“China and Its Nether Zones” by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 11.04.57

The migrant wants to live.
—John Berger, A Seventh Man, p. 36

In the Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder”, a patient, whom viewers have been led to believe is horrendously disfigured, sits surrounded by medical staff eager to see if surgery to ‘correct’ her appearance has been successful. Unfortunately, the woman remains hideously ugly, and she is to be banished to a village where other people like her live secluded lives away from society.


I was reminded of this episode when a Hong Kong taxi driver joked to me that one day only people as young and beautiful as the actress Fan Bingbing would be allowed to walk the streets of Beijing. He drove me through the busy streets of Mong Kok, his car stereo turned down low. Anita Mui’s Years Flowing Like Water was playing softly. There was still enough daylight for me to read a book in the back seat but the street-lamps had already come on, impatient to rule the night. The faces of those in the street were wrinkled by frowns, the slow-moving traffic annoying them. The city was alive with an energy of agitation; you could sense people’s collective expectation of their evening meal and their quiet fatigue.


The driver was referring to the Beijing government’s attempt to eradicate the Chinese capital’s ‘low-end population’[1] following a fatal fire that broke out on 18 November 2017 in a building in the southern Daxing suburb. The fire took the lives of more than a dozen people, including children. Most of those killed were migrants, who had moved to Beijing from the provinces to work. No one willingly leaves the comfort of home, if home is sufficiently comforting. In the wake of the fire, the government launched a 40-day citywide campaign to demolish unauthorised dwellings, many of which are occupied by migrant workers, whose housing options are limited. Some saw the measures as part of the government’s plan to gentrify and beautify the city, which entails ridding the capital of its ‘low-end population’. Entire neighbourhoods were destroyed in the demolitions and thousands of migrant workers were evicted in sub-zero temperatures and left homeless.


Hao Jingfang’s science-fiction story Folding Beijing depicts the eponymous city as folded and unfolded into three zones—First Space, Second Space and Third Space—to accommodate  80 million inhabitants. But the people in these zones do not experience the city in the same way. In fact, the allocation of time, space and resources across the three districts is highly stratified and unequal: ‘Five million enjoyed the use of twenty-four hours, and seventy-five million enjoyed the next twenty-four hours.’ Those in the Third Space, who only have eight hours a day (from ten o’clock in the evening to six o’clock the following morning), have ‘to eke out a living by performing the repetitive drudgery as fast as possible, to toil hour after hour for rewards as thin as the wings of cicadas’. Their jobs are generally lowly ones, such as processing the refuse of the other two spaces.


Hao Jingfang has said in an interview: ‘I want people to realise that there are so many invisible people in their lives’. In her depiction of the Third Space populace, Hao takes inspiration from the nation’s migrant workers. The protagonist’s father, for example, ‘had been a construction worker, one of millions of other construction workers who had come to Beijing from all over China in search of work’.


Hao, through her futuristic dystopian story, wants more people to acknowledge the existence of the ‘invisible people in their lives’. It has to be said though that the plight of migrant workers in Beijing has also been made visible through writing—the winter evictions have been widely reported in international media. People from other parts of the world might find the Beijing government’s treatment of its own people callous and inhumane. But I read about this latest cruelty with not an iota of disbelief, however much disgust I had for the authorities and immense sympathy for the displaced. This is, after all, a government that summarily imprisons its dissidents, and worse. In comparison to the government’s other depredations, expelling what the powers-that-be consider to be ‘undesirables’ from the country’s precious capital, which is something they had already done to make way for infrastructure in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, might even be deemed an act of benevolence.


In “The Eye of the Beholder”, it is ultimately revealed that the patient is indeed very attractive (by the viewers’ standards), while the medical staff have deformed faces and look very like one another: conformity, not just in thought but also in physical appearance, is a virtue in this fictional, totalitarian society. The taxi driver and I wondered about the origin of the fire that started the eviction in Beijing. After sizing up the possibilities, we concluded that anything could have happened. He dropped me off in front of a building from whose façade protruded tens of cluttered, untidy wooden signs advertising a myriad of shops and services. It was all very messy and would have made many an urban planner blanch but I found the sight a beautiful one.

[This is cross-posted on Berfrois.]


[1] ‘A cold bureaucratic definition of low value-added manual jobs that somehow expanded to designate the people who do those jobs[.] … The censors have now banned that word from social media and elsewhere.’ (Gabriele Battaglia, South China Morning Post, 3 December 2017.)


hlmTammy Ho Lai-Ming is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is the editor of Agora. [Click here to read all entries by or about Tammy.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s