Things are changing for China’s tens of millions of migrant workers, including Wang Xiuqiong, 43, who is finding life far from home much more comfortable than in the past.
Eating her favorite dishes used to be difficult for Wang, a construction site employee in Xiamen, Fujian province, because she had no kitchen, and workers are not allowed to cook in their dormitories due to fire risks.
But in August, the project contractor at Wang’s construction site set up a communal kitchen where workers can cook and satisfy their cravings for hometown comforts.
Wang books the kitchen via WeChat and invites co-workers to dinner. The group now arranges monthly gatherings to enjoy dishes from back home. Her dinner guests all migrated to Xiamen from Sichuan province for better work opportunities as security guards, janitors and construction workers. Most of them live in dorms with little space to cook or gather.
A year ago, they would often eat, drink and gossip in nearby restaurants. But now with the communal kitchen, it’s a different story.
The 18-square-meter room contains a gas stove, two kitchen sinks with running water, plus vegetable oil and four bottles of common condiments — salt, chicken stock, soy sauce and vinegar — all of which are provided free of charge.
One recent day, Wang purchased meat and vegetables at the supermarket at noon. Like a gathering the previous month, she was making Sichuan cuisine for her hometown friends.
“Sichuan bean paste is a necessity to make twice-cooked pork. I brought two bottles to the construction site when I returned after the Chinese New Year holiday, along with spicy sausages,” Wang said.
After two hours of cooking, six dishes flavored with red peppers were arrayed on the table. Wang’s husband also bought some beer for the gathering.
The couple, who have been working at construction sites for more than 20 years, arrived in Xiamen four years ago. Her husband is an electrician, while she works as a chef at the construction site canteen, which provides discounted meals for workers.
Wang loves the communal kitchen idea. “It saves us a lot of money and provides migrant workers with a place to cook dishes from their hometowns and dine together,” she said.
The dinner cost the couple around 60 yuan ($9) to make, less than a third of what they would have to pay at a restaurant.
Wang remembers an unforgettable meal in the communal kitchen last year on Qixi — so-called Chinese Valentine’s Day — which fell on Aug 28. After a long day’s work, her husband secretly booked the kitchen and cooked several dishes for her, and the couple enjoyed a candlelight dinner.
“He bought me a rose,” Wang recalled with a smile. “The dinner was simple, but he cooked it with passion. I felt like the happiest woman in the world.”
According to Lin Binbin, who is in charge of logistics at the construction site, they have more than 300 migrant workers from over 10 provinces. “They have varied tastes. It can be boring for them to always eat the same meals in the canteen and sometimes they have relatives and friends visiting. It costs them too much to eat in restaurants, and it’s not safe to cook in the dorms,” Lin said.
Inspired by the booming sharing economy, the project contractor came up with the idea to open a communal kitchen to help migrant workers feel more at home.
Lin calculated the cost of the kitchen: 199 yuan for the induction cooker, 200 yuan for the wok, 100 yuan for 10 bowls — all the equipment and seasonings cost less than 1,000 yuan.
“The kitchen might be simple, but it means a lot to our workers,” Lin said. “They are away from their hometowns for years, and most can only return once a year. We want them to be able to cook their favorite comfort foods.”
The kitchen has been used 112 times since it opened. “We plan to establish more communal kitchens at our company’s other construction sites,” Lin said. “East or west, hometown taste is the best.”