Labor Issue, Part 2: Chinese doctors on Covid frontlines + the secret life of Mom’s beanies, and more
Also in this issue (#15), typologies of the “invisible” working class, and stories celebrating everyday creativity
It’s Beimeng, Charlotte, and Yan.
A lot has happened since we published the first part of our labor issue. China ended its zero-Covid policy in early December, and a tsunami of infections promptly swept across the country.
Nearly half of China’s cities experienced a peak in infections between Dec 10 and Dec 31, according to the journal Nature. Officials in Henan, China’s most populous province, reported that close to 90% of its population had, by now, been infected. That’s nearly 90 million people, just in one province.
Think about that.
Our featured story this issue looks at the doctors on the frontline of this Covid crisis, while trying not to lose sight, for the rest of the issue, of more positive stories from around China showing the creative side of labor. Among them:
A story about a daughter who secretly purchased all of her mother’s knitted beanies to honor her under-compensated labor;
A street photographer who turned his lens on the delivery workers and taxi drivers in his surroundings;
A marine research ship pilot’s unique captures that had the Chinese internet buzzing.
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The Urban and Rural Faces Combating COVID in China
“Professionally speaking, I should give those on my team who are Covid-positive some time off, but I really don’t have any backup.”
A mass influx of ER patients. A nosedive in the number of on-duty doctors and nurses. This short video from Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News captures the moment these two scenarios meet. The video, shot inside a Shanghai hospital on December 28, features eye-opening moments and quotes from doctors like the one above.
This latest surge in Covid cases puts another heavy toll on medical workers, who have endured a lot during the past three years. In 2019, it was Dr. Li Wenliang who first sounded the alarm of this soon-to-be global pandemic before being silenced by authorities. Dr Li contracted, and then tragically died of Covid. Between 2020 and 2022, under China’s “Zero COVID” rules, many Chinese medics were reduced to carrying out endless PCR test swabs from dawn to dusk and manning poorly-managed quarantine centers. Female medics, despite making up the majority of the force, were represented in the domestic mainstream media through a reductive, gendered lens. Unlike some other places in the world where labor unions have been playing a vital role in fighting for medical workers’ pay and better working conditions, Chinese medical workers didn’t (and don’t) have such a support system.
Far & Near’s own Beimeng produced a video in which she met Yang Lin, a county hospital doctor in Sichuan province earlier in January. Yang recently lost her elderly father to COVID, but Beimeng observed that it didn’t look like she could even afford the time to mourn her loss amid the surge of covid patients in her hospital. It’s disquieting to imagine how she will be able to process it all when the suppressed grief breaks through and re-emerges.
The Labor of Love: Mom’s Beanies
Hu Yiping, an artist living and working in Beijing, grew up in a village in Sichuan province. On a trip home in 2015, she found out that her mother was knitting beanies and selling them dirt-cheap to a local buyer. Irked that her mother’s time and labor were so undervalued, Hu had her friend construct a fake persona and purchased the beanies for “a company in France”. They sent her mother more high-quality yarn, encouraging her to use her creativity to create more hats and buying them at a high price. Slowly, other women in the village also joined in.
From then on, Hu has been threading this delicate needle, as recounted in a recent interview with Voicer, an online magazine about creativity in China. On the one hand, Hu runs a company that markets the knitted products her mother and other “aunties” in the village make. On the other, she still plays the fake persona, giving them prompts like knitting bikinis for a made-up French fashion show. Although the company is losing money, she managed to get some of the women’s work abroad — the green beanies went to the paraders on Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland; the pink ones capped the heads of protesters at the Women’s March after Trump’s election.
Their creations also attracted media attention and found their place in contemporary art museums in China.
In the Voicer interview, Hu revealed that her mother still doesn't know the truth, and she’d prefer it that way. She wanted to shield her mother from financial worries and let her just enjoy knitting — a life-long hobby.
Is honesty the foundation of love, or can love be also expressed through a lie? This question might be something those of us living between East and West constantly wonder about. The idea was famously explored in The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s 2019 movie.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
View the full Voicer story here, and check out Hu’s Instagram account, where she shares where the knitted work has been exhibited.
A Typology of the Invisible Working Class
Yan Jiacheng's photos are like Liu Tao meets Hilla and Bernd Becher. The Guangzhou-based street photographer tirelessly and repeatedly photographs the "invisible" labor workers in his neighborhood, holding strong to the belief that the process of repetition will bring him new visions.
To Yan, the perfect shot is hidden in the mundane, and he’s most curious about the person behind the mundane. For example, he photographs the backs of the taxi drivers he rides with and takes screenshots of their WeChat aliases that show up when he pays. If the back of a person’s head is mystery enough, the aliases add a whole new layer of evocative mystique: “Who Owns My Soul (灵魂该被谁掌控),” “Longing for Tomorrow (渴望明天)” and “Installment and Sales of Fingerprint Door Lock (安装销售智能门指纹锁).”
Yan landed on the technique of photo collage as his creative style when he realized that repetition refreshes familiar scenes and makes the work more powerful: 16 sanitation workers wiping down endless pedestrian barriers in the street, over two dozen delivery drivers criss-crossing a busy intersection, and motorcycle taxi drivers putting up umbrellas in anticipation of a storm. Through his lens and collage, the unseen individuals are seen, their invisible labor acknowledged.
View the story here (drag the bar in the story to view the long scroll)
Meng Xiangyu is a pilot on a marine research vessel. To kill time on board, he started photographing the tails of colorful fish collected as scientific specimens, before researchers sent them to a lab on land. His delightful posts on social media have also garnered him 200K followers, earning him the nickname “Fish Tail Guy”.
Check out this beautiful story (come for the fish tails, stay for the boat cats).
Who we are:
Yan Cong is formerly a photojournalist currently pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based in Shanghai. She is a lover of languages and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and visual editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin and working on a book about her hometown’s German colonial past.
Writers: Beimeng Fu, Ye Charlotte Ming; Editor: Yan Cong; Copy editor: Krish Raghav
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