Work-is is an ongoing series of video documentaries that attempts to contextualise the labour market in China through individual stories. China’s vast supply chain is an often discussed but seldom seen side of the country. When it is talked about, the narrative is usually composed of numbers, figures, and sweeping trends. Work-is sets out to catalogue the labour force of China in a more intimate and granular way, using voices and personal histories to colour the notion of what it means to be working in modern China.
Zhou Xing Yu is a professional Chinese opera singer. Her company is based in Chongqing and perform Sichuan style opera. Sichuan opera is characterized by its intense blend of acting, singing and martial arts. The make-up and costumes represent the different roles in each opera and take many hours to put on and then take off. Zhou Xing Yu has been honing her craft since she joined opera school as a child. She spends her working week rehearsing and performing.
Taobao is China’s largest online shopping site with over 400 million active users. This is a film about a model named Pin’er. Her clients are the stores that sell through Taobao. The website provides data on each product and how fast it sells. As a result, Taobao models are not only hired on their looks, they are also judged on their proven track record of driving online sales. Clothing is typically priced low, but the volumes sold are high. With an insatiable demand for new fashion, apparel makes up nearly half of the sales volumes on the site. We joined Pin’er for a day of shooting: she worked with multiple clients and had over a hundred and fifty outfit changes over the course of 13 hours, a fairly typical day for her.
Zhang Ming Ye has been trading human hair ever since he graduated from high school 17 years ago. His father, also a hair trader, got him into the business and taught him the trade. Zhang buys real human hair from hair collectors that travel from village to village cutting hair from women and girls. He sells it on to big factories in China and abroad that make wigs and hair pieces out of human hair. Every few days he goes to the hair market to inspect and purchase hair collected from all over Asia.
Guo Jie is one of the estimated 277 million rural migrant workers in China. In Shanghai Guo Jie buys and collects styrofoam boxes from markets selling fresh produce. She takes them to a seafood wholesale market where she resells them to wholesalers who will store fish in the boxes. She does one round trip a day, piling as much styrofoam on her bike as possible so she doesn’t have to go back and forth. The stallholders at the market all know her and save their styrofoam for her visits. We first met Guo Jie when she was getting a parking ticket for her bike.