Xiaolei grew up in Yicheng, a nondescript city of nearly 1 million people on the Yangtze River in the heart of China. After his parents divorced, he lived with his grandfather who, until Xiaolei was about 10, was quite well-off. Somehow -- Xiaolei doesn't know how -- his grandfather lost everything, and after that they lived together in an abandoned warehouse.
In spite of his poverty, his grandfather was the stable presence in Xiaolei's childhood and encouraged him to pursue his dream of making music. After he died, Xiaolei had his name tattooed on his hand. He says that every time he sees it or has to make a difficult decision, he asks himself how his grandfather would behave.
Everything that Xiaolei knows about the West he knows from popular media. So while he has the look of an American rapper, I think he is typical of many Chinese artists who take what they want from Western culture and then reshape it into something that speaks to a Chinese audience. There is a lot of debate, for example, in Beijing hip-hop circles about whether it is cool to rap in English -- some say it's not. Xiaolei is criticized for using too much English in his music, even if it is mostly pat phrases, slang and swear words.
There are intense rivalries between different hip-hop factions in Beijing. In one interview, Xiaolei described the situation this way:
"There are fights between groups. They piss each other off. But it's not as bad as in America. Things can get out of control easily there. (Gestures: bang bang bang.) People don't have guns in China. So they just argue. In the end we solve it peacefully. Because I don't like to fight. I don't think fighting can solve problems. It's 2006 now. You use your brain to solve problems."
Update: Xiaolei was injured in a traffic accident and spent six months in the hospital. As of spring 2008 he is fully recovered. He has an agent and a manager and is working on a new CD, fashion line and tour.
The first time I met Zhanyan, we talked for hours in a park and, gradually, she poured her heart out. She is a very sweet, open young woman, and I thought her self-awareness and need for self-expression were both moving and unusual.
She had kept a diary, from which we asked her to read excerpts in the film. The diary itself was written on flimsy, mismatched scraps of paper, bound together with string or staples; just the look of it speaks volumes. It was a remarkable experience to be able to get inside her thoughts so intimately, to learn how a migrant worker thinks and feels. She is clearly tormented by her lack of education; for her there is an unbridgeable chasm between those with education (and money) and the world in which she lives.
Even today, girls are distinctly second-class citizens in rural China. Traditionally they leave their families when they marry, while the sons stay to support their aging parents -- with help from their wives. So when families have to make a choice about which child to educate, it's always the son.
Zhanyan has faced another major problem, which is that her mother is mentally ill. This fact has always set her and her family apart in the village because it is such a social stigma. (I'm not sure what is wrong with her mother, but she looked to be catatonic.) It also meant Zhanyan never really had a mother, and she longs for the closeness of a mother-daughter relationship.
At an economic level, the effect has been really hard. Peasant families live so close to the edge that if one of them can't pull their weight, like Zhanyan's mother, it takes the whole family down.
Update: Zhanyan and fellow migrant worker Jiang Ping got married and moved to Inner Mongolia to live with his parents. She recently gave birth to a son. In a couple of years, they are planning to leave the boy with his grandparents and go back to work.
Haiyan had to leave school because her family could only scrape together enough money for her brother's education, but at least going to work in Guilin allowed her to see a bit of the world.
Before China's economic reforms, she would have been married off and spent the rest of her life looking after her in-laws and laboring in the fields. In Guilin, where she eventually met her husband, she worked in a fish shop and then a tea shop. While her experiences were limited, she did learn about cell phones and the Internet, and a bit about human nature.
I certainly see a parallel between her leaving her husband and son to be a migrant worker and her mother's attempt to do the same thing when Haiyan was young, but I think there is more to it. There are tensions in her relationship with her husband, and she has seen enough of the world to want something more for herself, some measure of self-determination and fulfillment. I don't think Haiyan is unusual in this regard, and so it seems to me a real step forward for women in rural China.
Update: Haiyan is working somewhere in Guangdong province, away from her family.
Owner of an Internet-based tailoring company; he became a Christian
While China has never supported or had a single dominant faith, many Chinese have believed in Buddhism or Christianity or the power of local gods. Christian missionaries worked effectively in China for years before the Communist Party took power in 1949. There were Christian schools and churches, and while they had to disappear under Mao's rule, now that communism has receded as a meaningful ideal, many are looking again for something to believe in.
As Lu says in the film, he has always been interested in different philosophies and the meaning of life. I think that interest grew after his parents divorced, a few years before I met him. His father went off with a younger woman, and Lu was furious with him. Divorce is still a fairly new phenomenon in China, especially among people in that older age group. I think this had a big impact on Lu and that, together with his decision to start his own company, accelerated his search for a moral compass, for meaning and values.
An Update: Lu has been in touch with us since the film aired. His relationship with his father has improved over the last year. Lu says he doesn't feel angry with him any more and their relationship is growing closer and closer.
Related Link: Visit Beyond Tailors, the English-language Web site of Lu Dong's custom-order shirt business.
Internet café entrepreneur; consultant
"Imagine you are 18 years old, had been growing up with your parents, very good parents, with your friends, and then suddenly you get dropped to Mars."
That is how Ben described feeling when he arrived in the U.S. for college. All he could think about during the first six months was how to learn English and adjust to this completely new culture.
Ben's a fast learner, and he soaked it all up, relishing the more relaxed lifestyle, the freedom to come and go where and when he wanted, and hamburgers and beer. Of all our characters, I think Ben is the most natural businessman. Business seems to be part of his DNA. He had always dreamed of going to business school, and so he went on to do an MBA at Columbia University in New York.
In 2004 he saw that the place with the most business opportunities was China, so he returned to make his fortune. And that was when the importance of connections really sank in for him. In China, so many things can be done only if you know the right person. And the other reason is trust. Business transactions can be so opaque and cut-throat you have to work with people you can trust, and that means working with people you hope you know well.
Update: Ben left Lenovo and has moved to Hangzhou, where he and his father are starting their solar panel business. His wife is still in New York, and he still has not visited her.
Public interest lawyer
Jingjing's parents worked in a chemical fertilizer factory on the outskirts of Chengdu (near the epicenter of the May 12, 2008, earthquake). Her father was an engineer and her mother a doctor.
Jingjing's fondest childhood memories are of playing in the yellow sage fields around the plant. While the scenery was lush and beautiful, it was also marred by the waste that ran out of the factory and into little rivulets through the fields. Her parents often discussed the high cancer rates among the plant's workers and wondered if there was a connection. So Jingjing became aware of environmental health issues at an early age. As she says, she never intended to take on the system; she just wanted to protect people's health.
Jingjing's candor in the film was remarkable. She had no idea of how we would cut together her story, what images we would use to help tell it. Her life is lived on the cutting edge of reform in China, a place that is never easy and never safe.
Related Links: Visit the Web site of Jingjing's organization, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims; click on the word "English" in the upper right corner for the translated site. In August 2007, Jingjing answered questions about China's environmental challenges as part of a New York Times expert roundtable.
Update: When we last heard from her, Jingjing told us her parents were not hurt in the earthquake, but didn't know the fate of other relatives and friends.
Businessman, hotel owner in Shenzhen
It was very hard for Weimin to coordinate his schedule so that we could also film his new wife and son. He is always busy, and she always seemed to be away in Beijing fixing up their new apartment or visiting friends. His life is typical of the business world he moves in, where work always comes first. He admitted to me that his first marriage broke up because he worked nonstop, and also that his first wife wanted her own career as well. He acknowledges that perhaps he needed a partner who was more acquiescent to his needs.
When Weimin finished his undergraduate studies, China's economic reforms were really taking off. He headed to Shenzhen, which at the time was like a boomtown in the Wild West. In the city's center was a famous sign, "To get rich is glorious," a quote from then-leader Deng Xiaoping. After 40 years of communism, people were scrambling to make money any way they could. It was a tough, rough-and-tumble time and place.
Weimin cut his business teeth in Shenzhen, but he has an ambitious intelligence, fundamental honesty and didn't want to make his fortune through the latest fast financial fad or scam. So he went abroad to work and study, ending up at the University of Chicago, where he learned Western business models.
Related Link: Visit the English-language Web site of Chicago Suites International, Xu Weimin's hotel in Shenzhen.
Update: Weimin's second hotel opened at the beginning of 2008, and he is methodically building up the business and looking for more hotel sites to develop.
Miranda has really struggled to find herself, to move out of the shadow of her parents, and to sort out who she is and what her values are.
Her parents' generation grew up and worked under Maoism; they lived "to serve the people" and the country, and to obey the Communist Party. By the 1980s, however, people realized the West was much more successful than China, and they wondered how that could be since they had always been taught that the West was decadent and degenerate. As many of them now say, 40 years of the socialist dream led to nothing but disillusion.
While Miranda grew up as China was going through the massive economic reforms, the country remained under firm ideological control. People her age were encouraged to emulate the West in terms of making money, but, like their parents, they were also told the West was a debauched, depraved society. It is not surprising, as Miranda says in the film, that her generation is confused.
Her parents were strict and conservative and put huge pressure on her to succeed academically; the atmosphere at home was so oppressive that when she was applying to college she only picked ones outside of Beijing. College was a big challenge, but it was also liberating. She could finally be herself. I think Miranda's story is similar to what many women in the West experienced in the 1960s and '70s. She is trying to juggle home and work, the demands of her husband and her parents, and still find a place for herself.
Update: Miranda Hong received a promotion and is now head of marketing at a Chinese asset management company.
In the new economic system, most people have no health insurance and can't afford health care. This is such a critical issue in China that I wanted to follow someone working inside the system and to see the situation from their perspective. I met Yao through people I know who work with AIDS/HIV patients in Yunnan province.
Yao is an only child, and when he was growing up he often did his homework side by side with his father, who studied to be a doctor later in life. This may be why Yao comes across as very mature, and possessing an interesting combination of idealism and ambition.
While we were filming, I was very struck by his statement: "We see it all the time, patients who can't afford big medical expenses. Seeing a patient with financial difficulties is a very, very sad experience. You have to make a very hard choice. If a patient really can't afford treatment and is in the mid or late stages of their diseases, we need to think about palliative care. In cases like that, I think we should do our best to save the family's resources."
This attitude reflects his training and the policies of the hospital where he works (and therefore of the government, too). It shows a very tough, pragmatic understanding of the limitations of the system. But Yao's dream is to change this; to help, in some way, provide basic health care for all in the system.
Update: Since we filmed him, Yao spent six months in the U.S. doing rotations at San Francisco General Hospital, the VA Medical Center and Moffitt-Long Medical Center of UC San Francisco. He is now the chief medical resident at his hospital, while his wife, Chan, is doing her residency in ophthalmology.