A Pinching and Scraping Life

    Located on a hill near Shantou Seismological Bureau, near Shantou University, there is a dilapidated shanty standing amid a rubbish dump. A dog is barking outside the shanty, seemingly at his master. An old man with gray hair stoops with difficulty to pick up the wine bottles which are thrown away by others. When he finishes separating the rubbish into different categories, he lights up a cigarette and puffs deeply.

    His name is Zhou Zhanlian. He has been living here alone for more than sixteen years. He has no spouse and is over seventy. The barking dog is his only partner.

    Zhou Zhanlian is just one of the migrant workers living in Shantou. He comes from a poor countryside town called Fengyang in Anhui province. With a low education level, he lives by manual labor.

    “I left my hometown and came here to look for fortune. However, illiteracy is my serious handicap in my life,” Zhou frowned and said, forcing a smile. It has been more than seventeen years since he came here. In 1991, it cost him twenty yuan to get from Anhui to Shantou. At that time, with the reform and opening up of China, Shantou was taking advantage of being an SEZ and its economy had grown tremendously. So Zhou made up his mind to go to Shantou to carve out a career for himself, though he was almost fifty years old then. However, things proved difficult for a worker from outside Guangdong province.

    “It is because you are migrant worker who comes from another province. The residents of Shantou city always look down on migrant workers, especially one who has a low education level,” Zhou said, puffing angrily on his cigarette. Flies flirted about him in the twilight, adding to his annoyance.

    The number of migrant farm workers in Guangdong is estimated at 26.2 million, according to the Guangdong Provincial Department of Labor and Social Security. And only in Shantou the number is up to about 800 thousand.

    The “floating population” phenomenon has become a problem in many coastal areas of China. Migrant laborers have no permanent residence permit; they have the unequal status under the resident registration system, which has the function to protect local residents’ rights.

    Compared with his fellow provincials, who live in Tuopu area, it was not easy for Zhou to find a regular job, but possible to get some odd ones at that time. He was a cleaner in Shantou Seismological Bureau and earned fifty yuan per month when he came here at the beginning. Later his salary went up to 150 yuan per month. Although it was a low income, he still kept optimistic and made every effort to clean the seismological bureau. However, after five years, he said, he was fired because of his old age.

    “I don’t know why they fired me at that time. The predecessor of the director in Shantou Seismological Bureau just told me that I was too old to do this job. Then I had to leave. I have inability to read, so when I lost my job, I didn’t know what to do. I just went to do some odd-jobs, like picking up the rubbish to sell in order to support myself,” Zhou said.

    About five years ago, Zhou gleaned some odd bits of wood to build his shanty in the hill. At that time many people who live nearby was disgusted with Zhou because he created the odoriferous rubbish dump. But people nearby changed their view of him after they got to know him better.

    “Things have been changed because of Zhou’s good moral quality– he is kindhearted,” said by one of Zhou’s neighbors, Mr. Zhang.

    But Zhou is still a scavenger, who goes to glean and collect scrap. Every day at 2 A.M. , he must get up to gather the rubbish in the Tuopu area. “Why do I wake up so early? It’s just because there would be much more household garbage when almost all the shops and stores have been closed the doors at that time. Everyone who does this job often competes to gather the rubbish as early as possible,” Zhou said.

    He earns about ten yuan a day, which he says is enough. The desirable rubbish that he collects are the used paper products and wine bottles. The used paper products is 0.5 to 0.6 yuan per half a kilogramme, while the bottles are 0.3 to 0.5 yuan per half a kilogramme.

    Ke Wanni, who sells rechargeable phone cards, lives at No.303, the eleventh building of Shantou Seismological Bureau. She is one of Zhou’s neighbor.

    “Mr. Zhou is really a hardworking and frugal man. He can take the good with the bad,” Ms. Ke Wanni said. “We sometimes take some leftovers to him for dinner and his dog. However, he wouldn’t eat them. Instead, he stores some for the next meal to eat and gives more for his dog to eat, “ Ms.Ke said.

    Once he baked the leftovers under the sun in order to keep the meat fresh. “He is so frugal!” Ms. Ke said, praising Zhou.

    Last year Zhou suffered a serious hernia. He then pinched and scraped, in order to save more money to get back to his hometown in Anhui to take an operation and treatment. “Why did I go back to my hometown to have the operation? It’s just because the medical cost in Anhui is much more cheaper than in Shantou,” Zhou said. “Another reason is that I wanted to visit my elder sister in Anhui.” Zhou began to tear up as he related his hardship.

    “A lonely stranger in a strange land I am cast– I miss my sister all the time on every festive day,” he said, wiping away tears. His elder sister is more than ninety, Zhou’s only kin. He felt so sorry that he couldn’t earn enough money to help out his older sister.

    “That’s why I haven’t gone home for many years!” Zhou said with a little bit shame. “Until I earn enough money, I won’t go back to Anhui!”

    This morning, Zhou woke up early, as usual. In order to collect more scrap, he quickly rode his tricycle to Tuopu in darkness. Hesitating for a few seconds, he stopped beside the gate of one store and began to wait.

    “It is darkest before the dawn!” Zhou said. Zhou waited alone in the dark. Nearby, shadows of the street lamps flickered on the road.