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Fritz Hoffmann/Network Photographers for TIME.

To Build a Dream
As men from the provinces flood into the city, the villages they leave behind are dying out
By HANNAH BEECH Shanghai

The dusty, packed-earth road that connects Yantang village to the rest of China leads only one way: out. For the past decade, nearly all the able-bodied men from this remote hamlet in Zhejiang province have fled to the big city, where their toil has given rise to Shanghai's gleaming skyline. At first, the men of Yantang brought nothing with them but their hammers and hard hats. Today, with nearly half of its 500 citizens living in Shanghai, the village has come to the city. And despite the new houses built with money earned by the migrant laborers, Yantang is on its way to extinction.

Yantang is ringed by jagged mountains, the perfect setting for a postcard but not for farming, the backbone of the region's economy. Things took a turn for the worse nearly 10 years ago when the river that fed Yantang's rice paddies and orange orchards was dammed upstream for a giant reservoir. Now, the little stream that trickles under the village's massive stone bridge is so unimportant that it has no name, just "river in front of the village." Many of the rice paddies are cracked and dry, and the tea bushes that climb the surrounding hills are wild with neglect. More havoc will be wrought by the forces of globalization. China's entry into the World Trade Organization will further cripple Yantang, as those who eke out their lives with hoes and low-yield seed lose out to tractors and high-output crops from the West. Already, the cost of fertilizer and electricity needed to pump water is so high that agriculture can no longer sustain the community. Folks plant just enough to fill their bellies and send the men to Shanghai to make the real money.


P H O T O  E S S A Y
Building Their Lives
The men of Yantang must move to Shanghai and go into hard labour to build better lives for their families

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The Wang family has lived in Yantang for as long as their patriarch, Wang Quanneng, can remember. They and three other clans—the Yus, the Xus and the Zhus—make up Yantang's entire population. But Wang, who has never traveled more than 20 km from his village, belongs to the last generation to stay put in Yantang. His three sons have all left for construction jobs in Shanghai. "There's no work for them here," he says, rubbing a back sore from a morning of green-bean planting. "It's lonely, but we must all eat bitterness."

The bitterness runs especially deep for those sons sweating it out in the city. Hours are brutal and the $5-per-day pay—although better than the zero income earned in Yantang—is meager, especially considering the high urban living expenses. Glitzy Shanghai has little sympathy for the dusty workers who build its skyscrapers. Unscrupulous bureaucrats often charge workers an average of $30 a year for temporary residence permits, which they need to work legally in the city. Yantang's transplanted laborers can return home only once a year—if even that often—because of the arduous seven-hour train ride and four-hour bus journey back. That means the village children are growing up without their fathers. "He never listens to me when I come home," says Wang Quanneng's second son, Wang Yuren, of his own eight-year-old boy. "But I guess he doesn't really know who I am."

Still, the men leave, and they expect their sons to do the same. With the official rural jobless rate hovering at nearly 30%—compared with just 5% in the big cities—an estimated 80 million migrant workers have poured into Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and other urban centers during the past decade. An intricate network of relationships has guaranteed that almost all the migrant laborers from Yantang are employed by the three main construction companies that have built up Pudong, the shiny business district across the river from Shanghai proper. But as Pudong's skyline takes shape, many migrants are worried that the jobs will dry up. Already, the laborers have to call the construction companies for work, when just two years ago the firms were begging them to take on new projects. To compete, some of Yantang's younger workers are signing up for night classes to learn specialized skills like fitting windows or welding steel beams into place.

Such investments in their future have made it even more difficult for Yantang's youngsters to envision a life back home, where their expertise would go to waste. While less-educated relatives try to return home for planting season, the younger generation would rather stay put in Shanghai, where they can make much more money. The fast-paced city lifestyle makes Yantang even less attractive. "My family wants me to go back," says one teenaged Wang, just into his first month in Shanghai and already sporting a pager clipped to his waist. "But I don't think I could ever go back to that boring old place."

Even for the older generation, which dutifully sends money back to families in Yantang, returning home for good is difficult. Certainly, their savings have transformed the village in the past few years. Dozens of new houses have risen just off the muddy lanes, all with the white-tile exteriors and blue-tinted windows that serve as the architectural motif of Pudong. Earlier this summer, Wang Quanneng's youngest son, Wang Yujun, paced the rooms of his newly built two-story house. It was the first time the 32-year-old had seen the $7,200 home he had financed for his wife and six-year-old daughter, using earnings from 11 years of work in Shanghai and loans from several family members. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to enjoy this house," he says. "To support my family, I must keep working in Shanghai. It is their home, not mine."

For his elderly father, life is still spent in a graceful courtyard house, decorated with wooden friezes and strings of dried garlic. But even this 300-year-old home, the Wang patriarch knows, will eventually be knocked down, as more absentee owners build houses they will probably never inhabit. The children who grow up in these homes will be even less likely to return to the drying paddy fields of Yantang, much less invest their savings back home. "Who knows?" says Wang Quanneng. "Soon there may be no more Wangs left to go to Shanghai." When that happens, the well-traveled road from Yantang may become like the trickle of water running under the village bridge: a fading memory of something that lost its life force many years ago.

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