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Public Culture 14.2 (2002) 341-347

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Am I the Only Survivor?
Global Capital, Local Gaze, and Social Trauma in China

Pun Ngai

I don't know how I survived, but I am the only one who can be alive. All the women from my village died in the fire. I still can't believe that I'm lucky enough to have escaped the gates of hell. . . .

a survivor of a factory fire in China

Fire, pain, and memory flashed into Xiaoming's life story, highlighting a social trauma that runs through the lives of dagongmei, migrant working daughters, in this time of restructuring for China's state socialist system. Reform-era China is imaged through a lens focused squarely on the global market, a lens that not only occludes new forms of class and gender inequality—and thus legitimizes them as necessary evils—but also leaves the voices of individuals subsumed within the collective enterprise. Who cares? A giant China is coming, a few thousand deaths a year mean nothing. After all, it was the West that was the first to dream of and promise a giant China to come in the twenty-first century! Thus was triggered a mighty desiring machine in mainland China, its effects felt especially among the elite. The desiring machine, with all its power, was targeted on one goal: to set the nation inexorably on the track of globalization, yu quanqiu jiegui, and join the World Trade Organization.What has been tragic is the calling up of a generation of young women to work toward this dream of integration with the global economy. A consideration of China's subaltern condition within the global order could have foretold the voices of tragedy—the tragedy of compressed time [End Page 341] and space and the tragedy of compressed grievances—hidden, yet not choked off. Social explosions emerged from time to time, severely suppressed, leaving behind deep social traumas that continue to haunt the country.

The Blaze

Seven years have already passed. Chance had brought me to meet Xiaoming who, alone of all the migrant women from her village, had survived a factory fire in Shenzhen. Shenzhen was the first of the Special Economic Zones set up in China in the early 1980s as stepping-stones for international capital. On 19 November 1993, a blaze had engulfed a plant there run by a Hong Kong subcontractor to a European toy maker, a brand famous in U.S. and European markets. The fire killed over eighty workers. Twenty others were seriously burned and another sixty injured. Half a month later, I met Xiaoming in the hospital. Her body was completely burned, all her skin seared and charred; left behind were a pretty face and glinting, innocent eyes. She looked weak but calm, very calm.

Three years later, in the course of my doctoral fieldwork, I would meet Yan, another migrant working daughter, who was employed at a Shenzhen electronics factory. Her condition seemed unexceptional, except that she screamed into the darkness every morning at four o'clock, frightening other female workers in the dormitory. Yan was awakened by nightmares. 1 As a disclosure of social violence, this speech act seemed obvious and urgent, but I could still find no device of writing that could work to turn the pain inside out and get deeper into the grip of the power that held her. Hope of resistance was still far away.

Yet I had no choice
I was compelled to murmur
The desire

I never expected to meet Xiaoming and Yan, and vice versa. Fire, pain, dream, and scream nested three lives together, bound us with a mutual imperative to give voice. Xiaoming, a young woman of twenty-one when I met her, was a migrant worker fresh from a village in Hubei, a relatively poor region. Worried that recalling memories of the fire would be too hard for her, we chatted about her childhood, her family, and her work experience in Shenzhen.

Kids like to fight, to jump, to sing. But I liked to...


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pp. 341-347
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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