Eleven year-old Yi Jie finds a shoe catalogue buried in a mound of plastic debris. She excitedly points to the pairs she wants, carefully cutting out the pictures. Later, her brother picks out a newspaper advert for a beach holiday in America. He is enchanted by the thought of floating in the bright turquoise water. These images, scavenged from the rubbish heap, give these children a glimpse into a faraway world.
Kun, the boss, is working hard to make this world a reality for his family. Balancing at the top of a precarious heap of plastic, he sweats as he throws armfuls into an incinerator. “I work like this so I can support my family. Make more money, give them better lives.”
For Kun, the key is providing education for his children: “after the [recycled] pellets are produced, then we can afford the tuition.”
Peng, one of his employees, has different priorities: “[Drink] is the purpose of making money…I can’t eat anything without beer.”
Peng is also less concerned about his daughter’s schooling: “I’ve never gone to school, I couldn’t care if she goes to school or not.”
The opposing attitudes of the men quickly develop into resentments. Peng thinks he is underpaid. Kun is not happy with the standard of Peng’s work and his commitment to drinking. Before long, this tension erupts into a violent confrontation in front of workers and their families.
Over time, whilst one man moves closer to prosperity, the other stagnates in poverty. Kun buys a shiny new car, and sends his son Qiqi to school. Peng tries to move his family back to their village, but he can’t afford the bus ticket and humbly returns to the factory.
Soon, young Qiqi and Yi Jie have very different futures mapped out for them. As Kun and Qiqi ride in a taxi below the skyscrapers of Beijing, Kun tell his son his plans for him: college and a “rich person’s life” in the city. By contrast, Yi Jie has given up ambitions of education, wishing only to work to earn money for her brothers and sisters. “I’m small and mighty”
she says confidently. With no education in a competitive and globalised world, she will have to be.