Author | Lan Lianchao
Translator | Yi Qin
Copy Editor | Colum Murphy & Qian Jinghua
“Hey girl, coming for job interview?” Wang Xiaoli snubbed out the cigarette, sliding his scoter towards me. He has a pair of interest-only cunning eyes. That was the first sentence he spoke to me. For 20 minutes I stood there, he’s the third person trying to make a conversation.
Earlier, an older guy asked me to interview at the front gate of Changshuo Electronics. He speaks to me like telling me a secret, “There are tricks inside.” Meanwhile, another man with buzz cut looked at me up and down, asking me if I am looking for a job. He’s particularly interested in my degree, guessing that I must be a three-year college graduate. Based on that, he claims to find a double-salary job for me, assuring at least 10,000 Yuan per month.
“Don’t even think about that,” the older guy says, “She’s probably a post-doctoral graduate. How you could afford that!”
This is Huojian Village, literally means Rocket Village, in Kangqiao Town of Pudong District in South East Shanghai. Job agents are standing on the sidewalks of Xiuyan Road. If you are wondering around, they will come to you with a lot of enthusiasm and ask, “Why aren’t you in the factory yet?” As if, you staying on the road is holding back their process getting everyone enrolled in the factory. When you say you can go and have a look, they will lead you to 3668, Xiuyan Road, where Changshuo Electronics locates, as a sub-company of Taiwan Pegatron Group.
It’s not a secret that more than half of the iPhone are made in Foxconn in Zhengzhou. But there is another company in China is competing with Foxconn, that is Pegatron. The factory assembles 4.7-inch-screen iPhone. It went on mass-production of iPhone 7 even earlier than Foxconn back in 2016.
When we are calling an OEM “close to Shanghai” means it is in Songjiang District, 30km to city center, or Kunshan, a district under Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, 100km to city center. Pegatron, however, is only 7km to Pudong’s inner ring road, even closer than Shanghai Disney Resort to city’s downtown limit, which is still 5km further away. The factory, close to two metro lines and one maglev line, stands on a land of 3200 mu (21,312 sqm2), three times bigger than the whole Shanghai Disney Resort area.
Rocket Village only has 1,000 local residents. However, during peak seasons, which is before issuing new iPhone each year, the village are packed with 100,000 migrant workers. It’s like how the village got its name “Rocket.” Locals tell me that in 1958, People’s Commune established a “Rocket Team” to push forward administrative reform. The name of “Rocket” is kept till now, but it never gets famous among migrant workers as they call here as Changshuo, following the name of the Taiwan OEM factory.
Wang Xiaoli was enrolled into Changshuo factory twice, though both times are because he has no other choices.
Wang Xiaoli, 26, born in Puyang, Henan Province, came here five years ago after getting out of doing pyramid sale scheme with friends in Guangxi. He had only his national ID card. No money, even phone is on mortgage. “They cheated me and took last piece of shit.” Wang spit the anger out. He then stepped on a free direct-hire bus to Changshuo in Shanghai. Given bread and water on the bus, he felt not bad. But while arriving, there was a new problem. Wang didn’t even have 50 Yuan for health-check. “I don’t even have a phone, don’t have any one to borrow the money. What can I do? I collected water bottles for three days and sold them for 50 Yuan eventually.” He remembered.
It’s much smoother afterwards. Basically, as long as you know the 26 English characters, have no serious disease and obvious tattoo, anyone can get an ordinary worker position (普工) which pays 3,000 to 4,000 Yuan per month. The factory provides lodging – room for 6 to 8 people – for 160 Yuan per month. Canteen is also available upstairs of the factory at 2F and 3F on workers’ own expenses. It’s a convenient place as workers can go back to their positions soon after they have meals.
But only after several days of working, Wang Xiaoli cannot stand it anymore. He contacted a friend to take him “fool around on the street, do something big.” Wang went to Wujiaochang, north east part of Shanghai, acting like “someone ruthless” — looting money to trade protection. Usually he takes two buddies, walks in to a small shop, stumps one foot on the chair, and tells shop owner that he need some money to spend. No money? They start to crash the shop and beat owner up.
“Why aren’t don’t they call the police?” he raised his eyebrows and smiled, “It’s my friend’s shop. It’s a show put on for neighbors, so that next time they will give us money without any doubt. Of course they don’t want to get things worse.”
Unfortunately for him, those shops close because of poor revenue. He’s a gambler, and loses constantly. Soon he lost everything again and had to go back to Changshuo. At least the factory provides lodging and meals – not sleeping on the street. The super factory is like a “shelter” with all supplies, where poor people could stay, then leave if they get enough money. If someone stays in the factory for one year, his dorm mate might have already changed more than 10 times.
For the second time, Wang Xiaoli is no longer the ordinary-level worker in the factory. But this job doesn’t give quick money as he imagined. His goal – earning more than half a million Yuan before 30, get married and start a family – is still far far away.
When he again left the factory, he started with selling barbeque street food. However, chengguan chase them out. He had to start the job agent business with friends, getting new-comers to the factories. The skill he already fully mastered – sweet-talks. A group of two or three gather around, having cigarettes, spitting and laughing, catching every passenger to see if any “business opportunities”. Each successful case, Wang would earn a share of commission, as high as several thousand Yuan sometimes. If he can persuade two to three, it counts for the day. Wang would go back and sleep in his rented apartment, which costs more than 1,000 Yuan per month.
In daytime, workers are in the factory, there are not many people on the road, except agents like Wang Xiaoli. With bags and luggage, some people come from metro station – they are new comers, some from factory – they are leaving. Nothing else could be heard except the sound of luggage wheels on the uneven sidewalk.
This day, no one responds to Wang Xiaoli. It’s still chilly in early spring. Wang talks to strangers with chattering teeth and a hippy smile. He turned around and share his feeling to me sometimes: “I talk to each person coming by, the first two sentences are the key. If they don’t trust you, whatever you say is useless. It’s that easy.” In the cold wind, he brushed his hair at forehead with hand. It is the only hair that is straightened, and dyed in yellow.
Wang Xiali asks me weird questions like “What is your dream?” or talks tricks of surviving in the factory. “Each team leader has his hobby, like poker, drinking. I know how to make them happy. So I can be resting and then talk to girls.” After being a job agent, he stands blatantly at the front gate. Usually the guard would chase other people away, Wang says he could stay. “They don’t dare.” He told me.
Wang once met a friend from his hometown. He talks like a big brother to that person who is carrying brown leather bag with hair swept back, “What future you could have earning 4,000 to 5,000 each month as a security guard? Work with me. I am making connections now. We will earn big when it’s time.” He loves to talk about connections. He seemed very generous to those who are following him. “We are like brothers, we earn money together.” But when they are gone, he can’t help using them as examples to teach experiences, “People are like cabbage. They look fat. But while peeling off, it’s soon gone. I have to keep something for myself when teaching them.”
These are what he makes a living, which may quickly get him fortune, power and respect to get rid of the insecurity and loss of identity because of poverty.
For Zhao Yixuan, his experience coming to the factory is not that dramatic. He says he left his hometown Yichang in Hubei Province just “look for fun.” Introduced by people also coming from his hometown, he was lead directly to the factory by job agent. But eventually, people who introduced him here had left for “better jobs”, only he stayed.
But Zhao soon finds his own friends. Soon after work, he runs out the factory and meet his high school classmate, who interns in credit card center in a bank. His friend’s task is to persuade people to register for credit card. In Changshuo, workers coming in and out late afternoon, creating great opportunity for good performance at end of the month. That’s why credit card center staff gather under the dim street light like persistent moths.
Zhao Yixuan asked me if I am coming to look for a job with female friends. It’s common that friends come working together. Most of the workers keep their connection with people from the same hometown. It’s a world of acquaintances. They are far away from the social system and value system of their home. Out of initiation, they are reproducing the surviving model of hometown. In this society relying on acquaintance, they try to find their own position, forming trust among each other, regaining security as an out-of-towner.
Only here, they would feel alive, for real.
WORKERS THAT LOVE OVER-TIME WORK
After 8 o’clock at night, the Rocket Village revived. Numerous wearing pink and blue work wears flash their badges on the machine, flowing out the factory. Buses packed with workers run between factory and dorms, back and forth.
For confidential reasons, iPhone OEM has facial recognition equipment to confirm worker’s identity. Plus, a metal detector would ring if you’re carrying any equipment with camera, to prevent leaks of new product. Before starting the shift, workers have to put their belongings to the locker. The workshop has no daylight, says Li Wei, from Suizhou, Hubei Province. But lights are extremely bright. Room temperature is kept at least 10C degree. Hundreds of machines are running at the same time. With the sound of gears and belts running, any breath of human being seem unnoticeable.
Li Wei has been working in the factory for more than a year. He is responsible for assembling a part on the motherboard. His line produces around 3,000 iPhone, comparing those lines producing 10,000 iPhone a day, it’s a relative small one. In spring, which is not a peak season, the factory only opens 20 lines. He remembers in summer, it was more than 60 lines. Workers are doing shifts in turn day and night, as machines would never stop running.
Li Wei starts his day at 8:30 in the morning. He gets through security a little bit in advance to avoid a salary cut for late check-in, which is at least 10 Yuan – it’s his salary for half-an-hour work. At noon, he will have 50 minute to have lunch, then work straight to 5:30pm. After a half-an-hour break, he will continue to work from 6 to 8 at night. There are 10-minute break for both sessions in the morning and in the afternoon, when he rests and drinks some water.
Gossips are always around on the street. Workers complain about management team, also complex guanxi – favorable connections — among them. It’s a place full of different types of persons. To stand out in the crowd, one need to be smart. Li Wei is 34. He had done some business like selling machines in hometown, ear bugs on Taobao, or franchised cloth with his sister. But none of them bring him fortune. He’s divorced and came to Shanghai. The fast path of course is coming to factory, where both work and lodging are available immediately.
Li Wei doesn’t have a lot words. Wearing a black jacket outside work wear, Li looks down to his dusty shoes, uttering few words to each of my questions. “So so,” He describes his feeling working here. A few seconds he added emotionally, “Taiwan bosses love yelling at people. Everyone, from team leaders to factory manager, yell at you, so hard to make you cry. I don’t want to be a leader, I really worried being stabbed at back. Turnover rate at managing level is even higher than workers. If you don’t have someone backing you, it’s hard to survive.”
Zhao Yixuan, who has just been in Changshuo for two weeks, soon realized the surviving rule here. The 22-year-old young guy is full of rebelling spirit. He describes leaders as people who “only yell, not using brain.” Zhao just retired from army. Stayed in Chongqing, Tibet and Yunnan, he thinks himself different from others. Though he says he’s here only “for fun”, he still wants to be serious about work, trying to be part of the factory, to be yelled less, make less mistakes and less confrontation with managing team.
Zhao thinks he’s in the team that is most tiresome on the line. At the end of the line, mistakes are easier to be picked, workers are yelled at most often. “Phones come down on the belt, if previous problems are not discovered, it’s on us.” He is in charge of assembling the mute bottom and volume bottoms, the very direct touch of customers while using the phone. There are 10 people on the line, 4,800 phones are produced every day – which means 480 phones are assembled by him. For a new-comer, 20 plus errors a day is bad, but 2 to 4 errors are normal. For him, in his best time, he could get zero error for the day.
The way that Zhao understands the factory is simple and unique. Not everyone likes Wang Xiaoli, being good at knowing what supervisors like, and applying that to real practice. Wang gets more chances to relax than others, “Supervisors don’t care. I can go to whatever line I want, I can sleep wherever I like.” Zhao Yixuan is simply confident, though he complains a lot, he still believes in the abstract and fuzzy future in front of him.
Zhao still has his school census in a college after retiring from the Army. He does not want to go back to school. For him, working the factory doesn’t wear him out, “There are so many imperfect things in life. I don’t have too much to demand. Life in the Army is difficult, I don’t even mind that. Back then, we slept under the sky, on the road, in the rice field.” He says he does not know when he will leave. Maybe working in Disney would be another choice. All these attempts are for a job that “has future.”
Six-day work a week, 10-hour working hours a day, some even 12 hours, in Changshuo and Foxconn, it is like what news and labor organization wrote, being accused as a “sweatshop,” whose impression limits at fake trainings, compulsory over-time, packed dormitories, and safety net to prevent stressful, depressed workers jumps off the building.
In 2014, BBC sent three undercover journalists to record Changshuo’s situation. The documentary, Apple’s Broken Promises, says the normal working hours of is 12, the longest shift one of them experienced is 16 hours. Another journalist worked straight for 18 days. Apple stated that the company forbidden OEM factories to ask workers work more than 60 hours a week. The documentary brought a lot of controversies.
Wang Xiaoli, on the contrary, doesn’t want to blame working stress as the cause of psychological problems in the factory. In such place with more men than women, he thinks, it’s normal to have several couples jumping off the building because of love affairs. He describes them as Butterfly Lovers — Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai — on the scene. Men are full of hormone, any unintentional look could result to a fight in a minute.
In fact, a lot of workers “love” to overtime. Using overtime to get more pay is the common logic here. The working hour of Li Wei is at the edge of passing 60-hour limit. He says salaries in the factories are almost the same, according to some friend who worked in 5 different places in 6 months, the only way to earn more is the to do overtime.
As less young people are attracted by working in factory, labor agencies offer high pay-backs to employees to lure them stay longer at work.
Li Wei told me, during peak season, in the 10,000 Yuan he earned for a month, 7,000 Yuan is pay-back. Many workers are looking forward to this, so that they can go back to hometown with money in Spring Festival. Pay-back is much less if non-peak season, only about 1,500 Yuan. The money, usually being paid after a period of time, is not a guarantee. There are a certain amount of workers go back without anything promised.
Changshuo moved in Kangqiao Industrial Park in 2004. Several years after that, Yuan Kaixi opened his first tattoo shop – Zhenyu Tattoo – close to the factory. Currently, 90% of the business comes from workers in Changshuo. Five minutes to the factory, “Changhsuo Night Market” is one of the most vital places in Rocket Village. Even a several-square-meter tattoo shop is packed.
The night market is where most of the workers to find food and buy daily necessities. With neon lights blinking, the place is more like a wholesale market having a greasy ground, selling underwear, quilts, fried chicken, duck necks and mobile phones (mostly brands like Vivo and Samsung). Prices here are far below those in downtown Shanghai. Ten Yuan probably is enough for a full meal. A roast chicken is like 15 Yuan, roast duck intestines are like 10 Yuan every 30 strings. A fully stuffed Chinese burritos costs less than 5 Yuan. Of course there are “decent” restaurants, like Shanxi Ramen, Jiaozi, Dumplings from north east and Mala Tang of Sichuan, but they have a same taste of sour and sweet. At night, crowds are quickly flowing. The smell of smoked peppers is becoming thicker and thicker with the sound of shovel slamming on the wok – ping, ping and pong, pong.
In 2009-2010, the market just started to have some scale. Yuan Kaixi’s shop was a stall with cement-paved floor. In addition to tattoos, he also acted like a center for online entertainment resources, which was pretty precious when smart phones are still not popular. Workers came to copy the films and TV dramas from his to their own devices. Yuan Kaixi had fixed price for everything – an episode of TV drama is 5 Yuan, a movie is 1 Yuan and 10 Yuan for 10 songs.
It was in 2012 that the number of workers in Changshuo surged, remembered Yuan, to around 110,000 to 120,000 people. Since 2017 when Apple’s first iPhone was launched, Foxconn had been the exclusive OEM manufacture. But in 2012, Heshuo won part of the OEM’s orders from Foxconn. Before that, Heshuo had always been OEM of ASUS notebooks and motherboards. It was then Yuan Kaixi downloaded hundreds of movies and TV dramas every day.
Yuan came to Shanghai from his hometown Haozhou in Anhui Province, and settled in Songjiang District in Shanghai, where he worked as a mechanical in the factory. Later he practiced tattoo skills with a master for two years and came to Changshuo factory. He saw the opportunity here – factory, people, and consumption power. Yuan now has three tattoo shops in the night market. Among them, one was just opened, the other refurnished from a grocery store.
The reason for the glory of tattoo shop is also pretty unique. Majority of the people here work in the same environment, wearing same uniforms, sharing very similar destiny. They live in similar small rooms in the buildings also looking same — they themselves also do. Tattoo then becomes an easier way to express their personalities, which could be representing the most important love for young men, or resistance to the cruel reality; or nothing at all, just to express the punky uniqueness.
In principle, factory doesn’t accept workers with tattoos. Before admitting to the factory, they must be checked with cloth off. The bottom line is that the tattoo cannot be bigger than the size of a business card in the area where clothes can cover. However, after that, it doesn’t matter. Workers hide the smaller ones in the inner arm or the calf covered by trousers.
Yuan Kaixi’s well-known for his tattoo skills, even repairing the destroyed patterns. Now he has 10 apprentices. Today, when there is no customer in the day, he lies down in the chair, stretching his legs, and using his arms to rest his head, to play games on the phone when spitting out sunflower seed shells from time to time. When he sees something, he will comment on the apprentices who are practicing tattoos aside.
Then, door opened. Someone came in to ask for photo taken for factory interview. Suit jacket on the top, slippers on the bottom, the man walked in through the door. Yuan Kaixi stood up immediately. He soon put up a blue curtain — the tattoo shop transmitted to a mini photo studio in one second. He took out his mobile phone, shot the photo, and even used some app to redo a red background for the customer. He handed it to him with satisfaction, saying that the red-background one is good enough for getting a blind date.
In addition to photo services, Yuan also sells personalized phone cases and provides ID card copying services. There are even strangers come to him while still carrying luggage, hoping to find contact to labor agent and go directly to the factory. He receives these customers, however stating that though he’s been here for ten years, minor issues are fine, important issues he cannot make them done.
If you search with your business instinct, there are many such types of business you can do near Changshuo. The closer to the factory, the more small advertisements posted on poles and trash cans, and even on the grassland these cards are scattered everywhere. The advertising business include sick leave request, social insurance cash back, always with a QR code. Some workers told me that not going to work costs 160 Yuan for one day, but if you have a sick leave permission from hospital, the deduction is only 60 Yuan.
But these small businesses are not the most profitable ones. Internet Café is. Rocket Village has many small Internet cafes where 10 Yuan is enough for staying one night. As the most popular “activity” after work, rows of people pack here at night. They are very much focused, unlike being tiresome and numb on the stream line in the factory, seem like Marx in the creation.
Wang Xiaoli wanted to earn a fortune by running an Internet Café too. He seriously started – he has 10 computers, running 10 hours per day, charging 2 Yuan per hour. He can earn 200 Yuan a day. If counting in sales of a few packs of cigarettes, he can pay the electricity bill off. He should have a revenue of 70,000 to 80,000 Yuan a year. But, it’s too hard to open it all night long, “it is too suffering”, he says. The business didn’t go on. It doesn’t matter, he says, there are roads ahead. Life is a journey.
Three months later, I went to the Rocket Village again. It was summer. There are more people dragging suitcases on the way from the subway station to the factory. Some people stop you to ask where Xiuyan Road (the factory) is. “Night Market” is refurbished. Walls of the store are painted into dark gray. The ground is much cleaner. Messy advertisements on the wall are peeled off and replaced with white paint, for the sake of “city appearance upgrade,” according to a food stand owner. I even see foreign Disney-visiting tourists with family looking around. Recently, several boutique hotels opens near Xiuyan Road to accommodate tourist going to Disney Resort. They all provide shuttle buses to the park, which is around 10-minute drive. Also, Starbucks, KFC and McDonald’s are also opened. Rocket village is no longer a “village” anymore.
Zhao Yixuan left Shanghai and returned to his hometown in May. He still wasn’t able to go to Disney before he left. He had no plans for the future, like many young people in their 20s feeling frustrated. I don’t want to define him as a “migrant worker”, he is more like an ordinary young people, like millions of others who might be a cousin or relative of someone living in city’s downtown. They don’t have much choices for the future. The only way to change destiny is to study and have a good college degree. When this doesn’t work out, the only choice would become to find a job in megacities.
Coincidentally, I saw Wang Xiaoli on the way out of the night market. He’s on his scooter towards factory’s front gate. He dyed his colorful hair black, and seems a little bit slimmer. I remembered he told me that he would only stay here for six months. “I will find a comfortable city, like Nanning or Xiamen. Try to live longer.” It’s been half way through the time he estimated, I don’t know how far he is from his goal.
Wang Xiaoli is not some head of the gangster, but he knows the rules. He has no money, no big future ahead. He only has some tiny, sometimes ridiculous dreams, making a living by drinking, fighting, gambling in an unfamiliar city.
Not far away, a girl with luggage walked over. He smiles with a long-lost exaggerated expression. The little eyes become even smaller, he again slides the scooter towards her with the same opening – “Hey girl, coming for job interview?”
 People’s Commune: 人民公社It was the highest of three administrative levels in rural areas of the People’s Republic of China during the period from 1958 to 1983, it was divided in turn into production brigades and production teams. The communes had governmental, political, and economic functions during the Cultural Revolution.
 Chengguan 城管 – local government official who is in charge of city’s appearance and roadside management
 Malatang – Spicy Sichuan soup with boiled food