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THE CHINESE MIGRANT STRUGGLE

by Austin Shah, Laura McCraine, Lucy Moon, and Matthew Jean-Mary

photo courtesy of the California History Room, citation #1.

 
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INTRODUCTION

Welcome to our collaborative final project for Asia 2605: Romancing the Nation in Modern Chinese Literature. In our project, we examine key issues surrounding feelings of isolation and alienation by members of the Chinese community, specifically migrants. Through the backdrop of isolation, we talk about the struggles that so many migrants in and outside of China face. In addition, we dive deep into the specific, unique struggles that female migrant workers experience. Isolation has been a major theme in many of the readings we have done so far, and is important when discussing the health of the nation and its people.

photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch, citation #2

 
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MIGRANT ISOLATION AND ALIENATION THROUGH LITERATURE

The feelings of isolation and alienation is not a new feeling to our modern generation. In fact, isolation and alienation is perhaps one of the most universally recognized forms of trauma throughout history, recorded in various forms ranging from poetry to film. Throughout our readings of Chinese literature specifically, there are many recorded instances and forms of isolation suffered by Chinese people for centuries, both inside and outside China.

photo courtesy of Library of Congress, citation #3.

 

Starting from the 1900s, Chinese immigrants looking to find a new future or a safe refuge in America have faced many forms of hostile and dehumanizing isolation. East Asian immigrants were essentially sorted and alienated from their European counterparts in a facility that was meant to enforce the Chinese exclusion laws. Unlike Ellis Island that was built to welcome European immigrants into the United States, the Angel Island Immigration Station was built to enforce this isolation and “othering” of Asian immigrants. Not only did most to all non-Asian immigrants get to avoid Angel Island altogether, some immigrant inspectors actively sought out Asian immigrants to be contained at Angel Island for a variety of different reasons and excuses.

The immigrants were further segregated by gender and were limited in their interactions with other immigrants in the center. The segregation was a way for the immigration centers to keep the less labor-wise beneficial women away, as Chinese women were primarily entering as the dependent wives or daughters of the men. Due to this, the women were given a much harder time proving their qualifications to enter the United States in the first place, often being interrogated to unreasonably detailed standards.

photo courtesy of Associate Press via the New York Times, citation #24.

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Even inside the detention center, alienation between the detained immigrants was largely prevalent. The immigrants were confined in the quarters of the escape-proof Angel Island, treated no different to a jailed prisoner. Despite the fact that they were isolated in terms of personal relationships, these detainment centers were clustered together in order to preserve space. So ironically, privacy was minimal. Here, the Asian immigrants were segregated and alienated based on nationality, with Japanese immigrants being subject to the least scrutiny due to their amiable economic ties with the United States. After being divided by nationality, those that were deemed to be unfit and “filthy” were subjected to more intensive and invasive examinations. Often in the name of catching the “loathsome and dangerously contagious diseases”, these tests practiced the most humiliating and discriminatory forms of investigations.

Once they got off the immigration detention station, this sense of isolation did not dissipate overnight. Most white Americans also saw the Chinese as nothing more than what they considered Yellow Peril–– a moral, racial, and economic threat to the “American” lifestyle. They were stereotyped in mass media as filthy slave laborers, unfit to fully become a part of the American culture. Even laws on a federal level, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, were passed in order to hammer home this alienation, with 1887 seeing a record low of only 10 Chinese immigrants being admitted into the country.

photo courtesy of National Archive via the Daily Californian, citation #25.

 
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Through literature, we are able to identify these sources and feelings of isolation, and thus empathize with these individuals. In this ironic sense, isolation has become a closely intertwined aspect of lived experiences, such that it has become a shared experience that binds together generations of isolated individuals. It is important, then, to also give rise to arguably one of the least represented forms of isolation is, perhaps, that of the subset of Chinese people that have recently struggled with feelings of alienation and isolation–– the female migrant workers from China. Many migrants feel that moving to another country or place outside their home has taken away their voice and presence, not only in Chinese culture, but also in the country that they move to. 
photo courtesy of Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, citation #26.

 

ANGEL ISLAND POETRY

     Chinese immigrants to America recorded their stories of struggle and homesickness by scratching poems onto the walls of Angel Island, or as the detainees referred to it, Devil’s Pass,. They left their home behind in search of economic opportunity but felt distanced from their sense of nation, in both a geographical and cultural sense (Aaron Kwag). These travellers underwent unimaginable loneliness and confinement, forced to live in a state of ambiguity, unsure of whether they would be offered passage into America. Other than the thousands of miles distance between them and the remnants of their family left on the mainland, detainees were also separated from the family members that came along the journey with them. Men and women were separated into different living and sleeping areas, which tore apart couples, siblings, and parent-child units. 

Additionally, they were made to attend lessons on how to assimilate into American culture. Angel Island attempted to strip every element of Chinese identity and belonging they could from immigrants, “apart from the ancestors, [we] are no longer close to one another” (Unknown). The type of persecution and isolation we see here is mandated and enforced by American political forces, external powers driven by racism and discriminatory fuel. In their poetry and pieces of literature, these immigrants express their feelings of limbo, existing only in the memory of their home and culture.

The image below shows “Angel Island detainees etched literature onto the walls describing their despair and desperation in the face of the demoralizing acts of injustice from American ‘barbarians.’ The engraved poetry ranges from profoundly expressive and creative to cruder proclamations of anger and anxiety.”

photo courtesy of Jeffrey Thomas Leong through KQED, citation #21.

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LI T'UNG: A CHINESE GIRL IN NEW YORK

photo courtesy of Asian Fusion Magazine, citation #22.

One important piece of literature that alludes to feelings of isolation and alienation suffered by migrants was Li Tung: A Chinese Girl in New York authored by Pai Hsein-yung. Written in 1971, it also provides a modern perspective of the many issues experienced by migrants. In addition, the work is one of the first to give voice and prompt conversation about the issues faced by migrants abroad. 


The protagonist of the story is Li Tung, a chinese girl who moves from China to New York, a city which symbolizes the potential greatness, and opportunity that comes with migration. However, soon after she arrives, Li Tung’s parents are killed when they attempt to flee Shanghai to Taiwan on the S.S Peace. Furthermore, this was a real event that actually happened (insert image/media in storymap). All of a sudden, Li Tung was without her parents. Not only was she in another country, but she also lost the main thing connecting herself to her home—to China. Throughout the rest of the story, we see that Li Tung was never really able to recover from this tragedy.

 

A CHINESE GIRL IN NEW YORK

photo courtesy of UCSB, citation #12.

When she lost her parents, the issues involving China, nationalism, and identity came to the forefront of Li Tung’s life. The reader sees her continuous drinking and gambling problem develop. Further, the reader witnesses her friends' marriages while Li Tung has not been able to stay in a relationship. Marriage in the story serves as a primary symbol of isolation, especially for Li Tung. The author portrays Li Tung as one of the most beautiful people on earth, yet she is the one who is not married. She has the highest paying job, yet she is the one who is still not married. Perhaps the most important argument of Hsein-yung’s work is that despite what Li Tung has, her beauty, her job, and her money, she still feels incredibly isolated being without her parents, without her home, and without her nation. She was so isolated to the extent that she even committed suicide. Her friends’ reaction to Li Tung’s suicide further exemplfiy the issues faced by Chinese people abroad. Her friends first reaction to Li Tung’s suicide are that she should have gotten married, and they question why she committed suicide when she had a great job with money. It showed that even what were supposed to be her close friends did not realize the alienation Li Tung had experienced throughout her life.


     Relating this back to the discussion of alienation and isolation in general, Li Tung’s story is important because of how it brings alienation and isolation to the forefront. It challenges the modern view, and debunks the idea having money, or being beautiful solves the issue of isolation. Although Li Tung was physically isolated from her nation, and was living in a different country, she was also isolated from her friends, and from her past self, and her culture.

     The picture below is of Pai Hsein-Yung, the author of Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York. 

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THE TAIPING INCIDENT

The image below is of the S.S Peace ship that Hsein-Yung refers to in Li T'ung: A Chinese Girl in New York. The Taiping Incident in January of 1949 marked the start of Li T'ung's isolation with her parents' death. After this moment, Li T'ung never truly recovered.

photo courtesy of RMZXB, citation #10.

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Newspaper Depicting the Taiping Incident

This is an authentic Chinese newspaper that talks about the Taiping incident. Our colleague, Bella Li, presented on the Taiping Incident and had this to say about the newspaper. 


 "After the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Kuomintang finally ended in failure. At that time, there happened to be a luxury cruise ship from Shanghai to Taiwan, namely Taiping. Therefore, many Kuomintang officials, as well as some famous people and wealthy businessmen, took it. But unfortunately, the ship was overloaded, and at night, in order to avoid the curfew, the ship collided with a freighter carrying timber and eventually sank. In the novel, Li T’ung’s father was a high-ranking official of the Kuomintang, and both her parents were killed because of the Taiping Wheel Event. This has become the fuse for her degenerate in the future and finally self-destruction step-by-step” (Bella Li). 

photo courtesy of Unknown Chinese Newspaper, citation #4.

 
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PART II: IRON MOON

Chinese migrant workers suffered through dehumanizing, backbreaking work in their industrial factory atmospheres. Physically distanced from their hometowns and emotionally estranged from their sense of identity, migrant workers expressed their anguish and sense of isolation through the form of poetry. 


As the most basic building block of China’s large-scale manufacturing abilities, migrant workers are the reason why ‘Made in China’ tags can be found on so many products today. They were, and still are, the driving force behind the country’s dramatic transformation into the global power it is today. As urban cities became more populated, the available pool of opportunity migrated away from rural areas. Solely investing into agriculture was not a sustainable source of livelihood anymore, and so urbanization occurred on a large scale as rural villagers migrated towards factories and industry. This mass migration resulted in a new class of peasant-worker: a background with usually little education or skill who travels away from home to work a back-breaking job for a number of years, sending the majority of their money away to their family. 


Factories were intensely cutthroat working environments. Villagers of working age left their homes behind for tedious work and dismally small sums of money. Their alternative, however, was not any more attractive, as remaining in their rural villages and working in agriculture wouldn’t provide a liveable income. In such a booming economy, society’s focus was on the transition to urban and industry. Although the majority of China’s population was rural rather than urban, there was no economic prospects outside of cities. 

The overlaid image below is of a previously state-owned steel plant 'zombie factory' that has since been shut down and left abandoned, a result of China's rapid economic boom.

photo courtesy of Getty Images through BBC, citation #7.

 

I SWALLOWED AN IRON MOON

I swallowed an iron moon

they called it a screw


I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms

bent over machines, our youth died young


I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty

swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life


I can’t swallow any more

everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat 


I spread across my country

a poem of shame

 

If our perspective is brought down to a more narrow level, the circumstances these migrating individuals face is even worse. Iron Moon, an anthology of Chinese migrant worker poetry, collects and discusses the stories left behind by these workers. The poems have two main themes: the isolating work in the factories, and the pain of leaving home behind. This general expression of powerlessness relates to the disorientation of suddenly being in a shifting urban landscape, in which these migrant workers do not fit in either “legislatively or culturally” (Doris Du). The frustration of being an assembly line worker doing menial tasks under horrific labor conditions is perhaps most apparent in Xu Lizhi’s poem “I Swallowed an Iron Moon.”

 

“Migrant workers in Beijing, 1998, as they wait for their train to take them back to their hometown villages in the country. The average work day in the early 1990s was at least 12 hours long, and time off was rare, except for the Lunar New Year holiday which was commonly the only time workers were able to visit their families every year.”

photo courtesy of Homer Sykes, citation #16

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PART III: FEMALE MIGRANT WORKERS

Female migrant workers encountered a unique plight. Beyond the general maltreatment and dehumanization of all employees, factory labor also stripped away their sense of feminine individuality, and forced them to endure persistent hormonal and fertility-related difficulties.

The image above shows “women assembling lighters at a factory in Xuyi, China. In the booming coastal cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Dongguan, women occupy most of the positions in textile, consumer electronics production, and cleaning industries.”

photo courtesy of Getty Images via Oberlin, citation #19.

 

CLOSE AS FINGERS

On the assembly line, ten fingers dance

close to the widgets

far from the worker’s heart

if the moon can soothe the night tonight

her ten fingers will continue to dance

and she might manage to forget

the unceasing circling pain 


Who knew that ten fingers could flower

into calluses, that over and over they work

the assembly line’s copper widgets and iron widgets

but still the lines of her palms 

carry a faint silken scent


The callous blossoms drop into dreams

and start to savor a relationship a close as fingers

she starts calling and calling for her loved ones

faraway lamps light up and then darken again

the road is like as assembly line, stretching out into the distance

 

        Factories producing consumer goods to be exported away from China did not require employees to have very technical skills or physical strength. There was a higher population of women than men in these factories, although society at the time was intensely patriarchal and emphasized men more in the workforce. Female laborers developed a reputation of diligence and dedication, though industry managers also spread the word that they were easier to manage and able to withstand more hardship than their male counterparts. How women are able to surpass the efforts of men is touched on in “Close as Fingers” by the poet Xu Lizhi. It is about how the assembly line lifestyle is entirely incompatible with an individual sense of aesthetic, yet female workers still manage to maintain their femininity.The female migrant worker’s productivity is largely based around copper widgets and iron widgets, which are the antithesis of her’s as well as many other women’s preconceived notions of beauty. Nonetheless, despite their identity being less of a match with these handyman objects than a typical male’s, they do transcend past these cold objects destroying their appreciation of beauty. The line “Who knew that ten fingers could flower into callouses,” is beautifully put to display how evidence of a hard day’s work is beautiful in its own way; it is beautiful because it represents pleasure in the context of a harrowing environment.

 

The uniform is gray
and I want to hide it
the gray of tear stains and sweat-stains
glue odor, machine oil oidor, the odor of grievances
homesickness in the seams
I want to hide all that too
it’s twenty years old, the time I've spent in the factory
I'll hide those twenty years
they're so big, they once bound me
like binding a soundless cicada
that’s trembling all over
I’ll hide the trembling
hide it, hide it all
take its gray color, and 
all the diligent work and my mute self
the others who made me mute 
and hide it all away in the deepest place
hide it where no one can find it
I’m afraid I'll drag it out
from deep in my memory 
so it can make me suffer again
so it can wound me

        Factory atmospheres promoted a loss of gender distinction, encouraging all laborers to be uniform in appearance and activity. Zheng Xiaoqiong, one of the few female poets of the time, expressed this theme best in her poem “Hide That Uniform Away,”  Under this regulation, women were further estranged from their sense of femininity, which can be a large component of an individual sense of identity. The rules of patriarchal China were largely enforced by society of the time, so in a time period where women were first emerging into the traditionally male-dominated workforce, they were mistreated and perceived under a lens of gender. These women were operating in what had always been considered a ‘masculine’ space, and so had to fight harder to preserve their own self and be given a proper voice. For instance, in Xie Xiangnan’s “Work Accident Joint Investigative Report,” it is mentioned how a woman migrant worker had been working nonstop for 12 hours, and the eventual exhaustion lead her to making a mistake and losing her finger. However, the woman worker does not cry out in pain, but rather just leaves the area clutching her finger. This is representative of how women workers must go the extra mile to show they belong in a historically male-dominated space. They must not just act “tough” like men, but go above and beyond what is to be expected of a typical man, in order to earn respect in their field.


 

Zheng Xiaoqiong, one of the most prolific poets of the time, was able to record her critique of the patriarchal administration and sexual exploitation she and other women endured at the factory. Women have to be able to handle more hardship than men, because the work has been created around the idea of only men doing it, without a 2nd thought for the needs of women. In Zheng Xiaoqiong’s A Product’s Story, it is mentioned how women “missed periods,” in order to keep up with demands of work. In this way, the harm done to a woman is immensely greater to a woman than a man, as the health consequences are magnified.

photo courtesy of Zhou Xiaojing, citation #20.

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Another common theme in women-written Iron Moon poetry is about maintaining femininity in the face of losing all gender distinction within the oppressive factory atmosphere. In “Woman Worker: Youth Pinned to a Station,” Zheng Xiaoqiong writes of how strenuous factory work leads to premature aging in terms of physical looks. He mentions, “The speed of the assembly line is the speed of their aging.” Not just in China, but globally, so much pressure is placed around women looking “young and beautiful,” to woo men, that it almost becomes a second job for women. However, working female migrant worker life, zaps the youthful appearance away from women, making this much more difficult. Female migrant workers are making industrial products that men desire, however they don’t receive any fanfare for their work like they would if they look nice walking along a street during the day. Rather the women workers are continually ignored by the men, because society has wrongly deemed women’s value largely to be from their aesthetics, and not the blood, sweat, and tears of a long day’s work. 


Xiaoqiong mentions “this life of a lost name and gender” (“Life”), suggesting that the way a woman associated herself prior to joining the factory is now no longer possible. There is no difference between men and women, there are just “workers,” suggesting how dehumanizing the environment is. Yet, nonetheless, iron sharpens iron, and iron for female workers also represents a fighting spirit and an unquenchable thirst to topple over an iron empire that oppresses them. Women may be alienated from their gender identity, but their determination to continue to press forward in hopes of better days is as fervent as ever.

photo courtesy of China Daily, citation #23.

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PART IV: MODERN SITUATION AND CALL TO ACTION

Female migrant workers are placed in dreadful conditions and have tremendous trouble advancing up the social ladder due to  “lack of education, gender inequality, adherence to strict patriarchal values, and a culture of male chauvinism.” This horrific reality is just another way female migrant workers feel intense isolation. Despite being the life-blood of the Chinese economy’s manufacturing, there is little evidence that they are seen as meaningful people. And being women, limits their ceiling and therefore gives them less optimism for a brighter future. In this way, women are isolated from achieving their aspirations and full potential. Sadly, the shackles that have been placed around women from birth just further leads to more agony; the previously mentioned biases are risk factors for intimate partner violence.


The feeling of isolation for female migrant workers is compounded by their treatment at home, which should be a safe haven, not a danger zone for many women after a long day’s work. A study by Chen and Ngoubene-Atioky, the frequency of relationship partner violence among Chinese female migrant workers. Out of the women sampled, 37% of women experienced domestic abuse from their partner. In another study, conducted by Tu et. al, about 40% of female migrant workers reported being the victim of intimate partner violence. In comparison, the Chinese national average of women victims of intimate partner violence is around 26%, suggesting that female migrant workers are especially at risk of harsh treatment from their partners. Once again, not only in society-but even from those who are supposed to be their biggest supporters-the female migrant workers cannot receive positive affirmation.


Perhaps more frightening is that there are very little signs of things changing. Siu Ming To and Hau Lin Tam captained a cross-sectional survey study “to investigate the generational differences in the work values, perceived job rewards, and job satisfaction of Chinese female migrant workers.” 


Two generations of female migrant workers were observed and it was found that there are no generational divides in work values (self-improvement and career development), however the younger generation was less satisfied with job rewards handed out at their work and overall lower job satisfaction. Female migrant workers are not encouraged by their country to truly test the full extent of their abilities, and therefore become blind to attempting to create a better life for themselves. Nonetheless, female migrant workers are less happy with their working environments than their predecessors. While China is by far the fastest growing economy, it seems as if the well-being of female migrant workers has been an afterthought to China.

 

WORKS CITED

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Fig.2 Pai Hsien-yung. Chinese Heritage Quarterly

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