It’s All About Hope and Opportunity in China

Sunday, October 25, 2009 10:49
Posted in category Uncategorized

Earlier in the year while a few of my interns were inbetween assignments, I tasked them to get out of the office and do some street interviews.  Now, executing street interviews was nothing new for them, but instead of taking out a video camera and asking questions to our typical targets, I wanted to push them outside their boundries and speak to people whom they were more likely to walk right past on their way to work.

Migrants.  Cooks. Sidewalk Seamstresses.  DVD vendors.  Pot Sticker vendors.  Fruit vendors.  Crane Operators.  Bus Drivers.

It was a project I named Shanghai’s 100 hardest jobs, which was (for the sake of full disclosure) inspired by the Discovery Channel program Dirty Jobs.

Initially, my interns were a bit skeptical, and were giving me the face of “he has gone crazy… again”, but over the course of the next few weeks the first team completed about 30 interviews (2 more teams have since completed nearly 100 interviews), and were looking for more.  In short, they were not only hooked, they were seeing a side of Shanghai that they never new existed.

… and they were Shanghaiese.

Reading through the interviews (we use the same questions for each), one is given a really humbling glimpse into the lives of these people and how hard they have it.   People who are busting their humps day in and day out, and eating bitterness, for a common cause.

Hope and opportunity.

Cigarette Vendor – female from Henan
Q: Would you want your children to have this job?
A; No. My husband and I have this job/career because we lack of qualified education background. Letting them step on our old roads is the last thing I want to do. To my 14-year-old girl, I don’t have so many strings attached and just want her to live a happy life; as to my boy, I hope he can be a government official someday, a big name who has power (laugh).

Watermelon Vendor
Q: What do you want most right now?
A: We hope our boys can go to school in Shanghai. The education conditions are much better than we have in Linyi and we can take care of them while making a living here.

Hat Vendor
Q: If there was one thing you could change about your job, what would it be?
A: Change? It is such a luxury to me. How can I dream about changing my current status? I want to do my own business, like opening my own restaurant, but who will give me the money? I want to recruit and train my employees, but who will teach me how to manage or run my place? I dare not think of change. I guess my only hope is my son. He is the one can bring real changes.

Everything comes down to hope and opportunity

For the next generation.

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23 Responses to “It’s All About Hope and Opportunity in China”

  1. Mary says:

    October 25th, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    This is fascinating! I hope you’ll publish more of these interviews. Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Craig says:

    October 25th, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    The really amazing thing is that they don’t blame anyone. The victim mentality seems to be absent entirely.

  3. Rich says:

    October 25th, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Mary – I’m looking into how to best do this.

    Reading through the stories, you get a real mix of optimism and reality within the same interview… these people are enduring a lot to provide for the next generation.


  4. Rich says:

    October 25th, 2009 at 11:39 pm


    There is no sense of wrong or injustice in these interviews. Few mention the imbalances, and how their access to things like good schools or a port have impacted their lives for the better or worse.

    They do not see themselves as victims… and I would argue that none of the people who have worked on this project view them that way (anymore) either.

    Things are what they are, and they are doing what they need to so that the next generation can have it better…


  5. Aimee says:

    October 26th, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Excellent post- like Mary, I’d love to read more of these interviews! Will the project results be published in full at some point?

  6. Maurice says:

    October 26th, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    that’s how america used to be

  7. Rich says:

    October 26th, 2009 at 6:35 pm


    Not sure how we will put this together. The first group of 100 is about history and hope (if you were to group them). What is their history. How did they get to be where they are. What do they see next.

    … but that is really only part of the story, so next month we are going to start a second round focused on a different aspect… which, I hope wil round things out and provide some really interesting snippets of life.


  8. Rich says:

    October 26th, 2009 at 6:39 pm


    VEry true. In fact, 3 weeks ago I went to visit Elis Island in NYC for the first time, and I was floored. 70 million people passed through that island looking for a “better” life for themselves … and their children.

    When I left the island, I asked myself who was accumulating similar stories in China. Where was China’s Elis Island for its 150+ million migrant workers.

    The best I could come up with was the Shanghai (could be Guangzhou as well) rail station. That, every year, millions of people get on the train and migrant to the East coast looking for work.


  9. Mark says:

    October 26th, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Agree totally with the last few comments – this what the “American Dream” was all about. Head down, work hard and opportunity will come. Their lives may not be amazing, compared to those of us lucky enough to be born elsewhere, in the material sense, but like people everywhere anything better than their forefathers is an improvement.

    And good luck to them.

    Great post thank you.

  10. Mao Ruiqi says:

    October 27th, 2009 at 6:05 am

    In fear of stating the obvious, during the Cultural Revolution, at least (disregarding the relativity of certainty) there was a collective sense certainty among the people who stove beyond the status quo. And, certainly the extreme hatred of capitalism figured into the equation as China always had an entrepreneurial class. As the enthusiasm for Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics radically replaced the CR hysterics, what shall the youngsters of the new middle and upper classes believe once they have achieved the exalted level of materialism yet be stuck–if not stymied–by the frailties of being human? That is, will they, perhaps unwisely–grow nostalgic for a time less greed-oriented? And, accordingly, will the have-nots not continue the dream? Indeed, only the rich can truly grow disgusted with the accruements of affluence.

  11. 拉豆浆猫 says:

    October 27th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    These stories are interesting, but I must say that I cannot agree that everyone in similar positions would not be willing to find fault or place blame. Even a simple knowledge of Chinese, petition system, KDS boards, etc, demonstrate this.

    That said, the stories are interesting. I suggest the writings of Liao Yiwu, which are now in Engilsh. As I know, he is sort of a “Studs Terkel” of China, and covers similar persons, though in a bit less pedestrian occupations.

  12. Tim says:

    October 28th, 2009 at 12:38 am


    Great idea. Look forward to seeing more of these…


  13. Rich says:

    October 28th, 2009 at 12:58 am


    Thanks for your comment, and you are correct to say that these stories are ones that would represent the whole of migrant laborers. The structure of these interviews were to find a wide range of people working, and that by itself would bias the results.

    but.. I honestly did not fully appreciate the optimism that existed until these interviews were conducted. I know it existed, and I have spoken about it many times, but I learned a lot through this assignment.


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  15. Jason Tian says:

    October 28th, 2009 at 5:53 am

    It may seem strange to westerners. For me, it is just reflecting my own experience.

    As a boy in the family, my parents have long hoped that one day I could “jump the dragon gate”, a term meaning that one no longer toils and moils in the “yellow soil” and can live a better-off life. And the most wanted job in their minds is a position in the government.

    This is Chinese culture, a very important part you shall not miss when you study Chinese people.

  16. 辣豆浆猫 says:

    October 28th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    All the interviewers are Shanghainese who were surprised to learn about this side of China? This is interesting. I feel that once a country gets past a certain size, no matter how well-informed and educated people may be, there are always whole worlds in their midst that go unnoticed. Even within cities this can take place. I like and marvel at this aspect of society.

    Mao Ruiqi wrote:
    That is, will they, perhaps unwisely–grow nostalgic for a time less greed-oriented? And, accordingly, will the have-nots not continue the dream? Indeed, only the rich can truly grow disgusted with the accruements of affluence.

    Yes, I think like entrenched middle-classes everywhere, in the future Chinese urban middle class will begin to romanticize the past in some ways. Another decade or so and rural life will no longer be viewed solely as a hardship that was escaped, but a simpler, “earthier” time, with some spiritual overtones. In fact, I already see this.

  17. Rich says:

    October 28th, 2009 at 3:42 pm


    I need to check whether or not everyone is/was Shanghaiese, however I can tell you that of the 10 people who have conducted interviews 9 were Chinese and 1 was foreign.

    Also, when I say that they were surprised, I do not mean it in a negative light. All of them are socially aware people, but this project gave them a completely different lens to look through.

    With regard to Mao Ruiqi’s point, I agree. I already know of several people who have moved from the city to escape what they think is the wrong path.


  18. Randy says:

    October 31st, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I talk to Chinese taxi drivers nearly every day. In Shanghai, and elsewhere. And I’m sorry, but I don’t get answers like these. If taxi drivers are the midwives of the city, and I think they are, then China might be more properly labeled “the land of frustration and resentment.” Anger at the stagnation in their incomes. Anger at their lack of a voice in determining their future. Resentment at the corruption around them (every driver in Shanghai, it seems, knows who’s been paid off to get which plot of prime real estate). Frustration that their children will have to join the same dirty system if they hope to get ahead. Sadness at the unemployment around them, and the things that it’s making people do.

    But they aren’t going to say that kind of thing to a Chinese in a streetside interview.

  19. Rich says:

    October 31st, 2009 at 8:11 pm


    Thanks for your comment.

    I think it is important to understand that the above quotes came from migrant workers who came to the city and are making a living in relatively less stressful environments (all of them make their own hours), and see this as an economic opportunity of some kind (above farming) Shanghai taxi drivers are Shanghai hukou holders (many from Chongming island) … who are probably viewing this opportunity in a very different light.

    As you say, they are Shanghai’s midwives..

    To compare apples to apples though, in our interviews of several cab drivers we hear much the same as you:

    We dislike it since it is too hard work and we are not paid reasonably. If you work beyond 8 hours, according to labor law, you will get double or triple pay, but we don’t. It’s not fair. (Nicole: Have you complained this to relevant institutes?)…Yes, the Tax-driver Administration Committee shall know this, but no change at all. I don’t think anyone will think for us. Besides, most of us are suffering from the professional deceases. When we are getting old, all the troubles will come to us.

    So.. different jobs.. different people… different context….Same conclusion.

    These people are putting up with a lot of crap to make their living, and NONE of them want their kids to do it.


  20. Doug says:

    November 1st, 2009 at 3:52 am

    its all about attitude. i know who of those two groups will be the next
    millionaires !!!

  21. Peter says:

    November 6th, 2009 at 8:22 am

    I would very much like to know the three questions in Chinese. How did your interns phrase them? This was a real pleasure to read!

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