Illustrator Chenyue Yuan tells the story of Chinese factory workers in Pearl’s Daughters
Nestled in southern China, the Pearl River Delta was once a major national economic center that depended heavily on migrant workers, with young women in particular making up the bulk of the workforce. Among these workers was Chenyue’s mother. However, its difficulties seem distant and inexplicable now that the region has been transformed by rapid urbanization.
âInitially, I had the idea of ââtelling stories about them both, capturing my memories of the city and of my mother because she always thinks her experience is indifferent,â said Chenyue, who was born. and grew up in the area, at Creative Boom. “I am aware that there are a lot of people like my mother in the city, so I want to tell stories for them.”
In its pages, Pearl’s Daughters portray the lives and working conditions of women like Chenyue’s mother. Opening with a recruitment announcement seeking young Hong Kong women graduating from high school; the project examines their working lives as they work hard on sewing machines and assemble toys on a production line, as well as everyday details such as how they wash their hair.
Beautifully illustrated throughout in a washed-out palette of browns and blues, it’s a moving tribute to these women delicately lit by their voices. “When drawing these characters, I always remember that they were all living individuals, and I had to define different dynamics and expressions for them even though they were doing the same thing.”
Inspired by Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-Tai’s Big River Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949, Chenyue wanted to channel a similar approach to telling stories and recreating historical scenes using multiple voices. In Pearl’s Daughters, there is no single main character but a collective story told through shared lived experiences. “That way the story doesn’t point to any particular individual. But it can also tell the real experience of that community, which is a good way to protect their privacy in my opinion.”
With an archival background, Pearl’s Daughters’ confidence in history and anecdote looks like a perfect evolution of Chenyue’s talents. However, she does not know if the progression is so sharp. âGenerally speaking, I tend to understand ‘archives’ in a broader sense and I often enjoy my practice as the process of creating archives or organizing them in a creative way,â she reveals.
And with Chenyue designing and working on the project during the second lockdown, Chenyue had to be very creative when it came to organizing and researching stories from the workers. It was impossible to return to the area to investigate, so she turned to second hand research.
âI didn’t care much about where the stories came from; I was more interested in finding the real personal voices in the words,â she explains. âI especially liked the fragmentary voices of these women, which emerged from all the journalism and interview recordings. And of course my mother’s stories helped me a lot in terms of building the narrative for this project. “
Along with the blogs and diaries she unearthed while working on the project, Chenyue relied on historical photographs as her primary source of visual reference. His drawings are based on the recreation of these found photos and bring them to life in the same way as the stories. “These photos were taken by different photographers and at different factories, but they were taken extensively in the Pearl River Delta in the 1980s-1990s.”
Pearl’s Daughters also taps into another of Chenyue’s interests: ordinary people. âAs someone who grew up in an Asian family, like many of us, I was asked to be ‘perfect’ in the eyes of my parents,â she says. “But a real person has flaws, awkward moments and anxieties.”
Paying attention to these imperfect moments helped Chenyue fight against her parents’ expectations, but it was when she moved to London that she fully realized the power of the ‘ordinary’. “As an international student, I have conversations with foreigners to practice my English and reduce my loneliness.” These conversations revealed surprising aspects of people and challenged Chenyue’s preconceptions. “Therefore, whenever I think a person is ordinary, it’s just because I haven’t spent enough time getting to know them.”
Pearl’s Daughters is currently available for purchase as a seventy page publication, with a limited number of printed hardcover copies available. Message Chenyue through his Instagram or email him if you want to get it back.