Saturday, May 01, 2010

Last Train Home

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Over the last few weeks there have been endless stories on the news about people overcoming the ash cloud flight restrictions to get home from mainland Europe to the UK and Ireland. In my wife’s case, it was a long journey with trains, an 18 hour ferry crossing, a diplomatic car, more trains, and eventually a lift from Portadown when it looked like the Enterprise was going to turn into a bus substitution service.

But I found that all those stories of hardship, struggle and effort paled into insignificance when I sat down to watch Last Train Home at the Belfast Film Festival last week. Spoilers ahoy!

130 million migrant workers across China leave their rural home to work in big cities and only return to see their children and extended family once a year at Chinese New Year. It’s the world’s largest human migration.

Lixin Fan’s documentary follows the Zhang family. Changhua and Sugin work long hours in a garment factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. They rely on a grandmother to rear their daughter (Qin, 17) and son (Yang, 10) while they are away working, hoping to earn enough money to prevent their children having to fall into the same pattern of life.

Crowded railway station at Chinese New Year- Last Train Home

In the days leading up to the 2007 holiday period, just getting a ticket for a train involves hours of queuing. Burdened with luggage, thousands of people cram onto long trains and spend a couple of days travelling back to their home province before taking boats, buses and walking back to their villages and on to their family homes.

Sugin left home to work in the city when her daughter Qin was just one year old. It was a wrench, but she “hardened” her heart. Education is a key concern. The first thing checked when they get home is their young son’s report card. Coming fifth in the class isn’t good enough and he is scolded for not trying hard enough.

“I have one wish - that Yang and Qin will study hard.”

There’s a real contrast between the sight and sound of the enclosed factory and the paddy fields, sunsets and children playing 2,000km away in Huilang Village in Sichuan Province.

Parents phone home to catch up with their children, but the conversation seems to default to asking about their progress at school.

“When we are here [the city] we don’t even know what to say to the kids.”

The distance is isolating and destructive. The stress is not all on the parents. Children find it hard to live without their parents. Teenage daughter Qin doesn’t get on well with her parents and doesn’t want to see them.

She drops out of school and moves away to the city of Xintang in Guangxi Province, about 400km from her parents. She is recruited to sew by a clothes factory her friend is also working in. “Freedom is happiness” she says. The work and conditions are not that enjoyable, but making money – and spending it – is better than school.

Qin returning home at Chinese New Year - Last Train Home

She teams up with her parents to trek back home for the New Year. They’re putting her under pressure to go back to school. The railway system collapses due to snow in neighbouring provinces disrupting the electric supply to the train network. Huge crowds – tens of thousands – surround the paralysed stations. Some people have been waiting for a week. Even while police and army lines struggle to retain peace and order, Qin and her mum continue to bicker. Eventually they get underway. But there is a lot of family tension.

There’s a violent and shocking physical altercation between Qin and her father Changhua after she is disrespectful and swears at him. He says he “tolerates” her, and she accuses him of never being there for her. Suddenly the Granny seems the most content member of the family. Qin doesn’t return to school or the factory, but instead moves to Shenzhen.

“First I’ll have some fun. Then I’ll find some work.”

The work is serving drinks in a night club. Along with colleagues and punters, she watches the opening of the Beijing Olympics on a plasma screen. It’s an opulent and western environment. Spend not save. A million miles away – well a couple of thousand – from her brother and grandmother’s rural existence, and a very different lifestyle to her mother and father who may soon be feeling the pressure of abandoned factories and empty export docks due to the worldwide recession.

The film ends with Sugin feeling drawn to give up work and head home to make sure Yang has a successful education and doesn’t drop out like his sister. Yet that leaves the burden of earning on the shoulders of a lonely Changhua.

As a documentary, it highlights the scale of China as well as the lifestyle choices and necessities of different generations. There are questions about authority and changing values. It’s the human emotion story behind the pair of jeans you are wearing or the coat you’ll put on to go outside. An insight into human migratory patterns, the stresses involved, and the resolve required to overcome problems. There’s no fairy tale ending.

By coincidence, I’m posting this to the blog on May Day – International Workers’ Day – and the film was a timely reminder about workers in other countries.

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