Project Description

Li Xiaohong’s Migration Trip

It is the autumn of 1991 and at 20 years of age, Li Xiaohong is set on going abroad. More than half of the people that are officially registered in Li’s township in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, actually live overseas. Most of Li’s family friends have gone to the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Africa, where they started small retail and wholesale businesses. Li’s goal is to go to Germany and set up his own restaurant.


Wenzhou, Zhejiang: Ox tails

Chinese illegal immigrant

Li pays USD 25,000 to a human trafficking broker in Wenzhou, for which the ox tail (as they are also known) promises to get Li to Germany within two months; ten percent needs to be paid up front. The ox tail also offers to provide Li with a passport and exit permit for an extra several thousand USD. At first, Li considers bribing the customs officials himself, but then he changes his mind and accepts. He has heard of too many friends that tried to do that and failed.

Li knows that a successful trip to Europe will mostly depend on luck. At each of the countless transit points between China and Germany there is a risk of getting caught. Three years ago, the first time he tried to make the trip, he only reached Moscow where he was caught and sent back. With unease, Li thinks of his friend Chen, who tried the trip five times before succeeding…

As Li does not want to make the same mistake as last time, he chooses a different ox tail and a different route. After first going to Hong Kong, Li arrives in Bangkok.


Bangkok, Thailand: The Thaibei Hotel

He stays at the Thaibei Hotel, a notorious smuggling safe house. The ox tail had told Li that someone will come to the hotel within several days to give him a passport.

No one arrives for weeks. In spite of the hotel’s vague promises that all will be fine, Li’s confidence sinks and he curses himself for picking yet another unreliable ox tail. Things get worse when he is mugged on the street and loses most of his money. Li stays inside the hotel all day and while everyone crowds in front of the TV in the lobby to watch the Soviet Union collapse, Li stares into the distance, desperately waiting for something that will probably never come.

After two months, someone finally meets up with Li and hands him a stolen Japanese passport with Li’s picture pasted inside. After further transits in Nepal and Pakistan, Li reaches his next destination: Budapest.


Budapest, Hungary: Stay or go?

In early 1992, Li arrives in Hungary’s beautiful capital, Budapest. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union leaves many eastern European countries’ migration policies in chaos, spurring the meteoric rise of both formal and informal Chinese migration and trade networks. While just two years earlier there were virtually no Chinese migrants in Hungary, there are about 50,000 at the time of Li’s arrival.

Walking along Budapest’s vibrant open-air markets, Li sees numerous Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabs, Russians, Gypsies, and Hungarians, all buying, selling, shouting and chatting. He meets two Chinese, a father and his son. Like Li, they are from Wenzhou, and they just started a restaurant in Budapest; one of the 1,500 official Chinese businesses that registered in only the past few years. Business is going well and they suggest that Li stays in Budapest and works with them at the restaurant.

Right when Li decides to stay and give it a go, he hears about Hungary’s planned re-introduction of strict visa policies. Forced to change his plans, Li travels on to Germany.


Berlin, Germany: The ox tail’s true face

After four months, Li arrives in Germany, finishing a grueling journey that he was told would only take three weeks. Local members of the ox tail’s Wenzhou gang pick Li up and tell him he should pay several thousand dollars extra because the trip was changed along the way. Having lost most of his money in Bangkok, there is no way Li can make the payment now.

He pleads that it’s unfair to ask for more money, especially as the gang did not live up to the contract to get him to Germany within two months. The gang is not open to reason, nor are they surprised that Li cannot pay. They want to see money. They beat him up and tell him he will have to join the smuggling gang in order to pay off his debts.

Li now realizes that this is part of the group’s strategy and he also understands how so many Chinese girls are being forced into prostitution. He manages to convince the gang that his family can get the money together and begs for a bit more time. After two months of harassment, Li’s family pays off the remainder of the fees, and Li is finally free to start his new life in Germany.

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