Britain's hungry ghosts

Sam Geall
26 October 2006


Nick Broomfield's film Ghosts, which premiers at the London Film Festival this week, depicts a world of poverty, migration and work that stretches from rural southern China to the tragic death by drowning of 23 Chinese migrant labourers, swept away by high tides while picking cockles in northwest England's Morecambe Bay on 5 February 2004.

Distinct from the self-conscious, reflexive documentaries which the British director of 1998's Kurt & Courtney has been more recently associated, Ghosts is a part-fictionalised account of undocumented Chinese workers' tales of migration to the UK. Much of Ghosts is based on a series of daring investigative reports by the Taiwanese-born journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai, but the film also incorporates the experiences of its actors, themselves former illegal migrants, to create a vivid and harrowing record of the events of 2004.

The narrative follows Ai Qin, a young woman from southern China's Fujian province who leaves her family and young son behind to be smuggled into the UK in search of work. There are precedents in the 1960s "ethno-fictions" of French anthropologist and cinéma vérité pioneer Jean Rouch, who used non-professional actors' testimonies to recreate scenes of marginalised communities from France and Africa in the emerging post-colonial era.

There are also parallels to Michael Winterbottom's 2002 refugee road movie In This World, which followed the journey to Britain of a young Afghan boy displaced by the 2001 war, with a similar stylistic disregard for conventional boundaries of documentary and fiction. But Ghosts is unique in its portrayal of the immigrant Chinese community very rarely seen on Britain's screens.

Sam Geall graduated in Chinese Studies from Leeds University and has studied social anthropology and postcolonial literature as a visiting scholar at Harvard University. He is also the assistant editor of chinadialogue.net, a bilingual website focused on China's environmental crisis.

Also on opendemocracy on the Morecambe Bay cocklepickers

Hsiao-Hung Pai, "Migrant labour - the unheard story"
(2 February 2006)

Ghost worlds

At first glance, the film's title evokes not only the shamefully-forgotten lives of Morecambe's immigrant workers, but also the crepuscular underworld of false passports, unearthly working hours and cramped, slum housing in which they were forced to exist. But the ghosts of Broomfield's film are not these lives. The ghosts - "gweilo" in the Fujian Chinese spoken by most of the workers - are the everyday demons that beset the cockle pickers when they were alive, and that continue to bedevil hundreds of thousands of migrants living in the UK. The workers shown are troubled not by nocturnal apparitions, but by the daylight world of employment agencies, of landlords and immigration inspectors. Ultimately, it is the spectres of corruption, racism and unchecked capitalism which haunt this deeply felt film.

In Chinese tradition, ghosts are dissatisfied outsider spirits who may terrorise families if they are not successfully appeased. Food and offerings are left out by the back doors in rural China for these wayward souls to eat so that they will not enter the house. The anthropologist Erik Mueggler, in writing about memories of trauma and violence in southwestern China's Yunnan province, describes how a small village in the latter half of the 20th century came to understand the Chinese government as a band of marauding wild ghosts. Demanding propitiation in the form of grain or prayer-like vows of ideological commitment, the ghosts would emerge from the spirit world in Beijing to enact demonic warnings and punishments, such as 1957's horrific famine caused by the Great Leap Forward.

With a similar logic, the gangmaster - based, it seems, on Morecambe's now-jailed gangmaster Lin Liang Ren - gives Ai Qin advice on bribing the local employment agency by explaining that the ghosts do not eat our solid foods. In the world of Broomfield's film, the employment agents are sustained only by the cartons of cigarettes that oil the wheels of Britain's informal labour market. Slum landlords can be propitiated too - with sexual favours and bulging paper envelopes. But try as you will, appeasing the gweilo is a losing battle: these are hungry ghosts. Like the Chinese demons of legend, their hunger is made insatiable by their tiny, pinhole mouths which frustrate their endlessly big bellies. It is a constant sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction which drives the ghosts to violence.

This is not to suggest that Ghosts is simply a portrait of fear and cultural insularity; there is a salient contrast that can be drawn with another recent UK film about immigration. Stephen Frears's 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things presents a vision of contemporary London in which a twilight world of undocumented workers live quite apart from the glossy image of Blair's Britain, relying for their survival on immigrant networks of mutual aid. But Ghosts is notable in its attention to the Chinese workers' inevitable and complex relationships with mainstream British society. These relationships take in the unpleasant and troubled encounters between the cockle pickers and racist locals and the authorities, but they also include the friendship and shared understanding that Ai Qin finds with her less-than-well-off colleagues from Britain's white working class.


Lost legacies

This week the UK abandoned its commitment to giving newly-joined citizens of the EU the right to work, announcing restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants. In recent months, immigration paranoia has increasingly been pandered to by Britain's mainstream politicians. It is clear that too little has changed since the miserable tragedy at Morecambe Bay. A renewed focus on the cruelty of people-trafficking snakeheads and illegal gangmasters led to the creation of a gangmasters licensing law, enacted this month. But few discussed the provision of real support to the global poor who are forced by harsh immigration regulations into dangerous, ill-regulated industries, which continue to fuel the consumption habits of the rich world. Too little attention was brought to the British and international suppliers who pressure gangmasters to produce, and the British agencies and middlemen which facilitate the transnational informal economy. And too rarely were questions raised about the racism displayed to these and other Chinese immigrants; the same prejudice which drove local gangs to set fire to the cocklers' nets as they worked.

Ghosts brings urgent attention to these issues before they are lost in the same amnesia that has subsumed public concern about the victims' families, many of whom have been torn apart since they lost their main earners, and are still vastly indebted to moneylenders. These families have never received any compensation; in some cases surviving family members have had to migrate across China to find work. In one case, says the Morecambe Victims Fund, the mother of Guo Bing Long, a farmer from Fuqin who died in the tragedy, committed suicide exactly a year after his death, rather than face the pain and the pressure of debts her family was left with.

Let us hope that with this film, memories can be recovered and a debate can be re-ignited. A debate which focuses not on criminalising the poor who are driven into unsafe industries by economic circumstance and draconian immigration policies, but on providing support for the world's undocumented workers and starting to hold migrant labour's real criminals accountable.

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