Ghost Workers

The neoliberal process in China has spanned the last four decades, bringing tremendous changes to society — including the massive employment layoff (xiagang) that involved at least 70 million state-owned enterprise (SOE) workers. For the laid-off workers, in an overnight they lost their “iron rice bowl” jobs, and the attendant social, economic and political life that the government had tacitly promised them under the all-encompassing work unit (danwei) system.

My parents were laid-off workers in Tianjin, an industrial city in northern China. I could feel the impact of the job losses on ordinary workers despite being only a child. However, compared with the omnipresent suffering, it is now perhaps the oblivion that is most poignant – less than two decades since the massive layoffs, the world seems to have happily forgotten them. And the echoing collective muteness of the laid-off workers, as Simon.J.Charlesworth wrote, “falling like snow, erasing the pathways through which we might return, once again, to the village of our being”, appears to me to have fallen into a causal loop of modern society’s amnesia and the effacement of the material grounds that memory depends on. The “acceleration of history” that historian Pierre Nora underscored overwrites the old layers with new in the urban space, but in contrast to the temporality of the space are the laid-off workers trapped by their past like specters.

This nostalgic project invited laid-off workers in Tianjin to act out their old jobs at the site of their former factories. Composing of two visual chapters, this is a visual story dedicated to specters like my parents, with the hope of keeping a piece of tangible reminders of the Chinese laid-off workers’ collective memory and individual humanity.