Affect and Urbanity: Single Migrant Women’s “Home” in Shanghai

by Penn IP, PhD candidate

Currently, there are 262 million rural-to-urban migrant workers in China, who are known as the “floating population” as they are people without hukou (household registration), which they cannot obtain permanent residency rights at their destination (China Labour Bulletin 2013).  As China’s cosmopolitan city, Shanghai’s population consists of more than 3 million migrant women (Chinese Women’s Research Network 2012).  Central to my project is the mediation, construction and the composition of working class, single migrant women’s “home”. The project’s objective is to unfold the ways in which their “home” is being mediated and how they construct and compose it, thereby not only shaping, modifying, and manipulating their intimate lives (particularly at the affective level), but also allowing for moments of agency and sites of empowerment in the era of precariousness.  In terms of literature, the topic of migrant women has attracted a fair amount of research, which mainly focuses on these women as economic / exploited victims in a global system (Gaetano and Jacka 2004; Han 2011; Pun 2003, 2005, 2012; SACOM 2010).  Their intimate lives and their negotiation with city spaces have been largely neglected.  I employ affect theory to discern, interrogate, and analyse single migrant women as affective / exploring beings (Ahmed 2004; 2010).  The project framework is listed below:

  1. Mediating Home

Media analysis will be used to examine how the media mediates underclass migrant women’s “home”.  The objects of analysis include: a documentary Last Train Home (2009), about a young migrant girl who works in a factory, directed by Lixin Fan; a short movie Mami (China Sex and the City) (2013), about a migrant woman who works in a night pub, directed by He Ziqiang.  I explore the mediation of “home” to interrogate the cultural politics and social implications of such mediation.

  1. Constructing Home

Through cultural probing method, this section focuses on migrant women who work in domestic services.  I conduct fieldwork in Shanghai two times, in 2014 and 2015.  In the first year, I aim to follow 4-5 single migrant women (20-30 years old) who work as domestic helper.  By following them, I will document their precarious lives, the marginalized experience of space uses, and the construction of migrants’ “home” in the urban households in Shanghai.  Ethnographic study include: Go-along method as suggested by M. Kusenbach in Street phenomenology: The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool (2003); individual interviews; diaries; informants will be given a camera to capture the home they work for and live with for visual analysis.

  1. Composing Home

This session employs discourse analysis for scrutinizing the ways they connect, express, and imagine their rural “home”.  First, I conduct fieldwork in Shanghai in 2015 to interview 4-5 migrant women (20-30 years old), and collect their letters, SMS, Wechatmessages, and emails to analyse how they connect with their “home”.  Second, I look into the cultural products, which have been produced and posted by migrant women to express their yearning for “home” in Chengbiancun (Cityside village), a digital platform created for the workers. These two methods help to probe into how urbanity and new technologies complicate the perception of “home”.