Most people don’t think much about how their electronic devices are created. Somewhere in a factory in a faraway land, a worker is toiling to create a cellphone, a laptop, or a television set.
But every once in a while, something dramatic occurs to force this issue into the consciousness of people living in the West. Like in 2010, when there were 10 suicide deaths at Foxconn’s operations in Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province. Nearly every one of them threw themselves off a building, generating media coverage around the world.
There were fewer suicides publicized in subsequent years at Foxconn's Shenzhen facilities, but one that occurred in 2013 again attracted global attention.
This time, it was a 24-year-old poet, Xu Lizhi, who had come to Shenzhen several years earlier from a farming community in the southern province.
One of his most famous poems was “I swallowed a moon made of iron”. It has been translated into English, and it encapsulates the misery of factory life.
Here’s how it ends: “I swallowed the toil, swallowed the displacement/Swallowed the overpasses, swallowed the life full of lime scale/I can’t swallow anymore/All I’ve swallowed down is surging out of my throat/Spreading out across the territory of my country and becoming a/Poem of shame.”
To Toronto musician Njo Kong Kie, Xu’s story was utterly compelling. So Njo, who was raised in nearby Macau, decided to create a song cycle, I swallowed a moon made of iron, set to Xu’s poetry.
The words will be presented on-screen in English and in the simplified Chinese script in three livestreamed performances as part of this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“I made this piece to honour the poet,” Njo tells the Straight by phone from his home in Toronto. “And his words are the most important aspect of the work, as far as I concerned, even though I am the composer. I am the vehicle for his words to live in this context.”
Shenzhen, 50 kilometres from Hong Kong, was established as China’s first special economic zone in 1980. Xi Zhongxun, a Communist revolutionary and father of Chinese president Xi Jinping, launched this initiative to turn a small town into his country’s version of Silicon Valley.
Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, built its largest factory in Shenzhen in what became known as Foxconn City. There, hundreds of thousands of employees built electronic devices for major U.S. corporations such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard.
But labour activists blamed the low pay and dismal working conditions for workers taking their lives.
When Njo presented I swallowed a moon made of iron at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of years ago, he also showed it to a few university students from mainland China.
“Most of them had not heard of Xu Lizhi or knew about the events in 2010—the series of suicides,” he says. “For them, it was actually quite revelatory.”
Njo says he wanted to showcase Xu’s poetry because it’s really about a life
“Myself and other people can identify—relate—because most of us are not fortunate to live the life we want,” he declares.
Composer moved to Burnaby as a teen
Njo, artistic producer of Music Picnic, first came to Canada as a 16-year-old student in Grade 12 in the early 1980s. He lived with relatives in Burnaby while attending a university preparatory school downtown.
Later, he studied at the University of Western Ontario and eventually immigrated to Canada in 1991 with his mother to join a brother who was already working in the country.
Since then, Njo’s career as a composer has blossomed, most famously in Canada’s arts community as the longtime music director of Montreal-based La La La Human Steps.
He has also composed songs for other highly regarded dance companies, including Ballet BC. In addition, he composed the critically acclaimed touring show Mr. Shi and His Lover, a Mandarin-language tale of a French diplomat falling in love with a male opera performer whom he thinks is a woman.
Njo is an empathetic artist, and he admits that Xu’s sad fate made him cry a few times as he was writing the music for I swallowed a moon made of iron.
“I’ve done this show now probably 70 or 80 times, and it doesn’t get easier,” he says.
But Njo also emphasizes that this isn’t simply a song cycle about one man—it’s intended to raise consciousness about exploited migrant workers across the globe.
Swallowed needed to be a solo show
To date, Njo hasn’t experienced any backlash from mainland Chinese expats for presenting a side of Shenzhen that isn’t very flattering.
“I keep expecting it to happen, but so far, no,” he says. “Also, the poetry is widely available. It’s sensitive, but it’s not sensitive to the extent that some other work could be.”
He describes the base of the music as European or American classical, with a minimalistic feel.
In addition, he’s injected references to the type of folky pop songs that Xu would have heard in the years when he was working in the Foxconn plant.
Njo adds that he likes to write “tunes” that are very singable, and in this show, they’re quite contemplative.
“One of my hopes is that when I’ve done enough of these shows, other people might want to sing them,” he says.
Initially, he planned to make I swallowed a moon made of iron as a two-person production, with a singer and a pianist. But because the story is so personal, he realized that it could only work as a solo show with video imagery.
To him, this was the best way to capture the poet’s solitary life and death.
“By the end of it, it does get pretty heavy,” he concedes. “But I guess there’s really no other way, I suppose.”