Images from Manufactured Landscape (2006, dir. Jennifer Baichwal).

The documentary features Edward Burtynsky’s photo/video journal, mostly shot in China ...


... and captures the landscapes affected by globalization and industrialization.

Scrap metal dump.

One of the 13 full size towns flattened to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

Workers eating in a factory cafeteria.

"The Real Toy Story."

Frame from animation in Melanie Jackson's "Made in China."

Danweng Zing, "Picking Trash" and the labor of recycling electronic waste.

Images from Polly Braden's "China Between."

Working at a fast food restaurant.

Images from Up the Yangtze.

Cindy's home.

Images from The Last Train Home.

The protagonists are a couple working in a factory far away from home.




Migrant workers, women,
and China’s modernization
on screen

by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau

The story began thirty-some years ago. China opened up to a market economy in the late 70s and early 80s, and the rest of the world flooded in to take advantage of its vast resources, especially its human resources. As the country became more and more experienced in the workings of capitalism, its industrial capability evolved from largely low-skill, cheap product manufacturing to more high-end production. Just two decades later, by the turn of the century, China had been transformed into the “factory of the world,” making everything from cheap plastic toys and electronic gadgets to brand-name fashions, high-tech solar panels, automobiles and much else. According to market reports, as of the mid 2000s China turned out 47% of the world's mobile phones,[1] 65% of the world’s toys,[2] 70% of the world's digital cameras,[3] and 85% of the world’s clocks.[4] [open endnotes in new window] China has been using so much power to manufacture everything for everyone that in July 2010 it became the top energy consumer in the world, displacing the United States from its century old dominance.[5] Beijing Automotive (BAIC) President, Wang Dazong, predicts that by 2020 China will manufacture half of the world’s automobiles.[6] This is not a given, but what is true is that in 2010 China became the second largest economy in the world with so much cash in hand that it is now the biggest bondholder of the United States.

China’s role as a new center of the global economy, with accompanying conspicuous consumption, is by now commonplace knowledge. Less acknowledged is how China’s transformation from third world status to first world powerhouse is due, in no small measure, to the creation of an internal third world, largely composed of migrant workers who have moved from rural villages to large cities. These migrant workers provide the backbone for China’s colossal industrialization. A prime example is Foxconn, one of the largest computer chip makers in the world; it supplies parts for such popular products as iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, etc. In China Foxconn has over half million employees that work an average of 60-80 hours per week. Most of these workers are not local citizens of Shenzhen, where the companies’ facilities are located. Out of its 400,000 strong workforce only 1 percent are local. Furthermore, the majority are female.[7] In Shenzhen almost 80 percent of the population consists of migrant workers and nearly 70 percent of these are women. The neighboring city of Dongguan, manufacturing a third of all shoes sold globally each year, has a population of over 7 million, more than two thirds of whom are migrant workers. [8]

Female migrant workers for the most part manufacture garments, toys, electronics, and housewares, or they work in the local service economy, such as in restaurants and hotels. Male migrants primarily do construction work. While many studies have been done on the subject of rural to urban migration

“most of them have been concerned with macro-level demographic, economic, and political effects of migration, and with how the influx of migrants into urban areas should be managed.”[9]

Relatively little attention has been paid to how migration is understood by the migrants themselves, especially how gender differences impact the migration circumstances and experiences of women.[10]

One of the hardships that specifically afflicts women migrants is the unavailability of maternity insurance. Once a female worker stops working due to pregnancy, she is cut off from the company’s health coverage, if there is any. But she cannot enroll in the city unemployment system because she does not have resident status. So she is not entitled to receive maternity care. Another issue that young rural women confront is the community’s censure when they seek work in the city. Rural people often expect women to marry in their hometown (countryside) and raise children there. Rural men face no such expectations. Or if a woman does get married, separating from her children may leave her with a strong sense of guilt due to the mother’s traditional childrearing role.

It is well documented that working conditions in many factories are substandard. But over and beyond labor conditions, we must also consider the intense impact of industrialization on the natural and human environment and on the whole life-course of individuals, male and female. This paper will analyze how a number of photographic/video installations in the new millennium, together with documentary and narrative films made on the subject of migrant workers in past decades, reflect a new and disturbing visuality depicting conditions in modern China.

Photo/video installations

Images from "The Real Toy Story" installation by Michael Wolf.

"The Real Toy Story” (John Batten Gallery, Hong Kong, 2004) was an installation of 20,000 plastic toys which visual artist Michael Wolf collected in California flea markets during a four-week trip. Amid the toys are portraits of factory workers. As can be seen, most of these workers are young females, who hand-produced thousands of identical toys. The massive amount of toys produced is astonishing while the machine-like monotonous life represented in the emotionless faces of the workers, is unsettling.

“Made in China” (2005) was at first a soloist exhibition of artist Melanie Jackson in Matt’s Gallery, London. In 2006 a large-scale group exhibition of works on similar topics was mounted in the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago with the same title. The show included, among others, Michael Wolf’s "The Real Toy Story,” Melanie Jackson’s “Made in China,” and photography by Edward Burtynsky, Danwen Xing, and Polly Braden. Many of these pictures/videos focus on female workers, their work and living environment.

Jackson’s piece was a video installation made up of three short films composed of animation, staged film, and documentary footage about two Chinese women who migrate from their hometowns to distant cities. One woman, a farm girl, migrates to take a job in a cosmetic factory that makes eyelashes. The other, a musician, has migrated to England to study a traditional Chinese musical instrument, the Erhu.
Film as shown in the installation. Ironies of studying the Erhu in England.

Anyone moving from the country to the city faces an obvious level of cultural disruption. But the disruption is greatly intensified for a simple farm girl who is now making a decidedly unfamiliar product, fake eyelashes, whose utility no rural woman could have possibly imagined. Nor has she experienced the concept of “beauty” that accompanies it. Similarly, going to the West to learn one of the most “Chinese” of musical instruments—to create one of the most traditional forms of Chinese art (music)—also presents a jarring juxtaposition. Such narratives candidly highlight the alienation and emotional dissonance that these women experience.

Also in this exhibition, well-known environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky’s work examines the sweeping exploitation of nature engendered by China’s gargantuan development. This exploitation has created attractive living conditions for a few and repulsive living conditions for the many.
Danwing Xing, "disCONNEXION": piles of sorted trash from the electronics industry.

Danwen Xing’s photographs show piles of electronic trash, obsolete computers, telephones, and stereos from Japan, South Korea, and the United States arriving along the coast of China’s southern Province of Guangdong, where more than 100,000 workers make their living by sorting out trash for recycling or other purposes. Another photographer, Polly Braden documents the sojourn of a young girl, Ho Ping, as she moves from her hometown to a shoe factory in a city that produces for brands such as Nine West and Clarks, among others.

The environmental devastation and the hard life encountered by factory laborers were all poignantly expressed in these exhibits. Of equal importance, images of female migrant workers highlighted another set of issues. For example, following up on this earlier work, Polly Braden published a photographic essay titled “China Between” (2007) with pictures of women that convey stories of social and cultural alienation. For example, one photo shows waitresses in a luxurious restaurant wearing elegant changshan (Chinese national attire) waiting nonchalantly around a stairway at the restaurant. The book emphasizes the palpable emotional disconnection between this kind of glamorous world of high society inside that restaurant and the dull life of migrant workers, who usually live by the edge of the city, the urban “backstage.”

And yet, at the same time, incomes that migrant women workers gain, however measly, results in some fulfillment via increased consumptive power. Some of Polly Braden’s photographs show migrant women shopping. These pictures complicate the questions surrounding the life of migrant workers. In what way do their lives deteriorate as a result of their migration? Do they experience lasting fulfillment? Are they hurt by migration or do they improve enough financialy so that their migration is ultimately beneficial to them?
Staff gather for a pep talk at a seafood restaurant. Sitting by the end of the railway line.
Street scene. Supermarket shopping.

Documentary and narrative fiction films

Taking advantage of the narrative power of films, two documentaries made during the 2000s by filmmakers residing outside of China[11] present a more detailed description of the experience of migrant women.[12] The film Up the Yangtze (2007) by Yung Chang and The Last Train Home (2009) by Lixin Fan portray how women become migrant workers in order to support their families. These films have moved audiences worldwide with their heart-wrenching narratives and stunning visuals.

Up the Yangtze relates a story of a personal struggle between an eldest daughter and her poverty-stricken family. The family lives in a half-paper, half-wood-board shed they built along the banks of the Yangtze River. Since the riverbank and the neighboring land will be flooded after the completion of each stage of the Three Gorges Dam the family has to keep moving in order to protect itself from the floodwaters. The eldest daughter is sent out to work against her will in order to support her family. She migrates from her rural home to work on a luxurious cruise ship, which takes Western (mostly U.S.) tourists on a "Three Gorges farewell trip." Coming from a poor family, she finds everything on the ship unfamiliar. She has little to no understanding of her environment. She experiences the pain of separation, alienation, and the loss of her dream of going to high school to have a better future. The film contrasts the poorest of the poor (many of the waitresses) with the money-seeking, Western-pleasing Chinese businessmen, and the fun-loving, innocent-seeming Western tourists.
Inside Cindy's home. She leaves there to go to... ...work in a tourist boat. The family is so poor that they do not have luggage.
Luxurious boat where Cindy works. The boat's interior.
Western tourists enjoying a Chinese banquet in the boat. Cindy's job gives her financial ability to go shopping.
Cindy's family moves to avoid flooding. The whole town is submerged.

In this way, the eldest girl of the family Yu Shui (Cindy) not only bears the brunt of a harsh environment but also endures the biases that derive from gender inequality. She is forced to make the kind of sacrifice that many other girls in China are asked to make, i.e. give up her education in order to make money to send her brother to school. (This common practice also enters the narrative in Out of Phoenix Bridge, which will be discussed below.) Sadly, Yu Shui’s family faces such severe poverty that even her noble sacrifice cannot save them. As the dam project progresses, floods eventually wiped their small house from the riverbank. Nothing remains. The water drowns it all—the house, the girl’s dream, and a better future.

The Last Train Home documents a heart-breaking story of a migrant couple, who like millions of other migrant workers, return home during Chinese New Year for a few days visit with the family. In this couple’s case, there has been a ten-year protracted absence from their village, so their relationship with their children, especially with their daughter, has become estranged. Even though the daughter expresses anger at her parents because of understandable feelings of abandonment, the parents, especially the mother, are devastated by the daughter’s rejection. During the New Year's Eve dinner, the parents’ guilty feelings and the daughter’s anger suddenly erupt into a shouting match and a fistfight.[13] At the end of the film, we find the daughter refusing to continue her schooling and leaving home. She travels to Southern China and finds a job in a nightclub, a job loaded with potential for sexual exploitation. Sadly, she herself becomes a new migrant worker, repeating the cycle in the tragedy of migration.
Jam-packed train station where millions of Chinese fight to board a train to go home for the New Year Home in the village.
Frustrated daughter fights with her father. Daughter leaves home, goes to a city and serves drinks in a night club.

Even though China’s rural to urban migration continues to be one of the biggest human migrations ever to have taken place during peacetime history, very few fiction films, especially commercial narrative films, have been made about it. While numerous popular films have come out in the past two decades depicting the new modernized China either as a glorious success or as a “success” with human costs, not very many of them focus on migrant workers themselves.[14] Especially neglected are scripts about how this massive movement of capital and labor affect women’s social position and lives. For example, the few popular fictional films that focus on migrant workers such as Blind Shaft and Beijing Bicycle deal mostly with male migrants. A rare popular film about a woman migrant and her child is Loach is a Fish Too. Unfortunately, the film is highly commercialized both in its story and production style and lacks the sociological depth required to depict a complicated migrant situation. On the other hand, world-renowned film director Jia Zhangke has made a number of films with more artistry and complexity that depict the effect of China’s modernization on its people. Among them The World is most penetrating in exploring the problems and dilemmas of female migrant workers. As an artisan film, shown mostly in art cinemas, the film offers more insight into the world of migrants.

As powerful and well-made as some of these films are, most of them lack depth in presenting the range of women's issues. For example, many of the works listed above present migrant women as being a sign of social ills rather than agents of social change.[15] The scripts do not take up the subject position of the women characters; for example, the films do not examine whether female migrants choose to move to cities simply for financial reasons or perhaps because of other more personal agendas. In fact, recent research shows that women and men choose migration for different reasons. Most men migrate for financial reasons while many women migrate because they have an adventurous curiosity about the outside world.[16] Another question scripts could take up is what happens to migrant women once they go back to their home. Do they choose to return to the cities even though life there is so harsh? If yes, why? These important questions of women’s subjectivity and agency, and how they might be represented in film, will be explored in more depth with the two films discussed below.

These two films about women migrants made by two female directors—one appearing in the late 90s and the other almost ten years later—represent a shift in the way filmmakers address issues of female migration. The 90s film, Out of Phoenix Bridge (1997), directed by Li Hong, is one of the first documentaries totally focused on migrant workers, in this case on women. The second film, The Perfect Life (2008), is a feature fiction film[17] directed by Emily Tang, with female migrants as the main protagonists.

Critics and scholars who write about China’s films on migrant workers mostly focus on broad economic issues and the hardships suffered by urban workers. For example, Gina Marchetti’s analysis of Phoenix Bridge praises the film for its critique of “the exploitation of Chinese women’s labor in the global system” but criticizes it for its failure to “(condemn) globalization, and the dismantling of socialism.”[18] However, in the process of re-examining some of these films, I have concluded that an exclusive critical attention to financial concerns can lead to downplaying other central themes. While the films’ narratives obviously focus on economic issues, these two films are, in my opinion, first and foremost stories about women rather than stories about economics. The scripts detail what is expected of the protagonists as women as well as how they choose to live their lives. These two films reveal the powerful incentives beside money that lead women to choose to migrate. The films also demonstrate how the cycle of gender inequality in China continues regardless of economic development. Furthermore, as the stories of the two films take place during what could be considered two different stages of China’s economic reform (Phoenix prior to the Tiananmen Square incidents of the 80s versus Perfect Life in the late 90s) they also represent very different responses to two important historical moments.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 54 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.