Tiny drops of rain sprinkle my face as I step outside the Shenzhen railway station hotel and into the dense crowd. It is 6am on Tuesday, February 5, and I am making my way to the nearby bus station. I have been told to wait for the K528, arriving from the remote new district of Pingshan in northeast Shenzhen. A text alerts me that my two travel companions have just arrived.
Struggling under the weight of several bags and sporting winter clothes as if the temperature had suddenly dropped to a Siberian level, Yuan Zhitong and his wife, Zhang Junmei , greet me with reserved smiles. The couple, both rural migrants working for a Japanese electronics components factory in Pingshan, are about to embark on their annual migration to spend the Lunar New Year with their loved ones, in Henan province. Armed with a camera and a microphone, I am going along.
Yuan and Zhang are two of what the China Labour Bulletin NGO estimates are the mainland's 242 million migrant workers. More than half are employed outside their home provinces, usually moving from less developed inner regions to the wealthy coastal settlements like Shanghai or Guangdong. For 30 years, this mass migration has not only helped build the coastal mega-cities, but also lifted rural incomes as the money flows home.
But this economic miracle comes at a price. To work in the cities, most families have to leave their children in the care of family members, often grandparents. The Lunar New Year is the only time that these millions can travel home to see their loved ones - and it can be a long, gruelling journey.
Yuan and Zhang left their 10-year-old son, Yuan Jinkang , with his grandparents when he was only three. The couple has been working in Shenzhen since 2007. "I feel very excited and happy. I look forward to coming back, I miss my parents and son a lot," Zhang tells me while we wait for our train.
I can sense the nervousness of the people inside the waiting room. The place is crowded, but not packed. Zhang, a plump woman with a quick smile, keeps checking that nobody is cutting into the queue in front of her.
Yuan, a frail-looking, dishevelled 35-year-old man, clutches a shoulder bag containing 30,000 yuan (HK$36,964) in cash - an entire year's savings. Around 9am, security guards make us line up, one behind the other, and shuffles us through to the train platform. Our train leaves Shenzhen for Zhengzhou shortly before 10am.
Once inside, it is like any train in China when you travel on "hard seats" - people occupying every possible inch of space. We all sit with different people, but stay close to each other. My neighbours all hail from Henan province. Wang Chunyu , 23, is a dentist in Shenzhen. Ma Qingqing , 22, works in a car component factory. The two young men sitting across from me are busy either slurping down instant noodles or dozing off.
The hours go by. I have my camera and audio recorder at hand so the people quickly grow accustomed to my snapping away. I can hear a radio playing traditional songs, and my neighbours trade tips on how best to book the train tickets for next year's journey. "Buying tickets online is very difficult," Yuan says. "On the phone, they start selling tickets at 9am, but when your call goes through, all the tickets are already gone."
It's hardly surprising when you realise the numbers of people travelling. Xinhua, the mainland's official news agency, says 3.41 billion trips will be made this new year.
We arrive in Shangqiu , Henan, at around 7am, and leave the train, which continues its journey to Zhengzhou. The temperature hits us hard: it is now zero degrees Celsius. We rush to the nearby bus station and get on a tiny minibus that carries us through the grey countryside for more than two hours. A small TV is showing an old Chow Yun-fat movie.
We arrive in Sui county, and take a cab to the two migrant workers' home village, Liu Lou. Inside the car, both parents can hardly contain their excitement. Camera in hand, I try not to miss these moments.
When the cab stops, Yuan's parents and his son, Jinkang, are already waiting on the doorstep. Their hugs are warm, but without the outpouring of emotion one might expect from relatives who have been separated for a year. Gifts are quickly exchanged inside the house: Jinkang gets light blue shoes and a new coat, as do the grandparents.
The Yuan family's house, from what I can see in the village, is one of most modest. No running water, scant use of electricity and no heating. This house has hardly any furnishing. In the main room, there is a small coffee table, an old sofa that has been stripped down to the core and a few chairs. A hot water dispenser is all there is to keep us warm, as the doors are constantly flung wide open. At night, thick blankets keep the bitter cold away.
Our days are spent eating, resting and engaging in traditional New Year activities. The grandparents prepare dumplings on Saturday afternoon and we eat them the next morning. We pay a visit to the family's close friends on New Year's Day and devote most of Saturday night to setting up fireworks of all shape and sizes with the village kids, while their parents gather in the small alley outside the family's little house.
On Sunday, despite my efforts to remind them that I am not a guest, the family and some relatives take me on a tour of the town, show me the street parades, an old amusement park and then we eat at a hotpot restaurant. Would they have done the same things had I not been there? I will never know.
Some of Yuan's relatives are relatively better-off and, intentionally or not, remind him of his condition as a migrant worker by chauffeuring us around in their new car or showing us a newly opened real estate agency that one of them owns. Yuan's meagre earnings pale in comparison. But, no matter how little they have, Yuan, Zhang and family gladly share everything with me.
During the week I spend with the family I am amazed how they quickly forget the camera and start to act naturally. While I always intended to become "invisible", it does not take Yuan long to understand that he has to disregard my presence. Yuan Jinkang hesitates at first, but I manage to get him on my side by showing him my pictures and he feels flattered.
I capture intimate moments of the family: Yuan and his son setting up fireworks in the yard, everyone gathering in the bedroom to watch the annual CCTV New Year programme, Yuan, his wife and son glued together on the bed.
Zhang, however, remains quite self-conscious in front of the camera during the whole week. I can sense she is trying to show a positive image of the family and erase any visible signs of their lack of financial resources. I know I am only scratching the surface of their lives, and there are things they do not wish to share with me. One night I wake up to the sounds of Zhang crying in the bedroom and talking to her husband in the Henan dialect I do not understand.
Tomorrow Yuan and Zhang will travel back to Shenzhen, returning in time for work on Monday. For Yuan this is all the time he has with his parents and with his son, to whom he remains close. "I know that he lacks maternal and paternal love, but there is nothing we can do about it. I can only hope that our efforts will improve all of our lives."
I returned to Hong Kong last Monday, but it was easily one of the most wonderful Lunar New Year holidays I have ever witnessed.
Topics: Lunar New Year 2013