These intimate moments take place in public places in industrial areas in Dongguan in Guangdong Province where these workers work and live – in a park on the grass, at a picnic table by a road, outside a snack bar, in the community library, a phone booth in the street, etc. Some of the women wear casual clothes or even sexy outfits, while others wear factory uniforms.
These images immediately captured my attention as a cultural Anthropologist who spent 20 years researching rural migrant workers from China. Their realism was appealing to me. What intrigued me was the polarised remarks about them.
One-liners included “So sweet,” “How romantic,” “They’re so pure and innocent,” “Love does not discriminate against the rich,” or “Life is beautiful due to love.”
Some were harsh. One commenter said Shenzhen was full of “illicit lovers.” Another post implied criticism of such intimate acts, saying, “most of these couples just want sex. Love doesn’t come into play.”
They have no soul, and they are only interested in their bodily desires. They have no sense of responsibility towards themselves, their families, or society. They are only interested in cheap sexual pleasure. What do they think about love?
Wanning Sun began his decade-long investigation into the effects of inequality on Shenzen’s migrants with a series of photos. Zhan Youbing provided
In retrospect, it was this initial fascination with these photos that led me to embark on a decade-long journey exploring the intimate effects of inequality.
I was curious to see what the rural migrant workers thought of these images and their polarised reactions. I wanted to understand what it was like to be forced to attend yet another blind dating event arranged by parents, steal an intimate moment under compromised circumstances, and endure the stigma that comes with not being able to afford a spouse.
Shenzen iPhone and iPad Workers
In 2015, I began my fieldwork in the newly-created industrial zone of Longhua District of Shenzhen. This manufacturing sector is located in the Pearl River Delta and is a major employer for rural migrant workers in China’s factories.
Between 2015 and 2017, I spent about one month per year on average talking to 50 migrant workers who worked at Foxconn Shenzhen, the people who assembled our iPhones and iPads. I conducted in-depth interviews with 50 migrant workers in Shenzhen, China, from 2015 to 2017. These migrant workers gathered the iPhones and iPads we use.
Foxconn’s production line for iPhones and iPads. Kin Cheung/AP
During that time, I spent as much as I could with the families of these workers, chatting, watching TV, eating and shopping, or just “hanging out.” I also closely tracked their romantic lives in 2018-2019. Even today, I communicate with them via WeChat.
My main fieldwork site was Village Q. This is a “village in the city” that is located outside Foxconn’s plant. In the village, popular songs about unrequited love, betrayal, and loneliness are heard in the streets.
The spicy aromas from Hunan and Hubei, as well as Sichuan, satisfy the palates and alleviate the homesickness of many workers from these provinces. There are shops selling groceries, mobile phone accessories, lottery tickets and other items. Also, there are internet cafes and hair salons that offer temporary intimacy for hourly rates.
There are many promotional materials in the streets, such as cards and leaflets, advertising a wide range of goods and services. These include “factory girls,” who will spend an evening with you at a modest fee, and clinics that offer “quick, painless abortions.”
Here you will find everything migrant workers require to survive. All the goods are cheap and cheerful. They cater exclusively to workers earning around 3,000 Yuan (about US$440) per month.
Shenzen’s ‘Village Q’ Wanning Sun, Author provided
Around 7.30 in the morning, I saw a steady stream of workers hurrying to the Foxconn factory’s northern and western gates, with breakfast in hand but still sleep in their eyes. They were afraid of losing their pay if they were even two minutes late.
Another stream of workers, going the opposite way, would emerge at the same gate, their bodies dragging after a 12-hour workday, looking pale and numb. They were heading to bed in their dorm or rental accommodation. Each worker wore a lanyard that had their Foxconn ID photo hanging from it. No one was allowed to enter the plant or leave without scanning their card.
“A very modest Dream”
These rural migrants I spoke to are commonly referred to by the term nongmingong which is literally translated as “peasant workers”. The manufacturing sector is where I conducted my study. These migrants are found in many areas, including the Construction sector and the Service and Hospitality sectors, as well as small businesses and other industries.
Chinese cities can’t function for even a day without rural migrants. Without the cheap labour that rural migrants provide, China’s so called Economic Miracle would simply not have been possible.
Nongmingong has become a part of urban life ever since the economic reforms in the 1980s. The National Bureau of Statistics of China estimates that there will be 286 million “peasant worker” in China by 2020. This is more than ten times the population of Australia.
The rural migrants that I spoke to were born between 1980 and 1990. These are the children who were born to rural migrants who went to the cities to find work during the first two decades of China’s economic reforms. These young workers are mostly new to farming.