Chinese Delivery Worker Reflects: “When you call, they want you knocking. When you knock, they want you calling.”
A Chinese delivery worker reflects on life and work
In Wuhan’s quiet morning hours, a delivery worker peels on a toothpaste-blue uniform. His family is just waking. Inside their apartment, sausage links hang from white strings, towels sway by an open window, a pair of scooter gloves sit drying under a slice of sun. His wife gets started on breakfast; a young boy wonders where his father is headed. His father is out the door. The day begins.
To Knock or Call, a short film by the New York-based filmmaker Jia Li, follows delivery worker Zhang Sai as he navigates the pandemic years, and, more broadly, a mutable livelihood cobbled together by a long march of manual-labor jobs, from kuaidi to parking lot attendant to assembly line cog on the thrumming factory floor.
Zhang’s current employer refers to its delivery workers, theatrically, as “knights.” The knights have been trained on their quest: every neighborhood and district is a market, every market is a contest between fleets. Ubiquitous in their bright-colored jackets, the fleets fan out and the cityscape streams by in a flow of bilingual street signs, wide boulevards, gated compounds and rainy rooftops, a thousand staircases none the same. Orders rush in, customers shout requests, the app’s sterile voice declares 2.5 kilometers remaining.
But Zhang’s real life begins when his shift ends. A deep lover of literature, he thumbs endlessly through his favorite book—Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions—and stays current with a stack of novels and anthologies by his bedside. He writes poems, both to process the repetitions and degradations of roles which treat him “like an animal—an animal without thoughts and philosophy” and to parse meaning—and, occasionally, humor—from his experiences. “A thoughtful person performs a job that many people don’t think very much of,” says Li, the film’s director. As her lens flicks between the visible demands of Zhang’s labor and the intimate, inner world of his dreams, a subdued, bittersweet portrait emerges of a Chinese worker-poet who, far from succumbing to the logic of an involuting system, finds purpose and agency through devotion to his chosen craft.
The short film, which previously debuted on Nowness Asia, is available to watch on Vimeo. Li, who lives in Brooklyn, answered some questions about its inspiration, process, and themes.
How did you first hear about Zhang Sai and get in touch with him?
I first heard of Zhang Sai through the podcast Gushi.fm, on an episode about young Chinese people who become security guards. He had written some poems that reflect his time as a security guard 保安, and I was struck by his sense of humor, his writing and observations, and his voice. Subsequently, through our networks, we were able to reach out and get in touch with him online.
What was your process of filming and working with him?
The filming took place in 2021, a year after the Wuhan outbreak and lockdowns, so some things had shifted in terms of Covid and protocols. I was able to remotely direct and produce the shoot with Zhang Sai along with our local producer, DP [director of photography], and collaborators. Zhang Sai was busy working and supporting his family, so we took care to not waste his time or take too much space out of his schedule.
What were some of the larger themes you wished to foreground in your film?
The biggest theme this film represents is human dignity—deduced down to workers’ dignity. After that, it’s about creative expression, child-like wonder, and the experience of someone whose life may not be entirely in his economic control but mentally drives his own inner world.
I’ve been working on films about human labor for some time now, so that’s an overarching theme in a lot of my work. I was interested in Zhang Sai initially because of his poetry, particularly the one featured in the film about his experience as a parking lot security guard, which is ubiquitous across China. I'm interested in these jobs and how they dictate how we live, move, and think, as well as how our imaginations, creativity, and autonomy become more or less expressive through constraint.
The rich inner life of Zhang Sai is parallel to a lot of stories I’ve heard from so many Chinese folks—yet from a Western perspective, a lot of the narrative has been focused on Chinese people without agency, without expression, shuffled around in a great economic machine in some power axis with other countries.
It’s always been a mission and a function of good documentary work for me to bring the lens down to the ground where the people are, as a reminder of how we are related rather than how we are different.
What surprised you most from Zhang Sai's life?
I think everything surprised me about Zhang Sai, and that is the brilliance and pleasure of reaching across to get to know someone who you typically may not cross paths with. This was not a life story that could easily be reduced to a short film. Through the details of the film, you can get a sense of his situation, his family, and his livelihood, but the lyrical and poetic—and also sometimes entirely pragmatic—way that he expresses himself kept me guessing all the time.
What moved you the most from working on this film?
It’s hard to express how rare it is to come across someone like Zhang Sai, who has truly been through so much and resigned himself back to factory work and the assembly line. For us in making this film, his continued pursuit of imagination and his devotion to his passions, as well as his sober outlook on his responsibilities as a young 30-something worker—that unbending spirit—is so admirable. That’s also what moved us the most. This kind of child-like mentality is a gift that must be protected and nurtured. It's a reminder to us, as documentary filmmakers, to continue to be curious and deeply respect those who let us into their lives.
What differences or similarities have you seen between America and China's treatment of its frontline workers?
I don't think there are a whole lot of differences in this sense. We are all cycling through the same emotions, some just quicker than others and in different waves. The job market and societal hierarchies may look different in both cultures, but the compartmentalization of others' roles in their function to our lives remains similar in human nature.
How important is it to offer a ground-level portrait of an actual human being, versus the kind of macro headlines and stats about China that we're usually inundated with?
Ground-level filmmaking is actually a key intention in this film. I did not want to include drone shots or aerials or any sweeping big overarching grand shots of anything. Personal filmmaking is one way we stay in touch with Chinese folks and gain perspective into intimate aspects of each other's lives and humanity.
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Wonderful read. Made me want to watch the film.