The Uncertain Rhythms of Life for China's Migrant "Bosses"

  • Research

GUANGZHOU, China — As I walked through the narrow alleyways of the garment district here in China’s third-largest city one afternoon, I saw a woman I’ll call Wong Yip sitting beside a large worktable by the tall front gates of her factory. In 2012, Wong Yip and her husband, who I’ll call Wong Zi, moved here from neighboring Guangxi Province to experiment in the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship. They own and operate their own small-scale industrial workshop, colloquially known as a jiagongchang, situated in a garage-like den that facilitates the mass assembly of low-cost garments bound for transnational traders and ultimately exported as fast fashion to overseas markets around the globe. With her eyes cast downward, she took a stack of thick elastic bands and placed them beside a ruler before cutting them into narrow strips. Piles of carefully measured loose fabric strands gathered on the table in front of her. I sat on a wooden stool beside her and said hello. She returned a smile, but it looked tired and forced, seeming to hide a flood of emotion brewing inside of her. When I told her I had the next few days off from teaching, she remarked how wonderful a scholarly life must be. A lanky man in a white t-shirt and fitted khaki pants cropped right above his ankles emerged out of the factory and stood beside me. Wong looked up at him and spoke angrily. “You must understand,” she said, “it takes money to pay for the electricity and to pay our workers. … We’ve been waiting for over a month now and you owe us more than 10,000 RMB. We refuse to hand over the finished garments until you pay us the money!”

Duke Faculty Artists/Collaborators

Cited Artists/Collaborators

  • Nellie Chu

Creation Date

  • August 2022