Last Train Home

The documentary Last Train Home tells the heart-wrenching story of a family caught in the turbulence of an industrializing China. Every Spring, for Chinese New Year, 130 million migrant workers trek back to their rural homes to rejoin their families, only to return again to their urban employment. The film was released in 2009 and now, four years later, the story is still relevant.


Zhang Changhua (father) and Chen Suqin (mother) have a teenage daughter (Qin) and a young son (Yang). The family is based in Sichuan province, but the father and mother left to Guangzhou to make money in a clothes factory 16 years ago, where they work all day on sewing machines. They’re able to visit their children once a year during the Spring Festival holiday and make occasional phone calls. Their oldest child, Qin, is now a teenager.

Naturally, family relations are strained. Early in the film, Suqin, the mother, admits that when they’re home with their children, they don’t really know what to talk about. Qin, the daughter, is resentful of her parents for leaving them and wishes that they wouldn’t visit at all. The children were raised by their elderly grandmother. They go to school and help on the farm. When the parents do return, their conversations revolve around exhortations to work hard in school, the importance of education, the need to excel in their grades.

The conflict in the film centers on Qin’s relationship with her parents. Qin decides to drop out of school and pursue employment. She ends up in a similar job as her parents, working in a garment factory and running sewing machines. The  parents beg her to reconsider, but Qin prefers to make money rather than invest in her education. The three of them return back home together for the holiday and the water rises to a boil until finally Qin speaks her mind about her feelings toward her parents, which leads to a physical fight between Qin and her father. Qin leaves and returns to the city, but starts working at a bar as a waitress.

Last Train Home received piles of awards and for good reason. We truly get up close and personal with this family and a the same time we get a taste for the harsh realities that accompany industrialization. The most moving scenes, only second to watching these parents explain their hopes and dreams for their children, are watching the crowds waiting to get on trains. The sea of people wait up to a week outside the train station. Tickets get sold out, trains get delayed, and chaos is everywhere. Police and what look like military personnel try their best to keep the mobs calm.

When I watched this human ocean surge and try to overtop crowd barriers, I found myself (literally) shaking my head in disbelief. Just watching it made me frustrated at the inefficiencies. Imagine what the people must feel. Desperate people were crying, exhausted women collapsed when offered a chair. But there was no real enemy but the birth pangs of trying to grow the economy of the largest population on earth.

This past Chinese New Year was met with a wide range of inventions to make the train rides more comfortable. Here's a video The Globe and Mail released documenting Sina Weibo-recommended contraptions.