The Age of Precarious Employment
Jobless Return to the Countryside
More and more Taiwanese who have lost their city jobs are returning to their hometowns in the countryside, ready to sweep streets or perform at local temples for meager pay. Will these unfortunate returnees be able to make a new start?
Jobless Return to the CountrysideBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 416 )
The train is slowly pulling out of the station
Goodbye, my hometown and family
My dear mother and father, goodbye
My old friends, so long
I'm going to Taipei to give it a shot
I hear everything good is found there
My friends call me a foolish dreamer
No matter what, this road is mine
Oh! Goodbye. Oh! I'm afraid of nothing
Oh! Goodbye. Oh! Marching forward
In the 1990s Taiwanese rocker Lim Giong's song Marching Forward portrayed the feelings of many young people who left the countryside to make it big in the city. Yet now that an unemployment wave of unprecedented dimensions has hit Taiwan, many of those who hoped to march forward, moving to urban areas for better jobs, are returning to their rural hometowns.
It is noontime at the midstream embankment of the Tsengwen River in Tainan County. Under the scorching midday sun, a group of 16 cleaning workers sweep the river banks. Lee Chung-lung, the 50-year-old team leader, hails from Hailiao Village in Anding Rural Township, Tainan County. Originally, he worked at a Chi Mei Optoelectronics manufacturing plant in the Tainan Science Park, treating steel structures with fireproofing paint. After he was laid off in June last year, Lee hoped to find a job at a new AU Optronics (AUO) LCD plant that was being planned in Houli, Taichung County, but gave up on that idea when AUO suspended the project.
Lee, who had earned his livelihood away from home for twenty years, knows a lot of people who share his fate. Like him they left when they were young to give it a shot elsewhere, and have now returned to Hailiao in search of work.
More than 40 people applied for the 16 cleaning jobs at the Water Resources Agency. Liu Fa-chung, secretary-general of Anding Rural Township, notes that one third of the applicants were previously employed at the Tainan Science Park.
Like Lee, they have all returned to the countryside after working elsewhere half their lives.
Returning Population Increasingly Young
The Employment Service Center for Yunlin-Chiayi-Tainan Region under the Council of Labor Affairs has noted that unemployment is on the rise in central and southern Taiwan.
And Liang Ching-sen, an employee at the Anding Employment Service, observes that over the past six months unemployment has hit different segments of the labor force, which is reflected in the different types of unemployed people looking for jobs at the center. Among the first returnees were elderly cleaning ladies who worked for companies in the science park on outsourced contracts. These were followed by young female assembly-line workers, and most recently by a wave of male engineers, all with university or college degrees, coming back after being laid off.
At this hour of need, the roughhewn vitality of rural communities shines through, as they turn into safe havens for their wandering sons and daughters.
In the 31 townships of Tainan County, the locals more and more often run into familiar faces they have not seen for a long time. Young parents return with their kids in tow in order to save on costs for daycare or a live-in nanny. Some move back in with the parents or spend prolonged periods at home.
Long-neglected farmland seems to slowly get a new lease on life as the returnees start to plant their own vegetables to cut household expenses. Row after row of head lettuce, garland chrysanthemums, and cabbage can be seen in the fields. Those who do not own any farmland cultivate their veggies in polystyrene boxes on the balcony or next to the house. In these economically hard times, everyone hopes to gain a certain measure of self-sustenance.
An elderly woman worries that it might not take long before people need to return to barter, trading goods directly for goods, like in the agricultural economy of olden times.
But people in the small towns do not worry that much about the middle-aged or old unemployed who have already tried hard for most of their lives. They are most concerned about the future of the young people.
Nowhere in Taiwan is the wave of young people returning to the countryside more prevalent than in Anding Rural Township. Of the less than 10,000 people in Anding between 20 and 35 years of age, 20-30 percent found work at the Tainan Science Park, and one after another these young people have recently been coming back home after losing their jobs.
Thirty-one-year-old Cheng Ying-tsai, for instance, graduated from the Department of Industrial Engineering and Systems Management at Feng Chia University, while his girlfriend Huang Shu-ting graduated from Southern Taiwan University. Both were laid off virtually at the same time, which also thwarted their dream of getting married anytime soon.
Cheng, an eternal optimist, has spent the past year riding to the Tainan Science Park on his motorbike every evening around 7:30 p.m. to observe which factories are still keeping their lights on. "If after the end of the workday there are still a lot of people and cars around, it means that production capacity is still quite good," Cheng says in explaining his nightly excursions to the science park.
As Cheng and his girlfriend drive the CommonWealth Magazine reporter through the Tainan Science Park around 6 p.m., no more than ten cars a minute pass down Nanke 7th Road. Siake Lake Park next to the science park is desolate. There is an unhindered flow of traffic on arterial roads into the area, which in the past used to be severely congested during rush hour.
Even young people who never left for the cities begin to wonder what the future will hold.
Cheng Chien-huang worked shortly in international trade after graduating from the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at National Chengchi University, but recently decided to return home to teach English. He was planning to gain some teaching experience and save some money before opening his own language school.
But now that recession has struck even the education-oriented locals have started to tighten their purse strings and are spending less on their children's education. As a result the local language school has retained just a single full-time teacher at a monthly salary of just above NT$20,000. Now Cheng Chien-hung is using his spare time to prepare for the notary exam. "If I work as a notary in the morning and teach in the afternoon and evening, I'll be on the safer side," says Cheng, trying to be upbeat.
Who Doesn't Want to Return in Glory?
Since the recession hit, temple fairs have regained popularity in Anding Rural Township. Myriads of colorful lanterns devoted to the eight immortals of Chinese mythology line both sides of the streets. The larger temples try to outdo one another with their raucous folk art performances and crowd-drawing religious ceremonies. In a bid to supplement the family budget and support themselves, many young people are joining the performing troupes at the temples in their native towns. In the past they would not have even considered working as a temple fair performer for a slim pay of NT$15,000 every two months, but in these economically tough times they are drumming up the energy to take part in rehearsals.
Shih Ming-hong, mayor of Gangwei Village in Anding Rural Township, has seen many young people return and now worries a lot about their uncertain future.
He has seen many returnees turn into stay-at-home recluses rather than finding work outside the house. Under the watchful eyes of concerned friends and family, these young people often feel they have no room to breathe.
"Who doesn't want to return home in glory with a fortune and give something back to his hometown? But after being laid off, we're coming back in search of a safe haven," says one young returnee matter-of-factly.
Around 7 in the evening, only a few lights are still shining at the Tainan Science Park. But in front of the temple in Gangwei Village, the local spiritual center, the atmosphere is boisterous as the 36 performers of the temple troupe get ready for their show. Amid the thundering sound of drums, the performers pay homage to the deities – the patron god of theater Marshal Tiandu, the local Earth God, and the Great Emperor Baosheng – and then begin rehearsing.
These folk arts and religious folk rites, which date back to the Qing dynasty, were originally on the verge of disappearing even in rural communities. But amid the current high unemployment, these folk traditions have ironically been given a fresh chance to be passed on to future generations.
From the hands of several elders, cigarette smoke rises against the pale yellow light at the entrance to the temple. Children watch the men of their father's generation, whom they have not seen for a long time, work up a sweat dancing and striking poses. With the troupe's changing movements, everyone in the village seems to reconsider their lives, adjusting their pace.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 向前走的遊子回鄉去