China’s Cities Are Making Migrant Workers Profoundly Lonely
This year, an estimated 385 million Chinese people returned to their hometowns for Spring Festival, piling into packed cars, planes, and train carriages in the run-up to a holiday which has long been recognized as the world’s largest human migration.
The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan once coined the term “topophilia” to describe the attachment we feel to a certain place. Most commonly, topophilia manifests itself in our love for “hometowns” — however we define that term — and our compulsion to return to the places we belong. However, to fully understand topophilia, it helps to examine its polar opposite — places that inspire no feelings of affection or belonging, even among those who live there.
While there are several candidates for such places in China, the southern city of Shenzhen must be near the top of any list. Located in Guangdong province and just a short hop from Hong Kong, for years Shenzhen has ranked close to the top of a global list of cities with large outflows of migrants.
In the late 1970s, on the eve of the Chinese government’s sweeping reforms that would profoundly shape the country’s economic destiny, Shenzhen was an unremarkable fishing town of around 30,000 people. After it was made China’s first special economic zone in 1980, however, the city grew rapidly. Today, it is a metropolis of more than 10 million people.
Shenzhen’s breakneck industrialization has been replicated across vast swaths of urban China. But despite its rapid development, few of Shenzhen’s residents truly feel at home here. This phenomenon explains why discussions of topophilia are so important in this country, where the pace of development frequently disconnects people from the environments in which they live, leaving them feeling unsettled and isolated. In the end, cities are about people and their lives within them. While urbanites are more likely to feel a connection to a city if they reside there long-term, Tuan was always at pains to note that public life and social memories are more important drivers of topophilia.
At no time of year is Shenzhen’s sense of “placelessness” more obvious than during the run-up to Spring Festival. For most of us, the notion of going home for the holidays is closely related to our individual places of origin. But in China, as elsewhere, origins mean different things to different people. It might refer to your laojia, your family’s ancestral home. Perhaps it is the place where you were born or where you spent most of your childhood. Or maybe it is the place that issued your hukou, the household registration permit that grants Chinese citizens easier access to housing, education, and health care in a certain part of the country.
Shenzhen is hardly anyone’s laojia. Of the millions of people who live here, most have ties with the city that stretch back no further than a generation. Even those with Shenzhen hukou are unlikely to think of themselves as natives, having acquired permits in the last 30 years or so.
The vast majority of Shenzhen’s residents therefore return inland for the Spring Festival every year, turning the city into a ghost town. This happens in spite of the fact that Shenzhen’s comfortable living standards make it a seemingly appropriate place for family gatherings, indicating that while the city exerts a substantial economic pull on Chinese workers, it does little to encourage them to put down roots there. This conclusion is borne out by a 2016 research project undertaken by Tsinghua University’s graduate school in Shenzhen. The results showed that migrant workers’ sense of belonging is determined just as much by family and social ties as by economic factors like employment prospects and housing prices.
In January and February, I interviewed a number of Shenzhen residents of varying origins, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds. I was curious to dig further into their supposed feelings of ambivalence toward the city in which they lived.
Three weeks prior to the Lunar New Year, Wang Yiming could not wait to go back home for the holidays. A middle-aged manager at a training school for hairstylists, Wang’s bleach-blond locks and metropolitan mannerisms hinted at an edginess far from his bucolic depictions of his hometown. Yet when I found him typing impatiently on his laptop, his first question was about the holidays: “So you’re the same as me then — still not heading home yet?”
Wang hails from central China’s Hunan province, but has lived in Shenzhen for around 15 years. He earns more than 10,000 yuan ($1,570) per month, a little over the average of 9,030 yuan for the city’s white-collar workers. Wang’s life in Shenzhen is comfortable, yet he dislikes the feeling that everyone around him is constantly chasing after money. He says he misses the casual conversations and slow-paced lifestyle back in Hunan, to which he regularly returns.
“In a crowded street in this city, I’m sometimes struck by loneliness,” Wang says. “When I disregard things like my house and money, it doesn’t feel like I have a place or group to return to [here].” Long working hours, a hectic lifestyle, and constant financial anxiety prevent Wang from forging social bonds with others. With no support network in Shenzhen, much of his time is spent pining for home.
Fifty-something Zhang Fu, meanwhile, says he came to Shenzhen in 1993 and jokingly refers to himself as a “senior Shenzhener.” He has a local hukou and owns property in the city, having made his fortune buying and selling stocks in the 1990s. The two-story apartment Zhang rents out in the upmarket district of Yantian generates a sizeable amount of income for him, but he still prefers to work. “In Shenzhen, you need to be doing something. You’re always looking to earn more. That’s just what this city is about,” he says.
Zhang married his business partner’s daughter and the couple had two of their own children in Shenzhen, opting to pay the fines for breaking the one-child policy. During the New Year, when most of his friends return home, Zhang prefers to stay and work in the city. “Home is where my elderly parents and extended family used to be. After my parents passed away, I didn’t feel I had a laojia anymore,” he says. “But I miss the madness of Spring Festival when my parents were still alive and the all the family came together.”
Wang’s and Zhang’s stories prove how our attachment to a place is strongly dependent on social connections. A 2016 study showed that long-term migrants in Shenzhen who had been able to bring their families with them were more likely to refer to Shenzhen as their home — in other words, they were more likely to develop topophilic connections to the city.
But for those who are separated from their families, “home” has yet another definition. As Zhai Jinjuan — a migrant masseuse in her early 30s from central China’s Henan province — said to me this January: “Going home means I can see my kids. However, I know I have to work hard and earn money to support them so that they can live better lives than me.”
China’s strict hukou restrictions mean that migrant laborers like Zhai stand little hope of settling in their adopted cities. “I’d be ashamed if people in my hometown knew what job I did here in Shenzhen, even though our massage parlor does everything above board. My husband and his sister have come to my workplace, so they know I am sending back clean money.”
Zhai says that the higher wages she earns during the Spring Festival break make it worth staying in Shenzhen. “More and more tourists are coming to Shenzhen for the nice weather and they’re good for business,” she explains.
In truth, Zhai and Wang share the same problem. Like the majority of people in Shenzhen, their relationships with the city are entirely transactional. Whether they work in one of the city’s glittering offices or in a roadside massage parlor, hardly anyone is here just for the sake of being here. As a result, while many migrants have benefited financially from their time in Shenzhen — and some may have initially enjoyed the freedom of being away from their families — they remain rootless, detached from the city as a whole. They come, and after getting what they came for, they go back home.
Shenzhen is a shining example of development, efficiency, and modernity, but maybe the things that make it so successful are also its downfall. Try as they might, most people simply do not feel at home here. And that is why many of China’s cities can be so overcrowded and yet so empty at the same time, populated fleetingly by people whose hearts and minds are elsewhere.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.