Let me tell you how Yu Xinhong left home for the first time, a few years ago. She had never travelled so far, never been on a train before. It was full of farmers, men and women in Mao suits following their dreams south. Their skins were wrinkled and reddened by the sun, their shoes dusty and worn out. They chainsmoked in overcrowded compartments and exchanged stories about neighbours who had returned home with money and gifts. Yu Xinhong, who was then just 18, listened.
Those her age or a bit older squatted in the corridors, dressed in their best. They talked to their friends, and laughed, and kept awake the farmers dozing off in their seats. Yu Xinhong did not close her eyes for almost a day. She sat by the window, stared at the villages and farms along the way and the people boarding and departing. For the first time, she was encountering Chinese from other parts of her vast country. “I thought our villages were the only villages in China, and we were the only poor people. I learned this was not true when I took the train to Shenzhen,” she told me in the summer of 2007, four years after that train ride.
When she arrived in the brand new Luohu Station in the heart of Shenzhen, she was surrounded by tall glass buildings, five-star hotels, malls, bars, restaurants, massage parlours, hair salons, and branches of McDonald’s. (Back home, nothing was taller than four storeys, and always in brick.) And there were all these people, young men and women from all over China, speaking dialects she could not understand. There were girls over six foot tall, girls with light skin, girls in tight jeans or miniskirts. Yu Xinhong was short, and she considered her skin dark. She admired and envied the “beauties” who came from a China she and her village friends did not know about. She could not control her excitement.
When Yu Xinhong had been a little girl, the first generation of migrant workers recruited by the new private enterprises in Shenzhen and elsewhere, men in their late twenties or thirties, had left her village. They came home after a few years with money saved from working in factories or on construction sites, built a better family house, went back to the farm, or started small businesses. They had one foot on the farm, one in the city – farmers only temporarily employed as urban workers. In the city they worked desperately hard and lived in dormitories, 10-12 to a room. Many perched in migrant ghettoes, sharing tiny spaces without a kitchen or bathroom. Incomes were low, but far higher than down on the farm and, anyway, work in the city was just the means to a better life on return to the village.
But by the time Yu Xinhong boarded the Shenzhen Express, migration had become a one-way journey. The new migrants had been born in the reform years, many had finished middle school or even high school. The big cities introduced them to global culture and consumption. They window-shopped in malls in their free time, went to the movies, to McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, visited karaoke joints with friends, dated freely, met foreigners and felt part of the new China. Most of them remained marginalised, but they dreamed they would one day acquire all that China supplied to the rest of the world. Many knew nothing about farming and most detested life on the farm, part of the old China of their parents. The city provided hope; the farm did not. They did not intend to return. They were members of the new working class, and expected to benefit from all the promises of the changed Chinese dream: a home, and a full, normal life in the city.
Yu Xinhong’s brothers left for Shenzhen when she was a teenager. She knew her time would come soon, but she had to finish high school first, a promise she had made to her father. She had to honour her word. Yu Xinhong eventually graduated from senior high with good grades. Days later, she packed her suitcase and boarded that train to Shenzhen: “Father wanted me to go out and get to know more about the outside world.” Shenzhen would be the gateway.
No cars, only tractors
She once told me what her family life had been like. Her parents’ farm was in a small, desolate village in western China; it was at the foot of mountains, and on the east bank of a river, in which there were many delicious wild fish. She remembered the best thing about the area was the Spring Festival when all the villagers in her own and other villages lit lanterns outside their homes, late at night. “From the opposite side of the mountain you could see long lines of light. The whole mountain would shine.”
From the farm’s living room window, Yu Xinhong could see the winding road a few hundred feet below. There were no cars, only tractors and trucks in those days. When she heard a tractor, she “would become like a boy”, eager to break her boredom. “I was only four years old.” She ran to the road and waited with older village boys until the tractor got closer. They scrambled on it to get a free ride, hoping not to be noticed by the driver. They were not always successful. “I remember once we climbed a tractor … the driver turned around, stood on the top, and threatened us with a thick rope. We were so scared. We jumped off and ran home without stopping. We thought he was going to kill us.”
When she turned 11 and went up to fifth grade, jumping tractors stopped being a game and became a necessity. Her school was an hour away on foot. The family did not own a bicycle. Jumping the tractors shortened the journey to 20 minutes. Yu Xinhong’s father worried after she was badly injured falling from a tractor, and she promised him she would stop. She kept her promise for a while, but went back to the tractors until the older of her two brothers bought a second-hand truck. “I would sit beside him, leaving all tractors behind. We were a lot faster.”
Yu Xinhong’s mother was a peasant, her father a schoolteacher. He had been the main earner for the family, on $12 a month when Yu Xinhong was born in 1985. This was a sharp increase from his salary when he got married; the couple had been dirt poor. With the increase, the family could afford more and better food, but life stayed hard through most of Yu Xinhong’s childhood. Her father loved bean curds, and liked to flood them with soy sauce. She remembered he cried when he ate them, and his tears had puzzled her: “This food is so delicious. Why are you crying?” she used to ask. “It would be even better if you added some sugar.” Years later and far away, she understood that the curds had reminded him of the old times. Bean curds were cheap, affordable even by the poorest of the poor, and that was all he had been able to buy for a long time.
The family had four small plots in different parts of the village. The first was a rice paddy a short walk from the house, on the slope of the mountain. Her mother had no machinery and tilled the land by hand. “She had to go to the rice paddy every day to check the water level and remove the wild grass.” The family owned three pigs in a sty by the house, and her mother carried their manure to the field as fertiliser. By herself, her mother planted corn, wheat, beans and potatoes on other plots. Yu Xinhong’s brothers sometimes awoke with her mother and worked on the field before school. Yu Xinhong stayed in bed: “I was too young.” Even when she grew, “I never worked on the farm or helped my mother at home. My father wanted it that way. He wished me only to study.”
By the time Yu Xinhong was 16, her father’s salary was $130 a month and the brothers, then in Shenzhen, were sending money home. The family bought a colour television and a refrigerator. “When I was very young, we did not have a television. Most villagers did not. Only one family in our village had a small black and white television … there was a popular joke among the villagers … ‘Do you have any electronic appliances in your home? Yes, we do, we have a flashlight.’” Soon after Yu Xinhong left for Shenzhen, the family moved to a brick house.
Start of Yu Xinhong’s long march
For almost a year after she arrived in Shenzhen, Yu Xinhong worked on an assembly line that produced monitors and small personal computers exported outside China. Her first salary was 282.8 yuan a month ($33): “I think 282.8 was a lucky number because it had a double two and a double eight.” She didn’t work overtime, and had to share a small, dirty dormitory with 11 other girls. The food was very bad: “I missed my mother’s cooking.” After only a month, her salary rose to $50, a drastic increase.
The boss was a young Taiwanese obsessed with discipline, obedience, and efficiency. Supervisors spent a lot of time training the workers. The organisation in the factory was very complex. Every department had strict procedures. Yu Xinhong began her day standing in perfect lines with hundreds of girls, who would salute, shout, and get energised. Across Shenzhen and other factory towns, millions of young workers did the same, copying the military drills Taiwanese bosses brought back to China after the 1980s. She did not mind the drills, the discipline, the low wages. It was exciting to learn about a new world. Factory work was the beginning of her long march and would ready her for other challenges in life.
The work was hard and tiring. After three months, the boss promoted her to team leader, a major ascent in a short time, and Yu Xinhong was proud of herself. She was responsible for a small group of women, some even a few years her senior. Not long after, she applied for another promotion and requested to work elsewhere in the factory, but the boss refused. She left, not because of the difficulties, but because she wanted “better and more challenging positions”.
Over the next two years, Yu Xinhong held four factory jobs and lived in other, sometimes less crowded, dormitories, searching for a better, more challenging job that suited her education and dreams. “I had a high school certificate. Most of the girls I worked with only finished junior high.” In one job she found her “first real boyfriend”, a short, skinny security guard, 12 years her senior: “I needed someone to protect me.” He was kind, and respectful, and she was content, but her brother was outraged – “He is too old for you” – and demanded they break up. To assure that, the brother ordered her to leave her job and return home. She conceded, said farewell to her boyfriend, and returned to the place she thought she had left behind for good. “I cannot say no to my brother and father. They are the most important people in my life.”
Back home she soon took a job at a copy centre in a nearby town. She loved the village’s warmth and friendliness, but life there lacked the excitement and energy of Shenzhen. “We live on the mountains and have less connection with the rest of the world. We are isolated, but people are friendly and kind. People are cold in Shenzhen. Even neighbours don’t know each other. There are many lonely people. But I wanted to live in Shenzhen, and make it my new home.” The copy centre job bored her, and pay was low. She did not meet new and exciting people, did not learn new skills. She felt trapped.
Her family were worried about her restlessness and felt they had to save her, one day telling her, “You are old enough to marry.” Soon after, they found her a suitor, aged 23 and the richest young man in a nearby town, son to millionaire parents who owned a profitable tea factory. “The difference between our two families was huge. He was good in every way, young and responsible, with a good family.” He managed his family business with great success, lived in comfort, drove an American car, and built himself a big, beautiful home. “He was a dream husband. All the single girls in town were after him. He had many affairs before. I think he had lost his belief in love. All he wanted was a wife.” But Yu Xinhong wanted true love, and a life of her own.
After three months of dating, and preliminary wedding arrangements, she broke up with him. “If I had married my fiancé, I would have stayed in the small town for the rest of my life. I did not want that. I wanted better things in life.” This was the biggest decision of her life, unwaveringly refusing the dream of millions of other girls. The last time they met, she told him: “Someday, I will be a boss. I may not be a big boss, but a boss nonetheless. I will own my own business, even if that is a small one.”
The break-up was liberating, but it meant she had to start all over again. “I had to leave. I had to find a job somewhere, but I didn’t know where to go.” She had passed up a golden opportunity, and now had to show her family that she had made the right choice. “My father did not oppose me. He respected my decision. But I knew he was disappointed. He was worried.” At that time of confusion, an old friend came to her rescue. “He was kind of my boyfriend in high school. I had not seen him for a while.” He told her that three years before he had left home for the eastern province of Zhejiang; within two years he owned a small business and had a comfortable life: “He told me to go and work with him. I liked him and trusted him. I was very happy.” Yu Xinhong packed her suitcase again and boarded a train to join him: “I was scared and excited. I didn’t know anyone there but him.”
He was waiting when the train rolled into the station. She was happy to see a familiar face. He showed her around, treated her to a “very nice dinner”, took her to his apartment for the night, and told her she would start work in a few days and find her own place. But something seemed wrong at the spacious and luxurious apartment. There were many “beautiful girls”, fashionable and dressed up, going in and out. “All of them claimed to be his girlfriend.” Yu Xinhong was bewildered. “My friend was very casual. The girls were nice. They would go to the bathroom and come out with lots of makeup.” The doorbell rang and a man entered. “He talked about prices with the girls.” Yu Xinhong overheard the girls talk about being late for work. “Where could they be working?” she asked herself. She tried to reject her suspicions, but the evidence was too strong.
Yu Xinhong had heard many stories about young village girls lured into city prostitution, and had met a few in Shenzhen. “Life in the village is very hard. A lot of girls run away from home to find a better life. Some get lucky, and others don’t. Some get deceived at first. But the money is good. They get used to it and stay.” Had her old friend asked her to come there to be a prostitute? She wanted to cry, run, and disappear; she was smart, and aware of the situation. “I was not going to fall into this trap. I could have had easy money if I wanted to.” When all the girls had left, she found the courage to confront her friend. “You are so young. You have a long life ahead of you. Choose another job. Your life will improve gradually. You don’t need to do this,” Yu Xinhong told him, before also leaving.
That night, she sat on a corner and cried until she fell asleep. The next morning, she borrowed money from her friend, and took the train back to her family. “I had nowhere else to go. I was very embarrassed.” But home was suffocating and intolerable, she was restless and moody, making life difficult for her family. Her days were “never ending”. The place she so loved had become a prison. Shenzhen was her new home, she told her family, and within weeks, she was back on the train there. She found a job as a waitress in a teahouse, $90 a month, working 12 hours a day, every day.
Housing prices had more than doubled since she first arrived in Shenzhen: there were new office buildings and luxury condominiums everywhere. Shenzhen had the second highest per capita income in China, just behind Shanghai, and was bursting with economic activity – export factories, banks, insurance companies, hotels and lucrative service industries. Many had prospered, making Shenzhen a model city. Real estate was a gold rush, and its brokers worked long hours buying and selling old and new constructions. Many of her friends were brokers, making three times what she was earning in the teahouse. Yu Xinhong could not stop thinking about the possibilities: “I want be a realtor. I know how to talk to people. I will be good at it.” For young migrants with a high school degree, a realtor’s job was an entry into the world of money. They could buy nice clothes, and save for a home and a car. Yu Xinhong dreamed of buying a home in Shenzhen. “My life in this teahouse is too simple and easy; this is better than working in a factory, but it is not active enough for me and not good for my dreams,” she told me just days before she left the teahouse for a career in real estate.
As a realtor, she worked seven days a week, from seven in the morning to eleven at night. The company housed her in a dormitory – in this case a four-bedroom apartment without a kitchen, shared with 15 other employees, including her manager. The company specialised in apartments in a prosperous district of the city, and her clients were wealthy Chinese and foreigners, and educated and better-paid young migrants. She met “colorful” people.
Staying in touch
I kept regular contact with Yu Xinhong, and we made plans to meet, then cancelled them because of her work schedule. With the help of a friend, a college graduate who spoke English, she sent me text messages, good wishes in English, and even popular Chinese poems. “I want to meet you when I have had an achievement in my new job, when I have already rented a place,” she wrote after cancelling a meeting. Three weeks into the job, she made a successful deal, and had her first rental. I was the first to get the good news: “I am not making a lot of money yet, but things will change. I am learning. Once I gain the experience I need, I am going to move to a bigger company. This is only the first step.” It was our last meeting before I left Shenzhen for a while.
Getting an inexpensive local SIM card and a cell phone is the first thing young migrant workers do on arrival in Shenzhen: it is their main link to their families back home, and their new friends. The link can’t be relied on. They lose their phones, move often, change their phone numbers and addresses, even their cities, and leave no tracks.
When I came back to China in the summer of 2009, I tried to contact all the migrant workers I had met in earlier visits. Many had changed number, moved on or returned home. Yu Xinhong was an exception. “I kept the same number hoping that you would come back and find me,” she told me when we met on a humid afternoon in August 2009. “ My life has changed a lot. I have so much to tell you.” We chose a restaurant for our meeting. “I am inviting you this time. I make good money now,” she said. She was savvy and successful, working for one of the biggest developers in Shenzhen. With a record sale of 100 apartments in 10 months, she was “the number one broker” in her company. Yu Xinhong had saved $6,000.
She was realising her dreams quickly. She had saved enough for the downpayment on a 350-sq-ft apartment in a new development belonging to her company. “I would like to buy something bigger. But this is a good start. In two years, I will buy a bigger place and rent this one out.” She then lectured me about the real estate business in Shenzhen, prices in different districts, competition among developers to find and keep potential buyers. “My job is not that difficult. They spend a lot of money on advertising. Customers contact us.”
When she first joined, Yu Xinhong was a “level 3” broker helping landlords find tenants, and tenants find apartments, but she had bigger ambitions. She wanted to sell apartments in new and expensive condominiums: “That’s where you can excel.” Only two months after leaving the teahouse, a friend told his boss, head of the sales unit in a giant real estate firm, about her, and days later, she began working at “level 2,” selling apartments in new constructions. Competition was fierce, making money was difficult, and she sold only a few units. “I could not save any money. Shenzhen is very expensive. I spent everything I earned.”
However, the job let her meet influential people with money and connections. A year later, a friend introduced her to a developer building condominiums in Longgang, an industrial district of Shenzhen. She left for Longgang in October 2008, the beginning of the great global economic slump. Yet, except for a short period, the real estate market in Shenzhen continued to grow. Prices rose. As 20 million migrant workers lost their jobs in China, Yu Xinhong made money in a stable job with possibilities. “The real estate here is a sunshine industry. I am so happy I made the move. Everything happened for me after that.”
Yu Xinhong had rapidly learned a lot about the business in Shenzhen city, and the contacts she made were useful in her new job. Her old clients brought their colleagues and friends with money to invest in the housing market. “My clients were so grateful. The apartments that I sold them doubled in price in some cases.” Yu Xinhong soon earned $800 a month, a good income in China, especially for a village girl with only a high school degree: “I spend $250 a month and save the rest. I even send money to my family.”
Now she wanted to find a husband. “I have a good life now, but still, the most important thing for me is to find the right man. No matter how much money you earn, nothing can compare to that. That is my number one priority.” It would not be easy, since she had to keep her parents happy. Despite her personal success and her financial independence, she was still under her family’s influence. “I owe everything to my family. I would not have been here without my father and his teachings.” She considered his wishes in every important decision, especially a life partner.
The right man had to be around 35, and preferably have a house and a car. Looks mattered, but other qualities mattered more: “If you like someone, he would look like the most beautiful person in the world to you. I think it is all about destiny. The right person may be very different from your expectations.” He only needed to have a high school diploma, but he would have to be knowledgeable, “with a good attitude towards work and life.” Men without ambition and the desire to earn did not attract her. And there were even more important considerations. The couple had to have the same animal sign (which depends on the year of birth in the Chinese 12-year zodiac cycle): “That is a must.” Yu Xinhong was born in the year of the snake, and would only marry another, contemporary, snake.
And then – he had to come from her village, or somewhere near. That was her parents’ demand. “My parents would check my husband’s family background, if he is from the same area. That is very important to them. They can build a close relationship with my husband’s family. We will be one big family.” No one had yet met all these requirements but there was a suitor “under consideration”, manager of an express service company, six years older than Yu Xinhong. He had been her client in Shenzhen: “I showed him so many places but he didn’t like any of them. Finally, he felt guilty and treated me to lunch.” He seemed like a good man, but his monthly income was $550, less than hers, and of course, he hadn’t been born in the year of snake. But she kept him around. They spoke on the phone, and text messaged. “I am very busy. I work a lot and cannot see him.”
She was still prepared to consider other potential suitors. After all, she had passed up the rich man her parents had chosen back in the village. The last time we met, she told me: “That was the right choice. Look at me now. Everything I have is mine. I did it by my own efforts. My future husband will have to respect me and what I have done for myself.”