We live in a bubble. Metaphorically speaking. Some would say we don’t even REALLY live in China. Jinqiao (“Golden Bridge”) is an expat area. I think it’s China, but then again, I don’t get out much.

Recently, I took a walking tour through a local migrant village called Sanqaio. Remember my post on Shezhuang Temple? Well, the migrant village surrounding that temple was torn down. We visited the nearby village of Sanqiao. Very close to our bubble. In fact, we walked there…from Costa Coffee. Think about it. Three blocks from an expensive international coffee chain, there is a village of 20,000 migrant worker and their families who live in crowded quarters. But guess what? They’re generally very happy.


(Note: I am not a historian. Nor do I truly understand the plight of the Chinese migrant worker. I am just sharing what I learned. Please feel free to comment if you have input! If you’re in Shanghai and would like information on the walking tours, send me a message.)

What comes to mind with the word “migrant”? For me, it’s a person from another country looking for work so he/she can support the family back home. Here in China, migrants are Chinese laborers who come to the cities looking for a better life. This is made a bit complicated by China’s hukou system. In China, citizens are issued a hukou at birth. A hukou is a kind of family registration which says where you were born, who are your family members etc. Any government benefits you might be entitled to are only available to you in your hometown. During the Mao years, if you had a countryside hukou, you could not go to a city. Not even for a visit. This was to ensure there were enough farm and laborers in the countryside to provide food and goods for the cities – and to prevent overcrowding. If you had a city hukou, you were not allowed to visit the countryside. This created the seeds of discrimination which are still around today. City vs. country.

This went on until the 1970’s when China’s Communist leaders added a dose of Capitalism into the mix. The people began migrating, looking for a better life. The first generation of migrant workers were not legally allowed to work in the cities.  They were hired under the table to perform the jobs nobody else wanted – or for large scale construction projects. They were not allowed to buy a house or send their children to local schools and had inadequate healthcare. They generally lived in dorms – like the blue/white modulars we see around Shanghai today.

Migrant Dorm

Most of these workers returned to their home towns after making some money, but some stayed and raised families here.  The second and third generations have stayed in the city 10+ years! Since 2008, their children have been allowed to attend local schools and government is slowly creating programs to improve their lives. Affordable healthcare is still an issue, so a lot of workers will return to their homes for medical care. Since they hold a country hukou, their medical benefits are only available in their home town.  The migrant workers in Sanqaio visit “barefoot doctors” at clinics like these:

Barefoot Doctor Clinic

Barefoot doctors were farmers who received basic medical training so they could provide care for their village. This practice started in the early 30’s but gained momentum under Mao.  Technically, they don’t exist anymore, (ahem) but somebody works here to provide for basic medical needs.

Pop-Up Job Agencies advertise for day laborers and other jobs:

Job postings

Some of these ads are looking for factory workers, street cleaners and even a DJ Princess at a karaoke bar. Although it sounds glamorous, the DJ Princess is just a glorified lap dancer. Prostitution is illegal, but largely ignored. During our walk I saw some “working girls” just hanging out. My favorite was wearing a short skirt, nylons and Nikes. Practical.

(Note: Some ads are looking for women who have “Standard Features”. What are they, you might ask? Well…according to our Chinese guide, standard features are as follows: face shaped as a sunflower seed, eyebrows like willow tree leaf, eyes like almonds, nose like a green onion and mouth small and pink like a cherry. Totally attainable, right?)

A street cleaner might make 300 kuai a month, but a single room costs 350 kuai a month. That’s why so many family members live together in apartments like these:


Sigh. I need time to process the remaining information. Stay tuned for Part 2. I’m looking forward to sharing the success stories of some of these hardworking migrant families.