship was full. When there were over 400 people on board, they started to move. The ship was from Panama, bound for Los Angeles. The eleven crew members—Xiao Lin had no idea what nationality they were, but thought they were most likely from Panama—had been paid to smuggle them through.
Their living area was three huge storage containers at the bottom of the ship, each of which could accommodate up to 200 people. There was no other cargo on board. Most of the migrants were from Fujian—and as usual, the Changle natives dominated. Only twenty to thirty were women, and most of them were married, with children they had left behind. Xiao Lin was herded into one of the containers, along with 200 other people, and settled down. Some of them laid out their clothing on the floor and tried to take a rest. No one had proper bedding because they’d been told not to bring any, as it would overload the ship and take up too much space. The snakeheads in Fujian had assigned the task of managing the trip to twenty migrants from Changle, most of whom had made a similar trip before. These migrants had been chosen when they approached the snakeheads to arrange for their trip, because they were experienced and knew what to expect during the crossing. Their compensation for managing the others had been a discount on the fees for their own crossing. These ‘leaders’ were asked to communicate by phone with the snakeheads in Fujian every day and to report on situations. No one on board thought much about these men’s roles but simply followed whatever instructions they gave. They were also responsible for feeding the 400 travellers.
They found some used round oil containers, cut off the tops and then built cooking fires in them using scrap lumber. They had been given meal plans and ingredients for the entire trip. Still, the food supply was so limited and distributed among so many people that each traveller got only two bowls of watery congee (rice porridge) with pickled vegetables each day. The water supply ran out after fifteen days, and they were forced to drink seawater.
It was cold—February, just after the Chinese New Year—but especially with no bedding. Xiao Lin had only a small bag of clothing with him, and some biscuits he’d put into his pockets before leaving home. They had been told not to bring much. His three pieces of clothing were not enough to sleep on. The cold kept him awake. So he’d sit up and work on a chart he’d drawn up of how many days they have been at sea and what happened on each day. Then he’d try to sleep again in the cold. He said that he was always gazing up at the high ceiling of the container, like the vault of a warehouse. ‘I felt the ship drifting in the ocean,’ he later recalled, ‘and I felt I was just drifting permanently.’
Often, he lay there talking to Ah Wen, a man from Changle who sat next to him. Each traveller had a tiny space, and kept to it, because the container was so crowded. Ah Wen had tried to go to the US three times already, by the same route and the same snakehead. The first time he was caught on the fishing boat before he could board the cargo ship. During the second and third trips, his ship was caught carrying Chinese migrants when they reached the US. Ah Wen wouldn’t give up. For him, there was no hope of bettering his life back on the farm. Like many from his home village, Ah Wen was still in debt from his previous trips—he owed 200,000 yuan that his relatives and moneylenders loaned him for the first crossing; the snakehead does not charge an extra fee if the migrant fails to reach the destination country and would like to try a second trip. Ah Wen believed it would be worthwhile. Xiao Lin was worried that they might get caught halfway there and sent back. But Ah Wen reassured him that the crossing was easier these days, judging from other people’s experience, and that it should take about one month, if all went well.
Two weeks had passed. The next ten days became even harder to bear, as the food supply dwindled and the migrant leaders were constantly checking the supply and calculating the number of days the food would last. Rationing became tight. All Xiao Lin could think about was how to survive the journey. Anyway, he had nothing else to do.
Then, a few days later, the ship suddenly stopped moving. They were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Real panic broke out inside the containers. What’s going on? Everyone got up from their sitting space and was asking anxiously for an explanation. Before long, someone brought the news that the ship had broken down, and that they were between the Marshall Islands and Hawaii. The crew had been asked by the Chinese leaders to repair the problem. But after half a day, the crew hadn’t been able to fix anything, and one of the Chinese leaders came downstairs with the rumour that the crew members were beginning to despair. Still, no one expected what happened next: All eleven crew members jumped into the sea in an attempt to escape the situation—possibly because they didn’t know what the Chinese leaders would do and they feared punishment. Five of the crew swam back to the ship almost immediately, realising the stupidity of their plan and gasping for air, and the Chinese leaders threw the rope ladder to them and pulled them back up as they climbed. The other crewmen never came back to the ship, and everyone assumed they had drowned in this bottomless ocean. Another rumour began to circulate: The crew members had been disputing with the snakeheads over payment and had decided to down tools and damage the machinery in protest.
All they could do now was wait to be rescued. Xiao Lin looked at his own chart and saw that it had been exactly a month since he’d left home. A long month without windows. And now his destination seemed unreachable.
Four days later, a few US helicopters appeared above the ship—the noise of their blades could be heard within the containers. Xiao Lin felt a coldness through his spine. He couldn’t speak. Ah Wen went quiet, too. Everyone looked, but obviously they couldn’t see anything from where they were. Then they all sat down and waited. When the news that troops were boarding the ship trickled down into the warehouses, the migrants began hoping that they might be sent to the US, instead of back home. The US border officers kept that hope alive, taking them to a military camp on the Marshall Islands, telling everyone they would be sent to the US. The migrants lived with this hope throughout their one-month detainment on the islands.
Finally, on the last day, the US officers herded them from their cells after providing them with one last meal, shackled them and loaded them into buses filled with other migrants and brought them to an airfield. They were finally leaving. This was the first time Xiao Lin had ever flown. It was the same for most of the others. Xiao Lin thought that this was the day he would be arriving in the US, but his hopes were dashed in an instant when the first hundred of them boarded the plane. There, unsmiling Chinese immigration officers were standing in a row, on a passenger plane, to ‘welcome’ the migrants back home.
On their arrival in Xiamen, the second ‘welcome’ the failed migrants received was the border officers’ request for a heavy penalty of 20,000 yuan (£1,810) from each of them. The thought of bringing this further burden on his family devastated Xiao Lin. He felt he was going to collapse. But he held back his tears like everyone else. He was kept at a poorly maintained detention centre in Xiamen until he could pay up. At least half of the migrants couldn’t pay up and had to wait at the centre. Few households had telephones at the time, so Xiao Lin asked the chief officer to send a messenger to his village to bring the news to Ah Fen, so that she could come to get him out with the required fee. He had to wait for five days for Ah Fen to borrow the fee from a moneylender in Fuqing and then travel by bus all the way to Xiamen. On seeing him, Ah Fen burst into tears, for the first time. They were now in huge debt, poorer than ever before. They didn’t speak a word on the three-hour bus ride home.