Boom and doom: the Yellow River corpse merchant

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'The old lady took two days to throw herself off...No doubt she had to die.'

To the north of Lanzhou, at the foot of Bai Tai mountain, Xiao Hei sells, for five yuans (0.6 euros) each, sweet potatoes roasted over charcoal in a steel barrel mounted on an old trolley. Every day he sets up shop on the Zhongshan Bridge, known as the German Bridge. This construction, the first on the Yellow River, owes its nickname to its German builders, Telge and Schoeter, who, commissioned by the emperor in 1907, set up in Tianhin. "Everything was imported from Germany, right down to the nails!" Xiao Hei exclaims.

A major tourist attraction, this bridge is also a favourite spot for prospective suicides. Xiao Hei sees them every week. "Last weekend it was an old lady. It took her two days to throw herself off. At first she couldn't climb over the railings. The next morning she managed, and the current carried her away." Did he try to stop her? Xiao Hei seems surprised. "What's the use? No doubt she had to die."

Young migrant workers from Lanzhou also like to venture onto the bridge on the one and only day off they get per week. Holding pink or blue candyfloss, they chat or contemplate the sunset, the refinery chimneys in the distance, the cable car making its way up to the mountain peak; and the brown, muddy water churning beneath their feet.

Among them, Cheng Li, aged 19, and Zhouyan, 17. They are from Henan, a poor province in the east of China. They work for Lanzhou Shi Hua, a large chemical fertiliser plant. The pay is 980 yuans a month (125 euros), overtime included. The pace is infernal: 6 days out of 7, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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For the past five days, Zhouyan has been depressed. "As she's the youngest, she's become the boss's punch-bag. He insults her in front of all our colleagues, repeating that's she's a good-for-nothing, or that she wears make-up like a whore. Now he's threatening to take away her right to the Chinese New Year holidays." Zhouyan says nothing. Despite several attempts, it is impossible to make her smile. "This morning I had a really hard time getting her out of the dormitory. Her mother would like her to go straight home to the village, but there's no work there. People there are still very poor."

Offering one of the lowest minimum salaries in China - 670 yuans (80 euros), compared to 1,100 yuans (150 euros) in Shenzhen - Lanzhou now attracts factories from the Guangdong province and can boast of a two-figure growth rate. Its petrochemical and textile industries are flourishing. This year it is even due to become Geely's latest outpost; the car manufacturer known in Europe for having bought up Volvo is aiming to export massively from Lanzhou to Eastern Europe.

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Jordan Pouille is based in Beijing and runs a blog, in French, on Mediapart's 'Le Club' section.