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2020-06-19 13:24:19  + video 

This is the fourth installment of Unraveled, a series of special reports from a Chinese clothing hub struggling to cope with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. Watch the first video in the series here, the second part here, and the third part here.

GUANGDONG, South China — Liu Shihua spent his last few nights in the city of Guangzhou in late April wandering around the bus stop near the Datang metro station. He’d just watch his fellow migrant workers from the central Hubei province line up for buses back home.

Liu knew he’d be boarding one soon but couldn’t explain why he lingered, looking at buses come and go until the crowd thinned. “Actually, I was a little reluctant to leave Guangzhou, but I didn’t have a choice,” he tells Sixth Tone. “My plan last year was to buy my son a car this year. This is now impossible.” 

And, like dozens of other Hubei migrants working in Guangzhou’s mighty textile sector, Liu eventually boarded one of the homebound buses late in April.  

This was in stark contrast to March, when the same buses were bringing in crowds of workers to Guangdong’s provincial capital after the lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak was lifted. Most hoped to return to their jobs in the global textiles hub. 

Liu Shihua , a garment workshop boss, struggles to adapt to post-pandemic life. By Wu Huiyuan, Feng Jing, Daniel Holmes, and Qi Ya

Instead, they found a garment industry reeling in the aftermath of COVID-19 — with orders scarce, wages low, and factories shut. Unable to make rent on their apartments or garment workshops, many decided to leave. In just the last two weeks of April alone, nine such buses ferried nearly 1,000 people back to Hubei each day. 

According to a report in Global Textiles, China’s garment exports have plummeted this year. Quoting data from the General Administration of Customs, the report said between January and April of this year, China’s textile exports amounted to $39.2 billion — a year-over-year growth of just 1.32%, while apparel exports fell 21.99% to $31 billion.

It's all quiet inside the building now.

On April 23, Liu watched the last bus of the day leave the station and walked back to his rental apartment to pack his things. He lived in Datang, an urban village in Haizhu District and the primary choice for thousands of migrants from Hubei. 

Housing demand in the city is such that locals have rebuilt their old houses into multistory apartments to meet the ever-growing needs of workers from Hubei.

Liu’s apartment is a 10-story building with two rooms per floor. Each room doubles as a family workshop and living space. According to Liu, there are more than 1,000 buildings like this one in Datang. “It's all quiet inside the building now,” he said. “Before, throughout the entire building, all day through, there’d be the sound of sewing machines from people working.” 

Liu Shihua visits the job-hunting market in Datang Village, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 27, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Liu Shihua visits the job-hunting market in Datang Village, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 27, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Before moving to Guangzhou a decade ago, Liu drove a taxi in Huizhou, a city about 150 kilometers away. And when the garment industry prospered, many started their own workshops to meet the seemingly endless global demand and turn huge profits.

As did Liu. Encouraged by his wife and son who worked in the industry in Datang for years, he moved to Guangzhou in 2009 and started his own family workshop.

Unlike the bigger factories with better equipment and hundreds of employees, family-based workshops like Liu’s focus on low-end orders. Such workshops operate with fewer benefits and lower profit margins but are in high demand in this sector. 

Considering the low investment costs, a family workshop of three members can meet most orders. Thousands dot the Datang landscape. 

A sector-specific survey of the region and the garment industry in 2012 stated that 93% of businesses had fewer than 40 employees, and nearly 80% had fewer than 20 employees. More than 70% of enterprises surveyed felt there were too many competitors and reported falling profit margins. Among the factories and workshops in Haizhu District, only 4.6% were in business for more than 10 years, and 21% were startups.

According to Liu, before the outbreak, a family workshop like his could on average manage an order of around 3,000-5,000 pieces, with one skilled worker able to complete 500 pieces a day after 10 hours of work. 

And in the peak season, they’d take larger orders of 5,000-10,000 pieces and even hire temporary workers to complete the job on time. 

In the first year, Liu earned close to 100,000 yuan ($14,100). Then business boomed. In the years that followed, their earnings almost doubled and before the outbreak brought the economy to a standstill, Liu’s family on average earned about 400,000 yuan to 500,000 yuan each year, even occasionally reaching 800,000 yuan.

Though Liu always knew profits would eventually decline with rising labor costs, rent, and market saturation, he believed he could still make money if he worked harder. 

I couldn’t see an end to the effects of the pandemic. That's what concerned me the most.

But this year is different. “There isn’t the chance to work harder,” he says. As the coronavirus spread, wholesale markets and stores stayed shut and tons of inventory lay unused. During the ensuing lockdown, Liu and his family were back in Hubei for the Lunar New Year holiday. 

He figured it would be difficult this year but was hopeful of a gradual recovery. “After all, I had worked in the industry for so many years. Now, I’m already 50 years old and afraid to start something new outside the garments business,” he says. 

On April 2, Liu returned to Guangzhou hoping to secure orders. But he found prices were far lower than he’d expected. “They told me the price to make a T-shirt was 0.80 yuan, but the price I got was only 0.60 or even 0.50 yuan per shirt,” he says. Before the outbreak, the going price for one shirt was 1 yuan. 

As many garment factories and workshops end businesses and sell their equipment, sewing machines are filling the stalls (above). Liu Shihua (right) pays a final visit to his friend, who is reluctant to leave the garment industry (bottom left). Liu Shihua sends a lighting device for sewing machines to his friend who is continuing her business (bottom right). In Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 27, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

As many garment factories and workshops end businesses and sell their equipment, sewing machines are filling the stalls (above). Liu Shihua (right) pays a final visit to his friend, who is reluctant to leave the garment industry (bottom left). Liu Shihua sends a lighting device for sewing machines to his friend who is continuing her business (bottom right). In Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 27, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

By his estimates, every month Liu needed 7,000 yuan for rent and another 4,000 yuan for food and necessities for his family of three. At 0.50 yuan per shirt, he’d have to complete 22,000 pieces a month to make ends meet.

But the slowdown meant orders topped out at around 100-200 pieces and this, too, was hard to secure. And with the overseas market — which accounted for 70% of Liu’s daily orders — in the doldrums, he could only rely on the domestic market.

“I couldn’t see an end to the effects of the pandemic. That’s what concerned me the most,” says Liu. And so, after discussing it for days, Liu and his family finally decided to close up shop. 

But before leaving, there was still the matter of their rented apartment and shop equipment. Luckily for Liu, as a home-based enterprise, he didn’t have a long-term lease like the bigger factories.

He said he’d heard of other workshop owners abandoning their factories and fleeing without paying the rent — they were willing to lose money on the equipment instead of paying rent, which cost them around 40,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan a month. “If you abandon all the equipment, you may only lose three months’ rent,” says Liu. “But I couldn’t.”

People wait to return to central Hubei province at a bus stop near Datang Village’s metro station, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 26, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

People wait to return to central Hubei province at a bus stop near Datang Village’s metro station, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 26, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Liu says he’d lost thousands of yuan selling his equipment. He once had 18 sewing machines in his workshop, spending 3,000 yuan for each but selling them for just one-tenth its cost. “It’s selling cheaper than scrap iron,” he says.

But he kept two machines as souvenirs of his decadelong foray into the garment sector. He asked his fellow villagers to do him a favor and help transport them back to Hubei in their cars.

Liu is different ... He was like a machine made to print money.

When he finished packing, Liu said he found he had little to do — something uncommon for him in the last 10 years. All that time, Liu toiled in the workshop day and night, stopping only to buy groceries and sleep. He lived and worked in the same space and had little need to go out.

“I lived like this for 10 years,” Liu smiles. “For me, Guangzhou is Datang Village and Canton Tower, which is the only scenic spot I’ve been to.”

Liu’s landlord, whom he calls Lele, is from Datang Village. She’s witnessed the region’s transformation and owns the entire 10-story building Liu called home. She isn’t overly worried about migrant workers leaving Guangzhou and says Liu was the only tenant to leave her building. 

“There are still orders. It’s just that the numbers have dipped and the prices are lower. Many workers who used to earn around 700 yuan to 800 yuan a day now only earn 100 yuan to 200 yuan a day. They think staying is a waste of time,” she says. 

An alleyway workshop in Datang Village, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, May 2, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

An alleyway workshop in Datang Village, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, May 2, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

She says that in the past, workers from Hubei toiled hard during the garment industry's peak seasons (January-May and September-November) and gambled heavily in the off-season.

She often saw workshop bosses betting large stacks of 100 yuan notes or going out for a nice dinner every day after getting paid for their orders. “But Liu is different. He lived a very frugal life. He was like a machine made to print money and didn’t know what entertainment was,” she says.

But it was never easy for Liu. He remembers his journey beginning from a poor family in Tianmen in Hubei province. When he was 24, three fellow villagers secretly bought him a motorcycle, which launched his first business — ferrying passengers.

He fondly recalls the support then and the generosity of friends and family that eventually helped start his garment workshop. It also gives him hope. He says people from Hubei, and from across the country, can help each other get through hard times.

"Perhaps this spirit helps me believe that even if I don’t have a new plan, I will stay and continue to fight with them,” he says.

On April 28, Liu left Guangzhou with his family and their spartan belongings. There were no friends to see him off. Before boarding the bus, Liu only yelled, “See you, Guangzhou.” 

(Header image: Liu Shihua waits to return to his hometown in central Hubei province at a bus stop near Datang Village’s metro station, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 28, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)