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Review: Hsaio-Hung Pai's 'Scattered Sand' - winner of the Bread and Roses Prize

Since being published in September 2012, Hsaio-Hung Pai’s ‘Scattered Sand’ has been widely acclaimed, both in the broadsheets and on the political left. This is no mean feat – at a time when there are a plethora of books on China being released, the book has stood out as an important and original contribution, accessible to the new reader on China and yet original enough to interest people more engaged in the debate. As if to confirm that wide appeal, last month it was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.*

I first encountered Hsaio-Hung Pai’s work when doing some research on migrant workers in the North East of England. Pai had studied at Durham University and one of the first cases she talks about in her first book, ‘Chinese Whispers’ was that of a Chinese worker, Zhang Guo-Hua, who had collapsed and died while working in a components plant in Hartlepool. The factory supplied parts to Samsung and Zhang earned in the region of £1.50 an hour after tax. On the day he died, he had been working a 12 hour shift and had been suffering with acute headaches. Told to keep working and denied a break, he died three hours after his shift. That was on our doorstep, but at no point had I seen any coverage of it in the local news nor had I spotted it in any reports about migrant labour in the region. ‘Chinese Whispers’, published in 2008 and similarly nominated for the Orwell Prize, told the tale of the 21 or more Chinese cockle pickers who were drowned at Morecambe Bay – but in some ways it is the way in which Hsaio-Hung Pai digs out the personal, small scale stories which really makes her work so powerful.  

Not long after finishing ‘Chinese Whispers’, Pai set out of a journey across China. Starting out at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky railway station, she travelled to North Eastern China, to the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River region, to the Olympic construction sites and the factories of the Pearl River Delta. Importantly, she also let her travels take her to less well known areas of industrial development or decline, painting a very nuanced picture of the Chinese state and its relationship to its migrant workers. All of her travelling was done by train. In a recent interview with Socialist Review magazine, she said:

“Travelling by train makes it easy to meet people - travelling in the same cabins, you can get to know them.”

It is this desire to get to know people which is the key to the vibrancy of ‘Scattered Sand’. Some of the people Pai meets up with in China are contacts from the research she did in Britain (for instance, she follows up some of the cockle pickers families) or family connections (she is originally from Taiwan, but has family who are “mainlanders”), but many of the people she talks to are chance encounters – people who are willing to talk about their own experiences of migration and the effects of poverty on their lives. She lets them tell their own stories and that is what makes this book both so readable and moving.

The term ‘Scattered Sand’ actually comes from the Kuomintang leader Sun Yatsen, who used it as a way of describing the disunity of the Chinese people against Western Imperialism. In modern China, however, the phrase is being increasingly used to describe the 200 million migrant workers, who move yearly from poor rural communities in China to the industrial areas like Guangdong to find work.  We hear about these workers occasionally in the Western media – usually when a number of them die, as in the spate of suicides at Foxconn. Even here, we tend to see Chinese workers in terms of their numbers. The sheer size of China and the dominant story of its ascendancy as an economic entity present a problem to anyone wanting to dig beneath the numbers and tell the story of the workers who actually produce our smart phones, cheap trainers and sportswear.

Hsaio-Hung Pai manages to overcome that problem and also strike a balance between personal engagement in the unfolding narrative and allowing the migrants she meets to speak for themselves. At times, her anger is palpable, as she traces the lives of people blighted by extreme personal danger and poverty. Her description of the underground “blood clinics” where the very poorest of Chinese society sell their blood even though they know they are almost certain to contract AIDS is heart-wrenching. At other times on her journey, Pai puts herself in obvious danger – by asking for unpaid wages or going undercover to meet migrants and gain their friendship. By allowing those relationships to take the lead, the journey takes us to unexpected, and at times dark, places.

This is no travelogue, however. What Pai does very skilfully is to interweave both the recent history of China and the jaw dropping statistics that accompany this massive wave of migration and the struggle to survive. The difference is that, whereas some writers might inadvertently use statistics in a way that render the actors invisible, Pai ensures the people themselves stand as personal testimony to each one of those statistics. This extends to labour unrest, where again her research is thorough (you can see ample evidence of the use of China Labour Bulletin). Without being over optimistic, she identifies signs of an emerging workers movement independent of state sponsored trade unionism, based around the demands of migrant workers. Again, it is in the Chinese state’s interest to bury these disputes, but Pai seems to suggest that this is untenable in the long term. 200 million people, the logic seems to say, can never stay invisible for long. This chimes absolutely with Hsaio-Hung Pai’s whole endeavour, both in ‘Chinese Whispers’ and in ‘Scattered Sand’: to ensure that these migrant workers cannot be seen as “ghosts”.

This review was originall published in 'The Call of the Millions' online newsletter. To see the archive, go to:

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*Scattered Sands won the Bread and Roses Prize and is out in paperback in June 2013 and is available from the People’s Bookshop 


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