Gender and Restaurant Work in Shanghai


A review of Transforming Life in China: Gendered Experiences of Restaurant Workers in Shanghai, by Yang Shen.

Although many existing literature study migrant workers in China, research of migrant workers who work in catering industry is scarce and especially qualitative research focusing on both female and male migrant workers’ agency and subjectivity. Yang Shen’s dissertation offers a timely and excellent understanding into this understudied migrant worker group from a gendered perspective. The research adopts a feminist epistemology approach which involves more than seven months field work working with migrant workers at a restaurant in Shanghai between 2011 and 2014 to investigate migrant workers’ work experiences, intimate relationships with partners and families, and leisure time. Through examining how gender operated in the migrant workers’ daily lives, how their experiences were gendered, and how agency was exercised as well as how subjectivities were expressed, the dissertation aims to show a clear picture of how migration has affected these migrant workers’ lives. Shen’s research suggests that migrant workers’ lives have changed in gendered ways. While male workers in the lowest-level jobs are discriminated in the gendered, feminized and hierarchical restaurant workplace, they can still excise their male privilege in everyday gender relations, such as sexual harassment to female workers. Female workers do enjoy economic independence, but they still have to fulfill filial obligation, a traditional patriarchal value, by providing financial support to their natal families. Both male workers and female workers exercise agency through coping and resistance in the workplace and leisure time.

After a brief Introduction about the overall dissertation, the author divides the dissertation into seven chapters. Chapter 1 sets the goal to contextualize the research subjects of rural-to-urban migrants in the broad political, economic and cultural context. At the same time, this chapter situates the restaurant workers in the specific restaurant where the research was carried out. The chapter first analyzes the factors that contribute to internal migration of rural migrant workers. The author mentions that these factors include the transitional political and economic situation as well as the hukou system (household registration system in China). Using the concept of class, the chapter then analyzes how rural migrant workers as a new social class are portrayed and discriminated in mass media. Through a gender relations lens, the third section shows that gender relations and gender inequality in China have changed in complex and contradictory ways and that male migrants’ experiences should be paid more attention while studying gendered experiences of migrant workers. The chapter also positions the catering industry in China and in Shanghai to the objectives of the study.

Chapter 2 provided a theoretical framework for the research based on two sets of concepts. The author first explains the concepts of agency, subjectivity, coercion, coping and resistance, which served as the foundation of the overall analysis in the dissertation. The second set of concepts consists of patriarchy, filial piety, masculinity and femininity, which are used to analyze empirical findings. The author argues that there are differences and interrelations between these concepts. “Gender norms and filial obligations embedded in the patriarchal system can be seen as coercion, prescribing subjectivity and practices (p. 21).”  Agency and patriarchy are useful to theorize male workers’ agency in the dissertation, which is a  main contribution of this research. Both clusters of concepts correlate to explain the empirical findings.

Chapter 3 discussed the methodology used in the study. The author uses ethnographic research from a feminist perspective, which is feminist epistemology. From “feminist standpoint theory and intersectionality and the interrelationship between the two”, the author explains how she understands “the production of knowledge”, which comes from the interaction between the researcher and the informant (p. 79). Also, the author explains how she positions herself in the research as a researcher Feminist epistemology allows the author to interact with the informants and explore migrant workers’ through their own experience.

From Chapter 4 to Chapter 6, the author discusses her main findings in this research. In Chapter 4, the author examines migrant workers’ gendered experiences in their workplace. Shen argues that the public area of the restaurant is a gendered, hierarchical and feminized workplace. She analyzes the gender division of labour in the public area with the suggestion that while vertical gender segregation virtually exists there is a horizontal gender segregation, “including both inter-job and intra-job gender segregation (p. 109).”  Gender, age and marital status all matter to different job assignments. While female workers usually hold jobs with higher job hierarchy status and higher prestige, such as hostess and table server, male workers usually work as pantry helpers who do physical labour and are at the lowest rung in the public area. Male workers, specifically pantry helpers have to face “double discrimination” from both costumers and female workers (p. 125). The main reason that pantry helpers are discriminated by female workers is due to “the inconsistency between gender hierarchy in society and job hierarchy at work (p. 132).”  However, not every pantry helper would want to be table servers because “they thought table service would infringe upon their understanding of themselves as men (p. 134).” Therefore, the chapter demonstrates different workers’ experiences and their subjectivities.

Chapter 5 studies migrant workers’ intimate relationships with parents and partners. Shen explains that migration has impacts on intergenerational and gender relations.

She examines “patriarchal practices after migration and how migrant workers’ practices reflect their agency and subjectivity in line with gender, age and marital status (p. 138).” Using the case studies of a few waiters, the first section of the chapter investigates filial piety and patriarchal practices of migrant workers on marriage decision. Both male and female workers adhere to the rules of filial piety, but they also challenge parental authority through their agency and subjectivity. To maintain the patrilineal line, unmarried male workers usually have to fulfill their obligations as a son, which is to marry and have offspring; therefore, partner choice is subjected to parental authority (p. 138-141). In addition, the failure to afford the brideprice and betrothal gifts undermine migrant male workers’ masculinity as being at the bottom of social strata prevents them from reaching “the hegemonic masculinity characterized by money, power and a heterosexual nuclear family (p. 150).” While female workers sometimes have a refusal right on marriage decision and try to pursuit romantic love, they are still affected by patriarchal values such as providing parents with financial support (p. 142-157). Yang also examines married migrant women’s empowerment in conjugal relations, such as empowerment in decision-making. This empowerment is often accompanied by men’s “subordinated masculinity” through “doing more housework and earning less” as they are no longer the primary breadwinner (p. 164).

In Chapter 6, the author explores how migrant workers exercise their agency and express their subjectivity at both work and in their leisure time. Through studying the motivations by gender, Shen finds that unmarried workers main motivation is “attaining a sense of economic independence” while working parents’ main purpose is to feed their children who stay in the rural area with grandparents (p. 171). Workers’ coping strategies of restaurant jobs often involve resignation and envisioning possible job alternatives although the other options are always low-end jobs either in factories or construction sites. Coping strategies are gendered given more male workers choose to work in construction industry while female workers might have more opportunities to work as a shop assistant and domestic worker. In the workplace, most table servers have to cope with clients’ discrimination. Their coping strategies usually include complaining about the lack of suzhi (personal quality) among the customers or using verbal skills to persuade clients to order certain dishes in order to generate commissions for themselves (p. 181-185). Male pantry helpers’ coping and resistance involve various kinds of procrastination such as smoking or playing mobile phone game (p. 185). Shen also studies migrant workers’ gendered leisure activities as coping strategies. The author argues that female workers’ class-specific shopping experience and embroidery and male workers’  gambling all reinforce their disadvantaged position in cities. Their going to a karaoke bar as a “collective ecstasy” reflected “the ambivalence and uncertainties imbedded in their subjectivity” in today’s society “where dazzling transformation is characterized by uncertainty and inequality (p. 203).”          

In Chapter 7, the concluding chapter, the author summarizes the main findings of the dissertation and concludes that maket economy, changing hukou policy and traditional patriarchal values all influenced the migrants’ lives and subjectivity and although differences exist between female and male workers they share common experience “in relation to socioeconomic status, relational subjectivity, willingness to meet filial obligations, and discrimination and stigmatization in urban China (p. 210).”  Therefore, the dissertation has implications for policy makers and NGOs in China. In the end, the author identifies future research areas.

Overall, Yang Shen’s dissertation is an excellent contribution to the literature of feminist studies, ethnographic research as well as contemporary China studies.

Xinying Hu
The Labour Studies Program
Simon Fraser University

Primary Sources

Seven months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Shanghai between 2011 and 2014
Data from National Bureau of Statistic of China
Shanghai Bureau of Statistics

Dissertation Information

The London School of Economics and Political Science. 2015. 267 pp. Primary Advisor: Diane Perrons.

Image: Photo by Author.

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