2 June 2016
In the summer of 2014, I returned to Guangzhou to conduct follow-up research on the global commodity chains for fast fashion garments and accessories. That year, when I revisited the wholesale markets and factory workshops where I began my study in 2010, I was surprised to learn that some of the migrant entrepreneurs whom I met during the course of my research had gradually expanded their businesses. As they slowly accumulated modest amounts of wealth, I witnessed how their material conditions improved.
For example, a migrant couple who ran a small-scale workshop in the city’s garment district considered opening another factory in their native place in Guangxi province. The wife, Mrs. Wong, was prepared to manage their new factory in Guangxi, while her husband Mr. Wong planned to remain in Guangzhou in order to oversee their primary operations. At the same time, the couple had renovated their living quarters on the second floor. Rather than having their eighteen year old son sleep on the wooden floor underneath the industrial table, the family expanded their living space. They added a new sofa and TV, where their son could lounge and entertain relatives and friends. The Wongs also added a gas water heater in lieu of a makeshift light bulb. Every evening when the couple cooked dinner, they added more meat and fish to their meals, while they made sure that every temporary worker that day had their fair share of the food. They also rented a modest room in an apartment nearby, so as to provide temporary housing for their migrant employees.
Though, in many ways, the material conditions of their lives had improved, the migrants’ sense of financial and emotional security remained uncertain. The Wongs admitted that a main reason that they considered opening another factory in their native place was that they anticipated that many of the factories in and around Guangzhou would eventually close due to rising costs in labor and standards of living across the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region. In addition, migrant workers frequently complained to me about the worsening safety and sanitary conditions around the urban villages that comprised Guangzhou’s garment district. The Wongs’ temporary employees informed me that the husband of a garment factory nearby had apparently murdered his wife when he suspected that she was unfaithful to him. This case added an aura of criminality and violence that people, including migrant residents and urbanized outsiders, projected onto Guangzhou’s urban villages. Meanwhile, the spatial boundary that separated the land owned by the village collectives from the urban core was increasingly regulated and patrolled by the police and other traffic officers. I had seen officers indiscriminately confiscate pedi-cab bikes, depriving some undocumented migrants from their primary source of living. Other police officers had also begun to patrol the alleyways during the night in order to regulate or to discourage young, fledgling migrant entrepreneurs from informally selling garments and other commodities to pedestrians on the street.
Yet, despite the precarious conditions under which they often find themselves, I am amazed by the sense of resilience migrants are able to maintain in face of circumstances that are oftentimes completely out of their control. For instance, one day, the middle-aged father of a young factory worker had his pedi-cab unexpectedly taken away by the police, so he no longer had any source of income. When I asked the father about his plans in light of this unpleasant circumstance, he casually replied, “Oh that’s alright. I’ll just return to my home village and take a break.” When I reflected upon his response, I realized that his notion of “taking a break” meant a temporary respite from the demands of informal work while he waited for another opportunity to make money, however unstable and physically demanding it might be. In a way, this condition of waiting before striking out “just in time” for the next economic opportunity marked the on-going rhythms of displacement that migrants encountered as they searched for better ways of life. Though such conditions of displacement gave migrant workers and entrepreneurs pathways to social and physical mobility, their newly gained sense of “freedom” (ziyou) from the bonds of rurality and wage work came with a widening erosion of social stability and economic security. Whether such dimensions of “freedom” truly fulfill their promises of “a better life” for many of China’s undocumented migrants remain ambivalent and uncertain.
As a final note, one memory that had stayed with me during the course of my fieldwork was this photo of lush fields that lined another urban village in Guangzhou. The lush green fields that emerged between and around the abandoned and partially torn buildings gave life to an otherwise vacant and lifeless space. When I asked a middle-aged female squatter about the growth of these fields, the woman explained that elderly residents who once lived in this former community decided to return and to cultivate along the sparse patches of land that remained untouched by the large-scale demolitions that were taking place throughout the area. She stated, “Oh, the old folks came back to plant some vegetables here. They just wanted to kill time.” I was skeptical of her response, though I did not inquire further.
To me, the sight of these lively fields amid a landscape of displacement and abandonment represented the sense of resilience that Guangzhou residents maintained in light of rapid urbanization and industrialization. The meticulousness and care that former villagers continued to invest in their land demonstrated their attempts to pause, of “hold off,” from the disorienting effects of postsocialist transformation. The layering of histories and personal narratives are materialized in the vibrant shades of green that line the village perimeter. Indeed, these plants represent the sustenance of human life and will that refuses to disappear in light of large-scale change.