Fireworks factories, coal mines and cute little puppies

HENGSHUI, Jiangxi — “I don’t understand why so many people just want to stay in the village. They don’t want change. They don’t want a better life.”

Eighteen-year-old Miao Jiao — Jo, as I know her — is in limbo, hovering between two different worlds, two different eras. She attends college in Shanghai, an ever-changing city of nearly 20 million that buzzes like one giant neon light bulb. Her hometown is Hengshui, population 4,000, a tiny village in western Jiangxi Province, where the Miao family is one of the lucky ones — they have electricity. She said when she is in Hengshui, she misses Shanghai. When she is in Shanghai, she misses Hengshui.

If you live in Hengshui, you probably either work on a farm, in a coal mine, at a fireworks factory — or you don’t work at all. Until last year, Jo’s father, Miao Chang Xin, worked in sales for one of the many small local coal mines. But like so many small local coal mines in Jiangxi, Mr. Miao’s was mismanaged and went out of business. Now Miao, who had worked at the mine for more than 20 years, is jobless. At 43, Jo fears her father is too old to find steady work. He currently passes time at home making parts for a local fireworks factory on a small hand-operated machine. They pay him RMB 30 — $2.75 — a day.

Jo said several years ago her father had a chance to buy a house in a much larger city about an hour away. But he decided to stay in the village. Part of Jo wishes the family had moved when it had the chance. She thinks in a bigger place, her father would have been able to make the connections necessary to find another job. “It would be a more comfortable life,” she said.

The Miaos are a proud family. They wouldn’t let me pay for anything during my stay. Until Mr. Miao lost his job, they were one of the wealthiest in the village. It’s all relative, however. The average annual household income of a family in Jiangxi is less than $600 a year.

Jo’s mother, Zhong Hua Ping, is a teacher at the village elementary school, a run down structure with crumbling staircases and desks and chairs that look as though they pre-date the Cultural Revolution — or even the Japanese Invasion. Jo’s older sister, 20-year-old Miao Yan, also teaches at the school. In many parts of China, the job of primary school educator is one that does not require a college degree. Teachers in Hengshui earn about RMB 1,000 ($120) each month.

Also living with Jo’s family are her father’s mother, 73-year-old Liu Su Hua, and grandmother, Hu Ai Xiang, 88 years old and spry. In two days living with the family, I never saw Ms. Liu. She gets up early and comes home late from her job at a fireworks factory. Jo said her grandmother doesn’t do the monotonous, finger-cramping work for the money — workers at fireworks factories get paid very little, even by Hengshui standards — she does it because she enjoys simply having something to do.

Jo’s great grandmother always chuckled when she saw me. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I am 6-foot-3 and she is 4-foot-6. She was always handing me fans, worried that I was too hot. Or she was trying to hand me an umbrella, worried that the sun would burn my skin. She spent most of the day sitting on a small chair near the main door of the house, fanning herself. I saw her doing some laundry by hand (the family has an electric washer, but I never saw anyone use it). And I saw her sorting through the hundreds of red chili peppers drying out in front of the house, a common site in this part of China. Great grandma gets around pretty well, actually, but she doesn’t join the rest of the family at the dinner table for meals. She doesn’t like the electric fan that hangs from the ceiling.

Jo’s family has also taken on a renter since Mr. Miao lost his job, a young man who also makes parts for a fireworks factory. Jo also has an older brother, who went to technical school in Guilin, Guangxi Province, and works as an electrical engineer in Guangzhou. Jo says her brother makes a “so-so” salary and sends money home to the family each month. (If you are wondering, Jo says China’s one-child policy is “not as strict” in remote villages like Hengshui.) Two dogs also live with the family. Jo warned me about them during the hour-long drive north to Hengshui from the train station in Pinxiang, a small-by-Chinese-standards coal mining city where her uncle is employed as a driver for “rich people.”

“Oh good,” I said. “I like dogs.”

Jo did not respond.

Remarkably, all of the assorted family and non-family parts that coexist at Jo’s house can do so rather comfortably in terms of space. They live in a simple yet stately farm house that Jo’s great grandfather had built in the 1970s. The home — whitewashed walls, vaulted ceilings and a decorative Chinese tile roof — sits at the end of a gravel and dirt road great grandfather had built, as well. Gracefully painted above one of the main entrances are the Chinese characters qian cheng si jin: “Have a bright future.”

The house used to sit on its own, but over time other homes have encroached on its territory. The once private road is now used by most of the village.

Even with seven full-time occupants, there was still an extra bedroom available for me. Grandma and great grandma share a bedroom, and Jo and her sister share a bed. I asked Jo why, even with her brother’s bedroom vacant, she and her sister continue to sleep in the same bed. Jo appeared taken aback by the thought of the sisters separating. “We’ve slept in the same bed for 18 years,” she said. She said they sleep better side by side.

We arrived in Hengshui at 1 a.m. on July 27 and the cool mountain air was a welcome respite from the unrelenting heat that had become an unwelcome companion during The Trip’s first week. (Hengshui is located in what appears to be the foothills of a mountain range that Jo claims has no name.) The sky was clear and full of stars. I had to stop and stare for a while.

I occupied the sisters’ room. It had a ceiling fan and a mosquito net, and Jo’s mom — who woke up to greet me — had laid out for me a wide assortment of snacks, Chinese and western, in case I was hungry after my seven-hour train ride from the eastern part of the province. This was luxury living in the most unexpected of places. Atop a dresser, I noticed a container of contact lense solution. Both Jo and her sister use them. She doubts anyone else in the village has even heard of contact lenses before.

In the countryside, feet start shuffling outside your bedroom door very early in the morning. Before you know it, you’re told that breakfast is being served in the dining room and your presence is expected. Seeing Jo’s home in the light of day made me feel as though I had been transported back into a Shakespearean play, which I know makes very little sense — since I was in China — but anyway, that’s the first thing that came to my mind. Living with Jo’s family was like participating in some educational re-creation of how people lived in the old days, a Chinese Colonial Williamsburg of sorts. I can almost hear the tour guide now:

And over here is the kitchen, where old-fashioned people actually had to use hand-made blocks of coal to heat their pots and pans.

Here, this large concrete cistern is where people of the past collected all of their water for laundry, cooking and bathing. These metal buckets were what they used instead of the showers that all modern people have today.

Finally, over here — you’re going to love this — this hole in the cement floor is what old-time people used as a toilet.

“Ewwww,” the crowd would react. “I’m sure glad human beings don’t live like that anymore.”

But, in Hengshui, people live like this now. They likely will for decades to come. And many families, like Jo’s, do so in a very dignified manner. The dining room at Jo’s house is decorated simply. The furniture, used daily, is mostly family antiques — the Miao clan has lived in Hengshui for many generations — items that would likely earn a village fortune on eBay. The main entrance to the home leads into the dining room, and its two heavy wooden doors give the place the feel of a castle.

On one wall is a large, colorful calendar and some decorations that are holdovers from Chinese New Year. Another wall has black-and-white, unsmiling headshots of deceased family members, a traditional Chinese way of honoring the dead. Great grandfather is there. So is grandfather. And grandma is there, too, beside her husband, even though she is alive and well and working long days at a fireworks factory. They didn’t want grandpa to be lonely on the wall. These photos — which feel more like mugshots — are taken when relatives reach a “dying age,” which I believe explains the long faces.

“My grandfather died three years ago,” Jo said as we looked at his photo. “He loved me very much. And I miss him very much.”

The wall facing the door features a portrait of another deceased and beloved man, Mao Zedong, whose visage has become more and more visible the farther I travel from Shanghai and the closer I get to Mao’s home province Hunan. With his Mona Lisa smile, Chairman Mao looks down on the dining room table. Beneath him is a large color poster of a tropical beach scene — no one in Jo’s family knows where the photo was taken. I asked Jo why it was important for the family to have Mao’s portrait placed so prominently in the home. “Because he built the new country,” was her response. Then I asked her to explain a smaller photo of Mao shaking hands with several other Communist Party officials. “I don’t know who they are,” Jo said. “I don’t know much about history.”

Nearby hang two large maps, one of China and one of the world. I asked Jo if she wanted to visit other countries.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Not enough money.”

“But what if you had money. Would you want to travel somewhere?”

“I’ve never thought about it.”

The two dogs at the house were a mother and recently-born son. The mother was a thin mutt, its breed hard to place. The son was black, a cute floppy puppy that looked like it had some Labrador in him. Neither was particularly friendly. Whenever I tried to pet them they would growl and scurry away. I noticed that both dogs had tape wrapped around the middle of their tails, and asked Jo if there was any Chinese significance to the practice. “I think the men just got bored,” she said.

That morning, Jo and her mother took me to a nearby coal mine. Jo’s mom was born and raised in the village and is rather well connected. Either she knows people from childhood, she taught them or she taught their children. We had no problems wandering around the Yao Ye Chong Coal Mine for an hour.

Coal mines are always dreary places. Everything is black, or covered in black or soon to be covered in black. The whole place appears to be preparing for a funeral. And in China, that’s not far from the truth. Work conditions are among the worst in the world. Accidents happen all the time. In 1989, a cave-in killed several Yao Ye Chong miners.

In 2003, China’s rate of deaths to production of every million tons of coal was 130 times that of the United States. In 2002, 6,995 coal miners died in China. The United States had 27 deaths that year. The rate of deaths is not reflected in the rate of pay, however. Yao Ye Chong’s miners, who often live in dirty dorm-style rooms at the mine, make RMB 60 ($7.50) a day. Workers who stay above ground make half that. Still, there are always people who want jobs in the mines. It is, after all, one of the only gigs in town. There are not enough jobs to go around.

We stayed above ground. And, although the workers we saw there might avoid a fast death, they are surely living a slow one. But, sooty, skinny and exhausted, many still managed a smile. We were welcomed into the manager’s office for some green tea. It was the only room in the place with a ceiling fan, and several workers, mostly drivers, gathered on the benches, smoked cigarettes and told jokes. Jo recognized one of the workers in the room as a former classmate. She had heard that he worked there, and that he was already married with a child. She didn’t say anything to him. He didn’t appear to recognize her.

After tea, we walked behind the coal mine, toward a small Taoist temple on the top of a hill. Along the path was a one-room building made of brown clay bricks. Laying on a plastic tarp outside, were bundles and bundles of pink firecrackers. This is a small fireworks “factory,” some tables and chairs, where workers — all women, mostly young ones — put together commercial firecrackers by hand. This is what Jo’s grandma does all day. This is how many fireworks that end up in America are made.

At the temple, modest and recently rebuilt, an older woman was doing the same work. She was making firecrackers inside the temple. Jo’s mom paid her respects at the alter, kneeling and praying and stuffing some money in the donation box. Jo and I, neither of us particularly religious, followed suit. “Just make a wish,” Jo whispered to me. Our generosity was celebrated with the lighting of some incense sticks, some candles and — of course — some fireworks.

“I don’t know why if the village wants to build a school, few people will give money,” Jo said as we left. “But if they build a temple, everybody gives. There is a sharp contrast between here and the big city. I don’t think people in small villages understand the value of education.”

Jo just finished her second year as an English major at Shanghai University. She has had me as a teacher for five of her six college semesters. As a freshman she had very short hair, a boyish cut that many teenage girls in China still have. Now she has wavy neck-length hair, lightened to a dark auburn color. She usually pins it back on one side with a barrette. Her dress is fashionable, if at times a little conservative. There is a city woman wanting to break out of this village girl. I asked her about her hair.

“My mother said girls in college should grow their hair longer.”

“Why?”

“More beautiful, I guess.”

“Does she want you to find a boyfriend in college?”

“We don’t discuss such matters.”

Jo, in fact, has been secretly seeing a boy for two years now. (Don’t worry, all of the people who this is a secret to cannot read English.) He is a former high school classmate who lives in Pingxiang. They don’t see each other often, but sometimes rendezvous in Shangli, a town between Hengshui and Pingxiang. Usually they just send text messages on their mobile phones. When Jo and I went to an internet bar in Shangli one night, she received a message every couple minutes or so. Her sister doesn’t even know about this relationship.

“Do you love him?” I asked.

“To some extent, yes,” she said.

We talked about this during lunch, with other family members nearby. English was our code language.

During meals, the dogs get the scraps. Often, instead of spitting bones onto the table, as is the Chinese custom, Jo’s family just spits them onto the floor. I tried to throw mine to the puppy, who I had grown fond of even though he wouldn’t let me pet him.

“We don’t consider them pets,” Jo said.

Jo’s mom said they were like guard dogs.

“We often kill the little ones,” sweet little Jo said. She then paused, as if for dramatic effect, and added, “And eat them.”

“Quite delicious, I think,” she continued.

My heart dropped to the floor. And the dogs started tearing at it.

Jo went on. “This one had a sister several days ago.” Pause. “We killed it.” Pause. “And ate it.”

“Why did this one get spared?” I asked, pointing to the cute black dog I wanted to take with me on the rest of my trip.

“We will probably kill him before the new year.”

Pause.

“And eat him.”

I realized with every bone I dropped to the floor, I was helping to fatten this puppy up for slaughter. I felt sick.

“We often kill little animals,” Jo said.

“And eat them,” I said. “I know. I know. Do you eat cats?”

“No,” Jo said. “It is not our custom. When cats die, we hang their bodies from the willow trees. That is our custom.”

“How long do you hang them there?”

“Until they are gone.”

And on that note, we headed to a fireworks factory. Well factory is not really an accurate description. This was a hilly, grassy area dotted with 20 or so small brick buildings, each one housing a different stage of the fireworks making process. On this day, the workers were making “Red Devil Rockets,” which according to their English packaging come with “blue stars with crackles” and “silver ran.” The owner of the Bang Fa Fireworks Factory told us they were originally supposed to be shipped to America, but now they are only being sold in China.

Jiangxi and Hunan provinces are considered the top producers of fireworks in China, where firecrackers are a way of life. In Shangli town, a short drive from Hengshui, there is a big gold statue on the top of a hill of Li Tian, the hometown hero credited with the invention of fireworks. (So, if you’ve ever been blasted out of a solid sleep by some firecrackers outside your window — and if you live in China, this has happened to you — you have this guy to thank.)

But, not surprisingly, working at a fireworks factory is not safe. Every year, hundreds of works die in fires and explosions. Especially during the hot summers, the sweaty shacks that house workers and explosives become ticking time bombs. All the workers I saw were female. Some old, some very young. Jo told me that she saw a rule painted on a wall: “No workers under 16 allowed.” But Jo’s mom saw one of her students working there. She was 12 years old. Of course, her family needed the money she earned at the fireworks factory to pay for her to go to school.

The Bang Fa factory employs 80 women and girls. They do the construction, the labeling, the packaging and the boxing — and they do it all by hand. It’s an assembly line without the line. Workers get paid about RMB 20 ($2.50) for a long day of work. The owner and his wife invited us inside their office. We ate watermelon and drank lichee juice and then went on our way … but not before they insisted I take with me a bag full of Red Devil Rockets.

On my final morning in Hengshui, Jo and I traveled by bus and motorcycle taxi to nearby Yilong Cave, yet another natural wonder made to look as unnatural as possible. The Chinese like to doll up their caves with fluorescent lights and flights of stairs. And after the 4-km-trek through the cave, oddly, visitors are treated to a variety of carnival acts. There is a 4-year-old girl who rides a motorcycle — no hands, no helmet — inside a spherical cage. She then does a really long and tall tightrope walk … without a net. It was sad.

But the rides to and from the cave were spectacular. Motorcycle taxis are fun because they look so funny. They come with what look to be beach umbrellas attached, to protect driver and passenger from the sun. The pole for the umbrella is right in the center of the driver’s line of sight. When you get off a bus, motorcycle taxis swarm. From above, it must look like the running of the beach balls.

From the bus, it is easy to fall into a trance looking at western Jiangxi’s lush rolling mountains. They glow when the sun hits just right. Bamboo forests and rice paddies are two of the most striking shades of green I have ever seen.

For two days, village life suited me fine. I liked the pace. I liked the people. But I had to leave.

The bus to Changsha would be passing through the village any minute, or at least that’s what the rumor was. There are no schedules. If I wasn’t on the side of the road to flag it down, the bus would never stop.

As I was heading out, great grandma was saying something I couldn’t understand.

Jo said, “She wants you to take an umbrella.”

Click here to see photos.

On money: I have reached the point where coins turn into paper. In Shanghai, if you are holding 1 yuan or less in your hand, you are holding coins. In smaller places I have visited in China, coins are almost non-existent. Everything is paper money, even for really small denominations. Anyone know why this is? Are coins too heavy to transport to the rural areas? If you know, let me know.

On etiquette: It’s OK to spit on the bus here. Just make sure you rub it into the floor with your foot afterward. (This is actually much better than what I’ve seen in other places.)

On the bus to Changsha: I made the mistake of telling the ticket taker where I was from during the two-hour drive to Changsha, Hunan Province.

To every other passenger who boarded the mini-bus along the route (I was the first) he would say: “Hey! It’s an American! Look! Look! See his big nose? He’s an American!” He seemed to make the other passengers uncomfortable.

By the way, the ring tone on his mobile phone was “Right Here Waiting For You.”

Hey! Hey! Bryan Adams is Canadian! He has a big nose, too!