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  • Caterina Paiva

Shanghai’s migrant ayis: Some of the many problems of being one

打飯的阿姨背景 (the canteen ayi's background), taken by 588ku. Provided by (03/11/2021)1

Ayi阿姨 (literally “aunt” or “auntie”) might refer to any middle-aged women, be they part of Shanghai’s middle- and upper-class or the less privileged ones that work for them.

Thus, the word ayi highlights that, aside from a generational question, we have one of division of labor.

Shanghai, city of migration needs

As one of China’s most economically developed cities, Shanghai created a vast space for internal migration.2 In 2000, one-quarter of Shanghai’s population “was designated as rural-to-urban migrants.”3

The generally poorer countryside is the source of most of this migration. It is not surprising that most of the migrants that arrive at the big cities are typically redirected to the so-called “low skill” jobs. “Low skill,” as a liberal jargon that mostly justifies the precariousness of those same jobs, can also be accompanied by general loneliness and discrimination.4

Nonetheless, not everyone has the same story.

开心果果 Kaixin Guoguo (who wished to remain anonymous), an ayi working as a cleaning worker in a top university in China who has a tendency to like blueish eyeshadows, is one of those ayis that migrated from a Sichuan city to Shanghai.

In her 58 years, especially the last two in Shanghai, Kaixin Guoguo has enjoyed dealing with 纯朴 chunpu (“honest”) people—like university students and professors. She appreciates the fact that they are “clever.”

Also, contrary to a significant quantity of other ayis in Shanghai,5 Kaixin Guoguo didn’t need to leave her children in the care of the children’s grandparents back in the hometown. She has an older son working as a driver in Guangzhou. She doesn’t have a husband either. So far, she has been enjoying dealing with Shanghainese people.

However, an issue that all undocumented ayis in Shanghai share in common is that of social security.

Hukou and housing

Due to the 户口hukou* system and all the bureaucratic apparatus that requires “a dozen certificates and approvals [that] are required to get permission to live and work in the cities, a process that can take several months and involve considerable costs,”6 the precariousness of people living in Shanghai without documents comes as a severe issue.

Namely, there is no access to health insurance and the need to pay a higher amount for a child’s public education—hence the fact that many ayis leave their children with the children’s grandparents back in their hometown.

Kaixin Guoguo came to Shanghai “via an agency”—which, in the end, was a group of middlemen that, after being paid 500 yuan, mentioned an opportunity to work in the university canteen. Without a contract, she “can leave tomorrow if she wants.” But it also means no health insurance. While the university has dorms for her and her coworkers, the dorms are shared. They need to be paid same as any other bill, including all medical expenses. According to the interview, her salary of 5000 yuan does not provide enough for more.

Ayis: “Low skill” gendered work

These “low skill” jobs are highly gendered too. One can expect a man to be in the construction sites and the massively popular delivery industry. In contrast, women clean houses and take care of other people’s children—these are the ones that are called ayi, independently of their age.

None of these factors are exclusive to China, as any worldwide migration report would tell. However, China is “experiencing the largest labor migration in history.”7 That should be enough to bring attention to this phenomenon shaping the country since the economic reforms of the 80s.8

The idea of ayi opens the possibility to work on different contemporary Chinese issues. But none is probably as significant to China as the dynamics that came to be with the massive migration movement. This article is just the tip of what awaits much further research.


References / To go further

  1. 588ku, The Canteen Ayi's Background (打饭的阿姨背景), photograph, 3000 x 1688, Pngtree, (< a href=' '>來自的免費背景照片</ a>).

  2. Kenneth Roberts, “Female Labor Migrants to Shanghai: Temporary ‘Floaters’ or Potential Settlers?,” International Migration Review 36, no.2 (Summer 2002).

  3. Ming Wen and Guixin Wang, “Demographic, Psychological, and Social Environmental Factors of Loneliness and Satisfaction among Rural-to-Urban Migrants in Shanghai, China,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50, no.2 (2009): 156.

  4. Wen and Wang, “Demographic, Psychological, and Social,” 156.

  5. Zhan Shaokang et al., “Economic transition and maternal health care for internal migrants in Shanghai, China,” Health Policy and Planning 17, no.1 (2002).

  6. Zhan et al., “Economic transition,” 47.

  7. Roberts, “Female Labor Migrants,” 492.

  8. Zhan et al., “Economic transition.”


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