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China: The Small Steps Forward

For the residents of one neighborhood in Shenzhen, China, the New Balance sneaker is more than a shoe. It's a path to a better life, buying material comforts, education, and even the right to have another child.

China: The Small Steps Forward
Text and Photographs by Mark Leong

In Shenzhen, the megapolitan heart of China's industrial revolution, there are many blocky concrete places, and the city's Longgang District just might be the blockiest. Here, you'll find thousands of factories that make the flot-sam of everyday American life: plastic coat hangers, spatulas, teddy bears, poker chips, iPhone cases. But off the main drag, behind a block of welding-supply shops, is a pleasant surprise — a scruffy but lyrical little row of Qing Dynasty buildings, with chickens clucking in the doorways and kids playing jacks on the stoops. This village-within-the-city, which looks as if it had been airlifted from the bygone countryside, is called Wuwucun.

As in many Shenzhen neighborhoods, everyone here did in fact come from the countryside — mostly from the outskirts of Chongqing, in central China — over the past 15 years. When I first photographed Wuwucun in 2005, I saw these people as typical migrants, moving from place to place in search of new work before ultimately returning home. I went back in March and unexpectedly discovered that many of the families were still there.

What keeps them in Shenzhen? The men have jobs as construction workers, security guards, and taxi drivers, but the jobs are on and off. The stabilizing factor has been the women. Virtually every Wuwucun woman of full-time-employment age works on a factory assembly line, and the sneaker industry has been the village's biggest employer for years. In 2005, they made Reeboks. Now they make New Balance, at a massive Freetrend production facility a half-hour bicycle ride away. If you own a pair of made-in-China New Balance shoes, there's a good chance they came from the factory where the Wuwucun women work.

The opportunities in Shenzhen, created by China's economic policies and American consumer appetites, have mostly been good to these workers. But what next? With the Chinese Communist Party's recent unveiling of the 12th Five-Year Plan for the economy, there has been much talk about closing the rich-poor gap, building affordable homes, improving rural-to-urban transition, and converting mass producers into mass consumers. Then there is the question of the Chinese yuan and how quickly it will be allowed to appreciate against the U.S. dollar, making goods like those New Balance sneakers more expensive. All these macro issues affect the residents of Wuwucun on a micro level, and this is a small glimpse into their lives today.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.