‘The rats ran around and it smelled like hell. The first week was unbearable’
In the local dialect of Chongqing, porters with ropes and bamboo poles are called bang bang. They are a distinctive group known for helping residents carry heavy items in the mountainous port city along the Yangtze River.
He Changlin, 39, a former lieutenant colonel, dreamed of making a documentary about the bang bang. A former TV producer in the Chongqing Garrison Command, it was his first project after retiring from the People’s Liberation Army.
“These diligent porters represent the spirit of the city, and I decided to record the last bang bang group as soon as possible,” He said. “To get close to their lives, I decided I must be part of them.”
It is estimated that the number of bang bang and their “army of poles” reached half a million when rural labor flocked to the city decades ago, but their numbers are shrinking quickly due to economic development and urbanization, according to the Chongqing Academy of Social Sciences.
He started his porter life in January last year, and after living and working as a bang bang for a year, he finished a 13-episode documentary The Last One and a 170,000-word report using the pen name He Ku.
It was a labor of love. On Jan 19 last year, the second day after he left the service, with 1,300 yuan ($210) and a few clothes, He and a cameraman moved into a shabby house to live with six porters. The neighborhood was a slumlike area just 300 meters from Liberation Square, the center of the downtown. It was demolished six months later.
They paid 300 yuan a month for a 10-square-meter room with a broken window and a public toilet 10 meters from the house. They cooked simple meals with a rice cooker.
“The rats ran around and it smelled like hell,” He said. “The first week was unbearable, but we soon adjusted to the environment.”
Every evening, they swept rat droppings off their bed sheets before sleeping. They covered their water glasses every time they finished drinking.
Lao Huang, 66, the oldest of the six porters in the house, had worked as a bang bang for 22 years. Huang was He’s master and helped him become a professional porter. He taught him the rules and how to use the bamboo pole and rope, and how to make a deal.
The first day was not bad and He earned 67 yuan. He treated his master to a 7-yuan set meal at a bang bang food stall. A 5-yuan meal was all vegetables, but the 7-yuan dish had slices of pork.
Within a month, He was really good at his job. Strong and 1.83 meters tall, he earned the nickname niu or bull.
“Lao Huang told me that it would be a pity if I didn’t work as a bang bang,” He said. “It was the best compliment of my life.”
In the first eight months, He earned about 2,000 yuan a month as a porter. Then he became a labor contractor, organizing porters to work for some construction sites. His income climbed to nearly 10,000 yuan a month and his bang bang men could earn about 5,000 yuan a month.
All this time, during the day he worked as a porter. At night, he made notes for the video clips and wrote his journal.
He grew up in a small village in Chongqing’s Fengjie county and joined the army at the age of 18. A talented writer, he first worked as a military reporter and later as a TV producer.
During the year as a bang bang, He recorded his own life and those of the other six porters. They came from different parts of the country and each had his own struggles. He followed them to their hometowns and met their families.
“They are the first generation of Chinese migrant labor and now they are getting old and sick with many challenges in life,” He said.
(China Daily 08/18/2015 page7)