Postcard — May 7, 2015, 8:00 am

The Barracks Are Cast of Iron

Working in a Chinese foam factory

Workers napping while they wait for a load of foam to come out of the oven. Photograph by the author

On September 3, 2013, I arrived at a worker’s dormitory in Guangdong, China, to find my new roommate sprawled out on a plywood bunk in the corner of the small and musty room. He was wearing a hot-pink uniform emblazoned with the letters EPS—for expanded polystyrene, a material used to make foam packaging, bicycle helmets, and a slew of other products sold abroad. He and 269 other workers at the JinBao Foam Factory1 manufactured roughly 130,000 foam pieces and 9,000 helmet baskets a day. JinBao is one of 208,900 companies in the city of Dongguan, which, with a GDP of $94 billion, is among China’s preeminent manufacturing hubs. 

1: The names of the factory and general manager have been changed.

JinBao owned the dormitory; I was scheduled to begin work at the factory the following day. Our room slept eight, but my roommate, a wiry twenty-seven-year-old with friendly eyes who introduced himself as Mo Rupeng, appeared to be its only occupant. Mo was from a 1,400-person village in rural Guangxi called Fugao Cun, where his wife and two children still lived. Like many migrants to Dongguan, Mo had grown up on stories of China’s booming industrial cities. When his older cousin would return home from the city, he told stories of wild nights out at beer stands, karaoke bars, and a roller skating rink as big as three basketball courts. “Dongguan was new and fresh, somewhere I could be free,” Mo recalled. When Mo turned seventeen, he gathered his $300 life savings and ran away from home. Two days later he arrived in Dongguan. “My parents told me to come home immediately,” he said. “But I said no, no, I am going to stay.” That was ten years ago.

Aside from the plywood bunks and a dilapidated chest of lockers, our room’s concrete floor was bare. The air felt and smelled like glue. I attributed the miasma to a pool of effervescent green sludge that collected under a pair of pink uniforms Mo had hung up to dry. When I laid out my quilt and pillow on one of the plywood planks, the fresh linens attracted a bug the size of a pinhead. It was red and black and so small that its six legs were nearly invisible. Then, another arrived. Before long, my bed was swarming with the tiny insects. “Have you seen any of these bugs?” I asked Mo.

“Yes, they are everywhere!” he said, “I don’t know what they are. They suck your blood. You will see, when they bite you, it itches so badly, much, much worse than a mosquito bite.” He turned away from me and tugged the shirt from his back. “Look!” he shouted. His skin was covered in shining red bumps clustered across his shoulders, upper back, and neck. “Those bugs did this.” He grimaced and waved at the other bunks. “The other men said they are called bedbugs. They said you can’t get rid of them. They all moved out.” 

The front gate of JinBao’s campus is guarded by a plump, cherubic man called Xiao Li. He is always looking to recruit new workers to address the factory’s turnover rate, which is 8 percent a month. “We take the workers no one else wants,” he told me. “We want peasants who are dark-skinned.2 They can chi ku,” he said, meaning they can endure hardship. “We’ll take anyone who can chi ku.”

2: The factory denied favoring dark-skinned workers.

At last count, in 2013, China’s National Bureau of Statistics tallied 84 million migrant factory workers. Figures on how many millions are squirrelled away inside Dongguan’s factories are hard to pinpoint. An employee at the Dongguan Statistical Bureau told me the city had 4.34 million registered migrants. “It’s really impossible to know, as many don’t bother to register, and turnover is constant,” she added. But evidence that the labor supply hasn’t met the demand is visible across the sprawling industrial city. Recruitment banners blanket factory walls, and employment information booths stretch from factory gates like strings of Christmas lights.

JinBao’s five-acre campus is made up of an office block, the dormitory where I lived with Mo, and three massive, white-tiled concrete buildings, each stained brown by the exhaust from coal-fired boilers. Behind the six-and-a-half-foot concrete wall that surrounds the complex, the factory steams and hisses and groans, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and workers labor on either the day or night shift. (“Ice skating, horseback riding, bicycling,” one worker said to me. “You foreigners wear helmets for fucking everything these days! That’s why we stand here all day and night.”) Raw EPS arrives at the factory as fine, white plastic beads, which a series of machines then expand into foam using steam. Day and night, the temperature on the un-air-conditioned production floor can reach the low triple digits.3

3: According to a factory spokesperson, the factory is only open six days a week, and though the production floor is not air conditioned for environmental reasons, fresh air is circulated throughout the building to keep temperatures down.

JinBao’s general manager is a beautiful woman with bright eyes and a finely manicured smile. She does her best to keep workers from leaving. According to Mo, his first month’s pay was withheld in an effort to prevent him from quitting. Other workers echoed this claim as well. (A factory spokesperson told Harper’s Magazine that JinBao never withholds a worker’s salary.) Her management style is firm and fastidious—cameras broadcast the factory’s inner workings to her office, security guards jump to attention in her presence, and random strolls through the factory buildings keep workers on their toes. “If you are to be a worker,” she told me when we first met, “you must call me General Manager Tang.”

At eight the following morning, I clocked in for my first day and began work on the production building’s second floor, where I was tasked with prying newly formed helmets from their molds. Only a fifth of the facility’s machines were devoted to helmet production; the rest made foam packaging, which JinBao produces in various shapes and sizes and sells to manufacturers shipping computers, printers, speakers, and televisions around the world. Machines mold the packaging pieces and drop them down a cloth chute to the floor below, where workers like Mo each collect at least five thousand of them a day.

“The collecting is not so bad,” Mo told me. “I reach and stack and walk in a circle all day long. It’s the noise and water I can’t bear. The machines are so loud I can’t even think, and the boiling water is always splashing down on my head.” He wore a straw hat, rain boots, and earplugs as he shuffled from one cloth chute to the next. Mo could complete a lap in two minutes. According to the department foreman, he was one of the factory’s fastest foam pickers. His coworkers were all far older—balding men with weathered faces and empty eyes. In Dongguan, forty-year-olds were over the hill. “Our hands get slow,” one told me. “The electronics factories don’t want us anymore.”

4: This paragraph was added after publication.

In Dongguan, the monthly minimum wage translated to about $1.32 an hour. But, when it came to overtime, many workers claimed they didn’t receive any hourly pay—which, by law, should be at least 150 percent of their wage during normal working hours. Instead, the factory paid them a small sum for every piece of foam they collected during their shift, and this, some workers told me, added up to less than the hourly wage for overtime work. And, they said, when they brought the issue to the factory’s trade union, they discovered that General Manager Tang also happened to be its chairwoman. (The factory spokesperson denied both of these claims.) A forty-year-old worker from Yunnan recalled how he had taken a pay dispute to the local Labor Bureau. “The cadres sighed and said if the pay is too low I can find a new job. The labor law is written well. The foreign media sees it and thinks this country protects its workers, but when it comes to enforcing the law, that is not the case.”4

Two weeks after I arrived at JinBao, I found Mo sprawled on his bamboo mat in our dormitory room. He told me he’d called in sick from work and mumbled about how he’d put in his resignation the month before. In ten days, he added, he could collect his wages and leave. After weeks of eleven-hour shifts spent walking in circles collecting foam, he told me his only two thoughts were, “I need to find a way out of the factories” and “I hope my children will never be this tired.”

A few days later, Mo and I made the midmonth rotation to the night shift. Because the office workers are asleep, the cafeteria service—which at the time was contracted out to General Manager Tang’s brother—served leftovers from dinner as well as pork fat and rice. On the factory floor, absent the day-shift supervisors, workers wandered around collecting “Voluntary Work Overtime” applications to use as toilet paper in the factory’s unserviced outhouse. In time, I came to know these sheets of soft paper as JinBao Charmin.

An hour before our third consecutive night shift was to start, Mo was resting on his bamboo mat. His skin was pale, and his glassy eyes bore into the ceiling. “When it gets to this time,” he said suddenly, “my head starts to hurt. No part of me wants to go. I only slept for four hours. It is too grueling here. I cannot go on picking foam.”

I reminded him he had only seven nights left until he could pick up his wages and leave, but he was inconsolable. “My responsibility is too heavy,” he said. “Without the help of my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to support my family this month. I will work forty-one days here and earn sixteen to twenty-two dollars a day—that cannot support six people. The prospects for my sister’s future are bright. She works in a factory office and enjoys the breeze of air-conditioning. I will always be a laborer.”

On September 23, one night short of his last shift, Mo vanished. His bamboo mat disappeared from the plywood bunk, as did his shoes, cell phone charger, and small bag of personal items. JinBao’s foreman replaced him with a twenty-seven-year-old Sichuanese man. But a few minutes into the man’s first shift, he walked off the factory floor.

“Mo’s replacement has left,” the foreman said when he came to find me. “We need you to take his place.”

I looked at the time. “Five minutes into the shift and he’s already gone?”

“It was probably closer to three or four minutes. He couldn’t chi ku. What can you do?” the foreman said. Li sent a man from Chongqing in next, then one from Guizhou, then a forty-three-year-old from Yunnan.

Two weeks later, on a brisk morning in mid October, Mo appeared at the JinBao factory gate wearing his pink uniform. He pulled the shirt from his back to show me that his bedbug rash had healed. He told me he’d spent fifteen days resting in Guangxi and then returned to Dongguan. “I wanted to work in another factory around here. All my friends from home are in the area. The last two days I’ve been checking out the other factories but they’re all the same.”

Mo would spend another two months working at the JinBao foam factory. About a month after I left, a twenty-year-old JinBao worker climbed into a machine to retrieve a bicycle helmet. But when he reached for it, the two-ton steel mold snapped shut.

“I saw it,” Mo later told me. “Blood was pouring down the cloth chute, and the pool of water on the floor had turned completely red. I looked up for a second, but I couldn’t see anything. My heart started fluttering. I left the cart and ran out of the room. I ended up at the staircase, and I saw the janitor walking upstairs, so I followed behind him. The helmet machines had all stopped, and the men were gone. Blood was everywhere, splattering the floor and the surrounding machines. Three inches of space remained between the two mold faces. I looked in. His head was squished into an unrecognizable shape. One of his eyes had popped out of the socket. It was horrifying.” General Manager Tang’s video cameras showed that the boy had hit the wrong button before he climbed into the mold.

Police and various government agencies spent the next week investigating the accident. According to a factory spokesperson, JinBao reached a settlement with the worker’s family, and full production in the factory resumed. “When they called me into work the next day, the machines and the cloth chute had been cleaned,” Mo told me. “But the smell was still there. The whole building had a horrible stench—it smelled like dead fish.” He tried to quit, he told me, but claimed the factory said it would withhold his pay. “There are not enough workers,” Mo said the foreman told him.

“I couldn’t eat,” Mo recalled. “I lost all my appetite and energy. I couldn’t sleep. When I did sleep I had only dark dreams.”

In a week’s time, however, Li had found a replacement worker, and Mo was allowed to leave with his pay. He returned home to his wife and two children. 

After leaving JinBao, Mo began driving a cargo truck for Lucky Goose Express, hauling parcels en route to the doors of online shoppers. His hours were longer than at JinBao, but the pay was higher. Also, his wife moved to Dongguan to work in an electronics factory, and they rented a simple studio apartment together.

On occasion, Mo’s delivery route took him past JinBao. When I last saw him, he said Li was still sitting outside the factory gate recruiting new workers. I remembered the Chinese proverb the recruiter once told me, two years earlier, when I asked if the factory could continue to operate with such high worker turnover: The barracks are cast of iron, and soldiers flow through like water. “JinBao will always be here,” he explained. “Workers come and go.”

R. W. McMorrow is a former China-based Fulbright Scholar and is now a freelance writer

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Airfare for a corpse on an American Airlines flight from New York City to Los Angeles, one way:


Seventy percent of voters who claim to be undecided have already made up their minds.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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