On the day we met, Gao was wearing an outfit she had made herself by repurposing material from a cheongsam. She has been sewing since she was 16 and has worked in many cities around Southern China. Gao is a family-focused woman and attributes her devotion to her astrological sign – Cancer.
M: When you were really small, what did you dream of doing?
When I was little, I lived in a village and I had to do farm work. Farm work is hard and we didn’t have much money. Life wasn’t easy then. I am the eldest in my family and I have two sisters. Because I am the eldest child in my family, I needed to work at an early age to support my family. I quit school and learned to make clothes. I think that learning a skill was good for me.
M: How did you start to learn to make clothes?
I learned [the skill] from my cousin. At that time, if you wanted to learn clothes making from a master you needed to give money, wine and meat to them. I didn’t have the money, so I learned from my cousin who taught me for free.
M: How much older is your cousin?
5 or 6 years older. She doesn’t make clothes any more.
M: Did you learn how to sew in your village?
Yes, we were in Hu Bei Province. We went to Wu Han, the capital city of Hu Bei Province, [after] we learned the clothes-making skills [to get work]. [After that] we went to Guangzhou and then to Chaozhou (two cities in the Guangdong Province). I came to Shenzhen in 2009. My sister’s husband worked as a translator in a garment factory in Shenzhen. I knew that the wife of that factory’s owner had taught her husband how to make clothes and then opened a factory. I wanted to do that too so I also taught my husband how to make clothes. My husband used to be a home appliance repairman but he is now working with me. We have a small family workshop, cottage industry style.
M: Do you have a specialization?
Sewing and cutting. Big factories are using computers to make the pattern, but they cut the pattern by hand.
M: Do you have any aspiration to start your own business for selling clothes?
Yes, I think we could do that but my husband doesn’t dream big.
M: So you dream big?
If my husband would dream big we could expand, but he doesn’t. His personality is not good [in that way].
M: If you had the opportunity to design your own clothes, would you do that？
I never thought about designing myself. I only think about what kind of fabric is suitable for women of my age to wear. Then I will make it. I think you need to go to school to get training in order to learn how to design.
M: When did you decide to go to the city？
I was 16 when I acquired the skills and I wanted to work in a city so I could make some money to support my family. My younger sister and brother were in school, so I decided to work in the city to make money to help my family financially.
M: What was it like when you first came to work in city?
G: 那个时候辛苦啊，在武汉的时候天气又冷，手伸出来好冻人啊。每天搞通宵，货多得时候都是搞通宵，钱也没赚多少，工资低，他们说广州工资高，我就跑到广州来了，我那时候93年到广州的时候，工资也不高，但生活可以。到汕头那边去就生活不怎么好，工资还是高一些。所以现在就在深圳自己搞啊，虽然苦一点还是比打工强一些。就09年过来的，我小孩也在这里读书，小孩在这边读书 就比老家强一些，老家就是交通不方便，都是山路，读书都要走几公里的路。所以我小孩比我们那个时候幸福多了，受的教育也比农村好一些。
It was really tough. The weather in Wu Han was terrible. It was so cold in winter and we had to work all night to keep up with the production. I didn’t earn much because the salary was low. Someone told me that I could earn more in Guangzhou so I went there. I went there in 1993. Life there was fine but the salary was not high either. Then I went to another city. I got paid well but I didn’t like the life there. I came to Shenzhen at last in 2009. Although my work is hard now, it is better than working in a [big] garment factory [because I work mostly for myself]. My kid goes to school here. It is better than staying in the village because my hometown is in a mountainous area and my kid would need to walk several miles to go to school. I think my kid is happier than my husband and I were at his age and he is getting a better education that we did in the village.
M：What kind of dream do you have for your child?
I hope that my kid will have a better life than we do. I hope that he can study hard and be a knowledgeable person. I don’t want him to do physical labor like we do. Our work is very hard. We can only make money by working hard. If we get lazy then we have nothing.
M: What kind of job do you hope he will have?
I haven’t thought about it. I just want him to do something that he likes and [something that] suits him. He always says that he wants to be a teacher. I will let him make his own choice. He can do whatever he likes. I won’t force him [to do anything in particular].
M: Did your parents have expectations of you?
My father is a craftsman. He is a barber. He supported the family with his craft. He hoped that I could learn a craft to support myself. I used to like doing haircuts for others, but he didn’t want me to be a hairdresser because he thought that it [would be] too hard for a girl. He needed to stand for a long time everyday to give people a haircut. His feet would swell from standing for too long. He wanted me to do something less tiring, like making clothes. At lease I can work indoors, unlike him. He had to work outside even on rainy days. (Barbers usually work outdoors in rural places in China).
M: What are your hopes for the future?
I won’t be making clothes for too long. I just want to save enough money to put my kid through college. Then I will go back to my hometown.
M: Do you still have family in your hometown?
My husband’s grandparents and my father. My mother passed away.
M: Why do you want to return to your hometown?
A Chinese saying goes that, “Though a tree grows ever so high, the falling leaves return to the ground.” I will go back to my birthplace when I am old. My hometown is a good place for retirement [because of the] nice view.
M: Do you know why it is important in Chinese culture for people to return home when they are old?
We have a house to live in and land to till in our hometown. Our grandparents are old and in poor health. We need to take care of them. They don’t have much time left. We need to be with them.
M: What is the biggest part of your identity？
M: You would put that over being a mother or wife?
I am a mother, a wife and a migrant worker. I think family is most important to me because I am a Cancer.
M: What year are you born in?
1975, I was born in the year of the Rabbit.
M：Is there anything else you would like to tell me? What would you like to share that we haven’t talked about？
I hope my life can be better. Although house prices are really high in Shenzhen, I still want to buy a house for my son. [My husband and I] plan to buy a car this year. We can drive our new car back to our hometown. We have a house back in our hometown. My biggest wish left is to buy a house in Shenzhen for my kid.
how does GAO think about her clothes?
I made [my outfit] myself.
M: Can you tell me about how you chose to make your clothes this way?
I know a clothes shop owner who sells dress. I got one but I don’t like wearing dresses so I transformed it into a shirt and a pair of pants. The sleeves used to be short but I made them longer.
M: Why would you want a longer sleeve?
Because I have fat arms. Short sleeve would show my arms but long sleeves wouldn’t.
M: How did you get the dress?
I got this in the wholesale market in East Gate [a marketplace where you can buy clothes at a low price]. I asked the shop owner I know to help me transform the dress.
M: Is there a reason you chose that color?
[The dress came in] only two colors. White and this color (blush). This color is darker so it is more dirt-proof.
M: Do you design? How much of your own clothes do you design?你会自己设计衣服…有多少衣服是自己做的?
I have made some of my [own] clothes and I also change the design and style of my clothes into something I like. [For example] I have changed dresses like this into one-pieces for little girls. [Because] adult dresses [have a] bigger bust size, I would tighten the bust size so it fits a little girl. I would make one-pieces for my brother’s kids. He has three girls and my husband’s sister has one girl. I would make one-pieces for them. I don’t have girls. I only have a son.
M: Do you…. how do you feel about fashion and making your own clothes?
I started to learn this craft when I was 16. I have been doing this for a long time. I have never done anything else. I am attached to clothes making. I can do almost all kinds of sewing.
M: Did you make this outfit you have on a pattern or did you make it….
Yes, there is a pattern for the clothes.
M: Why did you choose to do the traditional design?
I made my outfit three years ago from a Cheongsam. That shop owner I know specialized in making Cheongsam. I mostly do men’s wear but that shop owner does women’s wear. He would have some fabric left. I hate to waste it so I would make clothes with that fabrics with the help of the owner.
M: Do you sell the clothes [you make]?
I give [them] to my friends. [For example] I made two pairs of pants for my friends a few days ago.
translation by zhu lei