One day in 2014, photographer Kai Löffelbein was in Shantou, Guangdong Province – an important port city on the eastern coast of China – hatching a plan with his translator. He was hoping to find a way into a factory to see what the conditions were like for workers inside, but the pair were finding that their current strategy of simply demanding entry was proving to be too blunt.
“It was a bit tricky to get inside the factories, we knocked on a lot of doors,” says Löffelbein. “In the end, we pretended that I was a businessman from Germany, who’s interested in selling and buying toys. I said that I wanted to see the production lines to see it and just to show it to my business partners in Germany.”
The new tactic proved to be a success, and they soon found someone keen for their hypothetical business deal. Welcomed inside, they found hundreds of people lined up in ruler straight lines, sitting heads-down, repetitively and rhythmically assembling their designated sections of plastic figurines – playing their part in the efficient production line. He took out his camera, and nonchalantly clicked the shutter and took pictures to show his “business partners” back in Germany.
Some of the photographs he made from inside the factories are now presented in his new photobook Common Dreams. Having studied political science at university, Löffelbein had become fascinated with China’s rapid modernisation, travelling to the mainland and Hong Kong every year between 2012 and 2018. Here he would visit the newly risen megacities and their surrounding rural areas to document the radically changing society, and those left behind.
The book’s pictures capture the contradictions of modernity. With the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of China’s economy over the past half-century, keeping up with its pace takes unexpected forms. “When you visit a small market, you’ll see an old grandmother selling tomatoes and other foodstuff[s],” he says. “[She will be] wearing an ancient suit from the Mao times, but get paid via WeChat.”
As the old, traditional China disappears in front of the world’s eyes, Löffelbein saw an “old-new” China emerge – one where villages were being swallowed by rapidly growing cities and state-building projects, as young people have moved en masse in search for opportunity. “It feels like in the countryside, only the elderly are staying,” he says. “And everyone who is young is trying their luck in the prosperous megacities and visiting the factories.”
These workers, like those he found constructing toys in Shantou, form much of Löffelbein’s focus. From cramped living conditions in sky-high apartment blocks, to tired commuters asleep on buses in between their twelve-hour day, six-day working weeks – the pictures document the tough conditions that the estimated 300 million people face in urban areas. “A lot of people [dream] of going back,” he explains about the conversations he had with workers he met. “Many live in crowded dorms and they feel lonely.”
They also face restricted access to public services under the hukou system – where citizens are divided into rural and urban citizens – determining where they can receive healthcare, loans, education and what pensions they are entitled to. Despite talks of repealing or unifying the citizenship statuses, no reform has come of yet. “It’s hard – and it’s a systematic, political thing [designed] to keep a lot of people where they are,” he says. “There’s always the idea that someday you will earn enough and go back and buy a little bit of land, but for most people it will never happen.”
Despite the tough living and working conditions, Löffelbein’s pictures portray the resilience and humanity of his subjects. Either through smiles while working, or socialising with friends – they are all individuals with their own hopes, dreams and lives. “I didn’t want to show the people as victims,” he says. “They are trying their best to have a good life, even though there are a lot of struggles that they have every day.”