Hukuo (户口) in China

Earlier this semester, my classmates and I learned about Hukou (户口), a household registration system in China. In her article “Foreign Marriage, ‘Tradition,’ and the Politics of Border Crossing,” Constance D. Clark introduces and describes Hukou:

Hukou was a system of social control created by the Communist Party, which segregated the entire Chinese population into a two-tiered rural-urban ranking of privilege. Statuses of “agricultural” or “nonagricultural” meant that a person born into an agricultural family had no opportunity to convert to nonagricultural status and was therefore denied benefits allocated to those in the cities such as housing, medical insurance, food allotments, and pensions (Cohen 1994; Potter and Potter 1990). In many ways, the package of urban welfare came to be understood as socioeconomic rights that were the property of urbanites. (Clark 1999: Kindle Locations 1394-1398).

From my understanding, Hukou is a government instrument for manipulating and controlling the movement of people in China. The word Hukou is comprised of two separate characters: 户 and 口. Independently, 户 carries the meaning of family, and 口 carries the meaning of entrance or gate. So, the combination of the two characters is a fitting description of the structure. Without approved official documentation, a person cannot legally enter and establish a life in another province or town. This barrier has been and continues to be problematic for Chinese citizens, particularly those living in rural towns wishing to move and work in exciting and economically thriving cities. Moreover, the difficulty of transferring Hukuo registration has made the city the “preferred place to live and… a steadfast destination of desire for rural dwellers and exiled urbanites” (Chen 1999: Kindle Locations 133-134). Thus, the increasingly high population densities in Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, should be expected.

Before learning about Hukou, I took “the freedom of geographic mobility” for granted. In America, the government does not directly control the migration from countryside to city. In fact, the transition from small town to big city is a popular theme romanticized in novels and movies. During my childhood, my family moved every few years according to my father’s job and economic opportunities. Hukou would have restricted my father’s career and my family’s chance for economic prosperity. Chinese college students are facing this restriction of Hukou during their job hunts after graduation (Hoffman: Kindle Locations 757-758). If graduates do not get their Hukou registration transferred to an economic center, such as Shanghai, then they are forced to look for job opportunities in their hometown. This can be extremely disheartening for college graduates from small towns, since better, higher-paying jobs are located in larger cities.

The subject of Hukou surfaced during an interview with Ms. Li (李), a migrant farmer on Chongming Island. Recently, Ms. Li’s son returned to their hometown in Anhui Province to attend high school. When asked why he did not attend a high school on the island, she clarified that his registration was in their hometown. Therefore, he could only take his university placement exams in Anhui. Ms. Li hopes her son will find a job outside farming and recognizes the importance of an education for his future. Thus, staying on Chongming was not an option for her son. Additionally, Ms. Li mentioned her son’s desire to attend university in urban Shanghai instead of Chongming. As mentioned earlier, life in a larger city is economically and socially more attractive. Chongming Island is the least developed region of Shanghai. Ms. Li’s son is simply another illustration of the rural population’s longing for city life.

(Ms. Li is pictured above; population density map provided by china travel guide)

Chongming Island (崇明岛) Part Two

Julie, Feng Ran, and I made our second trip to Chongming Island this weekend. This time our team went equipped with a full filming kit: a Canon Rebel T4, Sony Bloggie, Rodi microphone, H4 microphone, tripod and other accessories (spare batteries, Neewer light disc reflector and SD cards).

We arrived on Saturday night to review our plans, prepare the filming equipment and get a good night’s rest for Sunday. During our trip we interviewed a migrant farmer, a local farmer, a local land owner/developer, two migrant fishermen and a local driver. Below are my reflections on our team’s first filming experiences.

TECHNICALITIES

Before we arrived to Chongming, our team practiced filming and testing our microphone’s audio just once. So, I was a bit nervous while setting up the equipment for our first interview. While Feng Ran made casual conversation with the migrant farmer, Julie and I mounted the Rodi microphone to the Canon and the Canon on the tripod. Just before this, we realized the H4 microphone was out of battery, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the Rodi microphone would capture satisfactory audio. As Fuji stresses, good audio is even more important than the video.

Alas, our team forgot to plug the Rodi microphone cord into the camera during the first two minutes of filming. Julie luckily noticed this mistake early on, and we were able to capture the introductory content, once again, at the end of the interview.

With around 3 hours of nonstop filming completed, the Canon Rebel’s battery was running extremely low and the SD card was filling up faster than we anticipated. We were forced to exchange the battery pack and SD card during the middle of the second interview. This was irritating because it disrupted the flow of the interview and thoughts of our informant. Nonetheless, these interruptions can be easily fixed with editing later on.

Lesson learned: spare batteries and memory storage are necessary. Also, it doesn’t hurt to take a lunch break to charge up the dead batteries and to free up some space on the primary SD card.

The Sony Bloggie also caused our team some technical problems. The Bloggie’s battery died around the same time as the Canon, but we did not know how to recharge it. I plugged the Bloggie into my computer, but the computer did not recognize any activity from the USB drive. Additionally, we had no Internet at our hotel on Chongming, so searching for the solution was not an option. Consequently, the Bloggie remained uncharged for a good portion of the trip, and we missed out on opportunities for footage and various angle shots during interesting interviews. At the end of the trip we figured out our mistake: the Bloggie must be turned on when plugged into the computer for the battery to charge and files to transfer. By this time it was a little too late. Nonetheless, Julie and I did capture around two hundred shorter video clips on the Bloggie during our stay.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

In Shanghai and around Fudan University’s campus, I will often here English or other international languages spoken on the streets, subways and buses. This is not the case on Chongming Island. Especially among the farming and fishing communities, there were no English speakers. In fact, some people we spoke with declined an interview, claiming even their Mandarin was not good enough.

Since all of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin, Julie and I did not ask any questions during the interviews with the Chongming subjects. Collectively, our team brainstormed topics and questions for each interview beforehand. I was able to follow some of the introductory conversations, but most of my attention was diverted toward filming. During our visit to the fishing village, I wandered off and spoke to our driver and fishermen on another boat. It was exciting to use my Mandarin, but still some parts of the conversation were lost in translation. I asked the fishermen about their children and they asked me about my flight to Shanghai. They even offered to give me a sampling of the crabs they caught. I politely declined, having neither the kitchen nor skill to cook the crabs.

With around 50 GB worth of film, the next steps for our team involve tedious video cataloging. Since Julie and I do not have the necessary language skills to interpret the interviews, we cannot divide the work and conquer this task in a third of the time. Instead, we must sit down as a group and filter the abundance of film down to the most important parts based on Feng Ran’s translations.

A-ROLL AND B-ROLL

A-roll and B-roll together make up any film. A-roll is the video footage of the main subject, like an interviewee speaking about his or her family. And B-roll is the video footage of the surroundings and other contextual images, like shots of an interviewee’s children playing in different parts of the house. The difference between A and B-roll is particularly clear in most documentaries. In my opinion, the interplay of A and B-roll keeps the film interesting. When a film elegantly jumps from the main subject to other scenes that complement the dialogue and content of the piece, it is able to express a more complete story. Using relevant clips apart from the A-roll will improve the illustration and portrayal of the story’s narrative.

During our time on Chongming Island, Julie and I shared the responsibility of capturing A-roll and B-roll while Feng Ran interviewed. We alternated A-roll and B-roll jobs after each interview session. We filmed A-roll on the Canon Rebel and B-roll on the Sony Bloggie. I found filming A-roll more serious and structured. For the most part this job required placing the interviewee in the frame and making sure he or she did not come out of focus. On the other hand, filming B-roll allowed me to be more creative and explore the surroundings. While filming B-roll, I experimented with angles, scale and perspectives. Just for fun I created a short video (see below) of some of the B-roll Julie and I shot this weekend. Now, I need to think about how to pair our team’s A-roll and B-roll footage for our project this semester.

Chongming Island B-roll from Chai Lu Bohannan on Vimeo. Music: “Pretty Girl from Merlefest” by the Avett Brothers.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Reading with Angelina

When we first arrived in China, my classmates and I expressed our interests in connecting with local Shanghai people. Shen Yi Fei, a professor at Fudan University, suggested pairing each of us with a young Chinese student for English language lessons and practice. This arrangement would reward both parties; Davidson students would experience more cultural immersion and the Chinese family would receive a free tutoring service.

I met my “Chinese family” this morning. They picked me up from my apartment and brought me to their home, so I wouldn’t get lost using the public transportation. The mother, Ling, and her sister, Emma, were more than welcoming. For the remainder of the semester, I will be helping Ling’s daughter, Angelina with her English speaking and reading skills. Angela is a third grader who enjoys math, playing with her friends and watching movies. We already got off to a great start today. Angelina read dialogue passages from her English practice book. She also read two of my own childhood favorites, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Listening to her struggle with the longer or trickier words made me think more about the process of learning a language. After reading the three books, she was exhausted, and I could relate. My brain always seems to hurt after Chinese class or any intensive readings. Thinking, reading and speaking in a different language is tiring. So, we called it a day. Plus, it was Angelina’s birthday, so we didn’t want to make her read too much.

While I was at Angelina’s home, I noticed different signs of a Chinese family. For instance, Ling prepared snacks and tea for my visit. She kept on offering me more and more snacks, which reminded me of my mother scooping more and more food onto my friends’ plates back home. When Ling asked if I wanted a banana, she peeled the banana and placed it into my hands before I could politely decline. Additionally, the family’s car had a decorative hanging of Guanyin, also known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion or the “Goddess of Mercy”(Palmer 2011: 107). Guanyin is a venerated figure in Chinese popular religion. These are just two of the most obvious observations I made. I hope to learn more about their family and family traditions over the last ten weeks I have in Shanghai. Today, I learned that Ling is a judge in Shanghai and Emma is a banking and finance lawyer. I think it would be interesting to hear their stories and opinions about women in the Shanghai workforce. On Wednesday night, I will return to their home for another visit. 

Where is the Eco-city?

The objectives of economic growth and environmental protection are often contradictory. Environmental protection may place restrictions on economic growth, and economic growth may result in devastated surrounding environments. Currently, China is the world’s most populated country and home to the fastest growing economy. In the last two decades, China’s GDP has increased an average of 10 percent annually (Cheng 2009: 119). To guarantee a healthy population, economy and environment for the future, China’s rapid urbanization must be controlled with sustainable development initiatives. Finding a balance between development and conservation is a necessary challenge.

Presently, China is investigating the development of “eco-cities” that are designed to minimize the ecological footprint (Cheng 2009: 121). With more and more people moving to urban zones, eco-cities serve as a favorable solution for improving environmental conditions of densely populated areas. In China, one eco-city plan is in its preliminary stage of development. Located on Shanghai’s Chongming Island (崇明岛), Dongtan eco-city will serve as a platform for experimentation in smart growth. In relation to the rest of Shanghai, Chongming Island is the least developed area. Its existing natural landscape and potential for renewable energies make it an ideal location for Dongtan. As Cheng reports:

Dongtan eco-city will have a 60% smaller ecological footprint (2.6 global hectares per person) than conventional Chinese cities, a 66% reduction in energy demand, 40% energy from bio-energy, 100% renewable energy buildings and on-site transportation, reduction of waste to landfills by 83%, and almost no COemissions (2009: 122).

To better understand the plans and progress of Dongtan, I visited the early stages of this eco-city last weekend. My research partners, Julie and Feng Ran, accompanied me on this trip. Immediately, the thirteen wind turbines near the nature reserve and Dongtan Wetland Park caught our attention. Later, I learned that the electricity generated from this wind farm could supply power to 26,000 households (Cheng 2009: 122). Although the wind turbines are a promising symbol of sustainable development on Chongming Island, they are also a distraction from a problematic truth: Dongtan’s master plan is already behind schedule.

As we drove around Dongtan’s surroundings, I noticed little construction around the island. We did see a smaller eco-village. Yet, no obvious indicators of sustainable living, such as solar panels or rain barrels, were visible. Furthermore, there were no signs advertising the sustainable neighborhood. According to our taxi driver, the villages were built to increase eco-tourism. The eco-village, natural reserve and Dongtan Wetland Park were all located around twenty minutes away from the nearest existing town.

Our team is interested in learning about the local people and their opinions and understandings of conservation and eco-cities. In just two days, we spoke with two ornithologists, an educational coordinator, two fishermen families, five small business owners, a farmer, and a gift shop worker at the Dongtan Wetland Park. All of our informants supplied a different perspective on the advancements of Dongtan and the natural, undeveloped land. Some people were enthusiastic for the eco-city plans, while others did not care to know any details about the future plans of Dongtan. For instance, the fishermen had no opinion of the wind turbines. They were too busy sewing nets and planning their next fishing excursion to worry about the new wind turbines. Additionally, the scientists did not approve of the land manipulation or profits of the Dongtan Wetland Park.

Moreover, our initial investigation opened doors to new research questions. I look forward another trip to Chongming and to conducting more interviews later on this month. Most of our interviewees agreed to speak with us again and on film. Until then, I will be reading more about Dongtan’s master plan and the relationship between the social sciences and natural environments to prepare for our next trip.

Illuminated Cultures

With the Golden Week right around the corner, a group of students and I went to see the annual Shanghai International Lantern Festival (上海国际灯会) at Lu Xun Park. We arrived in the late afternoon and explored the front portion of the park. Named after a famous 20th century writer, Lu Xun Park provides a large, calming space for people of all generations to enjoy. The trees, curved paths and ponds offer a sanctuary away from the loud, bustling city of Shanghai. While walking around the park, I observed children playing with their friends, locals practicing t’ai qi and groups of retired residents playing cards.

After an hour or so of walking, our group left the park to eat dinner and wait for the sun to set. We knew the Lantern Festival’s lights turned on at 6:30pm sharp, so we hurried back around that time. We used our Fudan University student cards to enter at a discounted rate of 35 Yuan, and the fee was well worth the sight!

Lu Xun Park transformed entirely. The daytime’s natural, calming atmosphere disappeared and the park became a colorful, exciting spectacle. Hundreds of red lanterns lined the paths filled with groups of friends and families. At the entrance, the Oriental Giant Dragon, a 200.2-meter long handmade dragon sculpture, was glowing, moving and breathing smoke. Near the center of the park, vendors, entertainers and food booths provided another layer of entertainment. Mal and Charlotte courageously ordered some stinky tofu (臭豆腐). The bland taste did not live up to the dreadful smell, but it was still exciting to try a bite.

My favorite part of the Lantern Festival was the large light displays positioned alongside the paths. These displays highlighted important symbols and representations of Chinese culture. Additionally, displays of icons from cultures outside of China existed further into the park. My favorite light displays included The Journey to the West, Korean drums, Disney princesses, the London Olympics and the Indian elephants. Although the Shanghai International Lantern Festival is linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese holiday, it includes displays representing non-Chinese societies and histories. For instance, the Great Wall display was placed next to the Egyptian pyramids display. The juxtaposition of eastern and western images throughout the park parallels other signs globalization throughout Shanghai and China. With modernization the barriers among cultures dissolve and the exchange among cultures increase.

Even after more than two hours of sightseeing, there was still more to see and do. The Lantern Festival is only on display during the weeks leading to the Mid-Autumn Festival and Golden Week. Since lights will be taken down in the near future, the festival is something to be treasured. I look forward to seeing what other special events Shanghai has in stored for China’s weeklong celebration.

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