Translated from the Chinese by Isabelle Li.
The plastics factory is hot with primordial breaths, its softness shaping an enormous abyss. Compared to the metalwork factory, it lacks obvious hardness, but is more supple and tenacious. The working hours here are longer, a torturing endlessness, permeating the depths of the flesh. The machines move up and down, pressing the thick plastic into solid planks and shoe soles. If the iron’s clashing sound in the metalwork factory was a piercing pain, in the plastics factory what manifests most is a prolonged, plastic-like loneliness.
Every day, I see muscular loaders shouldering 25 kilogram bags of polystyrene. The polystyrene beads are hard and smooth. I like bead-shaped objects and sometimes reach my hand inside to feel them slip and slide and wriggle on my skin. Itch, an itch of soybeans or grains, rolling, rises from my fingers. It reminds me of a detail in Su Tong’s story ‘Rice’, the moment when the male protagonist digs his hand into rice grains. The Injection Moulding Workshop smells of ubiquitous heat. The loaders walk about with the polystyrene bags on their backs. The awkward physical labour and the horrendous heat make them sweat profusely, the back of their blue uniforms soaked. After one month, the blue will fade into white like a salt field. The workers’ bodies are rank with the smell of labour, a sourness. I believe the taste of labour is sourness. In my mind, toiling is tiring, and tiredness is sour. ‘Sour-tired, sour-tired,’ my mother, who toiled the field, had often said. Such sour-tiredness wafts from the loaders, surrounding their bodies. Two workers are pushing a dozen bags of polystyrene on a trolley along the iron-plank passageway, sweat streaming down their foreheads, chests, backs, glistening under the incandescent light. The older worker is walking in front, 27 or 28 years of age. He has opened his shirt, his bulging chest muscles exposed. He hunches forward, pulling the trolley. His tensing muscles are supple, juicy, dripping beads of sweat. Pushing from the back is a young porter not yet accustomed to the hard labour. When he loads, his facial muscles strain and his body trembles a little. He takes half a step back, and after a few seconds, steadies himself, then slowly climbs up the iron ladder, and pours the polystyrene into the two-metre high barrel.
Inside the sealed, high temperature barrel, the hard beads melt and dissolve, flow into the moulding trough, cool down, take shape, and then exit from the output port, half-finished. I wear white gloves, picking them up, feeling their residual heat passing through. I quickly place them on the rack.
A humid heat permeates the IM Workshop. Machines clack, collide, slide inside my brain. The output port is steaming with warm air. Every picker’s face is flushed through. The balmy air is exhausting, languid, and the smell of burnt rubber, nauseating. Figures jostle and shuffle on the narrow, chaotic passageway. The workers’ faces are weary, expressionless, withered like autumn leaves, and their gestures, rigid and mechanical as they walk in and out. In this place, I can’t find any room to accommodate a quiet, imaginative heart. Labour has crowded out all imagination and any superfluous thoughts or dreams. Giant mechanical moulds clank rhythmically. The cooling time is sixty seconds, so the interval for clanks is also sixty seconds. This machine and that machine, one after another. In the gaps of iron and steam, I see faces: Feng Jin’e, Liu Shufang, Li Yan, Pei Fei … I note down their environment. Waste material baskets. Small, four-wheel trolleys. Black handle racks. Grey basins to contain boxes. Sponges for protection. Plastic film to cordon out dust. Black plastic bucket. Handles (placed on the rack by me, still steaming). Gigantic operating platform. Raw material beads. Blinking indicators. Green buttons. Fluorescent lights. File folders hanging off the indicator rack (including operating platform run sheets, quality records, product quantity tally, and shift records). Green machines. Yellow bottom racks. Iron rails rubbed shiny. Patterns on the ceilings. Walls with incandescent lights – the bottom 1.2 metres of the walls are painted green, and above that, painted with white compound powder, with some bald patches, motley. Ball-pen drawings on the wall of awkward patterns, underneath which is a line of small print ‘I love you’ (in English), and two employment numbers: P245, P562. Stains skirting the walls, from moisture and heat. IM Machine for the handles. IM Machine for the boxes. Dim iron-framed windows. Doors concaved from being bashed. On the left, the entrances of the elevators. Four-wheel trolleys are parked outside, filled with half-finished products. Plastic racks. Plastic basins. Warehouse Workers in grey uniforms. Quality Officers and Mechanics in blue. Assemblers in white. Pickers in black. Workshop Foremen in red. On the right is the exit. A row of lockers, inside which are overcoats, mugs, mobile phones, keys, shoes. Keyholes. On the south is the Boiler Room. Further inside is the toilet. Wooden window frames. Each time I went to the toilet, I would look at the sun for a while, feeling natural light on my body.
The IM Workshop is on the ground floor. I worked there for half a year as a picker of plastic handles. During that time, I picked a Thai company TDK’s High Gloss Handles, Half Gloss Handles, Brushed Handles, Striped Handles, Half-striped Handles. Six months later, I was transferred to the Assembling Workshop on the fourth floor, assembling together purchased spare parts and the half-finished products. From the ground floor to the fourth floor, and back, up and down, up and down, I was driven by quality, volume, speed of production. Tiredness filled my limbs, creeping into my mind. I often leaned on the iron wall inside the elevator, curled up to take a little break. It was complete darkness inside the elevator once the door was shut, and the darkness suffocated me like rising tide. All my organs reached out from under my skin, sharply feeling the ascending and descending, my body sinking or floating. Darkness glided over my skin, cool and coarse. Bang, arrived. The iron door slid open. A tidal wave of light pounced on me.
One of the elevators breaks down a lot. Once I was trapped inside. It just came to a halt between the first and second floors with the door still locked. I screamed, hitting the heavy iron door with the iron hook that was used to pull the trolley, frantic inside the tiny space of one square metre. I felt trapped inside liquified plastic, unable to struggle. Sweat dripped from my forehead. I heard footsteps in the stairway. The sound penetrated the iron door to reach my ears. I wanted to pace, to think of a solution, but there was no freedom to move inside the confined space. From this end to the other end there were less than two paces. I could only squat down to pacify myself. Someone from Engineering will come, I told myself. Within a minute, I rose again. Bang, bang – bang. Bang, bang, bang. Bang – bang, bang. Anybody there? Anybody at all? Bang – bang, bang, bang! Bang – bang – bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. I hit the iron door with different rhythms. There was no echo inside the gloomy elevator. Even the knocking sound was dull. Bang, bang, bang! I heard someone talking to me from outside, a man from Warehouse. He thought it was just a common issue and turned a wire inside the keyhole a few times. No movement. My throat was burning with anxiety. My whole body was melting like plastic, into a plastic paste, sticky, stuck. He couldn’t open the door, and left. It was quiet again outside. I could only sit down and listen to my watch: tick, tock, it sounded many times louder than when it was outside. Its movement had slowed down. Tick – tock, slower and slower. Agitation was welling up like liquified plastic, thicker and thicker. I wanted to twist a bit, slowly twist once, another time, to escape the anxiety. But I was stuck, trapped, sinking deeper and deeper, up to my neck. I sat. One minute. Two minutes. How long had it been? Two hours later, an electrician from Engineering came. I was released, soaked in sweat. When I walked out of the elevator’s door, I felt I had climbed out from a plastic swamp. Lightness. Back to the workshop, I told Pei Fei my experience inside the elevator. She laughed, covering her mouth. She was excited because there hadn’t been anything worth laughing at here. She was a picker of the Big Body. Laughing, she picked a Big Body spat out by the IM Machine without gloves on. Ouch! She cried out from the burn.
The operating platform in the IM Workshop will not stop. Boss needs it to run continuously to produce Profits, Plants, Cars, Mistresses. I can feel the plastic beads melting, disintegrating, flowing into moulds, solidifying, being pushed out by mechanical arms, picked by us, placed in basins, on shelves, into tubes, sent to the fourth floor, assembled by us, and packed, before being taken away by container trucks, year after year, one piece after another. We are the same, our youth melted and dissolved, flowing into every finished product, packed up and taken away.
Truth is kept on the other side. Amid the rumbling of machinery, the night is tired as an exhausted fish, swimming outside the window and onto the operating platform. But it’s the darkness that has allowed me boundless imaginings. If I poke my head out of the window right now, I’d see a bright moon hanging in the night sky. The sky of this city is polluted, and I won’t be able to feel the moon’s elegance, radiance and clarity as easily as I could in the country. In the city of concrete, steel, neon light and mosaic, the soft moon can only reveal its face in the gaps of hardness. The city is fast-paced, and it craves for striking beauty and thrilling experience. It is speedy, passionate and violent, like the flashing light in a night club, ablaze. It is a fashionably dressed lady in a tight top and low waist pants, quickly exposing her pointy bosom, rearing her voluptuous bottom, showing off her cleavage, gluteal fold, large areas of her back and a flat stomach. And the moon right now in the grey sky is only a blurry outline. From a distant height it looks down at the bustling crowd and the bewitching neon light.
The current production by the IM Machine is green plastic bonsai. I pick one up from the operating platform: green plastic leaves, branches and trunks; red plastic petals; yellow plastic stamens. Mankind continues to cut down real green plants, while manufacturing fake green plants and red flowers like this to comfort a deprived, empty life. What we ought to cherish is ruined by us, disappearing under our violence. Life has severed the softest part of our heart. We commemorate the natural moon in poetry, but don’t have the courage to give up the artificial neon light. Gazing at the leaves and branches spat out by the IM Machine, I am overwhelmed by doubts: Why do we fabricate fake things to satisfy the empty heart? What is the point of creating illusory comfort? Above the IM Machine, two incandescent lights cast their powerful and indifferent illumination onto the colourful, yet lifeless plastic leaves, showing a livid green, accentuating mankind’s shallowness and weariness, loneliness and isolation. The machine-made leaves and petals will appear in many concrete and steel buildings as decorations, like fake faces, being absorbed by the city, slowly infiltrating the urban dwellers’ hearts.
I take off a plastic petal, caressing it. It feels cold, hard, without a living being’s temperature. The assembly line has curled up its edges, imitating the shape of an opening bud, their geometric patterns monotonous and dull. Walking through the company’s honour hall, one would see a red brocade, embroidered with the golden characters: Bodhisattva. It was given to the boss by a charity organisation because he had donated some money. Whenever I see these characters, I always think of our co-workers caught in industrial accidents. They don’t receive any compensation, and are driven out by the security guards. Their eyes are helpless, and their abject bodies shiver outside the factory gate.
The boss doesn’t need to know our life experience and pain. He wants us to operate non-stop like machines, to bring him profit and currency like those plastic products. He satisfies his fantasy of green plants with fake plastic ones. He is enthusiastic about charity in exchange for a good reputation. But he doesn’t see the workers of blood and flesh in his factory. He has a heart of stone.