Hard Bargains, Hard Life in China
Teen entrepreneur left his family's farm to join an army of city-bound peasant migrants
LI YUEHUA squints in the morning sunlight, reaches for a pole, and starts another warm spring day hanging out Hong Kong fashions for sale at his stall in Shenzhen's popular East Gate free market. It's just after nine in this upstart southern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, and crowds of bargain-seekers are already threading their way down the narrow lanes lined with vendors' makeshift stands.Skip to next paragraph
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Running a hand through unkempt black hair, the lanky, peasant-turned-entrepreneur spots his first customers, a trio of gaudily dressed young women.
"Hey, little boy," calls the sassiest of the three, who turn out to be performers with an itinerant song-and-dance troupe from Hunan Province. "Give me a discount on these pants," she says with a teasing grin, lifting up a flouncy black skirt to try on the skin-tight blue tights.
After 20 minutes of haggling, the women leave with half a dozen pairs of the shiny leotardlike slacks. Li smiles over a comfortable profit, then casts around for the next buyer.
"Business hasn't been too good lately," says 17-year-old Li, who spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week, peddling pants with the Playboy logo, jean jackets emblazoned with the American flag, and other trendy outfits.
Like many youths forced to grow up a little too fast, Li comes across at first like a tough, street-wise adult. But away from the raucous market, he reverts to a teenager, full of the awkwardness and confusion of a boy uneasy with manhood.
He wears sports shirts and smart-looking jackets. TV dramas and news broadcast from free-wheeling Hong Kong are his favorites. But the veneer of sophistication fails to mask the xenophobic, traditional roots of a peasant youth who says he has never before spoken to a foreigner.
By day, Li leans back amid the bright, breezy racks of new clothing with a contented smile, drinking in the city's energy as he might a cool glass of soda. But by night, when he returns to a gray, putrid slum, he can't help longing for the quiet green hills and terraced paddy fields back home.
Just a year and a half ago, Li left his parents, sister, and earthen-brick farmhouse in a village 150 miles northeast of Shenzhen and joined a growing army of 70 million peasant migrants in their march on Chinese cities.
The rural exodus began in the early 1980s, after China dismantled Mao's communes and eased the hukou system that controlled residence, unleashing a vast store of surplus farm labor.
Meanwhile, the market-oriented policies of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping created high demand for unskilled manpower, especially in fast-growing coastal cities and pioneering "zones" for economic reform like Shenzhen.
Li, like most migrants, was compelled by the prospect of a job and cash wages to pull himself out of the morass of poverty and idleness at home.
"My family has no money. At home, we eat what we grow and only sell a little," he says in the twang of his native Wuhua County, which lies in the most impoverished and overpopulated region of Guangdong Province.
Li's parents sustained the family by growing rice, peanuts, and other crops on a small, quarter-acre plot. They raised chickens, pigs, and a water buffalo. Li played soccer and ping-pong with friends after school.