As the garment industry of Guangzhou’s Kanglu area winds down to its last days, TWOC captures life in for the 100,000 workers and factory bosses in its urban villages
A massive truck skillfully winds its way through the narrow pathways of the urban village. A mechanical arm reaches high from the truck, scooping away piles of construction waste from the rooftop of a three-story residential building, where workers have been slowly taking apart the blue steel plates that once marked the boundaries of a makeshift clothing factory.
In the past five months, over 100,000 residents of Kanglu district, who hail largely from central China’s Hubei province, have listened to the resounding rumble like a countdown of their days in the village.
Kanglu is a local nickname for the area consisting of Kangle and Lujiang, two former villages that have been swallowed up by the urban sprawl in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. It is a renowned hub of garment production in the Pearl River Delta region. Within 10-minute drive, the Zhongda Textile Market serves as a vital lifeline to the numerous small and large garment factories nestled within Kanglu, ensuring a steady supply of textiles. The garment factories operated around the clock, ceaselessly churning out orders for buyers around the world.
Though data on Kanglu is sparse, the garment production of Guangzhou reached 720 million pieces in 2013 alone, after a decade of rapid increase that only began to slow down in 2014.
However, the living conditions within the “handshake buildings” of the Kanglu area—built so close together that residents could exchange high-fives out of their windows—have long worried the authorities. This thriving community might be seeing its last days, as the local government cracks down on illegal construction and fire hazards resulting from landlords who’ve added stories to their rooftops, which they could then rent out to garment factories and workshops.
In October 2022, a devastating Covid-19 outbreak erupted within Kanglu. The densely populated district, coupled with inadequate sanitation measures, hastened the spread of the virus. Consequently, local authorities enforced a prolonged lockdown in the Kanglu area, lasting for over 40 arduous days. This dealt a severe blow to the entire garment village, causing suppliers to miss out on the peak fall-to-winter production season in October and November.
On February 10 this year, a conference held by the district government took place in Lujiang village to address the demolition of illegal structures in the Kanglu area. “At least this time, they had the courtesy to warn us ahead of time,” a 56-year-old migrant factory worker surnamed Wang tells TWOC. “When we used to live in the urban villages of Shenzhen, [the officials] would often come one night to tell us to move out the next day.”
The Guangzhou municipal government indeed offers an alternative to the workers like Wang, as it aims to consolidate the small factories for an “industrial upgrade.” Workers and factory owners have been offered incentives (such as a moving allowance of up to 100,000 yuan, rent reduction, and free scooters) to move to a newly built industry park situated 80 kilometers away in Qingyuan, a city only about half an hour from Guangzhou by high-speed rail.
However, for many factory workers, only the Kanglu area offers the high wages and flexible work schedules that satisfy their needs. “[The atmosphere] is quite free here. If there is a profitable deal I will work, but if not I just hang out and have fun,” Ouyang, a garment worker in his 50s, tells TWOC from his seat on a set of stairs by the street. Every morning, Ouyang rides his scooter to Kanglu from another village, as he can earn a higher salary here. According to Wang, workers can typically earn between 400 and 700 yuan per day depending on their skills and efficiency—relatively generous for laborers with little education.
Zhou, a garment worker who just turned 60 years old this year, sits on an electric vehicle tricycle in the front of a garment factory in Lujiang village. Instead of searching on the streets, he relies on his network of bosses he knows who will directly message him on WeChat about any available orders.
Around the year 2000, Zhou relocated from Beijing to Kanglu, where he eventually met his wife. In Beijing, Zhou used to work 12 hours a day in a garment factory where his salary was paid annually. “They often delayed wages. If we left in the middle of the year, we wouldn’t get the money at all,” he says.
Zhou had tried to bring his brothers out to make money together, but they’ve all returned home after a few months, citing poor living conditions in the village. “When it rains, sewage flows out from the drains. It’s all black,” Zhou says.
The process of dismantling these makeshift factories proves challenging. Given the narrow roads and dense population in the Kanglu area, careful handling was necessary to unload the dismantled materials into trucks. Since February 10 of this year, the Kanglu authorities have demolished 29,200 square meters of illegal construction.
“If Kanglu ceases to exist, then we would simply seek another place to earn a living,” says Wang, the factory worker. But for some business owners who are unwilling to move and lose out on Kanglu’s prime location, the demolition of the village means the end of their business. “I will not move to any [new] place,” says a 69-year-old factory owner also surnamed Wang (no relation to the factory worker), who has been operating in Kanglu for seven years. “If I can’t open my factory [here] anymore, I will just return to my hometown and spend time with my grandkids.”
Photography by Wang Jiawei (王佳炜)
Find more great stories on our app: