Sixteen-year-old “Cindy” Yu Shui, the daughter of an illiterate farmer, dreams of pursing her education and becoming a scientist, despite her family’s poverty. But as the rising waters of the Yangtze River begin to displace her family’s hut, she leaves home to take a job on a cruise ship on the Yangtze River, washing dishes below deck and trying to earn enough to provide for her family. Meanwhile, nineteen-year-old “Jerry” Chen Bo Yu comes from a very different background. The only child of a middle-class family, Chen Bo Yu is brash, confident, and in-tune with China’s rush into capitalist economics. He too, works on the cruise ship, but as a porter above deck, interacting with the tourists, many of them American.
Both of their stories, along with the stories of displaced residents, Yu Shui’s family, and the river itself, are told in Yung Chang‘s Up The Yangtze, which reveals a China that is undergoing an inexorable and tumultuous reshaping, in which the past is seen as being washed away while it lies just below the surface, and the unintended consequences of rapid economic and technological change chart an uneasy course toward a stronger and more prosperous China.
Up the Yangtze airs on most PBS stations on Wednesday, October 8 at 10 PM. (Schedules vary, so check your local listings.)
When Yu Shui gets upset on her last night at home because she has to quit school to work on the cruise boat, her mother tells her the heartbreaking truth that she doesn’t want to hear: “We don’t even have enough to eat! Where can we find the money for rent? You should consider that your parents’ lives are not easy… In this world, it’s not like any parent wants to exploit their child for labor.”
Chen Bo Yu takes a very different attitude about money. After working on the boat for awhile, he points out, “I earn the most [in my family] … so I’m very very happy! Make more money … is my dream.”
For filmmaker Yung Chang, the different strata of Chinese society was one of the inspirations for the film. He says, “[I wanted to make] a movie about tourists on this Yangtze cruise boat — a kind of ‘Gosford Park’ idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks. I realized that the people working on the boat were all from the Yangtze area and that many of their families were affected by the dam.”
The construction of the Three Gorges Dam has been a monumental project in the name of progress for China, displacing more than 1 million people from their homes. What are your thoughts about its impact on the people who live in the area along the river? Do you think the dam’s construction has created more opportunities or problems for people like Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu as they began their new jobs on the boat? Share your thoughts about Up the Yangtze with us in the comments.