Yesterday, while walking along the Suzhou River in Shanghai, I came across an area under a bridge where a bunch of migrant workers were living. They weren’t around–presumably they were working at their day jobs. Walking by, I was struck by the belongings of one person. They were carefully laid out under the bridge as if in a room at home. The bedroll was neatly folded over, and bags and boxes and a cup and a bowl were all meticulously organized. Even the plastic slippers had their place. The dignity of the care and order impressed me.
The scene was a still life of migrant existence–little more than what is needed, all mobile and easy-to-carry–the basic material culture of flexible labor. I felt a bit melancholy realizing that the person’s collected belongings were so simple and cheap that they could be left unprotected out in the open–not even worth stealing.