In the bustling industrial hub of Guangzhou, China, filmmaker Haryun Kim films three migrant worker children during their final year at a privately run primary school.
As she captures their passions, struggles, frustrations and dreams she discovers the shocking reality of China’s growing educational underclass.
Propping up China’s economic boom is the largest migration in human history as millions of people leave the countryside to work in the cities. Many parents have no choice but to take their children with them.
There are more than 20 million migrant worker children in the cities and under China’s residency laws they find themselves locked out of the national education system.
By Haryun Kim
Being a voluntary migrant myself, I have always been interested in people on the move and the issues they encounter on their journeys.
Haryun Kim: I fell in love with documentary while making a small film with immigrant workers in Korea. I discovered film’s power as a tool to communicate with others and decided to learn more about it. That led me first to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London where I gained a deeper understanding of how communities and identities are forged through my MA in Social Anthropology. With that foundation, I went on to study documentary direction at the National Film and TV School.
On moving to China in 2008 I focused first on developing my Mandarin and Cantonese language skills together with the cultural understanding necessary to make truly sensitive, genuine films in that fascinating country. Now armed with that foundation, I want pursue my enduring dream – to tell sincere human stories that champion the voices of those who would otherwise never be heard.
After moving to Guangzhou, a hub for Chinese internal migrants, I was immediately struck by the contrast between these poor workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building.
I gradually learnt that these migrants’ children have to make important choices on reaching their last year of primary school - without a local household registration they cannot continue their education without placing a huge financial burden on their parents.
So these young children face a difficult choice: Should they leave their parents and return to their hometown where they can study for free? Should they continue their education in the city at a great cost to their families? Or should they become migrant workers themselves?
My own search for answers to these questions led me to the subject of this film – the informal schools that cater for these disadvantaged children, and the people who look to shape their lives and the journeys they ultimately embark upon.
When I first started making Chinese Lessons I made friends with the children easily enough and managed to become their ‘Big sister Haryun’ rather than ‘Aunty’ – the usual term for an adult woman.
Being of Korean background, my Asian appearance and imperfect language somehow attracted them to me and brought us closer together. And being an outsider to the city just like them, gave us further common ground.
The children welcomed me into their lives and readily shared their dreams, secrets, frustrations and fears of loneliness. I was often invited to their dinner tables at home and introduced to their parents and other siblings. These private yet social experiences helped me bond with their parents as they shared with another young parent the joys and worries they felt for their children.
I hope that these migrant children are not seen simply as passive victims of an unjust system who have no choice but to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
Rather, I hope that these children come across as normal kids trying to lead their own lives, crafting their own future, making their own decisions and taking responsibility for their choices, even in the face of adversity.
In life, we all get to a point where we find ourselves at a crossroads; they do so just a little earlier.
Meet the characters:
Mr Tian, the carer
Mr Tian is quite possibly the only teacher who really cares about the future of the children in Class 603. He preaches to the kids with genuine passion about how important studying is for their lives, but it always seems to go in one ear and out the other.
Wei Xue Xian, the mastermind
Wei from Guizhou cannot understand why anyone would want to film her class. It is a disaster zone – the worst in the school. In any case, her parents are dragging her back to her village soon, tired of a life in the city. She has just started to fit in here in Guangzhou and forgotten her local dialect – now she must become an outsider again.
Wu Jia Chun, the rebel
Wu from Shantou finds it hard to talk to his classmates – they are all from other towns and he does not know what they really think of him. Instead, he spends his time cooking up schemes and mischief to lighten the boredom of study with a cohort of like-minded rebels. He wants to ditch school as soon as he can and work in a factory to earn his first down payment on a BMW.
Zhao Ya Fang, the dreamer
Zhao from Hunan has never felt at home in Guangzhou. Her parents brought her in their pursuit of a better life but she wants to go home. For her, there are more important things to life than school – not least a certain boy back in her village. But as the eldest in the class, she is sure her immature classmates could not understand. Bullied into seeing out the year by her teacher and parents, she reluctantly accepts her fate, but thinks education is pointless for a migrant girl like her.
This episode of Viewfinder can be seen from Sunday, September 1, at the following times GMT: Sunday: 2000; Monday: 1200; Tuesday: 0100; Wednesday: 0600.
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