The word “coolie” in English is a transliteration of the Chinese 苦力 (kuli) meaning bitter toil or hard labour. Every day I am struck by how many people even here in the capital know what it means to eat bitterness (吃苦). Just as in London where many of the lower end jobs are done by immigrants from all over Europe, much of the kuli here is done by outsiders. Unlike London however there is no social security net so the labourer could as well be a Beijinger as from Shanxi.

Our campus alone has an army of labourers keeping it in shape. For the first week of summer a large green canteen tent was pitched by the tennis courts and rows of barrels lined the basketball courts. Every day as I ambled to classes at midday a couple of men were hard at work spreading noxious sealants over the surfaces, one on spiked platforms making fine adjustments to marks made by the other as he dragged a large brush along. The men lived in the tent for over a week while they mixed and spread the green and red chemicals until the shine set for summer.

One of my classmates observed that a lot goes on on campus in the wee hours. I somewhat dismissed it thinking most jobs would be delayed to avoid disrupting classes during the day. But as I came back late one night the heavy duty trucks were nose to tail into the main gate bringing in materials for one of our construction sites; for these guys it was peak hour. En route I had also passed a gang of men painting the white barriers down the middle of a main road. The smell was enough to hurt my head as I sped past in a cab; they had half the fence left to paint and no breathing protection.

Kuli has plenty of daily grind. Every evening around the exercise fields we see people riffling through the rubbish bins for their recycling collections. Our textbooks list this as something that students can turn to to supplement their income. They also suggest you check first though as there are existing armies of elderly recyclers who have territorial rights and rely on the job for their livelihood. On a walk through the hutongs one weekend I passed two women standing over a third squatting outside her rooms. She was cheerfully counting her day’s haul of plastic bottles. At 2p each she had made the princely sum of 26p in the time I took to pass and she had almost completed her stock take.

The hutongs are a hive of enterprise both traditional and modern. In scattered bedroom/work units mom and pop suppliers cut white plastic door and window frames down to size, clouds of lung clogging dust filling the air. In a busy lane a young family cooked facing the street behind their new kitchen window pane as a man welded together a bicycle rickshaw next door, his naked eyes inches from the torch and his customer huddled in to watch.

My most thought provoking kuli labourer was the man watering the main entrance road to the campus on a hot, dry day. He had filled up his barrel at a tap outside the main gate and had inadvertently left the barrel “on” so was already watering the pavement as he set off. A crowd of men loafing around where he filled up yelled at him helpfully as he lowered the barrow bars to go back and open the taps “it’s already open!” Wordlessly he returned to his handles and plodded into the oncoming traffic. I know they have trucks for this job in Beijing as I got sprayed by one the other day. I guess he must either be cheaper or more accurate.

Those employed by a middleman boss have the worst time of all. They are paid only once a year and are frequently exploited by unscrupulous bosses who fail to pay them at all. Suicide is not unheard of among those who have already had a rotten existence and then don’t get their measly few hundred quid to take home. Makes our first world complaints look quite trivial.

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