On Location: Shenzhen China
Song Chen, "Princess" and "Little Bear"
BY: KERRY CANDAELE, Co-Producer
The factory area around Shenzhen in Southern China is stunning for anyone who visits for the first time. What's most shocking are the numbers: the number of workers, factories, dormitories, working-class housing that stretches for miles in every direction. During lunch breaks, tens of thousands of people, mostly female workers on around-the-clock shifts, filed out of the factories. They headed in different directions, most of them to eat at the street-corner cafes (Dai Pai Dongs) that serve rice and beautiful fresh vegetables cooked in steaming woks, others to just walk off the monotony of 12-hour work days and seven day work weeks. Others would camp out in front of a television set up on the street and watch their noon time soap opera, with the same transfixed stare shared by millions around the world who listen to theirs in English, Spanish and Arabic.
Song Chen, my colleague, and I had come to Shenzhen to film workers at a Wal-Mart factory, one of the many such places that Wal-Mart uses to make their $18 billion worth of goods shipped from China to the U.S. each year. We hadn't come unprepared. As with all visitors to China today, we needed help making our way around, we needed friends on the ground.
The authoritarian nature of Chinese political life required that we move slowly and carefully when thinking about the job we wanted to do. We didn't just have to think about ourselves and our safety; but also, and much more critically, we had to think of how we would get cooperation from Chinese workers who would be willing to testify about their lives in a Wal-Mart factory. If Song Chen and I were found out, the Chinese authorities would most likely have escorted us out of the country, with a warning not to return. The workers who agreed to speak with us would face much more dire consequences.
Help on the ground was needed long before we left Los Angeles for Hong Kong. Fortunately, there is an active collection of human rights organizations in Hong Kong who have knowledgeable connections in mainland China. Their expertise about which of the factories produce for Wal-Mart, and who might be willing to talk, as well as helping with many other smaller logistical matters, was invaluable. Contacts were made with some Chinese workers months before we were set to travel.
Our first contacts fell through; the workers we spoke to were justifiably worried about talking to outsiders, and the factory where they worked had just been on strike the month before. Security was tight. We finally made contact with a few workers who were ready to talk. They lived together in a very small apartment and worked at a Wal-Mart toy factory.
The subjects for the China section, who Song dubbed Princess and Little Bear, were both from the Chinese countryside. They were young, early twenties, engaged, and tired of the drudgery. He was a factory guard. She worked on the line making toys. To say that one makes toys, however, is a misnomer. Princess put one part into another part, before passing it down the line, a chore she repeated over and over 12 hours a day. For Princess, who worked mostly so she could send money home to her parents, the job was painful to her hands, and painful to her mind.
Princess was shy about talking about herself at first. Song would meet with her without a camera, just to chat. Princess began slowly to speak about important things. She spoke earnestly about the desire to leave for home, about her fiancé, about the fantasy of having a family with enough money to allow her daughter— she wanted a daughter in a country where often daughters are not wanted— to become educated, to become a news reporter. She wanted her daughter to report on her life, and the lives of the majority of Chinese who are not getting rich in the new China.
Princess also spoke directly to the owners of Wal-Mart, asking a fairly simple question that has resonated through the ages: Why do so many work for nothing, while a few have everything?
I've heard the question many times before, but I will long remember the Shenzhen version from Princess.
I will remember the geography of globalization in Shenzhen, the factories without end, the cheap and wonderful sidewalk food, the bicycles that look like they had been made by the Wright brothers, a heavy night-time drizzle that made the city look decidedly Dickensian, the billboard of former head of state Deng Xiaoping that stretched for a city block—an advertisement for freewheeling capitalism in a communist state.
I will remember the night the local factory police kicked in Song's door to see what this stranger was doing hanging around the neighborhood without permission. They shouted at each other for twenty minutes as I hung on to the phone, thinking about ways to get her out of jail. They eventually left. We immediately moved to new hotels.
And, I will remember the Chinese workers we met who, with hopes that may aim too high, are nonetheless fighting in their own way for a better day.
See Also: Wal-Mart's China Price by Alternet's Joshua Holland.