dagongmei: gendered troubles in the city of dreams

Over at Made in China, Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace have co-edited Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, which traces the history of Chinese labor since 1898. Compiling events from the late Qing, Republican, and PRC eras, the book offers a diversity of voices and perspectives on the meaning and experience of work in China. Indeed, the brevity of each chapter allows for a comprehensive introduction into how political movements, economic restructuring and individual desires have constantly shaped and redirected the norms and forms having (or not) a job and the meaning of said job within and against a landscape of shifting national goals. Moreover, the scope of the volume allows for more refined comparison; for example, the unstable meaning of women’s labor, how technology has been mobilized inside factory walls, or even how the spatialization of labor has changed in the years from the rise of Shanghai to the socialist factories of Tianjin and then the emergence of assembly manufacturing in Shenzhen. I contributed a chapter on the moral geography of Shenzhen’s dagongmei 打工妹 during the early years of the Special Zone, mapping how the path to respectability was differently manifest in Shekou, Luohu and Bao’an.

An early and famous picture of Shenzhen dagongmei.

Hair Washer Number 5

Her last name is Xu, but she insisted that I call her by her number, 5, Hair Washer Number 5. She called me Pretty Lady, or 美女 (meinv), a common form of address for women between the ages of 17 to mid 30s, but nothing I’ve ever been called. After I laughed and asked if I was truly a meinv, Xu explained that women like to be called pretty, and even when they were as old I was, to call them Auntie (阿姨 ayi) or Older Sister (大姐 dajie) might make them unhappy. I acknowledged how difficult it was to know how to address strangers, especially without an introduction.

Xu came to Shenzhen 3 years ago, when she was 15. She has been working in the beauty industry for two years now and took a job at this salon, which markets Korean style service and products because “For people without education, or money, or status,” she explained, “the only thing we can do is learn a skill and make our future ourselves.” She hopes to learn enough to someday open her own shop. She works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but says that once her trial period is up she will have one rest day a week.

As she kneaded my arm, Xu shyly asked, “What do you do when you’re upset?”

“I meditate and go for walks.”

She nodded slowly and then, eyes intently fixed on the skin of my inner arm, she told me that this afternoon at lunch she cried from weary exhaustion. Then her manager and several co-workers urged her to stop crying and toughen up, after all, if she didn’t learn to eat bitterness when she was so young, it would only get harder as she aged.

I asked if the crying helped.

“No, nothing’s changed.”

I fumbled to clarify, “I didn’t mean the question rhetorically. I just wanted to know if you felt better after you cried.”

She nodded her head once.

“Then cry,” I said, “and when you feel better, analyze your situation and figure out what to do next. You’ll make worse decisions when you’re tight and unhappy than you will after a good cry.”

She looked at me and then resumed kneading my other arm, adding softly when she finished, “Next time you come, ask for Number 5 and we can talk again.”

Humbled, I left the salon, hoping for the courage to return, ask for Number 5, and listen to her story.