For my research on labor identity of female garment workers I will be heading to Hong Kong, Southern China and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve chosen these locations because of their strong ties to the global garment manufacturing industry. For decades Hong Kong tailors have been revered for their meticulous attention to detail and fine craftsmanship. After the Handover in 1997, China harnessed these skills and the economic value of Hong Kong to rapidly transform Shenzhen, a city spitting distance from Hong Kong. With Shenzhen’s status as a Special Economic Zone it was able to thrive in the global market, attracting foreign investment and quickly transforming into the capitalist labor market we know today. China’s economy has matured drastically since Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Labor costs are rising and competition is high. Because of an increase in labor laws, a growing number of companies are shifting their production to South East Asia. Cambodia is one of these countries where manufacturing and garment production has found a new home. In recent months Cambodia’s garment workers have pushed back against their employers demanding accountability, fighting for safer work environments and higher salaries.
Through my research in China and Cambodia I aim to capture a key narrative of the globalizing garment industry. I am interested in the interplay of modernity and consumption, particularly in relation to the identity of the female worker. In addition, I would like to investigate the possibility of intergenerational growth in the garment industry from industry laborers to fashion designers. This line of inquiry has the potential to show the evolution of Chinese society from peasant to migrant to the creation of a creative class, and the difference between industrializing to industrialized.
In preparation for the trip I am completing a survey of scholarly readings including writing by Jonathan Bach on Shenzhen’s urban growth and status as a Special Economic Zone, Aihwa Ong on factory women and capitalism, Simon Springer on neoliberalism in Cambodia’s authoritarian state, and Tamara Jacka on female migrant labor in China. Compiling readings across a variety of disciplines will serve me best during the interview phase of my research so that I might have an easier time identifying the powers at play.
I am really looking forward to the travel phase of this project. Being at home in other cultures, the feeling of embarking on a journey through personally uncharted waters excites me. I first experienced Hong Kong as a toddler. Having spent quite a bit of time as a young child in such a busy city had a big affect on my worldview. Growing up between the US and Hong Kong, I traveled to many countries in Southeast Asia but it wasn’t until 2013 that I first traveled to Cambodia.
Last January I traveled to Phnom Penh with the Urban Design program at Parsons. Our group of five students partnered with three students from the INDA program at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand and three students from Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh to learn about the changing urban fabric of the city. We spent four days under the guidance of Sa Sa Bassac artists zooming around the capital on tuktuks in the blistering heat, eating pieces of iced sugarcane and absorbing as much knowledge about urban development and Khmer culture as possible.
This trip fueled our final studio projects for the following spring semester and the relationships we initiated continued as Season of Cambodia, an exposition of traditional and contemporary Khmer art and culture, started in New York City in March. The next three months were an ecstatic blur of Khmer music, dance and theater performances, art gallery shows and delicious meals with new friends.
Outside of my research, I’m looking forward to exploring each city’s many markets. Market culture fascinates me. I love the hustle-and-bustle and eclectic mixture of stalls. It is a highly organized system that appears to be one big swirling mess. I’m hoping to come up with a wide selection of video and audio clips to document not only my process and the stories I gather but the also the rich cultures of China and Cambodia. To document my research, I will be running my own blog and using it as a tool to organize my video, audio and photography. The blog will also serve as record of my scholarly readings and reflections.