The working folk
THE MIN GONG, THE WORKING FOLK
When Deng Xiao Ping launched a policy of economic openness in the 1980s, organizing the transition from a planned economy to a private economy, hundreds of millions of villagers left the countryside and came to the cities to raze and rebuild them. These villagers are the min-gongs, the “peasant workers”. Victim of all forms of social abuse, they built the new China without being able to spend time to live or take care of their children. The 250 million min-gongs who live across China are practically foreigners in their own country. Photographer Julien Hazemann witnessed and observed as they demolished and rebuilt Chongqing, the “city in the mist”.
Chongqing, a city wedged in the mountains of central China, arose at the confluence of the Rivers Jilanling and Yangtze, the country’s main river. After thirty years of growth, it is today a megalopolis of about 15 million inhabitants. Its construction was carried out by the min-gongs.
A peninsula emerges from where the two rivers converge. It is the heart of Chongqing. Its tip, Chaotianmen, was the main access to the city for centuries, the place where ships loaded and unloaded their shipments. Because of its topography, the city was built on staircases. Meaning that the only way to convey the merchandises between the boats and the city was on men’s back. The last carriers of Chongqing still use bamboo sticks, commonly called “bangs”, to facilitate their work. Thus, the carriers themselves are known as “bang bangs”. They are Chongqing’s emblem. And like the workers on the city’s construction-sites, the remaining bang-bangs came from rural areas of the country.
In the 2000s, as hundreds of fashionable stores blossomed throughout Chaotianmen, Chongqing entered in the consumer society. The city owes its modernity to the backbreaking-work carried out by the bang-bangs and the min-gongs. These men have been a pillar to the city’s development; a process with a constant need for more arms, to carry, and more legs, to run. They work every day, sometimes over night also. Stuck at the bottom of the social ladder, they sacrificed themselves for a world that refuses to consider them.
However, over the years the delivery rates and daily wages gradually increased. And workers gained a compensation, a modest payment, for their efforts. The city, craving for new citizens, sometimes granted them a place in society. Some were able to buy an apartment. Their incomes guarantee better living-conditions than back home in the countryside. Yet, home is where most of their earnings go. They send it back, and fund the reconstruction of their houses in their hometowns and native villages to secure a comfortable retirement. But this money mainly benefited to their children, who grew up in the village, and were raised by their grandparents, but went to work in school, and no longer in the fields.
The children rarely see their parents more than once a year. It’s too seldom to really know them, but enough to become accustomed to the city. As they grow up, most aspire to become city dwellers. This is a radical upheaval. And when the young min-gongs finally come of age and migrate to the city, it’s no longer to build it, but to inhabit it. They are adrift between two worlds: neither entirely rural anymore, nor truly urban yet. They feel the need to stick together, to gather, to look alike. They invent their own codes and uniforms. They all wear the same haircut, but now with new shapes and colours. It's the Min-gong style.
These young people were born in a world in the midst of demolition, vowed to disappear. To them, change is first and foremost chaos. Family is among the few remaining frames of reference. But their parents worked hard, and while they built the new China, they couldn’t afford time to live and away from their children. They provided material comfort to their children, and handed them the moon. But the moon has a dust-like taste.
Modernity hasn’t abolished the gap separating the children of the min-gongs from the children of city-dwellers. But there is one domain of shared understanding, one territory where they get together: music. The kind of music with loud drums that blast through the eardrums like the hammers and gavels of their childhood’s soundtrack. Music of the likes of Demolition Moon, a rock band neither rural anymore, nor truly urban yet, lost on the road to an imaginary success.