Chinese Whispers: a call to arms
June 11, 2008 — Review
Written by Jenny Bourne
This book based on undercover journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai’s experiences among Chinese illegal labourers in this country is vital reading for all who campaign about workers’ rights, racial and sexual exploitation, globalisation, trafficking and forced migration.
The tale (or tail, in this case) begins in globalisation and the massive impact of opening China to market capitalism on certain areas, especially Fujian (in the south-east), Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin (in the north-east) and those who have migrated to or been thrown out of state industries in Shanghai. Just to subsist, to ensure parents can eat and children get education, family members have to get to the West to work. However much they have to pay to trafficker snakeheads (with heads in the UK and tails in rural China) they believe it will be worth their while. But, according to this brilliant book, Chinese Whispers: the true story behind Britain’s hidden army of labour, based on investigative journalism by a committed Chinese post-graduate, it never is. The traffickers always extort more and more, threatening family members back home, the gangmasters in the UK always take more and more for your keep, to register you for work, for sweeteners to agencies, as penalty for illness, lateness and not meeting targets. And now, even those dirty, backbreaking, jobs at the bottom of the illegals’ pile, are harder and harder to come by as cheap, ‘whiter’ labour becomes available from eastern Europe.
The horror of this book, and the Broomfield docu-drama film Ghosts, also based on Hsiao-Hung Pai’s research, is the banality of what is happening – in our midst yet without us seeing. The fact that Chinese workers are living four mattresses to a room, and twenty-to-a-house in semis just like our family dwelling on the 1930s estates we all know; that the spring onions, packs of leeks, cuts of pork that we pick up any day at the local supermarket have been processed by humans-turned-automatons, feet, hands, minds numbed by cold and weariness; that in the ‘massage parlours’ we pass every day on the main roads women are kept in total confinement, not allowed to even talk to one another, forced to satisfy clients on shifts that last over fourteen hours and are rotated between parlours like any other inanimate piece of entertainment to provide variety.
Ghost is the Chinese term for white people, but ghosts are exactly what the illegal Chinese super-exploited workers are in our economy – visible only for as long as the headlines record a tragedy, as at Dover in 2000 when fifty-eight were found suffocated in a lorry after the driver carrying them turned off the refrigeration unit on one of the hottest days of the year, as in 2004 in Morecambe Bay when twenty-three Chinese cocklers, who had already been set upon by racist locals, drowned because they knew nothing about the tides. Hsiao-Hung Pai went under cover into the ghost world and writes both of her direct experiences and those of the people she lived with, worked among, befriended and tried to help.
Taiwan-born Hsiao-Hung Pai, with an MA in cultural theory, might have faced some of the same British racism as her Chinese countrymen, but she was certainly from a different class and destined for a different fate in the West. But as she read the headline about the fifty-four suffocating in Dover, she writes, ‘I felt my blood heating up with rage … They’d all their life savings and borrowed heavily for the journey, in the desperate hope of working in Britain to make money to support their families. Like cargo, their bodies were found among crates of tomatoes’. From that day, she turned her energies towards uncovering the stories of Chinese immigrants. After the cockle-pickers death, Pai resolved ‘to set out on a journey into the hidden world of exploitation to discover what could allow such tragedies to happen.’
The book starts with the simple story of former farmer Zhang Guo-Hua, walking through New Malden, hoping for a job at Samsung. Within months he was literally worked to death. He died of a subarachnoid haemorrhage after he worked shift after shift with acute headaches without being allowed to take breaks. His widow received no compensation because he was an ‘illegal’. The Chinese workers voiced their disquiet, the man’s relatives were all sacked, the electronics firm relocated to Slovakia. Chinese Whispers is stamped through and through with the brutality and dehumanisation of capitalism in extremis. There is no recourse for workers cheated out of their wages, no relaxation for those who fear police and immigration every second of the day, no way up, no way out, no way back.
In each chapter we either read of Hsiao-Hung Pai’s own experiences, or those of the people she meets along the way – on factory lines, in brothels, fields and restaurants. The impact of the book comes from the way that she imaginatively manages to tell each story from the inside – telling us about the background, reconstructing the feelings, perceptions, longings, desperation of each individual we encounter. (One of the most moving aspect, and not something she gratuitously inserts, is the sudden, human spirit that breaks through: the very poor share what food they have, collect money for the bereaved, take joy in another having got a job, celebrate finding a cheap camera.) And at the end of each ‘episode’ she writes of her attempts to call those who profit from Chinese illegal labour to account – be it farms, firms, sub-contractors, super markets – and to alert those like coroners and the health and safety executive of their responsibilities.
She must be an extremely brave person to have undertaken this dangerous and essentially lonesome undercover research. And she has written an unapologetically crusading book. It is as important as the Cathy Come Home film forty years back. Ethical consumers, trades unionists and women’s groups all should read this and spawn the equivalent campaigns to Shelter and Child Poverty Action Group that are needed today against the ravages of globalisation, the impact of world trade agreements, the rightlessness of seasonal workers and illegal migrants, the vulnerability of the trafficked and the consumer society that divorces ‘our objects of desire’ from the degradation of their creation. This is not just a deeply moving book, it is a call to arms.
 Cathy Come Home was a TV play by Jeremy Sandford directed by Ken Loach and broadcast in November 1966 which broached taboo subjects such as homelessness, a mother's right not to have her children taken into care, unemployment and working-class poverty. It was watched by 12 million people and doubtless mobilised the public to support the Child Poverty Action Group formed in 1965 and the pressure group Shelter, formed in 1966. Hsiao-Hung Pai, Chinese Whispers: the true story behind Britain's hidden army of labour (London, Penguin, 2008) £8.99
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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