The Life of a Scavenger

Written by Kay on . Posted in China-Inspired Book Recommendations


Photograph by Julian Li

The life of a scavenger and their family is a rough one. In China, migrant workers come from poor cities and villages to places they hope to be able to make a living, but at times are subjected to scrounging through landfills and other horrible places for anything they can salvage.

In my new series, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, you will see a man who has chosen his way of life because it is preferable to the one he came from that would allow him to lose his morals and beliefs. He proves to himself and his daughters that there can be pride in everything you do, and what you do doesn’t define you as a person.  Through a life of giving and compassion, he teaches by being an example of pure selflessness.


Available now on Amazon at this link.

Here is an excerpt:

Benfu pedaled on and finally made it to the outskirts of town. Ahead of him he could see the line of blue trucks, waiting their turns to dump their loads. He thought being a Sunday it might be a quiet day at the landfill, but already he could see other collectors with arms looped through the handles of baskets on their backs, searching through the piles. Others poked at the trash with pitchforks, and tossed empty cans, jars and paper into bags set around their feet.

Benfu shook his head at the scene before him. “Aiya…” he mumbled. He had gone from heaven to hell in an instant.

He had not been there in years and had no idea the site had grown to such proportions. He shook his head. There was a time that the piece of land held acres of bountiful crops tended by him and others—though most of what they reaped was trucked to Shanghai to feed Mao’s officials and troops. While they worked the land the cadres had watched over them to ensure nothing would be stolen, looking past their haggard faces and skeletal frames to pretend they didn’t realize how hungry the people were for fresh vegetables. And when the rice coupons were no longer valuable because all the rice had run out, there were many days Benfu had survived off of only one stolen potato cooked and split between at least half dozen others. And that was on a good day—a day they weren’t subsisting on grass and plants cooked like a stew. But that was before the people in his collective had turned on him. The memories came pouring back and Benfu felt the old rage surge up inside. He looked over the heaps of trash to the place where the tiny outhouse once stood and he remembered the beatings and the isolation. All because of who he had been born to. People who had claimed to be his friends, even his new family! They’d turned on him like a lynch mob because of his bad family background.

Towards the end of the revolution, the crops had eventually shriveled to nothing and were abandoned, and the land was used for the people in the outskirts of town as a landfill. Obviously they were now getting all of their village trash, as well as the Wuxi city trash transported there. The dump was huge, appearing to go on for miles with tall mounds of rubbish every few feet. Not only were the piles an unseemly sight, but the smell that hit him was worse than putrid. All around mountains of waste sat decomposing, much of it consisting of unrecognizable items from a distance.

Like shadows against the hazy landscape, Benfu could see children following along behind their parents, mostly migrant families joining in the task of searching for salvageable items among the tons of trash. He felt a wave of pity for the kids who were forced to live such a life but also felt relief that thus far he had never had to resort to recruiting his own daughters to such a place. In his opinion, other than the mines, there couldn’t be a worse situation to make a child work than in the horrid landfills.

He paused to pull his handkerchief from his pocket and tied it around his face, then pedaled his bike to a place away from the line of trucks—he didn’t want to lose his only transportation to a careless truck driver.

Pulling his own basket from the cart on the back of his bike, Benfu struggled to work his arms through the handles and balance the basket on his back. He took his trash stick from the cart and made his way closer to the site. He looked around and choosing a huge pile of junk, began to look for anything he could use to make a yuan. He shook his head at the evidence of the new generation of disposable items. Microwave food boxes, instant noodle bowls, wooden chopsticks, paper slippers—so much trash made from the desire to move ever faster in the modern world. He wished again for the older, slower pace of life where less was more. At least in his home they hadn’t felt the pull to succumb to—or keep up with—the new ways.

As he searched the littered ground below, he swatted at the hundreds of mosquitos that swarmed around him. He had only stabbed a few soiled newspapers and dropped them into his basket when he had to stop and straighten himself, the gases from the piles of waste making him more than a little dizzy.

An hour later, besides a few soiled papers, Benfu had only been lucky enough to find a dozen or so plastic bottles and a few cardboard boxes. Each time he spotted something more valuable and began toward it, another collector would beat him and snatch it right out from under him. He was really disappointed when he saw the remains of a computer and a petite woman beat him to it. Though years younger than he, the others had no mercy for his age and didn’t give him a second glance as they competed for each scrap. The combination of being away from his usual route through his beloved town, and missing the interaction with familiar neighbors, he conceded that the depressing atmosphere of the landfill slowed him down more than usual. He felt as if he were wading through water in slow motion.

Even so, he pushed on but eventually stopped his hunting when he was interrupted to bandage the cut foot of one of the migrant children. The child, just a toddler, had stepped on a shard of glass and sat crying and holding his bloody foot as his preoccupied mother ignored him. Benfu made his way over the hill of trash between them and comforted the boy. He took the handkerchief from his face and after using his only bottle of water to clean the wound, he wrapped the child’s foot and made him promise to stay in a safer area until he healed. His mother didn’t even stop her collecting to thank him, but he didn’t blame her. It was people like her family who if they didn’t find anything that very day—they just wouldn’t have the money to eat. Theirs was a desperate situation and his wasn’t. Not yet anyway.

Benfu walked toward his bicycle, his shoulders hunched as he coughed violently from the assault on his senses. His chest hurt terribly and he grasped it with one hand, willing it to behave. Unable to continue without his handkerchief to filter the stench, he decided to call it a day and come back later in the week.

Through watering eyes, he looked around at the rest of the people still fighting to gain a closer spot to the latest load dumped by a truck and his heart felt heavy. It was a shame that some of China’s people were so desperately poor, especially when it was well known that anyone working for the government lived posh lives full of benefits. All of his adult life he’d hoped he would see major changes and reform that would unite the people. He hoped the government would step in and set up welfare systems. They had barely done anything about the problem in all his years; what was done was all fluff and propaganda. In China, the poor were like dung on the bottom of the rich man’s shoe.

He shook his head in disgust. Benfu had survived the atrocities of the so-called Cultural Revolution only to see even more of a gap between the rich and poor, instead of the classless society Mao had aimed for during his reign. Benfu was thankful that Mao had backed down and called a cease to the revolution when his prospective rival, Liu Shao-chi was expelled from the party back in the late sixties. Even though the Chaos—as most of the locals tended to call the Revolution—lasted at least ten years, things finally settled down and they’d begun the long road to recovery. With that, Calli and her family had struggled to regain the hope and sense of security that had been so callously snatched from them. And Benfu still didn’t regret his choice to stay by their side. They’d been loyal to him and nursed him back to health—even given him refuge during his darkest moments. How could he possibly abandon them? His parents hadn’t been happy, to say the least, but he’d chosen to remain with his new family rather than return to the life he’d known before the nightmare had begun.

With another look at the people on the hills rummaging through piles of stench, Benfu marveled that only a few miles away people were living in new high rise apartments with luxuries such as those he’d never seen and probably never would. It proved that despite it all, there was still a huge gap between classes. He wondered if Mao was pleased looking down from his place in the afterworld. His legacy of hardship may have been interrupted, but it still refused to be broken.   

READ MORE of The Scavenger’s Daughter by downloading the book here.

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Comments (3)

  • Cheri


    Sounds like an awesome book! Looking forward to reading it.


  • annie tarry


    Beautiful story. I thoroughly enjoyed it and read it in less than 2 days as I couldn’t put it down. Will definitely read more in this series. Well done.


  • Kay


    So glad you liked it!


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