Spring Rush

Documenting the world's most massive commute.

Visiting Seattle for SIFF this June, young director Lixin Fan sat down to talk about his remarkable documentary Last Train Home, which follows the Chinese laborers who make our cheap jeans and cell phones. Because of China's household registration system, workers from rural villages take "temporary" residence in factory dorms in the industrialized south. Then, once a year during spring festival (Chinese New Year), some 130 million of them return home to see the family members left behind. Small children are raised by grandparents, and family ties are predictably frayed during long absences, as is the case for the Zhangs, whom Fan followed for almost three years, beginning in 2006. After the Cultural Revolution, Fan explains, the household registration "system divided the entire population into rural residents and urban residents. So the Zhangs are rural, [and in the city] . . . they're not eligible for any social support, any health care or unemployment insurance. Their children could not go to public school in the city. All this together essentially makes it impossible for migrant families like the Zhangs to uplift their entire family from the countryside to all go live in the city." Back in their village in Sichuan Province, 1,300 miles inland, the Zhangs own a small parcel of farmland. But, says Fan, "It would be a stretch to rely on just a plot of land." The jobs are in the factories down south, in Guangzhou and other special enterprise zones. He continues, "They could sell if they wanted. But nobody would do that, because a small plot of land is really functioning as their retirement insurance. Because they're not getting any retirement insurance from the factory, though you spend your entire life toiling in the factory. Once you're old, you're on your own. You don't have any other choice but to go back to your village." Is there any prospect for changing China's residency laws, so workers could officially move to the cities and keep their families intact? "Absolutely, there's a lot of talk," says Fan. "Seven, eight years back, there was an incident: There was a university student who had a rural residency permit. He went to Shenzhen, the boom town, just to have fun and meet his friends. But he forgot his residency permit, and he was taken into custody and beaten to death. There was such a big debate across the country for months. People were trying to say that this registration is so out of date, and it's being abused. Not just human rights, but it's obstructing the economy and development." The Chinese government, Fan believes, would ultimately benefit, too: "I think a free flow of labor will benefit the economy in the long run. And I think it will reduce the possibility of unrest, help to stabilize the society in general. I think we're all very optimistic about this ban being completely lifted in the next five or 10 years." In the meantime, Fan sees a generational divide among workers. "There's a change in the second generation of labor. Like the daughter in the film [Qin]. They grew up in a much freer society. They didn't taste bitterness growing up as their parents did. You can't really expect the younger generation to work and slave as their parents did. The younger generation . . . they want to stay in the city. It's really an urbanization problem for China." Then there's the challenge of creating a middle class of consumers. Can former peasant families like the Zhangs ever climb the social ladder? "I would say the possibility is very low," says Fan. "It's a challenge between the educational resources that the country can provide and the sheer number of migrant workers. It's really a long shot for them to get their children into school or a state university and eventually become middle class. Because they make so little money, they have to save up for everything—if they get sick, school, all that. If everyone is doing that, there's no consumer market. So the country still has to export all the stuff they've made." For such workers, Fan believes, Last Train Home shows "where they stand in globalization. The factories are built by foreign investment. The stuff is all shipped for export. And it's us, the consumers in the West, who are all consuming all this stuff. I'm trying to build a bigger picture out of this family's story." And for those who own the factories, who live comfortably—with their residence permits—in the high-rise towers of Guangzhou and Shanghai, there's no need to endure the crush and panic of spring rush. "It only affects the poor," says Fan. "It's a systemic fault." bmiller@seattleweekly.comCapsule Review Lixin Fan previously helped make Up the Yangtze, and this powerful documentary also follows that country's huge, migratory workforce. Only instead of working on cruise ships catering to tourists, the Zhang family in Last Train Home makes garments for Westerners. (In one scene, workers marvel at our waist sizes.) Mother and father Zhang left their village when their daughter was one. They return home from Guangzhou once a year to see her (and grandmother, and a younger son) for Chinese New Year's, which occurs in early spring. Scenes of this homeward trek are amazing. The Guangzhou train station becomes a literal sea of humanity—crying, fainting, pushing, cutting in line, the army and police trying to maintain order, railroad delays lasting for days. Seen from overhead, in the rain, it's a pointillist mass of black-haired heads interspersed with colorful umbrellas. Imagine your crowded Metro bus during evening rush hour. Now add another 100 passengers to that bus. Now imagine thousands more buses just as crowded. Yet the Zhangs persist; this is their only chance to see their kids. But back home, unsurprisingly, their teenage daughter views them as strangers. They sacrifice for her education; she complains, "School is like a cage!" It's an old dilemma, and the fractious home scenes can feel like reality TV. But Last Train Home is a indelible document of globalization, one you should remember each time you button your jeans. B.R.M.

 
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