Since the 1950s, Baotou, the smog-addled city in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region where I was born, has churned out a relentless supply of steel and weapons. My childhood memories of the city consist mainly of factory rooms and chimneys — a mass of gray-black coal cinders and red-hot molten steel.
My family still lives in the apartment that the factory allocated to my grandfather in the early 1980s. Inside the squat four-story building, the crumbling cement staircase up to my family’s home is just wide enough to accommodate a bicycle. The hallway windows, with their grime-mottled glass panes, sit low to the ground. In the light, you can see dust swirling in the air. Standing by my bedroom window, I can look north and see the gray expanse of factory buildings, as well as the towering chimneys of the neighboring power plant.
My grandpa came here at the end of the 1950s. A recent college graduate at the time, he and his classmates heeded the call of their country and came to support the national defense industry. That generation of workers zealously took on the task of building up their homeland, believing that the duty fell to them: “Who would do it if not me?” As a result, they willingly turned their backs on a more comfortable life in Beijing and trekked instead to faraway Inner Mongolia to work in the factory. For them, producing goods for the country was a source of honor and pride.
The workers gave everything to the factory, and the factory, in turn, provided everything they needed for daily life. In a heavily industrial city like Baotou, such factories still wield strong governmental influence because they support municipal finances and nearly all social functions within their neighborhoods. Factory workers receive free health care, and their children receive free education. The factories fix their own roads and supply their own utilities to the neighborhood. Unmarried workers live in single-sex dorms, while married workers or those with family have separate housing. Once a couple marries, the factory gives them a bed, a desk, and two stools with which to furnish their rooms.
Back then, everyone knew that they were factory workers but didn’t recognize that they were also municipal citizens. Personal relationships all stayed within range of the factory. From a young age, I knew the other major factories around us like the back of my hand, but I only found out where the city hall was located when I was in high school.
Like the assembly line, days replicated themselves as endless carbon copies. When I was in elementary school — about 10 to 15 years ago now — I thought that the factory director led the workers in goods production. My mother corrected me one day: She said that from then on, the factory director should be called the “general manager.” At the time, I felt only a subtle change; only later did I fully realize what this meant.
The “general manager” title signified the marketization of state-owned enterprises. Unable to rely on government orders any longer, weapons factories were forced to allocate part of their production line to developing goods for civilian use — mostly those huge trucks that carry raw minerals — and to compete with one another. Failure to generate sufficient business meant that staff would have no work, and the factory wouldn’t be able to pay the workers’ salaries. At times like this, workers would take compulsory leave.
It happened to my uncle once. On a weekday afternoon when he should’ve been working, he sat instead on the hole-ridden sofa in our living room, smoking moodily. After two cigarettes, he threw on his work uniform, got on his bike, and left. Later, I found out that he had cycled in circles in front of the locked factory gate. Around him stood white poplar trees, their leaves rustling in the wind.
The number of factory workers in the city has steadily decreased since then, dropping from 20,000 at the start of the 1990s to the 7,000 or 8,000 workers left today. The workload has diminished as well. Just like my uncle, a sizeable portion of the remaining workers now hover between their homes and the factory day after day, waiting for things to look up.
When the workers complain about the factory, their voices carry the fear of losing their livelihoods and the envy they harbor toward those who got out early and found civil service work elsewhere in the city. Yet whenever the country holds a military parade, they see the weapons they made with their own hands rolling slowly by and feel a deep sense of accomplishment. Love and hate are intermingled, as are the desire to escape and an enduring sense of attachment.
An eagle statue made of shell cases is displayed near Baotou Northern Weaponry City in Baotou, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Jan. 1, 2012. Courtesy of Wang Ziyan
I’ve grown up since then and find it increasingly difficult to visualize the factory of my parents’ time. When I was in elementary school, the factory maintained a “cultural center,” where my mom would take me to play badminton or watch the factory sports teams practicing whenever we had free time. Now it’s been converted into a privately run movie theater. In the past, we would roller-skate on the patch of concrete in front of the building, but now it has become the theater’s overcrowded parking lot. A gargantuan poster perennially hangs on the wall outside, advertising the latest blockbuster, and the smell of popcorn permeates the lobby.
There’s now a tourist attraction called Baotou Northern Weaponry City located two minutes’ walk from my home. The site houses a variety of decommissioned war machines — artillery, planes, railcars, and the like — some of which were produced by our factory. Locals prefer to practice tai chi or square dance in the plaza out front.
Weaponry City captures the complex spirit of Baotou. It pays homage to our past glories as a city of arms manufacturers, but it fails to paint a clear picture of our future. As modern tower blocks slowly smother Baotou’s factories and mines, locals look to the future and feel obsolete, lost, rudderless.
Still, the pulse of the city beats on. Meanwhile, my memories of living in the factory — an institution so closely intertwined with my childhood — continue to wither away.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: The dilapidated windows of a factory-allocated apartment in Baotou, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Jan. 1, 2012. Courtesy of Wang Ziyan)