The last three years have been hard for truck driver Henry Kwok. Laid off in 2009 at the age of 42, the father of two borrowed about $13,000 to buy his own rig. His wife traveled with him, the two pulling long days together and sleeping in the truck to save money.
That’s when a photojournalist with the independent Chinese news magazine Caixin linked up with Kwok. Their photo essay, just out, tells the heartbreaking story of this self-made small businessman struggling to make his way in a harsh and unforgiving economy.
Caixin’s captions are in Mandarin, but you can still pick up on much of the story from the evocative, often moving photos. (There are more photos here.) But here is a brief narrative to read alongside the photo essay.
The photographer follows Kwok on a March 2011 haul, for which he carried a load of chemical barrels for 860 miles. Fuel prices and toll costs are rising as the slowing economy forces drivers like Kwok to accept lower fees, forcing him to squeeze every penny and to deliver the barrels as quickly as possible. His wife cooks for him as he drives and helps him stay awake. When a tarp flies loose one night, she helps him pull it back down.
In the end, Kwok makes $1,920 for the trip, but his expenses were $1,960. Dispirited, he posts a for-sale flier on the truck, but believes he can get at best $9,600 for it, less than he paid. He continues driving long hauls with his wife, the two living out of the cab.
One day in November 2011, Kwok’s wife was standing behind the truck helping him guide it back when there was a terrible accident. It’s not clear how — perhaps he leaned too far on the wheel, perhaps he was fatigued or simply couldn’t hear her so far away — but she was crushed.
Devastated, Kwok gave all of his savings to his wife’s daughter as compensation. In one photo, the two can be seen burning offerings at her funeral. In the next, Kwok is sitting in the cab of the truck, gazing over his wife’s possessions as he cleans them out. In the final photo, Kwok looks over the truck, his only source of income, and wonders what will come next.
Henry Kwok’s tragedy is, in many ways, particular to this moment in China. He’s someone trying to make it in the new China, where workers must increasingly rely on themselves rather than on unions like the one that couldn’t keep Kwok from being fired in 2009. His story is of buying into that new system, waging everything to reinvent himself in a way that has lifted so many Chinese into the middle class, and then having that system fail him.
Kwok would seem to embody the traits that are supposed to bring success in China today: hard work, self-sacrifice and entrepreneurship. His defeat hints at the rising anxieties in China that the system might not be working, as typical families face greater hurdles to joining the middle class while the families of top government officials are caught quietly accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is just one brief scene in a much larger drama, but it captures some of the feelings of both hope and despair that are a part of China’s tenuous rise today.