Chasing the flip-flop trail through the city of Fuzhou and finding the flip-flop factories was only a beginning. I had to get Michael Tan, the artist/photographer who took the photos in this bulletin, and myself, into one of the factories for long enough to observe the production process and speak to the workers. I started at the top. Dai Wei, my interlocutor, and I visited a number of factories of different sizes. We were graciously entertained by factory bosses who laid-on large lunches and showed us around, while patiently answering my questions about how they started the factory. Flip-factories, it seems, can be grown from humble home-factory beginnings with a single machine and family labour. But they can only grow if they switch to injection-moulding technology, which takes capital and connections. Bosses with party connections were best able to take advantage of burgeoning market opportunities in the 1990s as the state retreated from shoe production, and leverage up to more profitable production technologies.
When I began enquiring about spending some time in a factory and watching production Dai Wei blocked it. It could be dangerous in these industrial villages beyond the city, and I don’t speak Chinese. I pointed out that Michael Tan was about to arrive from Singapore. His family come from Fujian and he had made many visits as a child to his grandparents. He knows both the area and the local language. Dai Wei was sceptical. It depends, he said, on what kind of a Chinese man this Straits migrant was. He’d need to meet him. Otherwise he, and his company were, he said, responsible for my safety. This was his way of expressing his anxieties about the research. I was working without official permission, which he felt OK about while he was accompanying me and uneasy about when he was not. And while it is clear that journalists need permission to work in China, academic research is a greyer area. Had I sought permission officially it would have taken a long time to get it, and then I would have been assigned a minder. This would limit what people would say, making the data worthless. I needed to work under the official radar and speak with people privately. In these circumstances they spoke freely. Anything public was another matter. I could have got Dai Wei into trouble by drawing attention to myself.
Michael arrived and Dai Wei was satisfied he was the right kind of Chinese man. I have no idea what this meant. But we set to work, travelling each day to the edge of the city, and one of the factories where Dai Wei had fixed it with the boss. I watched, drew sketches and made notes from the dusty, fumy factory floor. Michael took photographs and discovered the two makeshift living areas where two (rural) migrant worker families lived inside the factory. We fitted our interviews into the rhythms of the workers work, asking a few questions at a time. Michael translated and I recorded. This went on for a few days. We would arrive and spend the day watching and asking questions, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. The boss seemed to be away, so we would turn up each morning and get on with the job. Each night we would take two motorbike taxis, or whatever transport was available, back to the city and the comfort of our hotel and shower away the black dust we had gathered during the day. Each evening Dai Wei would phone and ask, with some anxiety, what we had done that day. He would sound disappointed when I said we had been at the factory.
Then the boss returned as suddenly as he had left and was angry to find us still there. We were interfering with production and maybe we were planning to open a factory of our own now that we had learned how it all worked. I think he and the workers were anxious about what we would do with what they had told us about their lives and work in the factory. They, too, could get into trouble with the (local) authorities. Respecting this unstated concern we left immediately. It was the night of the moon festival. We sat on the factory steps watching the place light up as the full moon rose and people rushed around the village on bicycle and foot, starting work, finishing work (shifts were continuous) and going home to celebrate with family. We were both upset and phoned Dai Wei to try and smooth things over with the boss.
We must have looked dejected sitting outside the factory. As workers we knew left for the night they stopped to speak to us. One invited us back to his house. Thus the research moved on into a more private domain as we continued more discretely, and to everyone’s relief, to talk to people in the private spaces of migrant workers homes.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press.