In 1848, Charles Dickens vividly described in Dombey and Son the hordes of men and women streaming into London from the countryside, “footsore and weary, and gazing fearfully at the huge town before them, as if foreboding that their misery there would be but as a drop of water in the sea.” Nearly two centuries later, a similar migration is occurring in the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen. The poor are lured from the country by the promise of a better life, only to be swallowed up in the city’s immensity.
Those with enough luck and fortitude to make the trip — for many are too old or too poor to even attempt it — end up toiling brutally long hours in Shenzhen’s bleak factories and on construction sites. Many live in temporary housing next to where they work. In the district of Bao’an, thousands of laborers live in a makeshift city of prefabricated dormitories beside the hulking, mile-long steel shell of what will soon be the city’s newest airline terminal. The standardized aluminum-panel houses, held together on steel frames, stand precariously on dirt tracts and are splattered with mud when it rains. Nearby, workers have constructed a makeshift shed out of salvaged materials — corrugated metal, canvas tarps, and leftover scaffolding — where they cook and eat at grimy plastic tables in front of an old TV. A sign painted on a discarded piece of insulation board advertises a bowl of noodles for five yuan, about eighty cents. Job sites operate around the clock, so the workers sleep in shifts, taking turns on the beds.