A Tale of Two Migrants21 min read

After laboring abroad, coming home with all or nothing – Zhang Zizhu, translated by Sam Hall

Editor’s note: The story below launches our new partnership with Initium Media (端傳媒), a cutting-edge news organization producing some of the finest reporting in Chinese. Zhang Zizhu’s deep dive into the lives of two Fujianese migrants comes from Initium’s ‘Strangers’ series (異鄉人). The generous support of our readers makes these translations possible. – Anne Henochowicz

Wu Wei and Lin Tong are from the same town in Fujian Province, and were also high school classmates. Both were born in the 60s and both journeyed across the seas in the 90s to find work. Now, after 30 years, they have returned home from overseas – Wu Wei sitting on 20 million yuan, and Lin Tong empty handed.

“I’m property-less, literally proletarian, I’ve got nothing,” said Lin Tong as he picked up a mouthful of food with his chopsticks in an unbearably muggy little restaurant in Gaoshan, Fujian. Wu Wei, sitting next to him, pulled a cigarette from a gold tin – Double Happiness cigarettes, a Hong Kong brand – lit up, and then poured a cold glass of beer.

“We definitely went with the times,” Wu Wei sighed, “testing into university, the craze for going abroad and becoming an entrepreneur – we were there for it all.” In Fujian, one China’s most migration-inclined provinces, strong personal networks overseas and a culture of going abroad have given generation after generation the itch to change their destiny. But only those who have gone out and gotten their hands dirty really understand who is control when you cast your fate to the wind.

This House Was Built on Remittances

Lin Tong and Wu Wei’s fates parted for the first time in the early 90s, when a Taiwanese company that produced LED lights came recruiting in their hometown. At the time, Reform and Opening was in full swing, Lin Tong had just shaken off an eight-year-long post in the public sector, and he was itching to make some money, freely, in the market economy.

There was something pent up inside him. Lin’s parents and older brother were all peasant farmers. He was the family’s youngest son, and the only one to attend university. In 1980 he was admitted to a ‘national key university,’ Northwestern Polytechnic, first as a radio engineering major, and then later as a graduate student in the aerospace department to study engines. After graduating, he entered the Chinese Helicopter and Aeroplane Research Institute and worked on military projects. But it was far from comfortable: “the pay and the benefits were low, and we clocked in and out to the sound of a military bugle.” The monthly salary of 54 yuan was but a pittance. Up until then the Research Institute had been losing a lot of talent, so by the time Lin Tong’s group of newcomers arrived, the institute director issued them an ultimatum: “If you youngsters want to leave, you’ve got to give me eight years first.”

But eight years later, when a Taiwanese company offered him a monthly salary of 800 renminbi right off the bat, Lin, in his youthful arrogance, refused without a moment’s hesitation: “I think I am worth a thousand.”

Having not been able to negotiate a price with the Taiwanese company, Lin Tong then went and did tech for a security systems company which sold refitted intercoms in Quanzhou. Even when someone offered him a salary of 1500 yuan, he still didn’t go. Back then he was still young and fiery, and was weighing up going into business himself.

“I just don’t know what he was thinking.” Wu Wei does not approve of Lin Tong’s choices. Wu Wei applied to the same company and accepted a job with a monthly salary of 450 yuan. “I was only getting 72 before, so I was very happy with 400.”

Wu Wei had been working as an engineer at a state-owned machinery factory in Fuzhou. He had a girlfriend with whom there was talk of marriage, but they broke up because Wu Wei wasn’t an urban citizen and couldn’t afford a house. Determined to make some money, Wu Wei took unpaid leave from the state-owned company and bounced among a number of privately owned companies.

In 1989, Wu Wei was introduced to his now wife, and in the same year the two got married and quickly had a child. Once again, he felt the pressure of not having enough money. “Everyone else had a house, but I didn’t. Would you be willing to have your wife and kid drift around with you?”

Wu Wei and Lin Tong both grew up in the Gaoshan Township of Fuqing City in Fujian. Situated in the coastal area of eastern Fujian, the small town earned its name – literally Tall Mountain – from its elevated terrain. Coming into Gaoshan’s Tangbei Village, where Lin Tong’s family is, Western-style buildings three stories or higher extend down both sides of the road, one after the other. The balconies have carved, rounded columns, and at the courtyard entrances hang traditional couplets, their golden characters inscribed in stone: “Glory to our Forebears, Prosperity to our Progeny.” In the past, houses built in the village had a standard layout of “three-and-a-half-stories” – three floors for living in and half a story for hanging clothes out to dry. Later, as people increasingly tried to outdo each other, the neighbors on one side would build four stories, and the neighbors on the other five, so that gradually the height of a building became a yardstick for measuring wealth.

As people tried to outdo each other, the neighbors on one side would build four stories, and the neighbors on the other five, so that the height of a building became a yardstick for measuring wealth”

But this grandeur is only a facade. Many of the compound doors were firmly shut, but where the odd household had left their door open, you could see that the interiors were very basic, the only sign of life a skinny dog circling near a door. “In this village, it’s only old people and children, there are not young people,” says Lin Tong.

Although coastal, Fujian’s geography is mountainous and its population dispersed. Its central cities are underdeveloped and, compared with other coastal cities and provinces, its level of urbanization is low. Up until the 80s, tense cross-strait relations were believed to be the main reason “front-line areas” like Fujian were unable to develop. In 1990, Fujian’s GDP was only a third of neighboring Guangdong Province, while its infrastructure investment was only one fifth of Guangdong’s. Economic lag and a tradition of longing to go abroad has seen generation after generation of Fujianese leave home to hustle and set down roots all over the world.

“Back then, the difference between going abroad and not was so big you could see it with your own eyes, there was no need for anyone to tell you. Where could the money have come from to build all those high-rises? It was hauled back from overseas,” said Lin Tong.

Gaoshan renowned for its overseas population. The Tangbei Village archway and the roads within the village were all built using donations from overseas Chinese. Legendary stories of journeyers abroad tantalize the young. The one Lin Tong most admires is the late Chinese-Indonesian businessman Liem Sioe Liong, who originally hailed from Fuqing. Born to a peasant family, Liem Sioe Liong went in 1938 to join relatives in far-off Indonesia. Having started out as an apprentice in a peanut oil shop, he ultimately created a family-run consortium of businesses across numerous industries. In his heyday, Liem Sioe Liong was the richest man in Indonesia.

In Lin Tong’s mind, “going abroad was the first step.” But his old classmate Wu Wei took that first step before him. In 1992, Wu Wei cobbled together a few tens of thousands of yuan and, with the help of an illegal immigration ring, went to Tokyo alone.

Back then Lin Tong was still hesitating. Looking back on that time 30 years later, Lin Tong’s conclusion is that “he was thinking in the right way, he just didn’t time it right.”

A Day’s Work in Japan Is Worth a Month’s Back Home

“Everything was new and fandangled. You felt like everything was better than in China,” Wu Wei says, recalling the pleasure playground that is Greater Tokyo. “For people like me who come from these kinds of small places,” Wu Wei feels the experience left him with “no regrets.”

Walking through the streets of Tokyo with a bag on his back, he used the few words of Japanese he had just learned to ask, “Do you need a temporary worker?” At the very beginning, Wu Wei attended a language school during the day and in the evening worked at a sushi restaurant as a hired hand. Later, he stopped going to school altogether to do cleaning work in the daytime, while in the afternoons and evenings he worked on an assembly line at an auto parts factory.

It was because of the difference in labor costs that Wu Wei rushed over to Japan. The 90s were Japan’s golden age of growth. You could earn 100 Japanese yen, or about 60 Chinese yuan, for an hour of casual labor, meaning that a day’s income was already as much as the ordinary monthly wage back home in Fujian.

He had experience managing an auto workshop and the ability to read people quickly, so in the auto parts factory he was able to work his way up from assembly line worker to team manager. His wages went up and his boss even asked him to come work during the daytime, too, but Wu Wei turned him down. “Hourly wages were a little higher. Members of Japanese companies had to pay taxes, and they’d also dock you some other things, too. Japanese salarymen had good benefits, but we didn’t want that. You could take cash straight away.”

When he was really putting in, Wu Wei would work 16 hours a day and earn 40,000 RMB a month. That was 1995, when the average annual salary of employees in Shanghai was less than 10,000 RMB.

Neither his hourly salary nor his tax refunds and travel reimbursements escaped Wu Wei’s careful calculation. The Japanese company provided transportation subsidies. If he spent 20,000 a month, he would report 25,000. Later, when he realized photocopies would pass muster, he would lodge the same receipt at three different companies. He felt that the Japanese were a bit “daft” and “didn’t understand how to bend the rules.”

He had neither the energy nor the surroundings to make friends. In a small room rented together with other Chinese, six tatami mats were shared among seven people. Day shift workers would come back when the night shift workers were heading out again, so there was basically no time to simply chat. His only “friend” was a Japanese university student he had met at the cleaning company who was five years older than him and unmarried. Their topics of conversation between never touched upon their own lives, and each paid their own tab when they went out drinking. Up until he left, Wu Wei’s feeling about this friendship was always that “it wasn’t great, he didn’t open up.”

Wu Wei came to Japan on a student visa that lasted only half a year. After that, he stayed on without papers and had to lie low, meaning he wasn’t able to go back to see his family even once during his time there. “You don’t miss home anymore once you’ve been gone a while,” he said. Only his wages were constantly flowing back home to Fujian. In Fuqing, his wife took on a hotel operation and then, one by one, bought up a number of properties and stores to eventually accumulate a family business worth 20 million.

You don’t miss home anymore once you’ve been gone a while”

The husband’s and wife’s business minds weren’t at all understood by their fellow townspeople at the time. Country people would build a house when they earned money, and as more and more people like Wu Wei went overseas to work, houses with glamorous, shining exteriors became gloating evidence of success abroad. Wu Wei’s parents are still on his case to this day for not building a house in their hometown and giving them face. “At first my father really doted on me, but eventually it was my younger brother he came to dote on – why? Because he built a house in the countryside.”

In 1998, the sixth year of a crackdown on illegal workers in Japan, Wu Wei decided to return to China. “My body was suffering and I felt that I shouldn’t be trading my life for money.” He almost couldn’t recognize his hometown after six years apart from it. “People in Fuqing would ask me to come out for a meal, and bring my kalu, that is, my mistress. I’d say, I don’t have a kalu, and people would say, you don’t have a mistress and you dare to show your face, how embarrassing is that?”

Lin Tong returned to China not long after Wu Wei. In 1996, he had finally made going abroad a reality, moving goods at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market and working as a casual laborer in the kitchens of a multinational corporation. The combined monthly salary of the two jobs added up to almost 20,000 yuan. He’d originally thought that he could earn some money and return home to more social standing and respect, but he had to return home after two years when his visa was found to have expired.

“My luck is no good,” Lin sighed. To this day, his voice cannot mask his dejection when he recalls it. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’ll haunt me forever.”

In 2001, Wu Wei – who had already achieved financial freedom – got himself a job in his hometown as a mathematics teacher and started to live a life of leisure. Meanwhile, Lin Tong’s quest to strike gold abroad had only just begun.

In South Africa, the Daily Grind Is “Just Like Doing Time”

Only recently did Lin Tong and Wu Wei get back in contact with each other again. Lin Tong’s oldest daughter is attending her first year of middle school this year, by coincidence at the school where Wu Wei taught. Lin Tong was a little over 40 before he found a wife, and both his daughters are currently attending school in Fuqing. When Wu Wei joked at one point that it “isn’t normal” to marry at 40, a trace of embarrassment swept across Lin Tong’s face.

“How was I supposed to get married? I was on the road every day,” said Lin Tong. But long-term drifting is still only a secondary factor, he says. “The key is whether you’re making money. If you make it, then you can still get married even at this age.”

In 2003, having not yet made something of himself, Lin Tong decided to head to South Africa and make a go of it. There, he rented a car and went with a few nephews around the place in search of a suitable shop, like a supermarket or a gas station. He had a pretty good base of English, and many of his relatives from the younger generation had faith in him, but for a whole year he had no income.

China and South Africa established diplomatic relations in 1998, and soon afterward the number of Chinese immigrants to South Africa saw a significant increase such that by 2010, the total number of Chinese immigrants (including illegal immigrants) was over 500,000. Of these, a third had come from Fujian.

Compared to ever-orderly Japan, being an immigrant in South Africa was much more brutal. It meant “pursuing wealth in the face of constant danger.” The Fujianese businessmen who came before him relied on small business, such as clothing import-export, hotels, or convenience and grocery stores, to get them started. Chinese people like to dump goods at low prices and fight price wars, which makes doing business a fierce head-to-head. To increase profit and avoid competition, more than a few of them opened stores in poor backcountry areas, outside the cities. As “king of the hill,”  you “can’t open a shop next door or directly opposite. If you do, they’ll break you, they won’t let you open, you’ve got no choice.”

In his second year in South Africa, Lin Tong and his nephews took over a gas station. This kind of business was the first choice among Chinese at the time. The former owner didn’t want to have to attend to it anymore because was getting old, and was willing to transfer all the assets he had in hand for the price of 700,000 rand (one million yuan). Connected to the back of the gas station was a single-story house with a pool next to it, so it was really quite the steal.

The gas station was in a prime location with no competitors, and the convenience store also did decent business. At its hottest, a 60-seat bus would have just driven in, and there would already be another in line behind it. Lin could earn almost one million yuan a year, and had a house and a car. When things were going smoothly, Lin Tong thought life in South Africa, with its democracy and freedom, was much more carefree than in China.

However, worries about safety were always circling in the back of his mind. Chinese have plenty of cash and are also relatively weak, so they are called “ATM machines” by local robbers because of how easy it is to take bills from their pockets. More than once, Lin Tong was the target of robberies. One evening, a group of his friends and relatives had come back from playing cards and were gagged by robbers in front of his door; another time, a thief picked the door while no one was home.

Chinese are called ‘ATM machines’ because of how easy they are to rob”

Lin Tong should count himself lucky. The first time the robbers groped through the dark into the house, Lin Tong, who had turned out the lights and gone to sleep, was woken by them. In a panic, he read the moment well, using all his strength to fling an iron bar. The shrill noise of the metal scared the robbers away. The second time, it just so happened that a police car was passing nearby and the police siren scared the thief off and averted disaster. Chinese are robbed almost every day, and Lin Tong is keenly aware that in most cases, “it’s Chinese who provide information in exchange for a share in the spoils.”

Many Chinese have installed “anti-robbery doors” in their shops. This kind of security door uses welded steel, which means that no matter if you’re open for business or not, it always has to be firmly closed. Lin Tong, on the other hand, hired a South African policeman to work as a part-time security guard. The policemen carried a gun, which made him feel safer. But even the police could not be totally relied upon. Not infrequently, they solicited bribes, like when Lin went out one time and forgot to bring his ID card, ran into police, and was extorted out of 2000 rand.

Then, as if on a whim, the economy went bad. In the 2008 financial crisis, South African markets were in turmoil, and the rand depreciated sharply. Then came the 2010 World Cup, which burned up money and only made things worse. The continued depreciation of the rand pushed up the cost of buying oil, while the reduction in South Africans’ buying power also made it harder and harder to do business. Ten years ago, the exchange rate was one rand for 1.3 renminbi; now the rand only gets 0.4 yuan. No matter how much you earned, it was never enough to withstand depreciation.

“Those who didn’t make money all came back. No one was buying what they were selling.” A lot of people can’t stay the course, and Lin Tong refused to say how much he’d lost trying. The only thing he would say was that the men who ran businesses in South Africa used to be a “hot commodity,” but now they’re not attractive at all.

In 2009, Lin Tong’s nephew Lin Feng, who was in his early twenties, came to South Africa. To him, going abroad to seek a fortune had become an “act of inertia,” the non-choice of following in the elders’ footsteps. After graduating from a vocational high school in his hometown, he bounced around for a few years without finding a proper way to earn a living. After he came to South Africa and took over a hotel, business quickly went sour. The surrounding area was also unsafe. Lin Feng was robbed twice, and was even knocked in the head with the butt of a gun.

He bumbled on to a second hotel and then a supermarket. Although he could keep the businesses running, he found them really quite boring. “Life is just like doing time.” Every day, you open and close, the same thing over and over. Lin Feng felt all muddled. “Once I got to South Africa, sometimes I’d think, how did I end up here?”

Generation after generation of Fujianese seeking work abroad have faced this difficult question: The outside world long ago stopped being as dazzling as it once had been, and the labor price differential was on the verge of disappearing. Where can they go to continue writing the legend of overseas Chinese?

In 2016, Lin Tong and his nephew Lin Feng decided to pull up stakes and head home.

The More You Reach for Wealth, the Farther Away It Gets

In the year that Lin Tong returned to China, Wu Wei resigned from his teaching job and started a life of eating, drinking and hiking. Lin Tong, however, realized there were “no longer opportunities” for him in China anymore. “For example, taking people out for dinner to suck up to them, you’ve been abroad for 20 years, you can’t do it.”

We chatted with Lin Ping about the child of Lin Tong’s eldest brother, also named Lin Tong, who ran the gas station in the early days in South Africa. “He’s too clever.” Lin Ping made a couple of awkward laughs. “In these parts, if you’re too clever you might not be able to make money. If you don’t have brains, you’ll snatch at every kuai  you could possibly make, whether it’s worth 30 or  50.” What he was implying was those who wander eking out a living sometimes have too many ideas and too-high hopes, and  wealth actually ends up staying out of reach.

What’s his biggest regret from all those years? “I’m a bit sorry that I didn’t make any money,” Lin Tong says.

Money was the constant topic. Lin Tong is someone who “saw the big bucks,” but after half a lifetime abroad, he nevertheless failed to return home in glory. Now he rents his home, and his children, who were born abroad, can only go to private schools in China, so tuition fees are also a burden.

“The things he thinks about as a 50-year-old are behind me by 20 years,” says Wu Wei, talking about his old classmate Lin Tong. “When I was 30 I wanted to earn more money for my kid. Now I enjoy life. That’s got to be hard for him.” On the other hand, Lin Tong says that Wu Wei can be so relaxed because he’s “standing on concrete,” while he himself is, after all, standing in the mud as he talks, “not enough to buoy me.”

Unlike his bold and enterprising father, Wu Wei’s son works at a state-owned enterprise in Fuzhou. He leads a steady, stable life and never worries about putting food on the table or clothes on his back. Wu Wei feels that the improvement in living standards has made the next generation lose “that entrepreneurial spirit of their fathers’ generation.” Young people aren’t faced with life’s basic pressures, so it’s just not necessary to go abroad and suffer.

When Lin Tong and Wu Wei talk about “all those years ago,” they have a considerable amount of regrets, like “if I were smarter back then I would have joined the Party,” or if Lin Tong had gone to that Taiwanese company, “I’d at least be a procurement department manager,” and so on and so forth.

The only thing is, there’s no going back and trying again. In Lin Tong’s final analysis, it’s “a matter of fate.”

And at this moment, their hearts have come right back to where they started. ∎

Lin Tong and Wu Wei are both pseudonyms used at the interviewees’ request. Read the original Chinese article here (paywall). Header image by Chris Yarzab.