The Road to Dongguan Pier

George Orwell, it turns out, wrote things other than Animal Farm and 1982. For some reason (I can’t actually remember, now), I started reading Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier a few weeks ago. It’s a remarkable piece of writing. Orwell’s voice drew me in immediately, depicting with clear, compelling prose prose the miserable conditions in a working-class boarding house:

I never discovered how many bedrooms the house contained, but strange to say there was a bathroom, dating from before the Brookers’ time. Downstairs there was the usual kitchen living-room with its huge open range burning night and day. It was lighted only by a skylight, for on one side of it was the shop and on the other the larder, which opened into some dark subterranean place where the tripe was stored. Partly blocking the door of the larder there was a shapeless sofa upon which Mrs. Brooker, our landlady, lay permanently ill, festooned in grimy blankets. She had a big, pale yellow, anxious face. No one knew for certain what was the matter with her; I suspect that her only real trouble was over-eating. In front of the fire there was almost always a line of damp washing, and in the middle of the room was the big kitchen table at which the family and all the lodgers ate. I never saw this table completely uncovered, but I saw its various wrappings at different times. At the bottom there was a layer of old newspaper stained by Worcester Sauce; above that a sheet of sticky white oil-cloth; above that a green serge cloth; above that a coarse linen cloth, never changed and seldom taken off. Generally the crumbs from breakfast were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day.

The shop was a narrow, cold sort of room. On the outside of the window a few white letters, relics of ancient chocolate advertisements, were scattered like stars. Inside there was a slab upon which lay the great white folds of tripe, and the grey flocculent stuff known as ‘black tripe’, and the ghostly translucent feet of pigs, ready boiled. It was the ordinary ‘tripe and pea’ shop, and not much else was stocked except bread, cigarettes, and tinned stuff. ‘Teas’ were advertised in the window, but if a customer demanded a cup of tea he was usually put off with excuses. Mr. Brooker, though out of work for two years, was a miner by trade, but he and his wife had been keeping shops of various kinds as a side-line all their lives. At one time they had had a pub, but they had lost their licence for allowing gambling on the premises. I doubt whether any of their businesses had ever paid; they were the kind of people who run a business chiefly in order to have something to grumble about. Mr. Brooker was a dark, small- boned, sour, Irish-looking man, and astonishingly dirty. I don’t think I ever once saw his hands clean. As Mrs. Brooker was now an invalid he prepared most of the food, and like all people with permanently dirty hands he had a peculiarly intimate, lingering manner of handling things. If he gave you a slice of bread-and-butter there was always a black thumb-print on it. Even in the early morning when he descended into the mysterious den behind Mrs. Brooker’s sofa and fished out the tripe, his hands were already black. I heard dreadful stories from the other lodgers about the place where the tripe was kept. Blackbeetles were said to swarm there. I do not know how often fresh consignments of tripe were ordered, but it was at long intervals, for Mrs. Brooker used to date events by it. ‘Let me see now, I’ve had in three lots of froze (frozen tripe) since that happened,’ etc. We lodgers were never given tripe to eat. At the time I imagined that this was because tripe was too expensive; I have since thought that it was merely because we knew too much about it. The Brookers never ate tripe themselves, I noticed.

[…] It struck me that this place must be fairly normal as lodging-houses in the industrial areas go, for on the whole the lodgers did not complain. The only one who ever did so to my knowledge was a little black-haired, sharp-nosed Cockney, a traveller for a cigarette firm. He had never been in the North before, and I think that till recently he had been in better employ and was used to staying in commercial hotels. This was his first glimpse of really low-class lodgings, the kind of place in which the poor tribe of touts and canvassers have to shelter upon their endless journeys. In the morning as we were dressing (he had slept in the double bed, of course) I saw him look round the desolate room with a sort of wondering aversion. He caught my eye and suddenly divined that I was a fellow- Southerner. ‘The filthy bloody bastards!’ he said feelingly. After that he packed his suit-case, went downstairs and, with great strength of mind, told the Brookers that this was not the kind of house he was accustomed to and that he was leaving immediately. The Brookers could never understand why. They were astonished and hurt. The ingratitude of it! Leaving them like that for no reason after a single night! Afterwards they discussed it over and over again, in all its bearings. It was added to their store of grievances.

On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me.

This isn’t a book of advocacy, exactly. As far as I’ve read, Orwell concerns himself with journalistic, nearly novelistic depiction of the work and lives of the British working class, and he does not spend time arguing for any particular policy or politics. He doesn’t need to. His book accomplishes its purpose merely by presenting the lives of the proletariat in vibrant, grim detail, creating the potent mix of sympathy and revulsion evinced by the quoted paragraphs above. Political action is left as an exercise to the reader.

I came across this book fortuitously, as I had also just started reading Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang, an account of the lives of the working class in the new industrial China, specifically the city of Dongguan. The similarities are numerous. Like the miners in Orwell’s account, the girls in the factories that Chang visits work long hours, live in crowded, uncomfortable dwellings, work for astonishingly low wages, and are subject to a variety of abuses and indignities at the hands of management. Such conditions are universal in the annals of the global proletariat.

But the differences are even more indicative. First, the cleanliness. Orwell evokes the omnipresent filth of the British slums, but the dormitories that Chang visits are tidy and always smell faintly of bleach. The girls are so pressed for time that they bathe only occasionally, but neither do they spend hours doing hard labor at the coal face. They may not be adequately protected from industrial chemicals, but they do not inhale air that’s black with coal dust.

Chang’s girls live in what seems like an enormous, unisex high school. Most of them are in their teens or early twenties, and they live in an environment where they only see each other, living in an isolated social bubble, almost entirely cut off from the rest of the city. They only contact their families occasionally, though most of them send money home. They may have boyfriends and friendships, but the conditions in Dongguan are so chaotic and fluid that few of these relationships last long. Impermanence is the rule of the new China.

Orwell’s mining families, on the other hand, have at least the advantage of being families. They have permanent residences, small and miserable as they are, and they have neighbors and relatively stable social arrangements. In this sense, they seem to have it better than the factory children of China. The girls in Chang’s book seem so lonely. Orwell’s slums have many vices, but loneliness does not seem to enter them.

In yet another serendipitous coincidence, last week This American Life ran a story about the factories where iPhones are made, with excerpts from a hilarious, moving story about a man who went to China to see them for himself. The second half of their podcast included a defense of sweatshops from Paul Krugman, who offers the familiar apologetic: the miserable factories one currently finds in China and elsewhere are an important stepping stone towards First World prosperity, and as bad as they are, they are still an improvement over the poverty of subsistence agriculture.

I don’t know exactly what to say to this defense, but I find it deeply dissatisfying. I want to push back; I want to ask whether it is really an improvement to move from plowing behind an ox for twelve hours a day to laboring in a factory for sixteen. I want to know whether the social chaos, gross inequality, and rank exploitation of industrial China are really describable as progress. It seems to me that a peasant farmer may be poorer in monetary measures than a factory worker, but he has a dignity that the wage slave does not. I could be wrong about all of these things. But I wonder.

Most of all, I cannot shake the stench of complicity off of myself. I own a bevy of Chinese-manufactured devices. Who doesn’t? Is it even possible to live in the world today without profiting from sweatshop labor?

I turn again to Orwell:

The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a kind of ghost for ever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole. In the end Mrs Brooker’s self-pitying talk–always the same complaints, over and over, and always ending with the tremulous whine of ‘It does seem ‘ard, don’t it now?’–revolted me even more than her habit of wiping her mouth with bits of newspaper. But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilization that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us. Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led –to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long.

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1 Comment

  1. I’d like to say I have something clever to type, some witty counter to the truth in this post. Yet, all I can do is hang my head as I type on a laptop that probably has a Made in China sticker somewhere. Perhaps it’s a keener appreciation for progress when viewed from the top.

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