80后 hòu is the Chinese term used to describe someone born between 1980 and 1989. This is the generation that Barry Li, author of The New Chinese, belongs to. This is a generation of a rapidly changing environment from post Cultural Revolution to technology, infrastructure and an opening up to the West.
Li describes growing up in Suzhou (China’s version of Oldtown from Westeros) with his great-aunt and his cousin (who really was actually the daughter of his grandmother’s adopted daughter. Complicated. For all intents and purposes, he calls her his sister, which is the done thing among the one-child generations. It used to confuse me a lot when students I used to teach in Beijing would tell me of their multiple brothers and sister; for a long time I thought it was just an English error they were making.) The three of them slept in one room, in one bed, in a 10 squaremetre house with no kitchen, no toilet and no running water. There was electricity for lighting but nothing else, because there were no whitegoods. One of the families in the courtyard home had an old black-and-white TV that everyone watched together on the one TV channel – China Central Television, CCTV still in operation today.
Living conditions for Li began to improve, he remembers, after 1989. The government wanted to widen a central road, and to do so knocked down Li’s old courtyard home and offered every family a new modern unit. In the early 1990s large amounts of apartments began being constructed across every major city in China, creating job opportunities and new homes. Some of those homes are now worth fortunes. If a family in Beijing or Shanghai were given a new apartment back in the early 90s, like Li’s family, and they’ve held onto it until today, it could be worth several million AUD. Did anyone expect that outcome? Li’s grandmother didn’t like the location of the new apartment (she wanted Li to stay in the same school) so she traded that apartment for an old courtyard home similar to the original but with two separate rooms and running water. Much like how I can remember at eight years old using the Internet for the first time and playing Snake II on the old Nokia phone, Li can remember watching running water, and discovering that Mickey Mouse cartoons were actually in colour.
From there he later moves back to northeast China, to an apartment with plumbed toilets, a fridge, a television, a washing machine. By age 19, he’s at university with peers who have laptops and mobile phones. Only seven years ago flushed toilets are a novelty to him.
It’s bizarre thinking that the transition from this life, to one of corporate Sydney, is not uncommon. Thousands and thousands of Chinese from this generation, like Li, have made the journey out of the “slums”, into university, to overseas, and into what we consider today to be middle-class society. Li calls himself an “ordinary migrant” and in many respects that is true; nothing crazy happened to him that moved his social and financial position that didn’t happen to anyone else at that time of China’s growth. I wonder: does he ever look at his young children and imagine how life was for him at the same age? It’s a poignant reflection on how much, for China’s “ordinary” citizens, life has changed.
Photo taken in an outer village in Wanning, Hainan, January 2015. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.