The Vagabond Club

The “Sanhe gods” are a group of migrant workers who linger around the Longhua district of the city Shenzhen. They are unwilling to work in factories, and have cut family ties. Some have even sold their own ID cards. What they really want is to sit away their days in an internet café. They have become China’s “New Loafer Class.”

The undercover journalist Du Qiang has lived, worked, and eaten meals alongside these migrant workers for 45 days. He has written a 30000-word series that not only investigates the reasons why the “Sanhe gods” have given up on life, but also exposes the deeper problems of industrial transformation, employment corruption, internet addiction, and left-behind children. With insights on the psyche of its characters and the inner workings of the society, this series of great stories provides a rare glimpse into a part of our public life.

I – The Vagabond Club: The Sanhe Goddess Sister Hong and Her Male Clients

What does one have to give up in order to live a carefree life? Around the Sanhe Labor Market in Shenzhen, there is a group of people who have given up almost everything and created a dark utopian. These so-called “Sanhe gods” have given up their families, jobs, and all their social relations, some have even sold their ID documents, in order to idle away in computer games—they are the most “wasted” and “free” young people. 

The journalist Du Qiang was onsite for 45 days. Through the legendary Sister Hong and her clients, Du’s stories reveal an unimaginable world.


Spiritual Money Boys

Around the corner of the Sanhe Labor Market, Brother Stone sprawled himself on his wheelchair, his legs paralyzed, but he looked as if he was just tired, and happened to find a place to take a rest. Whenever anybody passed by, he would take out a dozen ID cards from different provinces, and lay them out like poker cards. As he tried to sell these cards, he would comment on the morality and the quality of ladies in different provinces. 

After selling me an ID, he started to give me tips, “Young man, you look alright, want to be a money boy?” Seeing that I was confused, he continued, “You can just chat with rich ladies, say a few sweet words, and make them crazy about you.”

“But that sounds like falling in love.” I rebutted. 

“How vulgar! Spiritual money boy, don’t you get it, that is the way to go.” He was gambling on his cellphone, his right hand covering the screen, so that the lottery numbers popped out one at a time. “Shenzhen is a lonely city, understand? People are lonely, that’s how you make money.” 

As we were talking, cheap internet cafés and restaurants had just lit up their signs. Migrant workers, gamblers, drunkards, money boys gathered in the streets but they all looked quite depressed. 

This little city-village in the Longhua district borders the Sanhe Labor Market. From the southern edge, three hundred steps up, you can reach the northern edge. This village looks so unnoticeable as if it does not exist, but it is indeed a unique place—tens of thousands migrant workers, the so-called “Sanhe gods,” love the free and decadent life here, and consider it their “haven for the soul.” When it comes to loneliness, nobody else can beat them. 

“You really can, let me tell you.” Brother Stone still tried to talk me into it, “Our society is merciless. You cannot survive without some skill.” A few years ago, he left home with two million yuan in debt. He cruised for hookers all the way from Fujian to Xinjiang, and then all the way back. He has been living in Sanhe for years, and has never worked. He lived by gambling, selling IDs and bankcards on the side. He was particularly good at sweet-talking. Even the hookers would willingly hand in their papers. But at the moment he was thinking about smuggling himself to Myanmar. 

“Anyways, Sanhe is no longer fun,” Brother Stone sighed, “there used to be cars (street girls) everywhere, ‘Hey Big Bro, come and have some fun,’ they would do it for free as well, ‘come, let your sister give you a free ride.’”

“Really?”

“That’s Sister Hong, never heard of her?” He narrowed his eyes, as if not knowing Sister Hong was a big deal. “She got AIDS, and kicked the bucket,” he said. Were she around, he would still go to her, “Everybody has to die, I’d got to try everything.” 

Brother Stone put away his cellphone, and threw his backpack on the wheelchair arms to his lap. “You do not even know Sister Hong,” he muttered to himself, as he rolled his chair, and disappeared in the traffic of Sanlian Road. 

It is a bustling place around Sanhe. Your first moral reaction is disgust. All kinds of desperate and strange things have been happening here: Covered with a white cloth, someone was lifted out of a rental home on a stretcher to the ambulance, screaming and asking where they were taking him; a migrant worker beat an agent, and slammed like crazy on the windows of the Labor Market, his arteries cut, blood bursting all over the place, and the trigger was the pay was two yuan short; a self-acclaimed the real “Sanhe god” looked for fights whenever he’s angry, saying “One gets to do bad things when one is angry to death, but a thorough fight helps to relieve that.” 

In the east of the village, a Brother Leather Pants fainted from hunger, sprawling on the ground. His chin hit on the cement floor, his chinbone almost broken. He had not eaten for ten or so days because no one would kindly spare him some changes. When someone asked why he did not go rummage the treasure box (trash cans), he would stare at him angrily, “That’s none of your business.” 

Some can live in an internet café for three months, playing computer games. Sanhe has the unspoken rules of not asking names, so everybody is called “Prick.” It was said that there was a Prick who eagerly sneaked into an internet café after work at a factory, and slashed through computer games all day and all night, until all his money was spent, and the boss of the internet café threw his luggage out. Until then, his hair was already sticky and stuck together, and he stank. He staggered so unsteadily on the street, as if a skyscraper had just collapsed. In order to spend another day in the internet café, I have seen many sell their ID cards, their blood, or a pillow picked up from the street. They would even steal or rob or do anything. 

As for the number of Sanhe gods, some say a few thousand, others say twenty thousand. People come and go; it is just impossible to have an exact count. There are about 80 six- or seven-storied residential buildings in the village. Second floor up, all the space has been occupied. In a 10-square-meter room, there are usually 6 iron double bunks. In the park, around the street, in the internet cafes, or any corner one can think of, there are people everywhere. 

I wonder how the Sanhe gods have gradually come to this end. However, there is one thing they like to talk to you about—whether it is cheaper to get a girl in Bantian or Shawei, how to dump a load of shit onto a boss, whether Donald Trump’s hair is real—but they never like to talk about themselves. I once resold an ID to a migrant worker, and then followed him to get a word. He turned around angrily, “Do not follow me! I never talk with people in reality.”

“Do you know Sister Hong?” If I changed my way of approaching them, these migrant workers then became immediately excited. “Of course. She’s dead.” “She’s too old. No fun to screw her.” “I know her, and have even screwed her. I gave her 30 yuan, you know. She was so kind-hearted.” According to them, it is now very difficult to see the legendary Sister Hong—the grandmother of Sanhe gods. When she was younger, people called her Ah Hong. As she grew older, she came out to work the streets. She was like a chivalrous lady. Whenever she walked by the Labor Market, she would be followed by tens of thousands of people. Sister Hong was kind, never picky about clients, and never skipped on hours. There was never a more chivalrous person. She was totally the opposite of Lao Wang, a foreman and pimp. He brought workers into factories, and then took them to his girls to suck them dry, right after they got their wages. He’s so greedy that he would pull you out after barely five minutes with his girls. 

A few years earlier, there had been many street hookers around Sanhe, then the police came, and all the girls had run away except Sister Hong. Tens of thousands of migrant workers had not seen a lady for too long. In their lustful eyes, Sister Hong seemed so pretty. But who knows when, Sister Hong also disappeared. Some say, she ditched her job, married a good guy, and bought an apartment with an ocean view, thus bidding farewell to the trash boys in Sanhe. Like Brother Stone, some say, Sister Hong got AIDS, and those she had been with should go for a check-up. 

Eventually Sister Hong turned up in a small hotel. She wore a white blouse and a black skirt. Sitting gracefully on a chair, she asked me coldly, “Do you know what I do?”

“I do. I have heard them talk about you.”

“You can say it out loud. It does not matter.”

I got what she meant, and without thinking more of it, “In our words, you provide sex service.”

She paused and looked at me as if she was looking at an idiot. In the next few days, she described herself in more vulgar terms, but at the same time, she would always mention the word “dignity.” For one second, she was cool, and for the next, her eyes burned with anger, and she spit out, “I am shameless because I am the most shameless person. I cannot afford to eat, what use do I have of shame?!”


The Prey

Sister Hong meant that her dignified years were not so long ago. She had a part-time job at a five-star hotel four years ago, and saved a lot from the red envelopes from wedding banquets—some were given by the wedding guests, some were just taken in secret, the boundary was never clear, and she was not stressed about it. Upon saving fifty thousand, she got into gambling, and soon lost everything. Worse still, she had a conflict with the restaurant, and was soon fired. 

Why did she want to gamble? Well, she said, she took a chance on it; otherwise she would not have another chance. 

Penniless, Sister Hong then showed up in Sanhe again. Her appearance drew factory workers, “Sister Hong, do you get paid by the day, do you get paid after a ride?” Sister Hong was very open, and did not refuse their flirts. Suddenly, a young man walked up to her, “Sister, here’s a hundred.” Sister Hong was both curious and slightly honored, and took the money. People around them started to make fun of them, and push them around as if they were pushing a newly wed couple to their bridal chamber. Then the police came. 

The thought of spending a night at the police station made Sister Hong cry. The police accused her of working the street. Sister Hong did not rebut the charges. Upon leaving the police station, the policemen scolded the young man. The more they scolded him, the more he would never want to leave Sister Hong alone. 

After that night, they ended up living together. The young man said his older brother had an electronics factory, a teashop, and a restaurant, and had already made a fortune of tens of millions. But that was his stepfather’s family. He lived by himself in Sanhe. Sister Hong felt that the young man “used her like his mom.” He even planned to take her to see his family, saying he would not care what his other family would say. A month later, Sister Hong forced the 23-year old to leave her, and he burst out crying sadly. 

After that, she picked up again the inglorious job of working the street, “Perhaps I am destined to do this job.” However, destiny seems to have opened a window for her. Through her intimacy with other men, as if through half-transparent glass, Sister Hong sees the helpless souls of these Sanhe gods, and she even sees herself more clearly. 

Sister Hong often looked for her “preys” in internet cafés. A row of people, not unlike “corpses in a mortuary,” lay asleep at sixes and sevens. In the middle of the night, they were wide-awake, slashing through a battlefield, buying weapons, and drinking blood in the computer games. Her presence was superfluous. Most migrant workers do not have that kind of interest. They would watch porn, and masturbate in the bathroom. Sanhe gods would say, “Masturbation is just a way of finding something to do.” 

They live in internet cafes for months on end, and often get into fights, still half asleep. Knives are often used, and sudden deaths are not uncommon. No more mouse clicks. The boss touched a guy, and realized he was dead. His parents came with wreaths, and blew horns every day, demanding the poisonous internet café to bring their son back to life. Others, when they realize that their days are numbered, would rent a room in the village. When their body stiffens in a few days, it would be lifted out. Sister Hong has seen two such cases. It might be cruel to say, but sudden death is such a common and harmless way of dying in Sanhe. 

A few years ago, there were still a dozen street hookers, the youngest around 16 years old. “At night, it was as if ghosts were wailing, and wolves were howling,” Sister Hong said, referring to the sounds of iron sticks and a guy’s heart-breaking cry that she heard in a hotel. Later, it was said the man was beaten to death, because of owing whoring fees. A street hooker died in her rental apartment, tapes wrapped all around her body. She had many a dozen wounds on her body, and the murderer was also a migrant worker who owed whoring fees, was beaten up badly, and was left with internal injuries. There were others who, tallying their loss and gain, would chop off the opponents’ palms with a knife during a poker game. 

Things have become better now, but Sister Hong still remains cautious. In this business, “after all, others give you some face, they know exactly what you are up to under their nose.” Besides rules, there are other annoyances that she has to take care of. There were two drunkards in the Longhua Park. When drunk, they lay down like corpses; when awake, they annoyed Sister Hong, “Sister Hong, give me a ten, I want to buy some alcohol.” “Sister Hong, do you want to see my **.” Sister Hong did not want to mess with them, and would give them the money and offer her advice, “You should stop drinking so much. You could lose your life.” Later, one drunkard was taken away by the police, and the other stumbled, fell on his head, and was already dead upon arriving at the hospital. 

The park is where migrant workers first think of, when they have nowhere to go. But it is not an auspicious place. Besides drunkards, Sister Hong has run into three Sanhe gods, who simply dropped dead under the same tree. When spending the night at the park, the workers would wrap up their cash, cellphone, and ID in a plastic bag, dig a hole to bury them in, and then dig them out the following morning. 

Sister Hong often runs into gay parties in the park. Three “sisters” knitted together, and a fourth came up to her and asked friendly, “How do you like my new contact lenses?” He once told Sister Hong that he could hardly afford to feed himself, but after becoming a money boy, now he has a rented apartment and owns a gold ring. Sister Hong got to know that he was not really gay, but lost his ability to survive, and could only depend on his lover. 

Most Sanhe gods of course long to be around women, Sister Hong knows this, but on a chance encounter, they just roll their eyes, and do not dare to have eye contact like normal people. Whenever Sister Hong shows up in the Labor Market, all the Sanhe gods circle around her, and those outside the circle want to figure out who on earth that is, some say, she is really “more Fan Bingbing than Fan Bingbing.” But when she talks to them, their facial expression suddenly dims. Even after a ride, Sister Hong says, “The gods prefer assholes to vaginas, because once the vagina is f*cked, the lady would cheat him all her life.” 

I have to admit what Sister Hong has recounted is beyond my expectation. To my understanding, sex is the original impulse and the last dignity. Considering the situation of these Sanhe gods, it is not simply decadence and despair, on the contrary, the conclusion Sister Hong has drawn from the facts is true—namely “the destruction of personality.” 

Nowadays Sister Hong rarely shows up in the Labor Market, but still receives calls from the Sanhe gods. As she talked to me, her cellphone rang again and again. At first, silence, then gingerly the other end asked, “Where are you?” Sister Hong hung up the phone and stroked her hair. She seemed a bit embarrassed, “Perhaps you are popular with people. Normally I get a call or two, but suddenly I get so many today.” Some call for service, some just like to chat, saying how distressing it is not to be able to make money and marry. Sister Hong then comforts him, “As long as you work hard, you will definitely find a wife, once you have made some money.” 

Sister Hong has a big heart, and offers consoling words. However, for the past ten or so years, she has wanted to change her own life ten times. She has been to Wuhan, Xiamen, Northern Shanxi, Ordos, and Shanghai. After years of struggle, upon her last return to Sanhe, she’s no longer willing to leave. Those gods she often saw ten years ago are still here. It is, in fact, quite easy to leave Sanhe, but once mentally paralyzed, one has to hang on here for better or worse. Sister Hong understands this well. 


Female General

Were time reserved, the modern office buildings and factories would be removed quietly like Lego bricks. Ten years backward, there were only reeds and tin houses, a landscape of “a deserted island.” Throngs of migrant workers from all over the country would be more conspicuous than they are today—with their mats and water buckets, they gathered around the Sanhe Labor Market like ants. Sister Hong remembers how chaotic everything was, when she first came here. Blatant robbers took her belongings, and shouted to her amusingly: “Come catch me!” Sister Hong was not able to catch up, and was so upset that her tears could not stop dropping. But she said, at the time “everyone was full of hope.”

Her vagabond life began, after her husband beat and threw her out of the house. She was 28 years old. In a small town, even dishwashers were in low demand. She found a job at a karaoke bar and cinema, and sat there the whole day. All alone, she always saw flickering white shadows on the windowpane, and dreamt of her seven-year old son in a little casket. It was difficult to find a place to spend the night, “even a treacherous old man, I would sleep with him, just for the sake of a bed.”

Sister Hong had also had luck. She had taken her “boyfriend” back to her family. Her older brother threw his bowl to pieces, and cursed, “Don’t ever come back after divorce!” In her hometown, the system was far more stubborn and conservative than one could imagine. For her brother, without the red marriage booklet, whomever she brought back was a whoring client, a dirty asshole.

Those in despair sometimes throw themselves onto life, like pebbles, to try their luck. Sister Hong left her hometown to find work, and stumbled all the way to her stinky and moldy rented room in the Longhua district. Head to head, feet to feet, a dozen men and women lived in this small room, but everybody talked and laughed with each other. When they ran into her on the street, they asked gently, “Ah Hong, where are you going?” Ah Hong felt relieved, and even made a few good sister friends. When they parted ways, they hugged each other, cried a river, and promised to keep in touch, but later there was never any news from them. 

Though Sanhe was chaotic and dangerous, Sister Hong was not only unafraid, but she also wanted to “make it my home here.” She claims that in Sanhe she found where she belongs, “the evidence of being alive.” There were other important reasons: they were many men working in factories, and she felt hopeful.

However, she was all by herself, and there was not a fellow townsman who could help her out. The factory was unfriendly to her, “the manager has a mouth like the Monkey King’s, so damn dirty that makes you cry.” Sister Hong then had enough of him, and screamed at him, “You bastard, I am not afraid of you!” Then she had changed many jobs. She suspects that this was a way of management, to pick on the old, the ugly, and the slow, as an example to the other workers. She fell into their traps all the time. Then she dared not to go into factories, and created her own model of Sanhe part-time gigs. When it went well, she was able to earn three thousand in two months. 

“That was so exciting, so wonderful.” She said this joyfully, and with lots of gestures, as if a life-long vagabond has suddenly had an overcoat and become the chairwoman. Sometimes, she did not brother to do a day gig, and gathered a group to “crash factories,” namely to turn off switches, pull off wires, and ask for psychological trauma fees. Sister Hong joined this riot, after all, “I will remain poor, and this job will not keep me for a lifetime, today I can stand straight with hands on my hips, and be proud.”

In Sister Hong’s bashful year of 2010, she was like a female general. Following her example, there were 14 cases of “factory crashings” at Foxconn in Longhua. According to the gods, Sanhe had since then stepped into its “golden age,” with more and more migrant workers who were willing to take on day gigs. Sanhe was easy and fun. “One settlement, three days of fun,” this almost became a secret code that was passed around among sad and lazy migrant workers. 

Among those who have received Sister Hong’s service, I have got to know the migrant worker Song Tao, the guy who paid Sister Hong 30 yuan for a ride, and found her kind. “At the time, there were very few women, just men, all these bachelor commanders.” When Song Tao saw Sister Hong, he had the feeling that “his eyes lit up.” Now he is mean to her, saying that she settles for large quantities with a low price, and that she lacks intelligence, and is indeed too old. 

Song Tao first came to Sanhe in 2011 and was addicted to the internet. As he came here overnight with just a few yuan in his pocket, there was a line of people lying in front of the entrance of the Labor Market. They talked on and on, saying they had bad luck, and told him, “Don’t worry. There will be day gigs tomorrow morning.” As he woke up the next morning, tens of thousands migrant workers flooded the whole street. As soon as a foreman made a loud call, dozens of people followed him, boarded a bus, and were transported to construction sites and assembly lines. After they made money, they returned to the internet cafes, and sat paralyzed before the computer screens. Song Tao was shocked that he had finally found a place where he belongs. 

As we walked in the village and looked around, Song Tao seemed quite somber, as if he was looking at an old house that had been burned down badly. He pointed to the dark and dirty interior of an internet café, “Right here, as I woke, somebody moved no more, and dropped dead.”

As we passed by Shangfeng Noodle Shop, a nauseating scent floated out that could make one vomit. The lady boss fished out a piece of swelling pork meat from a water bucket, and bended down to chop it up. She threw chopped smaller pieces into the pot without turning around. “Whatever you order, the expressionless fat chef will bring out the same kind of sticky noodle soup, 4 yuan for a bowl, no price rise for ten years,” Song Tao said, “They call it ‘Meng Po Soup.’”

The addicts in the internet cafés have their own reasons for their addiction. The left-behind child Xiao Mai received 1000 yuan per month from his guilty parents. He hoped for a late arrival of adulthood, and said, “This kind of life is damn cool,” with a slew of dirty and vulgar words that even the boss of the internet café seemed clueless; next to him, a migrant worker was staring at a photo of himself who had just joined the army, and was wearing red flowers while singing a military song. After he has told me how he had sacrificed his military career for his marriage, but was later cheated upon, he cried heavily on my shoulder, “Brother, you do not know how terrible I felt. Where is my romance now? Where did it go?”

For Song Tao, it was that he could not stand “that kind of look.” His parents divorced, when he was still very young. He left home to find work at the age of 17. He was envious of other workers with their families around. He was alone, and kept receiving rejections. “In the society, people are indifferent, and never look you in the eye. But in Sanhe, that kind of look does not exist.” Song Tao continued: “People take their time, and nobody seems to look down upon me. There are no ‘high-end people’ here.” He uses a vocabulary similar to Sister Hong’s: “It is as if I find a sense of belonging.” Song Tao once thought that his happy days in Sanhe would continue, but after half a year, he knew something deep in his heart had quietly collapsed. 

At first, the gods are still willing to work, so that they would have the money to burn at the internet cafés. Not long after, like totaled cars, they are hard to start. “I still have a few yuan, let me get online first, everybody thinks this way.” In order to save for internet fees, many only eat one meal a day, and would sell everything they could sell. When really short of cash, they would wander around the streets, like primitive men, in the hope of running into acquaintances who can give them a five or a ten. Song Tao has seen a man with disabilities, his one hand on the keyboard playing “Instance Dungeon.” “We were envious of him and urged him to beg, and not to waste his ‘talent.’ But this guy was just too lazy to beg.” 

As more and more people come to Sanhe, the competition has grown fierce with fewer and fewer daily settlements. When the crowds in the internet cafes disperse into the morning streets, “they ask each other whether there are day gigs.” Song Tao has seen hundreds of thousands of workers filling up the streets looking for gigs. “No daily settlement, we are screwed.”

Since she has got hold of a cheap bed, Sister Hong has also relaxed her steps. None of her sister friends want to go find a job, and they chat or sleep all day long. “We are basically hibernating every season, I do not know how we end up like this.” Sister Hong paused, “Indeed, it feels meaningless.”

Song Tao has quit smoking for the past three months. Now he smokes again, squatting on the street. A factory worker shuffled in his flip-flops, and swung by. He seemed to know Song Tao, but neither of them said anything. Friendship does not exist in Sanhe. For the past 6 years, Song Tao has not even got to know one person’s name, “we are the walking dead, nobody wants to know anybody else’s name.” 

I asked him, whether he ever felt afraid, and whether he thought about what to do after he turns 40.

“You think like a normal person. But the Sanhe gods are abnormal, don’t you understand?” Song Tao became anxious: “Sanhe does not allow you to have that kind of thought. The village is full of the walking dead. All you want to do is to float along, and not to think about what’s in a week. It is already a great thing to live well today. There is no longer hope in life. It’s all about computer games, all about forgetting the outside world, forgetting all the self-pity. If you ever stop, then you feel very sad.”

The human will is often mistakenly seen as a switch. You can turn it off today, and turn it on tomorrow. Only those who have experienced what Song Tao has experienced will understand how the human will can be rusted and corrupted, and upon a tipping point, “Ding,” it goes broken, and worse things will follow. 


Lonely Ghosts

Sanhe gods are penniless and cannot work. It is not hard to say that they are useless. But the apprentices in nearby hair salons thought otherwise. They came with half-length mirrors, sat workers in a chair, and practiced their skill on them as if they were shearing sheep. In two minutes, a tap on the shoulder, done. And the workers happily walked away with their new weird hairdos. The gangs in the village have their own ways, be it Dongbei gang, Henan gang, Anhui gang or Hunan gang; they give out a five to “support” a hungry god. The gods then are deceived to become legal representatives or take up loan installments for them. If they question anything, they will be corned and beaten. 

Song Tao was once hungry. Out of his mind, he sold his ID for 800 yuan. It was not until the court sent for him did he know that he was in trouble. Then, “small loan” became popular. The most able guy I have seen had three full screens of loan apps on his cellphone. His attitude was, well, I was able to get them with my own skills, and I would not pay the money back. These things make the Sanhe gods sink deeper. 

When the gang wars were rampant, Sister Hong often heard miserable cries from the street. “I have been cheated out of my ID card!” Xiao Hei, now as famous as Sister Hong, made his name after he had been cheated. He was diligent and hardworking. After cheating him out of his ID card, the cheater made fun of him on an online post. Xiao Hei could not take it anymore, and was quickly out of his mind. Soon after, he did not wear shoes anymore, and jumped around like a rabbit. He adopted a little yellow street dog for company, but then the dog was stolen and eaten, and Xiao He also disappeared. 

The factory workers went on a petition, and Sanhe was eventually cleaned up in 2014. 

Song Tao realized something, “It is so tiresome to live, I really want to die.”  He had a job at a factory in the Nanshan district. The other Sanhe gods had no energy, and just wanted to take the money and leave after a couple days. However, if there were sister workers around, they would “fight to stay a few days longer.” Song Tao said, even though most sister workers were registered workers who wore gold and silver jewelry, and looked down upon the messy Sanhe gods, but that still gave them hope. Unfortunately, the manufacturing industry in Shenzhen has shrunk in the past few years, many sister workers have gone into service industries. Many factories have become “monk factories,” and the gods are disillusioned. 

After his work-term ended, Song Tao held his 5000 yuan salary, and stood at a loss in front of the factory entrance, “upon leaving the factory, you have become a ghost again.” He held his head up, so that his tears would not drop. Besides Sanhe, he has nowhere else to go, and now he falls into his old life circle. He said, “The resonance of Sanhe is terrible.” 

In the village, internet cafes line up the street next to each other. Around the corner, the boss of 666 Internet Café was standing in front of the entrance and teasing a street dog. Song Tao stared at them for a while, “I have lived in this café for 7 days straight.” In fact, he was not able to get any pleasure out of computer games, other than anxiety and self-hate. But he was not able to leave it all behind. All his social relationships seemed to have collapsed, and he seemed to have sunken in a void. He wanted to hold onto something, to stop himself from sinking deeper, but nothing useful in this world had been prepared for him. 

For six years, he has never exchanged a word with his father, “He does not understand. No money, no use.” Before coming to Sanhe, Song Tao had a girlfriend. After nothing came out of that relationship, he did not have any plans anymore. As for kids, Song Tao said, “My father’s life is painful, why not let it stop with me.”

Sister Hong has also noticed that many Sanhe gods have given up on the idea of having a family. Many a few have told her, “Even if I have tens of thousands, I would not marry. I cannot give a woman all my life’s work.” Sister Hong does not agree with this. Her difference makes her occasionally suffer. 

If she finds someone to depend on, she would be willing to sweep the streets, do part-time gigs with him until death. This has become almost psychopathological for her. As soon as she sees a suitable male worker at the factory, she only wants to glue herself onto him, because “after he goes home, you will never see him again.” 

During her ten years in Sanhe, she has had three recognized husbands, three boyfriends, among them five and a half are Sanhe gods, but everyone has broken her heart. 

When she met her first husband, he was a thief—the act of stealing reveals that he has more enthusiasm for life than a normal Sanhe god, thus he can only be counted as a half—and after they were together, they went to her hometown, and took over the supervision of a construction site. After years of hard work, they were able to save eighty thousand. One night, her husband sneaked out with all their savings. Sister Hong got on a motorcycle taxi, and urged the driver to go faster and faster to catch him. “Gosh, my tires are running off!” In a hurry, the taxi crashed, and Sister Hong got 13 stitches around her eyes. She did not give up, and chased all the way to Northern Shanxi, and finally saw his husband’s old home on a bare hilltop, where they still use donkeys to carry drinking water, but the person she wanted to see was not there. 

From Northern Shanxi to Ordos, Sister Hong then brought her second husband back to Sanhe. But he could not help but make trouble at the factory. 

After having lived with him for two years, Sister Hong realized that her third husband was psychologically unstable. First, she thought that this guy just loved talking about politics, and was talented. Later on, he just could not stop talking, so that the Sanhe gods were frightened of him, and those who could not stand him slapped him. As he was still working in the factory, a barrel of a few thousand pounds fell down on him and his colleague. The colleague was severely injured. He broke his leg, and had eight nails in it. His mind was not clear again. Sister Hong thought his company was not so bad, but he kept talking day and night. Eventually Sister Hong could not put up with it anymore, and put him in a rented studio, “now I take him for a dog.” 

Her first boyfriend didn’t like hotels, and preferred to sleep in internet cafés, playing love songs from Xu Song on repeat; the second liked listening to “City in the Sky” and “Miles of Spring Wind,” and secretly sent her text messages at midnight. Right before they broke up, Sister Hong found out that their ex-girlfriends loved these songs. The two boyfriends could not put down their earlier relationships. Still, Sister Hong wanted them to stay, pulling their sleeves, so that they could not go. In the end, one hit her with a beer bottle, and the other punched and kicked her. 

After all these pains, Sister Hong still ended up by herself. “After three husbands, now I have no sexual desire, no love, no family, no feelings.” Sister Hong told me that she did not even know the names of her two boyfriends. As soon as they started to talk about feelings and relationships, they closed themselves off. 

For a while, Sister Hong thought Sanhe was not her destiny, and went to Wuhan, Xiamen and Shanghai all by herself. Shanghai was expensive, nowhere to find a cheap hotel; Xiamen was windy, she spent a night at the railway station, cold and starved. She has left Sanhe 10 times and returned 10 times. She does not want to go through those tortures anymore. There is perhaps only one place, namely Sanhe, in the world, where one penniless person does not have to worry: “Well, after all, I can still distribute flyers.” 

When we first met, Sister Hong had just broken up with her third boyfriend. She sat on a chair, and pulled up her pants to show me her bruises. “I felt that I was dying,” she looked up, “but women are so cheap. He’s beaten me up so badly, but I still miss him all the time. He beat me, I held onto him, he continued beating me, I continued holding onto him. On the day he left, I looked for him like crazy all over Longhua. I really really wanted to be with him.” 

For a year, Sister Hong tried to hold the so-called “family” together, but her boyfriend never took her seriously. On the contrary, he was closer to his male friends. After she saw a photo of him in high-heels on the internet, she realized that he had been using her, abusing her. Despite all this, Sister Hong cannot stop being hopeful. Her small hope tells her that the Sanhe gods just need something to hold onto, like a father, an older brother, a lover, a friend, and things would be different. “If they have a family that accepts them, they will begin a new life; without such a family, they will go to other places, even if they are not vagabonds here anymore.” 


999 Roses

A typhoon brought about three days of rain in Shenzhen. When Sister Hong came to see me, she brought her apprentice Lin Li with her. 

The Sanhe gods all knew that Lin Li was a bit slow. Sister Hong explained that when Lin Li was young, her father committed a crime, and was shot to death. For some reason, Lin Li saw the death scene in her mind, and was deeply disturbed. When they first met in the Longhua Park, Lin Li was penniless. According to Sister Hong, at the beginning, Lin Li was “quite loose and would get on any man,” then she learned to at least charge a fee. Lin Li argued that she just needed the money to feed herself. 

Not long ago, Sister Hong and Lin Li quarreled over a man. After leaving Sister Hong, the third boyfriend got together with Lin Li. The two women quarreled, and almost got into a fight. But not long after, Lin Li was also abandoned by the new boyfriend. Then the two women made up with each other, and continued to be sisters. 

Lin Li has saved several ten thousand. Sister Hong has advised her to leave, since now she has a bit of money, and that she should not let herself be cheated out of her savings again, and that she should take care of herself and find a man to marry her. Lin Li plans to leave Sanhe in three months. Sister Hong told her not to come back ever again; otherwise “I will beat you.” Sister Hong has got some money from gambling, and said this will be her last year in Sanhe, though she did not sound so sure. 

In her early vagabond years, she had raised five or six girls in her hometown. A few of the girls had been abandoned by their biological parents. Sister Hong had adopted them. “I was not working as a hooker. I just begged for food with them.” Now, a few of them have married. Speaking of this, she seemed to be proud. 

In the summer of 2017, when Sister Hong planned to leave, Sanhe went over another cleanup. Internet cafés were no longer allowed to open after midnight; apartments could not be rented to groups. The Sanhe gods started to migrate to the neighboring Gongcun village. Some even planned to migrate to Longgang together. Soon after, many have returned again. 

I said to Sister Hong, “When you are gone, these tens of thousands of Sanhe gods perhaps will need to find another sexual outlet.”

Sister Hong agreed, but said it should not be her, after all, she is old, and they should find someone younger. Sister Hong thinks she will never become rich in this life. If she ever does, he would hire a psychotherapist to work in Sanhe, and give the gods free room and board like a church. The most important thing would be to hire a few girls, not hookers, to comfort the lost gods by patting on their shoulders and talking with them. She herself has for countless times wanted that kind of consolation. “I have had this fantasy,” she said. 

However, the legend she has left in Sanhe is so legendary, and nobody cares about her fantasy. 

A couple years ago, some nosy guy posted her photo on the internet, and she became famous overnight. Someone asked her how to become a money boy; someone asked when her birthday was; someone wanted to order her a cake; someone wowed at the fact that there was indeed a Sister Hong. 

According to Sister Hong, earlier this year, a Fuerdai (rich second generation) from Shanghai ordered her silk stockings, high-heels, and 999 roses, and wanted to take her on a romantic vacation. The Fuerdai came with his Land Rover. Perhaps her real person disappointed him. After an uneasy dinner of Western food, he gave Sister Hong 300 and left. 

One strange thing follows another, as if all the repressed men in the world now know that life in the faraway Sanhe is happy and carefree. That they know there is a Sister Hong makes her a bit overwhelmed. 

A senior executive from Tianjin came for her, and promised to buy her a whole building to live in. He also sent her a red envelope of 800 yuan, asking whether Sister Hong could satisfy his high sexual drive; a lower-level director of a firm in Beijing thought of Sister Hong, whenever he was drunk, “Big sister, why don’t you come to Beijing?” He claimed that the pressure and stress of living in Beijing were high, and despite his years of hard work, others wanted to take over his business. 

Many more people simply want to have a carefree and vagabond life. They ask Sister Hong, How do you get to Sanhe? Is Sanhe really so charming as the legends claim it to be? 

(The interviews were conducted in the summer of 2017. Song Tao, Lin Li, and Xiao Mai are pseudonyms.) 

 


II – The Vagabond Club: Undercover Agents, Thieves and Gamblers

During the summer of 2017, the Core Story author Du Qiang experienced the Sanhe district of Shenzhen firsthand. He picked up part-time gigs, slept on cheap bunk beds, and his legs were covered in pus from bed bug bites. He tried everything to blend into the group of “Sanhe gods”—a group of young men who have cut off all social relationships, and live in a virtual world. 

Du Qiang originally thought this would be a voyeuristic field trip, but has accidentally discovered the fragility of life itself: We are one step away from becoming a complete wreck, who cuts himself away from the decency of urban life or even sheds the whole garb of civilization. 

 

Before the Spring Festival in 2011, I went home to sweep my grandmother’s tomb. As I returned to my village, I ran into my childhood friend Wang Lang. Since I went to college in Beijing, I was worried about running into these childhood friends. It felt awkward. 

“Have you been to Guangdong for work?” I asked him. 

Wang Lang took out his left hand from inside his sleeve, and made a number “8” sign. Seeing that I did not get it, he turned his hand over, “My three fingers are gone, ten thousand compensated for each finger.”

When we were young, Wang Lang often brought himself over with steamed breads, and stuck around my house to play video games. Upon hearing his father’s steps, he would sneak right under my bed. He was not good at “Double Dragon” or “Super Mario Game.” His game figure fell into a fire pit quickly, thus he could only sit on the bench and watch me play. Perhaps he was too focused, but whenever the game got intense, he could not help but take off his underwear and use his black sticky hands to play with his thing. 

Before finishing junior high school, he went elsewhere to find work. I was taken by a provincial key senior high school, and left the countryside. I was never adapted to city life, and I was often distressed because I had no shoes. On a mid-term exam, I wrote in my essay that I preferred to leave the city and return to the countryside to plant wheat and corn. My Chinese teacher gave me a full score on that essay, but left a few words in the blank space: “ Don’t ever go back.”

Seven years later, I got a decent job, and like my friends around me, I live a respectable life. I am no longer ashamed of my past, assuming that I have broken off the chains of my birth, and have become a “free man.” But whenever I see news of migrant workers, I always think of Wang Lang’s three lost fingers. I have realized that that kind of life is just one step away from mine. 

During the summer of 2017, I dug out from the closet my dirtiest T-shirt and my most worn-out shoes—a green Uniqlo short sleeve with a black dragon on the front, as well as a new pair of Converse, which I had worn for a week or so, but put away soon after, since it had been once soaked in rainwater. I planned to wear them to Shenzhen, where I would experience the life of a migrant worker.

All of that is of course required of a nonfiction writer. From the time I packed up my luggage, I have understood that I cannot expel the feeling of being a suspect of hypocrisy: perhaps I cannot but feel lucky and superior. I look down upon them, or hypocritically think I have some kind of responsibility, or anything else that I have not thought of. In the following month, these thoughts did not turn out to be truth; rather, more infuriating things have taken their place. 


Cheap Hotels

Before the trip, I was not unsure of myself. My experience in the countryside would not easily give myself away, but as soon as I stepped into the Sanhe Labor Market, I knew right away that all my expectations were totally wrong. It was said that the Sanhe gods were dejected, and that they could not afford three meals a day and lived miserable lives, but in fact, they did not at all seem bitter or tormented: In the Labor Market Hall, only new migrant workers rolled their luggage hesitantly, eyebrows frowned, shoulders raised, as if they were afraid of stepping on landmines. Totally relaxed, the real gods stuck out their bellies, shuffled in their flip-flops, a posture that seemed to suggest that they had wondered around all corners of the earth, and owned the whole world. 

I also knew that I should not resist spitting out dirty words, but I was only able to put them at the beginning of a sentence, as if it was a way of breaking the ice, “Damn, 12 yuan an hour, Bro, do you know any good daily settlement?” I stood in front of the employment listing signs, and tried to strike a conversation with the other workers, but noticed that they used dirty words as adverbs: “***I**went to that**factory, ***the agent**told me it was not a ** tough gig, not tough**not ** tough!” Their expressions were not so effective but were nonetheless full of ardor. After spitting out all his dirty words, a guy asked me, “You have just been here, right?” I stuttered, “I come to find my younger brother. He has not been back for over a year.”

Later, the other workers told me that the Sanhe gods could not only recognize their same types, but could also see through the appearance, and tell whether someone had money or not. The latter should not be difficult, as basically none of the workers had money. To be on the safe side, I wondered around Sanhe only with my ID, an old crappy cellphone, and 30 yuan in cash. 

Sanlian Road cuts Sanhe from north to south. The Labor Market on the northern edge was where the workers wandered around, in order to find a job or pretend to find one. The Jingle residential area was a paradise, where people filled up cheap internet cafés, and restaurant bosses walked about with their menus, and yelled into their loudspeakers to attract customers. The only downside of the internet cafés was that the toilets were terrible, not that they were not clean, but often people took a shower and did unspeakable things in them. Along Sanlian Road all the way to the southern edge, behind decorated archways, that’s the workers’ last foothold, when they were broke—Longhua Park was full of people lying on the benches and under the trees. Too many mosquitoes made it hard to sleep there after nightfall. 

I returned to the village, and found a cheap hotel—whose name was “Cheap Hotel.” After hearing my intention, the boss grabbed my ID card, “fifteen a day.” Then he took me to the fourth floor, and pointed to an iron double bunk, “The upper bed is yours.” In this small room, an electric fan on the wall was squeaking; three of the twelve beds were occupied; two guys were snoring; and the other guy was watching porn on his cellphone, which made occasional gasping sounds. As I struggled to get onto my bed, I found out the stinky odor did not just come from the toilet, where piss and shit were all over the place, but also from the sheets, which had not been washed for ages, and were covered in brownish black stains. 

After three or four days, I thought my appearance could really blend in the Sanhe crowds: my hair all stuck together, a large white sweat stain on my T-shirt, numerous bed bug bites all over the place below my knees, a few of which had already broke out with pus. Still, it was hard for me to approach the Sanhe gods. They would throw the shells of melon seeds in their hands, and leave, as soon as I went up to them, and opened my mouth, “Bro, where are you from?” I did not know what went wrong. 

At dawn, I could not wait to get up, mostly because I felt sick or unwell. From the window, I could occasionally see workers sleeping on the roadside. This made me want to blame myself. Then I felt ashamed. Anyhow I should not think too much, otherwise I could not face myself. 

As I walked among the Sanhe crowds, I often thought of Wang Lang and other childhood friends, and even a slight chance of running into them here. After I had gone to senior high school, most of them went to find jobs elsewhere. We could only see each other during the Spring Festival. Their shiny hair well combed, they could skillfully flip a cigarette in their mouths. Our hometown village used to belong to them—smoking, fighting, riding a motorcycle like a wild horse, setting up a comfortable cabin on top of a tree, running a hundred miles to chase after wild rabbits with their Chinese hounds—all the fashionable things had belonged to them. What was after? That scene had never crossed my mind. 

I imagined walking in the Labor Market with my childhood friends, going through employment listings from electronic factories, toy companies, restaurants, logistics firms, inquiring about wages and working hours. But that kind of fantasy was too superficial, I would not be able to figure out my feelings, if ever we stood face-to-face and watched each other hesitantly. 

“Do you want to go to Foxconn?” A skinny worker from the crowd suddenly asked me, “If you do not go, you could wait around forever.”  


Secret Foothold

It was not until a month later that I came to realize that this worker named Xiao Zeng was in fact a really great guy. At the time he finally got the courage to say these words that we should have heard long ago. He said, “You are a bunch of wrecks, living like dogs, and are good for nothing.” Not that his opinion was so insightful, after all, we were long used to such terms as “trash,” “scum bags” or “Guabi”—Guabi, meaning finished, screwed up, rather, with his own unredeemable shortcomings, Xiao Zeng had the guts to leave this sad and desperate place. This surprised us all. 

“Do you want to take a look at Foxconn?” Xiao Zeng asked, “The management is strict, but work is not tough, and should not be a big deal.” 

At the time, my heroism from before coming to Sanhe had already vanished without a trace, and I said, “I’ll wait and see.”

“Are you dirty or not?” After a few words, Xiao Zeng asked me again, his blurry eyes blinking under his thick dark eyebrows. Then he pulled his sweaty black T-shirt down, the torn hem under his jeans. His jeans seemed too baggy for a skinny person like him. “If you are not dirty, you can sleep at my place.”

Xiao Zeng took me around a street corner, then into a residential building. He climbed up the stairs so swiftly, as if he was rushing to rescue someone. He found out about this place a week ago. The rooftop terrace was full of rubbles. He stole some quilts and sheets from the residents, and spread them on the landings for a bed. Now the beddings were rolled up and left on top of a bucket of paint. I went up to the terrace. Stepping on tattered flowerpots, he pointed to the large stretch of residential buildings, “As long as there’s nobody on the terrace, we can sleep there, and it’s much better than the roadside.”

Looking at this doghole, I could not figure out why Xiao Zeng would ask someone, whether they were “dirty or not.” But he looked quite proud, and told me to remember clearly which building it was. If he passed the Foxconn interview that afternoon, I could inherit this secret foothold. 

Once out of the building, Xiao Zeng asked me what my plans were. I pointed to the other side of the road, “I’ll go to an internet café.” Waving his hand, he walked toward a bus stop. 

Where the village bordered Sanlian Road, it was clean and organized. Shops lined up the road. But the interior of these shops was a whole different story: bundles of wires, like veins, hung above head, and internet cables ran from an internet café onto electric wires in a restaurant, then clumsily around the AC unit outside the window then extending into deep alleys. A couple gods lay against the walls, not affected by passers-by or sewage water from the restaurant, or the street cleaners who were holding leather water pipes to spray the road. Still, summer heat carried a sour rotten smell in the air. 

In front of Dajiale Internet Café was a circle of residents. It turned out that a worker had just been taken out on a stretcher. Two women from the village were chatting, while watching the ambulance drive away:

“There was a handsome guy here that day. He was too hungry to move. In front of the small restaurant, his saliva could not stop dropping. The lady boss gave him a bowl of fried rice noodles, but he dared not to eat. The lady boss said that cost nothing, and that he could just take it away, but he looked around and around, and still did not dare to take it. I said, he was helpless, because of his self-pity.”

“Don’t you see how many sleep on the street? I would really like to give them some clothing. They look so dirty. They also have parents. What’s this all about?”

“I gave him a ten, but he did not dare to take it, and I asked what’s wrong, and he said he had lost something.”

“They spend all their energy in the internet cafés at night, where do they have any energy left to look for jobs during the day? After work, they still look nice and handsome. Out of the internet cafés, they look no different than ghosts.”

After expressing their sympathies, one of the women turned around, and went back to the internet café, and the other continued to yell about some hotel business on the street. 

The internet cafes were rarely empty. Even in the afternoon, it was not easy to find an empty seat. After sitting down in front of a computer in the corner, I did not know what to do. The god on my left was directing his hero figure to fly around in the grass, and the one on my left was scrolling through porn sites, as if there was nobody around him. 

After about two hours, someone tapped on my shoulder. It was Xiao Zeng. “You are back? Didn’t you pass the interview?”

“Darn it,” he cursed and switched on the computer. During that time, Foxconn was busy with the production of iPhone X, and really needed helping hands, so long as they had hands and feet. Around seventeen gods went to the interview at noon with Xiao Zeng. After taking advantage of a free lunch, fifteen left. Xiao Zeng slammed on the keyboard and said, “Damn it, I have not even started working but would already owe the agency more than two hundred, for heath checks and transportation fees or whatnot, damn it, I took my back my ID and left.”

He started a new round of “League of Legends,” and wanted me to join him. At first, the situation was not great; our other teammates all clicked surrender, and conceded defeat. Xiao Zeng said to himself, “Don’t give up, we can win!” He stared at the screen, and his fingers swiftly clicked on the keyboard. He yelled at me from time to time, and at the moment he turned the game around and finally won, he dropped the mouse, “Isn’t it wonderful?!”

“Come, let us take a smoke.” Xiao Zeng pushed his chair aside, and asked for two “Nanjing” cigarettes at the bar, one cigarette for fifty cents, and went outside and leaned against an electric post. People were coming and going on the street, as if it was an automated machine, exact and cruel, no need for someone to take care of it. Xiao Zeng smoked, and did not say anything, then his feelings fell on the ground, “Today is busted again.”


Longcheng Police Station 

Two days later, as I just took off my short sleeve, and was ready for bed, Xiao Zeng sent me a text message, saying that he had not eaten the whole day, felt useless, wanted to die, and was standing on the rooftop terrace. 

I got up right away. With some steamed breads and mineral water, I went to the residential building, which Xiao Zeng asked me “to make sure to remember,” and walked up the dark stairs. I saw his skinny shadow next to a stairway door. 

“If nothing works out, you can go home.” I told Xiao Zeng.

“Go home? I cannot make money there.” 

“There are many who aren’t able to make money. You don’t have to always act like this.”

“No use of going home. It is just a waste of time.” Xiao Zeng said, “My elder brother is in jail. Once he comes out, I can go with him to do great thing.” When still very young, his brother sold drugs in the countryside. Later on, he sold drugs in the city, and made a fortune. Stacks of stacks of cash filled up a whole bed. After his brother was arrested, Xiao Zeng fled, in order to avoid any implication. He had been to Wuhan, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, and had taken on all kinds of jobs. Then he ended up in Sanhe. His family knew that he did not earn much, and had been out of touch for two years, but that did not bother Xiao Zeng. 

“It is easy to earn some small money.” He munched on the steamed bread. There was a big pimple on his cheek. “There are a lot of drug dealers in first-tier cities. But I am not into it at the moment. If I am forced, I will definitely do it.”

In this way, Xiao Zeng revealed his secrets to me. Though I could not tell him in return that I was a fake god. We became “friends” after that talk, and were no longer two strangers who had just met by chance. 

In the next ten or so days, we spent whole nights at the internet cafes, and rode saddleless Bike Sharing bikes around town. He taught me about what kind of work one should or should not take on in Sanhe. His conclusion was: there was nothing that one should take on. He also advised me not to marry a country girl who had never seen the world. He said I could ask girls on QQ Dance out, but needed to know how to talk to them properly. One afternoon, blushing, he wanted to say something, but did not. I asked him what was wrong. He asked, “Could you lend me a ten for food? I will give it back to you later.”

I really appreciated my relationship to Xiao Zeng. That was a very clear, direct, and “I-was-useful-to-others feeling. Of course, I also suspected perhaps I enjoyed the feeling of being “superior” to others, but this did not cross my mind often. 

One afternoon, Xiao Zeng sat in front of Jiesu Internet Café, and pointed to a blurry-eyed worker in a blue T-shirt. “I got to know this Prick at the Longhua railway station.” Xiao Zeng had nowhere to go that night. As he woke up, someone kindly threw him a two. He bought a bottle of mineral water, and shared it with the guy next to him. 

“Bro, what’s your name?” I asked. 

He hesitated. As I was just about to change the topic, he said in a quiet voice, “Zhang Weiwei.” 

Xiao Zeng stood up from his chair. “Right here.” He lifted his left leg, and showed me a lump of blackish hemostatic cotton.

The night before, two penniless Sanhe gods asked Xiao Zeng for help, claiming that they had not eaten anything during the day, and that they wanted to look for work, but did not have either IDs or shoes. Xiao Zeng took them to his rooftop foothold. At daybreak, as he was still asleep, stepping sounds from the staircase woke him up. He immediately reached for his pockets, and rushed barefoot all the way downstairs. Before he went far, broken glass pieces on the ground cut his sole, and blood gushed right out. 

Thus his cellphone was stolen, and he went to the police and said it was a robbery. “From now on, I swear to God that I will never help anyone that I do not know. The policeman told me to watch out especially for those who wear dirty clothes.” Before Xiao Zeng left the police station, the policeman took pity on him and gave him 200 yuan for emergency. 

In hindsight, I felt Xiao Zeng really longed for friendships, even with the little he had, he would exchange for them anytime. For the Sanhe gods, his unusual behavior seemed at times chivalrous, at times stupid. But Xiao Zeng’s enthusiasm was not unintentional. Every time he got to know a worker, he would ask the same question, “Do you want to go to a factory together?” He said, “It is no fun to work alone, like a log.” 

Xiao Zeng limped along, and decided to see what was up at the Labor Market. Zhang Weiwei followed him on an ofo bike that only had a pedal on the right side. “One cannot really live in Sanhe,” he said, “the longer you are here, the more dead you are. I was not so lazy before I came here.” He used to work as a debt collector in Huizhou. He shipped caskets to the debtors’ families, and could earn a few thousand a day. Then he got into a dog-eat-dog situation, and fled to Sanhe. Since he came here two months ago, he had hardly taken on any work. 

The Labor Market was bustling. Workers circled around foremen, and could not make a decision. In the afternoon, only the logistics firms and restaurants were still looking for people. Xian Zeng said, “Shall we go take a look?” Zhang Weiwei looked bitter. He had done logistics, “The big packages are all heavy goods, either a box of C’est bon mineral water, or a box of soy sauce. If you break anything, you have to pay.” Instead of working his ass off, he would rather continue being paralyzed. Xiao Zeng was a bit disappointed, “Damn it, another day is gone.” 

The three of us found each an ofo bike, and rode along Sanlian Road toward Longhua Park. We passed by empty construction sites, vast squares, and rushing Shenzhen locals. We rode on unknown roads, and rang our bells again and again in the narrow, chill alleyways. When we returned to the big road, a cool evening wind had just started to blow. 

I thought of my last year in senior high school. In the stressful month of April just before the college entrance examination, I often rode my bike aimlessly around town. The town was not prosperous. The highest building had only 13 floors, but had a pompous name—World Trade Center. At the time, I still had nothing to do with city life, and my future was still distant, but I had never felt so calm. When that feeling came to me again on the streets of Shenzhen, I tried to figure out what it was, but to no avail. 

When the streetlamps were turned on, Xiao Zeng, Zhang Weiwei, and I pointlessly returned to an internet café. Before we switched on the computers, a policeman called out, “Xiao Zeng!”

It turned out after the “robbers” fled, they ran around to avoid the net that the police had cast. They soon ran out of breath, and were caught in the evening. 

Xiao Zeng went to the Longcheng Police Station on the backseat of an electric police scooter. Upon return, he said, beaming with joy: “Haha, those two idiots apologized to me. How shameful! They will be in jail for a few years, at least three. So loathsome. They cried. What damn use it is to say sorry to me. One offered me to punch him, I did not, and said that I would not bother, * your mama’s *.”


Illicit Goods Recycle Station

A typhoon came from the sea, and the weather in Shenzhen turned gloomy. The weather had been changeable in the past five days. Since I got to know Xiao Zeng, I could now sleep better on my bunk bed, dirty words came out of my mouth more easily, and often I walked on the street shirtless. As I became more blended in the group of Sanhe gods, vulgarity was not just possible, but necessary—it was a kind of resistance. When a civilized person cast a contemptuous glance your way, you would not feel ashamed, instead, you felt strong and natural, as if something was eventually protected. 

Almost noontime, I went to look for Xiao Zeng as usual. He squatted on the threshold of a convenience store, and was watching a worker draw lots, “Please let me know whether I would go to jail.” Xiao Zeng held his arms, and squatted next to him. He picked up the copper coins on the ground, pinched them in his hand, and looked at them again and again. 

The fortuneteller flicked his white hair. In Sanhe, he had smelled too much dust from the streets, and had seen too many blurry eyes. To change their fortune, people would almost do anything—according to him, someone once hired him to move a rock in his yard for a fee of a hundred thousand; someone took his suggestion of dispelling bad fortune with money, and threw one million in cash into a nearby river. The fortuneteller put away his coins, and muddled a few words in his mouth. What he meant was: The burglary phase had passed; now he could look forward to good fortune that was just around the corner. 

The worker suspiciously paid the fortuneteller but he seemed still at a loss. Half a year before, he had still had a job at a state-owned enterprise, but he got into gambling. He fled to Guangzhou after accumulating an enormous debt. With an accomplice, he sneaked into a residential building, and stole more than twenty thousand worth of things. He had since then been living in fear. “I really want to be a useful person,” he told us. He had planned to do take-out deliveries, after selling his blood, but did not find an opportunity. “Go ahead, sell your blood. If I sell my blood, I would die,” Xiao Zeng said, “I do not have much blood left.”

In the past five days, Xiao Zeng had spent the two hundred that the policeman had given him. Now he suddenly realized that he needed some money for a factory job, otherwise it would not last him until he got his new pay. At the moment, he did not even have the money for food. He was so hungry that his head spun and his heart hurt. He thought he was going to die, but he did not want to deal with drugs nor had he work to do. Sanhe was indeed magical: it turned the human will to a puddle of mud, be it ambition or evil thoughts, nothing worked here. Xiao Zeng spent his last two yuan to buy steamed breads, and gave Zhai Weiwei a piece. Then the two of them went to Longhua Park to have a sip of water. 

The park benches were covered with lying vagabonds. One could hear violin playing intermittently from a small square ten meters away. The locals were playing chess or practicing singing. Zhai Weiwei joyfully shot a video, and sent it to me. In the video, Xiao Zeng was lying in a pavilion. He was too hungry to sleep, and muttered a few words, “Busted, we are busted.” The he suddenly jumped to his feet. As no one was around, he sneaked to a nearby electric scooter, snatched the battery, and off he ran toward the village with the battery in his arms. “Run! Run!”

I put down my cellphone, and went out of the hotel. Downstairs, dozens of villagers blocked the alley before the police, protesting in unison: “We want to live!” The government could not bear with Sanhe’s bad reputation, and had planned another cleanup. Internet cafés were not allowed to run overnight and group rentals were forbidden. 

“You tell us that there are outlaws fleeing this way toward the village, but we have not seen anyone!” The villagers were getting excited, and goaded the Sanhe gods to march forward. Xiao Zeng and Zhang Weiwei just came back from the park, and stood next to me. They smirked, “How can we count on them?”  

With the battery, Xiao Zeng took us to a supermarket. He suggested that we go in to see whether there were any free food samples. After being in Sanhe for a long time, it felt wonderful to walk into a supermarket out of the blue—red and green, all kinds of colors pleased our sight. Monologues of “too much, too much” came across the mind all the time. We had no time to see what was actually on the shelves. Besides half a plate of breadcrumbs, there was nothing else to sample. 

The supermarket was crowded with people. Suddenly Xiao Zeng grabbed three tomatoes, and wrapped them up with his T-shirt, and gave us a wink. He sneaked into the less populated cargo area, held the tomatoes with his hands, and gulped one down in a couple seconds. He stared at me with his full mouth. I felt that his look was a kind of test. Thus, I also grabbed one, and ferociously stuffed it into my mouth. As if I had the intention of smearing the juice onto my cheeks, I gulped it down quickly. I had never thought that it was so easy and natural to be a thief. As I turned around, I saw Zhang Weiwei blushing. He could not do it. Upon leaving, Xiao Zeng scolded him, “They were not sweet. Were they sweet, I would have liked another one.”

After walking up north along the alley east of the park and making a left turn by the Longji Hospital, Xiao Zeng finally found the Illicit Goods Recycle Station. He put the battery on the scale: 13 kilos, 3 yuan per kilo. Now Xiao Zeng had money again. He gave me a 10, “That’s what you had loaned me the day before.” Then he happily got on the ofo bike. As he hit the end of the alley, he suddenly turned around, “Do you guys want condoms? The Family Planning Service Station gives them out for free.” He went up to the automatic machine with a smile. With the condom box in his hand, he gave a passing lady a wink, “Hey, do you want it? 10 yuan for a whole box.”

There was only once that Xiao Zeng had mentioned his lady affair: “Last time Brother Pang invited me to go whoring at Sha Wei, and that cost 80 yuan.” His desire had never vanished. He often watched young ladies pass by, and said to himself foolishly, “Why do girls smell so great?”

Upon our return to the Labor Market, Xiao Zeng invited Zhang Weiwei and me for Guabi beer and bananas. During the years when his older brother was selling drugs, he had actually joined him, now he admitted. “At the time, we had fun all the time and did not have to worry a thing. We smoked, played poker cards, and watched films all day long. Damn it.” Now his facial expression turned bitter, and he threw a half-full beer bottle around the corner, whose white foams rose and quickly disappeared. 

It was almost evening. More workers had come to the Labor Market. The foremen began to yell again, “Express Delivery, 14 an hour, a free meal first before work.”

Xiao Zeng stood before the listing sign. He looked at it for a while, and then turned around hesitantly, “Wanna go?”

“That’s tough. Six hours straight.” Zhang Weiwei did not seem OK with it. 

“Let us give it a try. When the assigned (post) is ok, we will do it. When not, we will quit after the free meal.” Xiao Zeng stared at us, with an almost begging look. 

At the time, I could not fully understand what his look meant. It was not until later when Xiao Zeng broke up with us and burst out screaming at us did I realize that what he was going through was the loneliest struggle on earth: In a dim and vomiting atmosphere, you couldn’t at all see your opponents clearly. Your own will was fragile and could be seen as non-existent. What you hoped for was just a thin connection with this world, but it came and went, fleetingly. 

Zhang Weiwei and I stood together, facing Xiao Zeng. Nobody said a word. Weiwei was not lazy, but was afraid of having money—as long as he had more than 500 on him, he would keep shaking physically as if a drug craving just struck (not metaphorically), because one needed at least 500 for admittance to Jinsha Casino. I suspected that Zhang Weiwei could not figure out which made him suffer more—two days straight without food, or the crushing regret of not having self-control.

Xiao Zeng was a bit angry, “It was just about getting a meal, got it?”

“How can you eat without working for it? Like fixing a car (whoring), you don’t pay for rides?” Zhang Weiwei did not take what Xiao Zeng said, “You have never met a cruel foreman. If you do not work after a meal, he’ll beat you up.”

This was the first time that Xiao Zheng and Zhang Weiwei got into a quarrel. 


Skyworth Factory Van

In the middle of this undercover trip, a friend of mine came to Shenzhen. Upon knowing the miserable things that I had to go through, he invited me to stay at a five-star hotel for a night. 

I could give myself a break on my hypocrisy, telling my friend, “I feel I have betrayed Xiao Zeng and Zhang Weiwei.” But in fact not in the least. My conflicting thoughts quickly dispersed, as I walked into the buffet restaurant. I enjoyed it very much. Not so much about the food, but more importantly, the sincerity of not being self-conscious, as I told the chef, “I do not need a full portion of rib eye steak. Half a portion will do.” My WeChat moments were the same as usual: friends posted photos of delicious food or their gallery visits, vented out their shallow anxieties, or announced their plans to let go of their refined lifestyle. Or that the street dog that a writer friend lately adopted chewed on his pet turtle. He planned to spend 500 to fix the broken turtle shell. Two days later, he joked that he wanted to hold a funeral for his turtle. 

After I returned to Sanhe, Zhang Weiwei was nowhere to find, leaving Xiao Zeng alone sitting in a stand in the Labor Market watching Hong Kong gangster films. 

The afternoon before, already on the bus heading to an electronics factory, he jumped off right before the bus left. “Damn it, I’ve almost had a breakdown. Recruited then back again, recruited then back again.” Before getting on the bus, Xiao Zeng wanted to drag Zhang Weiwei to go with him. He asked him earnestly, “If you do not work, how can you start a new life?”

“Last night, I asked him to try a restaurant again, but he did not want to go with me. If he would like to go, I will follow him every minute of it. Damn it, he did not want to go, since he did not want to go, I did not want to go either, then I have to go Guabi with him.”

For days, Xiao Zeng was full of resentment against Zhang Weiwei, who again and again refused to work, saying that it was “too tough” or the factory was “too shady.” Then Xiao Zeng could not hold it anymore, and said angrily, “ Shady or not, tough or not, I want to suffer myself, I cannot listen to anyone giving me directions anymore.” He accused Zhang Weiwei of causing him trouble, “I am a normal person. I won’t die in Sanhe.”

In the gangster film, a younger gangster conspired to usurp the leadership, and was reprimanded by the boss. After repressing his anger for a minute, he suddenly took out a knife and killed the boss. All the gods, with their rounded eyes, were shocked by the scene. Xiao Zeng said to himself, “If I do not go now, I will be busted.” He went quickly to a window in the Labor Market, and handed in his ID. “It does not matter, if I have to wear a dust-proof overall. I want to work for seven days, and then look for a more stable job, otherwise, I would not even have the money to buy water.” He turned around, and asked me, “Do you want to come? Let us go together. We live here every day like dogs. Come, don’t hang back anymore.” “Come!” He thus put his hand around my shoulder, “Let us go. Don’t you want to come?”

Seeing that I did not say anything, he continued, “Anyways, I have to go.”

Seeing his dimmed face, I felt sad. At this very moment, he needed a friend, and just a little bit of support. But I could not be that friend, so I lied to him, “I need to go home now.” Five minutes before the bus took off, I was still worried that Xiao Zeng might give up any minute of it, and I understood what that would mean to him in the end. He sat on the steps, and lit a cigarette. 

It was always the same scene at the Labor Market. In the idle crowd, a shirtless fat guy squatted by a sofo bike, and tried again again to crack the password, one number at a time, after all, he had all the time in the world. It suddenly started to rain. Before the workers could hide themself under a shed, it stopped raining, and the workers cursed. 

Xiao Zeng turned around, and told me that his rooftop place had been destroyed. He went to pick up his luggage yesterday, as it was still raining. His sheets and quilts were gone, without which he could not sleep. Last time when I went to his secret foothold, Xiao Zeng said if someone dared to take his things, “I’ll f*cking kill him.” At that time I realized that the doghole meant more than a place to sleep to him. 

“I am sick of always seeing Sanhe gods around.” He threw away the cigarette end. An old lady from Skyworth started roll calling, and Xiao Zeng said, “Here,” and followed her along the road. “I am leaving. I will be in touch.” 

He lifted his feet, and stuffed himself into the van. As soon as he sat down, the driver asked him, “Checking image noise hurts your eyes, would it be OK?” The god next to him told Xiao Zeng that he had done the work before, and his eyes could not take it anymore just after a couple days. “Do you know whether it will be a problem later on?” Xiao Zeng asked. The god was a bit annoyed, “How do I know whether it will be a problem or not later.” 

Xiao Zeng’s facial expression was very strange at that moment. He did not say anything, but kept looking at me. I was cracking my brains to find a few words to say, but nothing came out of my mouth. The bus started off, and around the iron gate, it slowly disappeared on Sanlian Road. There was nothing smaller than Xiao Zeng’s departure. Perhaps Sanhe would remain what it had always been. 


Typhoon Through the City of Wonders

The night the typhoon landed, the government was worried that it could be dangerous for the Sanhe gods to sleep on the street. Thus they opened Longhua Elementary School for the vagabonds to spend the night. I stood obediently next to the director of the sub-district office, and let him take photos of my expressionless face. I took a bottle of mineral water and a can of eight-treasure congee, and went into the basketball court, after passing bright and dim puddles of water on the ground. By the walls in the north, close to a hundred gods lay there at sixes and sevens. Seeing me, Zhang Weiwei waved, and asked me to lie next to him. A few days earlier, he sent Xiao Zeng and me a text message, saying that for one second, he really wanted to die, and felt it was meaningless to live, but if he did not die that night, he would cheer himself up and start over again. By a stroke of luck, he was able to find a job at a factory, but was assigned to the “plane pull (meaning: fast assembly line, so fast as if pulled by a plane).” He was slow, and assembly parts piled up quickly two stories high. The foreman screamed at him, but Zhang Weiwei could not take it. He flipped the table. His ex-girlfriend knew that he was broke, so wired 1000 yuan, but he quickly gambled that away. 

“Did Xiao Zeng invite you for dinner?” Zhang Weiwei asked me.

“No.”

Zhang Weiwei could not figure out what’s going on with Xiao Zeng, but felt he was “so stingy.” 

After a few days of work, Xiao Zeng sent us a video through our QQ group chat. He wore only his underwear, and lay in bed with his fellow workers. They were laughing and making a lot of noise. His work was not easy. Many groups of workers had already left the job, but Xiao Zeng was able to persist. When we stole tomatoes at the supermarket, he only weighed 42.5 kilos, now he’s almost 46.5 kilos. If he did not get up to 47.5 kilos in a month, Xiao Zeng said he would eat shit in front of us. 

But his grudge against the Sanhe gods had not gone away, “In Sanhe, those dogs rubbed bad influence on me. We went to look for work everyday. But they did not want to do this or that, and dragged me into troubled waters. They took me around, gave me food, and made me ghastly miserable.” Since I had invited Xiao Zeng for dinner, I suspected that I was among those whom he called names. But I felt really happy for him—for at least this once, because I was not sure whether he would come back or not. 

Wind picked up outside the indoor basket court. The gods in the court started to snore loudly. Cars drove by from the roads in the east, and flashed light onto the window, lighting up the flags of different nations that were decorated on the ceiling. It happened that each of us lay squarely below one flag. Spain said he had once worked in a funeral home washing corpses, and made sixteen thousand in twenty days. He had heard sobbing at midnight but such a good job was not easy to find. Mongolia said, “Let us talk kindly to each other and bond our brotherhood.” As UK, I asked them when they wanted to start a new life. Mongolia took it on, “Why start a new life? I find it great to live one day at a time.”

I lay on the floor, and thought of my last year in elementary school. A volunteer teacher named Tong from the city came to my school. She wore a trench coat, and was a huge contrast to our tanned and skinny teacher Wang. As my desk mate handed in his homework in the morning with his dirty frostbitten “claws,” a strange expression flashed on teacher Tong’s face. In retrospect, it was probably just disgust. I thought at the time I did not have the guts to comprehend it. After her volunteer work ended, she briefly said goodbye, “You should work hard, and you will surely be able to change your life.” Then the tanned and skinny teacher Wang walked back to the podium, and said, “Teacher Tong has lied to you all.”

It was now close to midnight. A voice came from a corner, “Weather forecast: a typhoon is landing.” Gusts of wind and rain rumbled on the ceiling of the basketball court. The gods became quiet, and fell asleep. In this night when the typhoon swept through the city of wonders, all these helpless souls had found a temporary haven. When tomorrow comes, perhaps they may still have things to do. 

(Zhang Weiwei and Xiao Zeng are pseudonyms.) 

Translation: Dong Li