Riding the train Between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, dozens upon dozens of factories and dormitories flashed before my eyes. I was at the heart of the world’s factory, in the belly of the dragon. Sometimes, all the buildings of a particular complex were painted the same hues of pink or blue or yellow, and I couldn’t help but imagine the workers inside all wearing uniforms of that same colour. I wondered what were they making? Plastic flowers? Singing Christmas decorations? Jewelry adorned with authentic fake diamonds? Electric toothbrushes with a Pocahontas handle? XXXL underwear? And what about them, did they ever wonder about the people buying all the things they were making? I was obsessed by the idea of meeting them; we shared a bond, a tangible bond linking us by way of these objects. In a few minutes, I would be arriving in Shenzhen, where I would visit a cell phone factory with Matthew, my interpreter. A Mata Hari of the business world, I was now a CEO responsible for an import and export division.
Sometimes it seems to me we spend our lives working so we can buy more things. We fill our houses, our lives, to overflowing. We pile high, building towers to make us feel bigger. Sometimes, I think that the more we fill ourselves up, the emptier we become. On the other side of the globe, in the Middle Kingdom, an army of invisible workers produce day and night to slake our thirst for consumption. Known as “mingong”, these peasant workers are the cheap workforce (because the law of the lowest price works both ways) that inhabit the thousands of factory-dormitories. Scorned by the city dwellers, they are building the China of tomorrow. They come from all over the country, by necessity or in the hopes of improving their lot in life, in a country where bicycle-mounted coal sellers are left in the dust by parading Ferraris. This is the Middle Kingdom, the meeting point of the extremes of the human condition, of past, present, and future.
When we arrived in Shenzhen’s special economic zone, the managers of the factory greeted us at our hotel and took us to their office. They boiled water to make tea. Before serving us, one of the managers sprinkled some of the brew on a small golden pig. Why? I asked. Good luck, he said. I drank a lot of tea that day, because you can never have enough luck. We talked a long time. I don’t know much about cell phones. I don’t even own one.
A crazy mini-van driver took us to the factory. We were flying at 100 miles an hour, going ever deeper into the huge industrial park that I had noticed a few hours earlier. We crossed secret areas, passing gatehouses with the approval of green-clad guards. When we arrived, a security guard opened my door for me. That’s how it is in China, there is always too much service. We climbed a few floors, and I could hear the noise of the factory, industrial sounds echoing metallically. Before entering, I was asked to don small blue slippers and was handed a badge with a Chinese inscription. To my surprise, the workers were all wearing blue uniforms, the same colour as the figurines I had started working on in Montréal – reality had caught up with me. The blue of the uniforms meeting the green of the floor produced a sort of visual electroshock, as if the colours were igniting each other. I walked quietly down the rows of blue workers, observing their work, their repetitive, precise gestures. Long red banners were hanging from the ceiling, displaying communist slogans, like religious commandments, advocating productivity and rigour. They seemed to be effective.
But the real goal of this mata-hariesque mission, under the cover of importing and exporting cell phones, was to infiltrate the dormitories. I wanted to put a face to this army of invisible workers, individualize this enormous anthill. On the way to the dormitories, I passed young couples holding hands, workers riding bicycles and playing soccer. The factory isn’t just their workplace, it’s where they live. These complexes are like secluded villages or small cordoned-off cities. We entered one of the rooms in the girls’ dormitory, a tiny space packed with five beds each sporting a piece of plywood in lieu of a mattress. Some of the girls had installed a makeshift curtain in front of their bed in an attempt at some privacy. Suitcases, clothes, and dishes were piled on the two unoccupied beds, reminding me of their migration. In the back of the room there was a shower, a toilet, and a small sink. The workday had just come to an end, and two of the residents walked into the room. When one of them put her arm around me so we could immortalize the moment with a photograph something moved deep inside me. When I remember that moment, I think of the tangible bond that pushed me to undertake this journey being fully realized.
The crazy driver took us back to our hotel. I never managed to sign a deal to import cell phones to North America. Business just isn’t my thing.
When I returned from China, I began to work like the young chinese in the factories. I created figurines without pause, seven days a week, from morning to night, until I finished All you can eat. I wanted to honour them, because they had touched me deeply. Once I had finished, I was bone-tired. I had tried to be like the Chinese, but the truth soon caught up with me. I hunkered down in front of the TV like a giant groundhog for a time, getting drunk on television series. When I finally emerged from my den, I went to the port of Montréal. When I saw all those containers from China, piled high as skyscrapers, I started thinking of the Chinese again and of the Middle Kingdom. I didn’t stay long at the port; I was escorted out by a security guard; apparently I represented a potential terrorist threat. I went back to my workshop, full of fresh ideas.