On November 18th of this year, a blaze killed nineteen people in a textile manufacturing district of Beijing. Most of the victims were migrant workers, scores of whom continue to live peripheral lives in makeshift, pop-up neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities across China. In response to the tragedy, the city government instituted a forty-day effort to demolish the capital’s “unsafe” buildings, the result of which has been mass evictions with tens of thousands of homeless migrant workers freezing in wintry Beijing temperatures. Described in official documents as the “low-end population”, these workers—battalions of couriers, cleaners, day laborers, trash collectors—provide the essential service jobs upon which Beijing’s more affluent residents rely.
When read against this tragic backdrop of how the other half lives, Jia Pingwa’s recently translated novel Happy Dreams has assumed an unforeseen timeliness. Narrated by its central character, the migrant laborer-turned-trash picker Hawa “Happy” Liu, Happy Dreams recounts his arrival in Xi’an as a migrant in search of work, a wife to fill the pair of high heels that he carries with him, and the recipient of his donated kidney (who, he has been told, is from Xi’an). He is joined by his fellow Freshwind villager Wufu, whose death both opens and concludes the novel, and the two live and work together amidst the other denizens of Xi’an’s “low-end population.”
Wufu’s earthy unpretentiousness marks him as a Sancho Panza-like character to the more quixotic Happy, and both eke out a hand-to-mouth existence collecting, selling, and recycling trash, variously bartering with locals, re-selling used medical waste, and laboriously unloading bags of concrete in order to supplement their meager incomes. In an apparent further nod to Cervantes, the reader learns that Happy’s love interest, whom he inwardly idolizes, is actually a prostitute. Insofar as there is a clearly-defined plot, it is episodic in nature, driven by the various schemes that Happy and Wufu concoct, the people that they encounter, and the places that they visit.
Nicky Harman’s free-flowing translation of Jia’s prose swiftly ferries the reader through the four hundred and fifty-page novel, capturing its Rabelaisian-like humor and colorful tableaus of migrant workers with their diverse personalities, aspirations, and shortcomings. Whereas recent news reports of migrant deaths in Beijing dehumanize through the banality of numbers, the imaginative richness of Jia’s fiction humanizes his characters and allows them to develop within specific contexts according to a variety of experiences. He endows Happy, for example, with an indomitable tendency towards a positive outlook (“Our life in the city, it’s like this shop window. If you’re angry, it’s angry too. If you smile, it smiles with you!”), and here one is reminded of the optimism of Voltaire’s Candide but without his folly. Jia’s eschewal of satire in favor of a neorealist insistence on imagining (and indeed imaginatively experiencing) the world through the eyes of others encourages us to consider how we relate to ourselves the world around us.
And yet for all of the novel’s considerable humor, compelling character studies, and blending of literary and cultural traditions, dark waters remain. In its faceless indifference, the city proves unforgiving (“The city never considers our needs”). One migrant worker laments:
I just can’t get my head around it. The city spends a billion on a park, millions on a concert in a stadium, and even more on this or that exhibition. But if they’ve got money to burn, why do they only spend it in the city? The villages get poorer and poorer, and we don’t have a cent to rub together!
With onlookers below jeering “Jump! Go on, jump!”, another migrant worker protesting his unpaid wages plummets to his death from the roof of an eight-story building, the momentary spectacle of individual suffering amidst teeming plurality glimpsed and quickly forgotten. Empathy soon hardens into cynicism (“It was hard to do a good deed nowadays”) and resentment (“It’s true that those who earn don’t labor and those who labor don’t earn”). Even the middle class are not immune from the ill effects of their affluent, aspirational lifestyles, but suffer from the “Three Highs” (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes). As one of them explains: “In the past, we were short on food. Now there’s no end of good things to eat, and we eat ourselves sick.” Excess and privation have always sat comfortably alongside one another.
In his afterword, Jia notes that he wanted to write the novel in order to record the motivations among the rural poor for moving to China’s numerous noisy metropolises. Their journeys, stories of self-sacrifice, and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of endurance fill its pages, and Jia reminds us to pause and take notice:
They’re as essential to our lives as breathing, and we don’t forget to breathe, do we? I’m constantly telling people we ought to be more grateful, yet what usually moves us are heroic acts of altruism and self-sacrifice. How have we managed to completely forget about the sun in the sky and clean water in the earth?
In the destructive wake of the razing of entire Beijing migrant worker neighborhoods, these are necessary questions to remember and to ask, and Jia’s novel suggests that inventive and irreverent fiction can and often does have an important role to play in this process. As Happy reassures himself at one point, “Didn’t lotus flowers grow from mud?”