Maids in the televisual City: Competing tales of post-socialist modernity

Publication Type:
Chapter
Citation:
TV Drama in China, 2008, pp. 89 - 102
Issue Date:
2008-12-01
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Chinese television dramas over the past few decades have seen the rise and decline of various narratives: stories of successful entrepreneurs, stories of Chinese going to live overseas, anti-corruption political drama, crime and police drama, not to mention epic historical dramas reinterpreting Chinese historical figures and events. None of these, however, quite captures the imagination of urban residents as vividly as narratives of ordinary people living mundane lives in their homes on an everyday basis. And no other narratives speak to the emerging urban middle-class's fear and anxiety about the urban "other" more palpably than the stories of the maid. For the first time since the founding of the PRC, the relaxing of the hukou system unleashed massive rural-to-urban migration, which has permanently and profoundly changed the streetscape of the Chinese city as well as the habitat of its residents.1 The insertion of the liminal but ubiquitous figure of the "stranger" and "foreigner" into various intimate crevices and interstices of urban space brings both uncertainty and fear for both the local resident and the migrant, albeit for different reasons. In spite of her low socio-economic status, the figure of the maid has become perennial precisely because of the liminal nature of her existence. Confronted with mobility - both physical and social - questions of social identity naturally become inevitable: Who am I? What have I become? Where do I belong? And the anthropological impulse to gaze upon, to know, the "natives" among us, and to document "our" experience of dealing with "them," becomes all the more urgent. In other words, the ongoing fascination with the maid in the popular consciousness is hardly surprising. After all, although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of rural migrants who work as domestic helpers, statistics do suggest that more and more urban families are employing domestic help and the number of vacancies urgently in need of filling is forever growing. Many young families need child-care for their young child; a growing number of Chinese families with old people need domestic help to care for the old. Currently China has 130 million people over the age of sixty, and this percentage is growing at the rate of three percent each year.2 In Beijing, as many as 200,000 households are using domestic help, and within the next few years, about 230,000 families are expected to need full-time live-in maids, whereas another 220,000 families will need part-time and casual domestic help.3 It is estimated that about 100,000 positions for domestic help are waiting to be filled in urban Beijing.4 Statistically, this need translates into one in ten families in Beijing are needing or employing domestic help in some shape or form. Nation-wide, it is estimated as that as many as one in every five urban families are prospective and current employers,5 with around 85 percent of these families in need of help either for childcare or care for the elderly.6 While each maid's story is different and unique, her experience is written into a number of perennial narrative frameworks, ranging from the "little maid making it big time" - The happy Cinderella end of the spectrum - To "the maid from hell" - The unhappy end of the spectrum. As consumers of the actual goods or the product (i.e. the material service and servitude provided by the maid), urban residents are also avid consumers of the symbolism used to "story" the maid. In fact, as this chapter shows, it is through a wide range of consumption activities - including the consumption of the labor of migrant workers at both material and symbolic levels - That an urban middle class has begun to emerge. There are usually three ways in which the maid, who is marginal yet indispensable in the social life in urban China, figures in these dramas. She may be a character in the television dramas, recounting the experiences of rural migrants eking out a living in the city. Alternatively, the maid is a character in the drama of sociality and social change, for which the narrative presence varies from fleeting and insignificant to crucial and profound. Finally, the maid can feature in these dramas as the central figure, and the sociality which this structurally powerless figure engenders is the locomotive of the main narrative. The three tales of the maid which are analysed in this chapter, namely Professor Tian and His Twenty-eight Maids (Tian jiaoshou jiade ershiba ge baomu, 2001), Chinese Maids in Foreign Families (Shewai baomu, 2002), and Ultimate Justice (Cangtian youyan, 2004), all fall under this category. This chapter is a close reading of the three tales with some questions kept in mind. How is the figure of the maid - many of whom are marginal and peripheral to the city - constructed in these urban stories, and in what ways does the maid in each story embody the urban anxiety and ambivalence toward its social "other"? Furthermore, how does the figure of the maid help us to decode competing tales of post-socialist Chinese modernity?. © 2008 by The Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All rights reserved.
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