Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Zhou Rencong

Leaving Huaihua[1] Valley
A Sichuan girl's own account of being a migrant worker

The name of my hometown is 'Huaihua Valley'
- such a beautiful name.
But there is no place for me there.
When I opened my swollen, puckered eyes, I no longer saw the wooden firewood hut at home. This was a room about ten square metres big, with deathly pale ceiling and walls.

Where was I?

The door was pushed open, and slowly the light filtered in. A bowl of hot fish soup was placed on the chest of drawers by the bed. 'Good heavens, woken up at long last. You slept for two days and two nights and had everyone really worried....' That was Xixi's voice.

I closed my eyes and saw the hills stretching one after another into the distance. Among the countless hills in Fushun county, southern Sichuan province, there is a place called Huaihua Valley.

From the county town to Huaihua Valley you have to walk more than two hours on a tractor path. There's no real forest or running streams, only occasionally some tractors tooting on the tractor path and some playful children chasing the tractors, breaking the endless monotony.

Even more oppressive and deadlier still than that monotony was how I felt inside.

My clash with my mother came from the so-called 'important event in my life'.[2] The custom of 'Marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog' was to me like a huge black net in which all my dreams and aspirations would be swallowed up. There had been enough tragedy amongst the women around me, including the suicide of Auntie Yinxing, who cared for me when I was young. I had always considered myself no ordinary person. I was a girl with some ideas and some know-how, already rewarded for years of struggle with the fortune of publishing a collection of short stories called Bamboo Walls. In our county, which has a population of over a million, I became the only female member of the provincial writers' association.

But I was still just a twenty-four-year-old woman with rural household registration[3] in a remote mountain village. In the countryside, I should long ago have become someone's wife or mother. But I didn't want that. When my mother lost patience and gave me an ultimatum, I couldn't go along with it, but I could also no longer say no. All I could do was run away.

I ran to the top of the hill behind the house and looked back at the mud hut where I had lived for over twenty years. The whole village was unusually quiet, as if keeping silent about my escape. Only the farmers in the rice paddies were sending me off with the sound of their plaintive whistling rising and falling.

A telephone number I got by chance
became my only lifeline
When the bus arrived at Liangjiahang station, it was three o'clock at night. People were hurrying along, the streetlights dragging out their shadows. Was this Chengdu? Was this how I was to enter the city?

The sky gradually lightened. I got off the bus and went to queue in front of the toilet to wash my face. There was a driver of a three-wheeled cart touting for business. I kept shaking my head. I could only shake my head, because I didn't know where I was going. When I got out of the station, the cold wind blew at me from the street. I was shivering all over. I carefully took a piece of paper from inside my clothes. On it was the telephone number that would get me in touch with Xixi. This was the only number that could connect me with this strange, big city, the only lifeline I had at that time. Xixi was a friend[4] from Zigong whom I had not seen for many years. After the call was answered, I had to wait for her to come to the phone, and I held my breath and stared fixedly at the red public telephone. Time passed, one minute after another. I couldn't wait and dialled a second time. Again I had to wait, one minute dragging like a year. After the third time, the shop owner said 'maybe she's not up yet, or maybe she's not in Chengdu....' Looking at the cyclists rushing back and forth on the road, my mind went blank. If I couldn't get in touch with Xixi, where could I go? The fourth time I got through, she finally came to the phone. When my long lost Xixi appeared at the entrance of the station I couldn't help feeling dizzy, and when we got to where she was living, I fell down unconscious....

'It was a big thing for you to come out here. You can stay here for the time being and share whatever little I have', Xixi said.

Survival comes first.
First you eat noodles,
and then you resort to steamed buns.
You eat the same thing for every meal

This was the flat Xixi rented for 120 yuan per month.[5] There was only one room, with a kitchen and toilet shared with others. Xixi said she had opened a cosmetics shop in Guanghan, but she stayed here once in a while when she came to Chengdu.

Xixi had to go to Guanghan again, so she insisted on giving me fifty yuan before she left.

I knew that my top priority was to find a job, or more precisely, an income, as quickly as possible.

As I walked out of the little flat, it started drizzling outside. I started taking the bus to all the different job agencies. Because I didn't know the way, I had to ask wherever I went. A few days passed, but without any result, and I was on the verge of collapse, both physically and psychologically.

In the end, a healthcare product company agreed to 'try' me. I was so excited I couldn't sleep for a whole night. I told Xixi over the phone. Xixi said that now things would be okay. My job was to sell. I had to run back and forth, and so I gritted my teeth and spent fifty yuan to buy a rickety old bicycle from a second hand market in Huifu Street. Every morning I rode from Bali district to Shuinianhe.[6] Then I went to all the pharmacies in the city to stick up advertising leaflets. I asked the way as I rode along. Often I would be asking where Shuinianhe was, even when I was already there, at Chengdu hotel?.

The biggest problem was feeding myself. Running around every day, I had no way of cooking. Chengdu is the capital of cuisine, but the colourful array of restaurants and snack bars that filled the streets with wonderful smells was not for me. I ate one meal here, one meal there, before making my base at a small, nameless eatery in Shuinianhe. The cheapest noodles, with some oil and seasoning, cost three yuan. The main thing was that the hygiene was okay. If I got diarrhoea I would have to buy medicine and that would get me into real trouble. I became a regular customer at that small eatery. Every time I came, the boss would yell out 'one bowl of hot, sour noodle soup!' From a very early age I had had an aversion to noodles, but now I was forced to face that bowl of 'hot, sour' noodles every day, because that was what was cheapest. It made me curse, but I had to swallow them. Even now, whenever I see noodles my stomach turns over.

It would be a long time before I was paid. My purse was shrinking and I hadn't seen Xixi for a long time. It got to the stage when even noodles became a luxury to me. Then I had to go to the morning market to buy some of those big, home made steamed buns from the peasants. Each time I bought three for one yuan, and that way I got a discount. I had one for breakfast, I put one in my bag for lunch and one I left at home for dinner. I had already had stomach problems beforehand, and then, after a few days, I was completely beaten by those little steamed mounds of dough.

I woke from a dream with excruciating pain, sweat pouring down my face. The pain made me feel as if the god of death had come. Holding my stomach, I wanted to cry out for help from the woman next door who drives a three-wheel cart, but I was so dizzy I couldn't make a sound. Suddenly, my stomach turned over, and I vomited everything up.

The next day I struggled to get up to see a doctor. When I told her what had happened, the female doctor stared at me for an age: 'When was your last period?' Suddenly I understood what she was implying. I felt so wronged and angry that I couldn't utter a word.

I was at the end of my tether. After walking for a whole day without eating, my stomach started to ache again. The desire to survive made me want to eat anything I could, but I only had one yuan left, and if I spent it all my supplies would have run out. My lips parched, I couldn't help looking at the enticing food shops and eateries lining the streets. They looked better than heaven in my eyes. My hunger got greater and greater, but I just had to turn my head and walk away.

When I got back to Bali district, Xixi had at long last returned! One hot meal revived me. Then she had to leave again. My pride made me reluctant to open my mouth and ask her for money, but the desire to survive forced me to speak up. Xixi was really clever. She took out fifty yuan and gave it to me, just as I was struggling to speak. This fifty yuan lasted me until I got the pay from my first job as a migrant worker. No doubt that money saved my life.

Looking back at the road I travelled in search of work,
it was so hard and yet so simple

I spent many days rushing around without success. I heard from the woman next door who drives a three-wheel cart that there was a labour market at Jiuyanqiao and there you could find a job as a nanny or a waitress. I took bus no.54 to Jiuyanqiao. I stood there for a while, but eventually I left. I definitely did not think that physical labour was second class, but I still felt I should be able to do something different.

In the end all I could do was go to a job agency. In order to show that I had some kind of capability, I took out my book Bamboo Walls and the membership card from the provincial writers' association. Unexpectedly, I had cold water poured on my enthusiasm. A young female attendant with heavy makeup scrutinised my 'hardware' for ages and then threw at me: 'If you're looking for a job, just look for a job, from now on never show these playthings. If other people see you as some bookish, annoying writer, they won't want you!

What I saw as the crystallisation of so many years of blood and tears, others saw as positively shameful. I turned cold all over. Just how much was my worthy writing really worth?[8] Of what value were the things I pursued so earnestly?

It was the Chengdu newspapers that finally got me on the right track looking for work. The large quantity of information covered by those newspapers may not all be credible, but, after all, it's available to everyone. It's up to oneself to weigh up how credible it is and seize the opportunities provided.

One day, sitting next to the public phone and looking up at the grey sky, I wanted to cry but no tears came. When I turned around to the newsstand, I saw the Job News and immediately bought a copy. I scrutinised the paper from beginning to end, but could not find even one job that would suit me. The following day I bought another copy. I found several advertisements for office workers and hastened to call them. The young lady at the other end said with a crisp, gentle and polite voice: 'Sorry, our positions have been filled....' It was the same with all the others. How could it be so fast? It was only later that I learned that some so-called 'information' is just a trick played by the chief editor to fill up the page. Still refusing to give up, I bought another copy on the third day. I discovered a notice for a recruitment day at the employment market on Ningxia street. When I got there, I found this was a real employment market on a large scale. Still, it was only after going there several days in a row, that I was picked by the company in Shuinianhe that sold healthcare products.

I promised myself I would treasure this job that had been so hard to find. Just at that time, by chance I got to know a woman who'd come from a coastal city to Chengdu on business. After years of sinking and floating in the seas of business, she'd become what you'd call an 'iron woman'.[9] She didn't make a big deal out of my situation. Auntie was a woman of few words, but every word she said had an impact on me. When I asked her the telephone number of a certain company, her answer was 'ring 114'.[10] When I asked her where a certain company was, she'd say, 'look it up on the map'. She actually gave me quite a few copies of the map. When Auntie was going back to her hometown, she gave me a letter and told me to open it after she'd gone. When I opened the letter, I discovered that it was a notice of enrolment for a computer training class at the Electronics University, already paid for. Through that class, I acquired another practical skill and more confidence in the belief that you make your own life.

Because I lacked sales experience, I left that company which temporarily had given me shelter. Unemployed again, I rode back and forth with the map that Auntie had given me, and, when one map was worn, I took out another - it was only then that I realised why Auntie had given me so many copies of the map.

I was asked to an interview by a company seeking office workers. When I found the place, I saw a few girls sitting quietly in the meeting room. The head of the office, who called himself Jiang, sat on a platform in front of us. He cast us a look and cleared his voice: 'You have all been through a rigorous selection process ... the company is reliant on customers, so your job is to pull in customers ... how are you going to do that? You can do it any way you like. For instance, you can accompany them to go singing, dancing, and drinking....' The true nature of that job became quite clear. I quietly got up and left.

I now work at quite a famous private enterprise, Sanwang Group, in Chengdu. This company is one of the top five hundred private companies in the country. I am the chief editor of the 'Sanwang Group News'. I select and write articles and I also manage the literary supplement, which I love dearly. I like the vitality and the rather formal management. The company deals mainly with people from the countryside and that makes me, a country woman, happy to work as hard as I can. The wages are not bad; I could buy more than a hundred steamed buns per day, or one or two dozen bowls of hot, sour noodle soup. Some acquaintances thought I got this job by pulling strings. In reality it wasn't so. I remember standing in a crowd filling in forms, handing in my curriculum vitae, already numb from looking for jobs for so long. The person in charge of recruitment for the Sanwang Group carefully read my papers and said straight away: 'Come and register for work tomorrow.' It took me a while to react to such a simple 'recruitment'. Then I was hesitant and didn't go to register for a day. Afterwards, the person in charge told me that he thought highly of my 'experience'. Of course, he also thought highly of my 'membership card' and my 'big book', which had been disregarded by all those previous employers.

The up and downs of looking for work made me cooler headed, without me realising it. Fate started to smile at me.

She said: I'm actually working as an escort.[11]
I said: Xixi my friend, I missed you so much I was in tears!

I'm deeply grateful to Xixi, even though what she said before she left shocked me and I could not accept it. She said: 'In reality, I've always been an escort in a dance club. Now your situation is better, I can leave without worrying about you....'

Xixi's eyes were full of sincerity. She said that her cosmetics shop lost a lot of money and went bankrupt and that's why she went down this path.... I didn't dare believe what Xixi was saying, but thinking back on two incidents, I could not help feeling very emotional.

Not long after I had got to Chengdu, I remembered someone from my home county, far away in Shanghai. I had heard he was doing well, so I called him, but he said, 'Work is difficult to find in Shanghai too.' A few words made me feel cold all over. When I got back to the apartment, Xixi had just returned with a man who she said was a friend in business. The man looked me over and tried to chat me up. Xixi suddenly yelled at him: ' This is my older sister, you behave yourself!'

Sure enough, the man shut up.

There was another time, Xixi rang to say that something had happened to her in Guanghan and she would not be able to return for a while. I wanted to hurry over there, but Xixi wouldn't let me. I persisted and she started yelling from the other end: 'You can't come, you mustn't get involved in this business, you're different from me!'

In the end I didn't go. Afterwards, she came back saying that it was just some trouble in the business, and I didn't take much notice.

This was my friend, an unremarkable girl who had done everything for me without a word. I am not making up stories here, everything is completely true. Xixi and Auntie, who gave me the chance to study computing, had done so much for me, but said so little!

Writing has become a habit in my life.
Looking back, the first year and a half in the city
has been a prolific time for my creative writing
Literature has brought me so much loneliness, even suffering, but even more than that it has brought me fulfilment and happiness.

City life and my job at the moment have taken me way beyond the bounds of literature. I like this type of challenge. I've devoted myself heart and soul to getting to know unfamiliar things about the economy and society, and about news and voicing opinions on politics and the like. These changes will probably make me a new person.

The thing that hasn't changed is my pursuit of literature, because it has become part of my life and way of living.

Literature has been my support through all the hard times. Within the short space of a year, I wrote and submitted my work non-stop. Publications like Social Panorama, Short Story Writer, Sichuan Daily, Selected Mini Stories, and Young Writers, have all published special issues of my writing. In April 1998 I was invited by Selected Short Stories to go to Zhengzhou to attend the second national short story conference. Nowadays, I constantly get letters from my readers. I possess such riches that others don't have, isn't this worth treasuring?


[1] Zhou Rencong's story was originally published in Nongjianü Baishitong [Rural Women Knowing All], 3, (1999): 25-30, translated by Tamara Jacka and Song Xianlin.

Huaihua is the flower of the Chinese Scholartree.

[2] i.e. marriage.

[3] The household registration system was introduced in the mid-1950s as a means of regulating the population, and in particular, of restricting rural to urban migration. See Tamara Jacka's paper, this issue.

[4] The term used here is 'laoxiang' - someone from the same region.

[5] One yuan = US$0.1.

[6] Bali district is on the outskirts of Chengdu, northeast of the city centre. Shuinianhe district is southeast of the city centre.

[7] This section does not follow chronologically from the last. Instead, it returns us to the period before the narrator found her job with the healthcare product company, this time focussing on the difficulty of finding work.

[8] The Chinese sentence (wenxue jiujing zhi ji wen?) contains a pun on the word wen, meaning 'writing' or 'literature', but also 'coins'.

[9] Nü qiangren - i.e. a successful career woman.

[10] i.e. enquires.

[11] Sanpei nü - literally, a woman who accompanies (male customers) in three ways. Such women entertain men in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and sometimes provide sexual services.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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