Photos by the author
Gong Xiaoye is a beggar. She bows on Beijing’s subway daily. She rents a small apartment in the center of the city, and said she manages on the approximately 40 yuan ($10) she collects per day begging. After the 2009 earthquake rocked her Gansu home into a pile of rubble, Gong was left homeless and without a job. In early May, unemployment spurred her 500-mile train ride to Beijing. Now the single mother dreams of rebuilding her childhood home, and creating a space for her daughter to grow up in and grandparents to grow old. How’s she going to achieve this? Begging, she said.
Beijing’s subways are swarmed with people like Gong—The Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post recently estimated the number at 78,000. But Gong isn’t just any beggar.
The 25-year-old can't tell me the day she arrived in Beijing, the name of the tinny song looping on her portable radio, and isn’t sure about the exact date the earthquake shook Gansu province. By her own estimates, she survives on almost a third of the salary of the average Chinese person, and provides for her daughter and grandparents on that same income. Gong’s story doesn’t add up, but her greatest invention is one of omission: gangs that govern the city’s vagrant population are big business in Beijing.
Gong is likely in cahoots with a senior member.
These officials disfigure, manipulate and kidnap children to work in their crews. They create boundaries for their triad, such as what portion of their earnings are returned, who they can accept food from and where they can beg. Gong isn’t bowing on just any of Beijing’s 17 subway routes.
The 25-year-old is banging her head, blasting her music and shaking her basket on Line 2, one of the richer lines, where only senior beggars grant permission to work. On this, and other lines that intersect the center of the city, senior beggars hold rank, and designate when to get on, get off and how vagrants can beg. Men and women found soliciting without official permission could face a violent beating from those in higher-ranks.
If caught begging at all by police, Gong also faces a 1,000-yuan fine or 15-days jail time. Theoretically, subway attendants are supposed to stop vagrants from entering train platforms. But, with the knowledge that they're holding down one of the least respected jobs in the city, anyone who pays the train’s 2 yuan ($0.30) fare is basically free to ride.
Besides, Gong doesn’t look like a beggar. Her hair is washed, clothes clean and her plump baby is swathed in multiple layers. If Gong weren’t bowing her head in front of every commuter, she could be one of them—a mother enrolling her infant in Montessori, a waitress riding to work, or even a tour guide offering her view of the city.
Instead, I watch Gong collect a few yuan per carriage. One mother gives her a package of bread. Another donates a carton of cookies.
Today’s earnings could be credited to Gong’s incredible bowing skills or her adorable baby. At just 9 months, the little girl apparently calls the shots. Gong didn’t beg yesterday because her baby was sick. Today she’ll beg for maybe two hours because the baby’s skin is a little brighter. Gong admits the constant bowing isn’t the healthiest way for the child to grow up, but daycare is expensive.
She gives her little girl milk to pacify her during what are sometimes long, strenuous hours on the job. But milk is a luxury for someone earning 40 yuan per day. In China one liter is nearly three times as expensive as a liter in the United States.
While there are stories of female beggars “renting” children to take soliciting—in 2010, a man famously cataloged a Shanghai woman begging with a new child everyday for one week—I’m not convinced this is the case with Gong. After I put 5 yuan in the woman’s basket, she only paid me notice when I asked, “Ta duo da le?” (“How old is she?”).
But not everyone is charmed by the baby’s chubby cheeks. One middle-aged man started yelling when Gong passed. People like Gong are bad for Beijing’s environment, he said. She should get a real job. He found it impossible to believe that my translator and I weren’t part of the Gong’s begging routine.
Gong's choice of words doesn't help my case. When she’s not bowing, she’s calling my translator and I “Jiejie” (“older sister”). We offer to buy her and the baby dinner, but “it’s not correct,” she protests.
The more we ask, the more closed off Gong becomes. People give her money because they feel bad for her, she says. In one of China’s most expensive cities, begging is the only way she can make ends meet. She has no other option.
After nine stops, I offer to buy her dinner once more. Gong refuses. I give her another 10 yuan. The Gansu woman thanks me, bowing slightly. Then, she turns on her heel and exits the carriage. Her next stop? That’s anyone’s guess.
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