Where family life is put on hold

For the Lius, leaving is a family affair. Out of four brothers and sisters, only one is still at home in Sichuan, and that's because he married early and started to raise a family. He'll be taking over the family orange grove and carpentry business.

The rest headed to Shenzhen with big dreams, spurred by stories from their friends and neighbors. That's a pattern repeated over and over again in these factories.

The first out of Sichuan - the province from which many Shenzhen-area factory workers come from - was the youngest daughter, Liu Weifan. She was 16 and looking for adventure.

She landed a job in a factory making dolls with blue eyes and blond hair. After a month of 16-hour days and no free weekends, she quit for an easier job at another plant, answering phones.

She quit that job to spend time with a boyfriend. When that ended, she decided to learn how to operate high-tech sewing machines and then landed another job at a sneaker plant.

Ms. Liu bounced around until she landed a job earning a very high $200 a month as a supervisor. The stress got to her, she says, and she quit again. Now, she's earning half that at the Kong Tai plant. Her goal: Learn to use computers and move into management.

"First I wanted to play and learn about the world," she says. "Now, it's about" - she rubs her thumb and forefinger together - "money."

A half year after his sister left, her oldest brother, Liu Liyong, followed. A neighbor set him up in a cassette-tape factory where he worked from 7 a.m. to midnight, with one day off a month, earning $44 a month.

"Back then, all the factories were like that. Anyway, if you quit, there was someone else waiting to take your job," he says.

He switched over to Kong Tai because he heard conditions were better.

Working the line, he married a woman from his hometown, and they had a child. Wife and child headed back home, where it's cheaper to raise a family. Now they wait for husband's monthly checks, regular phone calls, and the yearly visit back home.

Decades of upheaval and strict residency laws that split couples have made these arrangements normal. Even white-collar women send their children to live with their grandparents.

"Living apart was difficult at first, but now we are used to it," Mr. Liu says. "If there's any problem they can just pick up the phone and call me. I stick to reality - we don't have a choice," he says. "I sacrifice now for my child's future."

A surrogate community finds strength

MOVING FAR from families and friends appears to take its toll on Shenzhen's workers, especially women.

Suicides are not unheard of, and social workers report dealing with worker depression and other problems.

Liu Qingfeng was earning more than her parents ever dreamed possible when she snapped. Normally talkative, one day she couldn't stop holding forth. For the next four days and nights, she says, she talked about work, her life, anything - she just couldn't stop.

"I felt like I lost control of myself," she says.

Ms. Liu spent three months in a mental-health facility here in Shenzhen, recuperating. Eventually, she returned to work parttime at Kong Tai.

Three years later, her life is better than ever. Liu has built a network of friends who support her, and lives in an apartment that even has a simple computer for sending e-mail.

"I still don't know what happened, and I eventually returned to normal," she says. Maybe it was the pressure to perform better, the fear of being left behind, she says.

Social workers familiar with Liu's case cite other factors, including a relationship that ended abruptly.

Liu, from Sichuan, tells of another woman in the factory who became deeply depressed after her husband of four years died, leaving her with three children.

The woman's friends rallied around and helped her hire a babysitter instead of going home.

Liu is proud of having ridden out her personal crisis - and also of her achievements. Despite dropping out of high school, she earns more than 10 times what her father made as a teacher.

Working as a floor manager, she earns $350 a month - even more than some classmates who graduated from college.

"I still don't regret coming here," she says. "History has shown that I was right."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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