UNDERNEATH the golden arches of the huge McDonald's hoarding outside Guangzhou Railway Station sleeps six-year-old Xiao. It is 5am, a dreamy smile spreads across her dirty face and her tiny hands clutch a comforter - not a favourite doll or teddy bear, but an iron stake. Xiao is an orphan from Hunan province and one of the hundreds of children and about 2,000 adults who sleep every night on the station's car parks and forecourts. They live in the shadow of China's economic miracle, sucked down train lines from all over China by dreams of fortune to be swallowed into a soulless metropolitan vortex. As Chinese New Year approaches, officials expect the number of people living on the station to quadruple when up to 400,000 people pass through in search of work each week. By 6am the square has burst into life. The first of up to 100 daily trains has disgorged its passengers. The traffic on the dual-carriageway at the bottom of the station square is almost bumper to bumper, drawing a thick curtain of smog across the station which will remain until midnight. Everywhere, people are getting up, washing, stuffing rag blankets into rice sacks - the universal form of luggage - cleaning their teeth or sitting quietly in meditation. Women start to circulate with trays of breakfast buns and sticky rolls. A youth who has been cleaning his teeth is grabbed by two policemen. One pulls him to his feet, the other swings a long steel bar on to his kneecap. The youth crumples. He is pulled up and hit again and again. Each time the steel bar strikes his knees there is a chilling thud of metal against bone. The youth is screaming, but the policemen look impassive, even bored. Slowly, hitting him all the way, he is dragged away. By 7am, the race to find work has started. 'There are lots of jobs, but there are too many people,' said Ni Wan, 36, from Shandong. Four months ago, he left his wife and child in his village, took the train to Guangzhou and, unable to find a secure job, has been living at the station. 'I am looking for a job with accommodation that pays around 1,000 yuan [HK$1,340] a month, but so far I have only got work for a few days or a week at a time.' Every day his quest for employment is the same. 'First I go down to the poster corner, then, if there is nothing, I try the trucks. If that fails, I walk around nearby construction sites and factories to see if they need anyone.' Poster corner is a seven metre-long wall pasted thick with job notices. Most are factories and construction firms looking to hire workforces wholesale. Many of the factories are joint ventures with Western firms, turning out a bewildering array of toys, electronics, computer games, trainers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jurassic Park gimmicks; many offer conditions that would make Charles Dickens cringe. Migrants crowd around taking notes of phone numbers and meeting points: 'Garment factory needs 60 women, 25-35 years old, 40 yuan a day, food and accommodation included'; or '50 labourers required for construction site work, 1,000 yuan a month, food and accommodation included'. But today Mr Ni is unlucky. As we arrive, police are tearing down the posters as part of an ongoing, and fruitless, attempt to stop the station becoming a base for migrants. The trucks arrive just after 8am. They back up to the station. A man shouts to the assembled 200 or so migrants that he needs 45 labourers, and then throws open the door. The ensuing struggle to get into the lorry is a vivid image of capitalism in action. Only the strongest and fittest make it. Mr Ni, who is neither, didn't stand a chance. 'It doesn't matter, I will keep trying. I won't go home, I can't go home as I spent my savings getting here. Something will turn up.' There is a quaint Chinese expression for leaving the fields and turning capitalist. Xai lai, say the people on the station, meaning 'down ocean' or 'take the plunge'. Mr Ni is a drowning man, but he would never admit it. Optimism is rife in Guangzhou. The 2.5-hour train journey from Hong Kong is an object lesson in hope. Kilometre after kilometre of building sites flow past the window in a dirty haze. Green valleys have been ploughed orange and seeded with vast, colourlesscondos and factory complexes. Bamboo scaffolding has replaced bamboo groves. Billboards depicting Sunday supplement-style artist's impressions of the completed projects with names like Happy Homeland and Comfort Garden, punctuate the construction sites. On the train is Chan Wah, the 30-year-old wife of a Guangzhou textile factory boss, who is returning from a Hong Kong shopping spree. 'Everyone in Guangzhou is sick of the drifters,' she said from behind Chanel sunglasses. 'They are rascals. They come withhardly any money, are dirty and don't have any skills. If they don't find work, they start begging or stealing. They are the reason crime is so bad in Guangzhou. The officials should stop letting them come here.' A train pulls into the station and passengers disembark into a frenzy of elbows and rice sacks. There is an air of desperation. It is a physical struggle to get out of the station, with everyone fighting for the next available space. This pushing and shoving characterises the new Guangzhou. People compete to carry your bags, prising them from your hands. Cars on the congested roads beep and queue-jump in dare-devil bids to gain a few extra metres. People push for any door, vehicle or ticket window. The habit was learned in periods of extreme poverty, but it is now a reflex and an integral part of capitalism. Everything is get-it-now. A pirate CD shop on the forecourt plays Alex To at maximum volume: 'Take me to the top, take me to the top.' The station square hits you with sunlight, people and building site smog. Slowly, your eyes adjust to the bizarre sight of hundreds of people camping there. There are villagers who, having travelled together, are now living on the forecourt. Erstaz communities of 20 or 30 brightly-robed peasant villagers have, in the space of one train ride, journeyed from the 19th century to the 21st. But even the most down-on-his-luck migrant has a sense of pride. When I asked a beggar to crouch for a photograph, dozens of other migrants began shouting: 'Get up man. How dare you kneel for a foreigner. Are you, or are you not, Chinese?' Everyone has stories of a friend who has started a business, filled a need, bought low, sold high, made gold from scrap, something out of nothing. Each tale is told with admiration, reaffirming the Chinese miracle and the fact that wealth is there for anyone who is brave enough to go out and get it. 'I will be a rich and powerful man by the time I am 25,' says 14-year-old Zhang Peng. 'I will start by running a small business - like a food stall and it will grow and grow. By the time I am 20, I will own a restaurant. By the time I am 25, I will own many.' For Zhang the future cannot come soon enough. He left home almost a year ago after an argument with his parents. He did not tell them where he was going and has not contacted them since. 'My sister takes care of them, I don't need to worry,' he said. Zhang is one of a large number of aloof youths who live at the station but make no attempt to follow men like Mr Ni in their search for work. He thinks that running after trucks is stupid. 'You can make more at the station than a construction site. Gettingrich is about using your head as well as your hands.' His outsized double-breasted jacket and smart shoes suggest he is already on his way. The fight scabs on his nose and cheek - of which he is equally proud - suggest he is determined and tough enough to get more. Mingling among the migrants are snakeheads. For 400 to 2,000 yuan, they will promise passage to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. According to Hong Kong police, the numbers of illegal immigrants brought in by snakeheads is increasing to 3,000 a month. Many are imported by triad groups. 'Triads like to use migrants for a number of violent crimes,' said Senior Inspector Lam Kwok-chu, of Shamshuipo CID. 'They are desperate and they have nothing. They will murder and risk their lives for amounts of money a Hong Kong man never would.' Put 2,000 people together for any length of time and they are bound to start selling things to one another. 'You can buy almost anything you want here,' said Mark Su, 26, from Beijing. Nearly 300 people find work exclusively by servicing their fellows. Some work on commission for businessmen, selling books, food and maps. Some tout hostel beds for nine to 100 yuan. Others work as porters, buskers and professional beggars. The older beggars operate independently. The very young - mostly orphans - work for a mama-san, who offers a semblance of protection in return for the lion's share of their take. 'People live here for years,' said Mr Su, who has worked as a porter for two years, earning up to 70 yuan on a good day. 'The police can't move you on as long as you say you are travelling the next day and they protect you in a way because they discourage thieves.' Thieves are dealt with harshly. According to Mr Su, the youth beaten about the legs was well-known for ransacking travellers' belongings while they slept. 'I have no sympathy,' he said. 'Stealing from these people means leaving them with nothing. He deserved it.' He said the station life was hard, but for the young it was no harder than in their home provinces. 'Here I have much more freedom than I ever had before. We are used to sleeping on hard ground, so that doesn't bother us and there is so much opportunity here. 'You can earn 10 times as much as back home and you can live for just two or three yuan a day. People here are rich. They save money and send money home.' To prove his point he says the station's post office is one of the busiest in town. 'Hello sir,' says a little girl with huge watery eyes, hair matted with filth and a stick-thin body, her hand outstretched. 'Hello, what's your name?' 'Xiao. You give me money.' 'How old are you?' 'Six. You give me money.' 'Where are your parents?' 'No mother, no father. Give me money.' We talk in this way for a while and then Cam Tse Suk-ying, who is translating, gives Xiao HK$10. The result is astonishing. A dozen or so ragged children - looking like survivors of a nuclear holocaust - swoop from nowhere. Some clamp their arms around Ms Tse's legs, others kow-tow in front of her, all of them crying and screaming the same relentless, brainwashed mantra: 'Please miss, have a kind heart, please miss, please miss, please miss ...' I try to loosen one from Ms Tse's legs. He sinks his teeth into my hand. They don't leave until she has emptied her pockets. Later, we see Xiao and the others sitting quietly in a circle, like a class of kindergarten children. In the middle is an old womanwho takes all the money and hands them back a few coins. Poor Xiao. I think back to seeing her sleeping beneath the McDonald's billboard with the other children with her iron bar in her hand and smiling and I wonder, what does she have to smile about?