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China is the world’s most populated country where thousands of people are migrating from villages to cities in search of a better job and life. The rapid transition of Chinese society from a rural agricultural based society to an urban industry-based society has taken a toll on the social and cultural life of the country. Internal migration to the urban areas has resulted in an immense population pressure in the industrialized urban areas, leaving only the older generation to take care of the agricultural land in the villages. Last Train Home is an 80-minute documentary about the social and living condition of these Chinese migrants (Fan 2009). The film presents a well-documented study of the life of a migrant worker and the social problems the families from rural areas face in present day China. It is set in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province of China and a village in Sichuan Province almost 2100 kilometer away. This essay will review the film and discuss the various social problems that migrant workers face at work as well as at home.
Last Train Home: Summary
The film follows Zhang and Chen, two migrant workers in Guangzhou and their painful journey home during the Chinese New Year. The movie spans a period of three years. Director, Lixin Xan strikingly captures the inside story of a migrant’s life. The movie begins with an alarming picture of the masses trying to board a train that was already crowded and then moves on to show the life of the protagonists. It begins in 2006, just before the holiday season when the couple were trying to go home from the city. The film shows that they had chosen to leave their children back in the village under the care of the elderly grandmother and go to the city for work. Poverty had forced them to migrate from their village to migrate and now they wanted to work hard, even when they lived in dingy apartments and had a heavy workload, and provide the best education and future for their children. The dream of a better future, financial security in old age, and stability for their children motivates these workers to toil endlessly in the inhuman conditions of the city. The movie then focuses on the couple’s disillusioned teenage daughter who decides to leave the village to work in the city against the wishes of her parents. This creates a disagreement between the parents and the child that ultimately lead to their estrangement. The documentary finally ends with the beginning of another journey when Chen decides to leave her job and return to the village to take care of her younger boy. The social issues that have been shown in the documentary are living condition of migrant workers in cities, the growing gap between the children and their absentee parents, and the change in the position of women in Chinese society.
Living Condition of Migrant Workers
Living condition of the migrants in the cities is bad. They live in derelict apartments, with no basic amenities and supplies. These workers are migrants from far off villages who were internally displaced due to destitution. Though they find work in cities, they do not get the legal status of a city-dweller. Hence, they feel dissociated with the city life. They feel displaced and bewildered among the city dwellers and crowds. The working conditions at the factories are tough, with noisy machines and continuous work. The apartment the couple lived in was a small, dark, dismal place with broken furniture and damp walls. These couples, like many other migrants in China, were working and saving for a better future for their family back in the village. Their dream was to send their children, Qin and Yang, to college.
Evidently, the migrant workers belonged to the lowest of the urban social strata with no social security. The Chinese hukou system is responsible for this miserable state of the migrant workers. According to this system, most of the rural population were confined to the rural areas by the system of hukou (Chan 2010). This was a major tool of labor control under the communist regime in order to retain agricultural labor from migrating to the cities. In order to control the rural exodus, the government confined the social security and medical benefits of the population in the area of their residence. Therefore, when someone from the village migrated to the city, was not entitled to the urban social benefits given by the government. However, with the industrialization in the urban areas of China, mass exodus began in the nineties. This migration was desirable as this supplied cheap labor to the factories. However, the hukou system was not revoked, making the living condition of the rural migrant labors in the urban areas despicable.
Children of the Migrant Workers
The second social issue that has been demonstrated in the documentary is the growing gap between the children and the migrant parent. The film shows that the 15-year old daughter of the migrant couple revolts against their wishes to leave the village before finishing her education. She detested living in the lonely desolate village and believed only the children and old lived there. The emotional gap between the parent and the children is observed at the very beginning of the film when Chen says that she does not know what to say to her children when she meets them during the holidays. She also confesses that leaving her infant children was one of the toughest choices she had to make. However, they could not afford to bring their family to the city to live with them. There has been an increasing number of parents leaving behind their little children in the villages in search of a job in the urban areas (Pratten 2012).
Thus, this has left millions of children in the villages that are growing up with one or no parent. This poses a serious sociological concern as these children lose all connection with their parents (Yan 2008). They somehow feel that their absence is the norm. The film shows that the grandparent cares the migrant couple’s children, as is the case with almost 80% of the migrant workers’ children (Pratten 2012). Though it may sound shocking to many but this is an accepted social tradition in the Chinese culture. A society distraught with poverty naturally seeks a vent to better their life, compelling the rural couples to migrate to the cities, leaving their children behind. This automatically creates a gap between the teenage children. Further, the documentary shows that the couple is the first generation migrant from their family. Their values of family and financial wellbeing are different from Qin who migrated to the city for freedom from the desolate village. Thus, there is a shift in the beliefs of the children and the parents.
China has historically been a patriarchal society. Gender equality was absent in the Chinese society even though China embraced communism (Yan 2008). Women have always been hardworking, working in the agricultural lands as well as in the house. However, industrialization was believed to have brought in enlightenment for the women as it allowed them to leave their domestic chores and move on to a modern, industrial space where men and women were viewed as equals. Hence, when the 15-year old daughter of Chen and Zang went against her father’s wish she was beaten up. This was common in the Chinese society, but with the advent of industrialization, the social mores had changed. This allowed Qin to leave her house, all alone, and move to a different city, away from her parent’s supervision.
The documentary shows a despicable fact about the life of a Chinese migrant worker. The rural-urban income gap is daunting and the worst part is it is widening with the spread of industrialization. The Chinese New Year is a shown as a mirror that is held to show the mushrooming of the migrant workers who try to return home during the festive season. The stampede in the train station symbolizes the breakdown of the governmental machinery to support the basic needs of the people of the country. Migration of rural population to industrialized urban regions has increased tremendously, imposing greater stress on social and familial bonds in the society.
Chan, Kam Wing. 2010. “The Global Financial Crisis and Migrant Workers in China: ‘There is No Future as a Labourer; Returning to the Village has No Meaning’.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34 (3): 659-677.
Last Train Home. 2013. Directed by Lixin Fan. 2009. Canada: EyeSteelFilm. DVD.
Pratten, Nyima. 2012. “China’s ‘left behind children’: It’s not what you think.” The Independent (March). Web.
Yan, Hairong. 2008. New masters, new servants: migration, development, and women workers in China. Durham: Duke University Press.