Posts Tagged ‘building


A day of rest

He was sitting alone, surrounded by concrete sand and mud, reading a newspaper on top of a tiny table. Behind him was his home, a large blue storage container which served as temporary accommodations for workers on that construction site.

I greeted him good day. “No work today, sir?” I asked, motioning my camera for permission.

He smiled, his crow’s feet pressed together to form a startling handsome face. I was so struck, not just by his genial disposition but by how perfectly framed his face was by his beard and hair, colored evenly with grey, black and white.

For a moment, I knelt there, mesmerized by his features while he stared back, not so much at me but past my shoulder at something else. I repeated myself, asking if he was enjoying his day off.

Suddenly, a voice boomed out from the side. “Today’s Sunday! We’re not working. What are you doing here anyway?” A large and portly middle-aged man, in nothing but a pair of bright red briefs, was in mid stride to the container when he spotted me. Standing firm with his legs apart and hands on hips, he waited for an explanation while I tried very hard to look anywhere but his underwear.

I didn’t recall what I stammered in response, only the image of the smiling old man who quietly acknowledged my departure.

July 2010


How do you view China?

If I were a romantic, I’d paint a picture of China’s social and economic contrasts. A stalwart  worker poised on his bicycle, a mode of transportation that once defined an entire generation of Chinese before the country opened up, against the backdrop of the bellowing economic beast.

If I were a skeptic, I’d say that he fits like a small piece in a huge jigsaw puzzle that is China, a cliché that journalists and pundits use to sweepingly illustrate trends like “the widening chasm of income-inequality” or “the growing flows of migrant classes”.

But today, I’m neither.

This man was merely bicycling to (or from) work at 7:30am and enjoying a cigarette in the process.

And when you smiled at him, he nodded gravely and continued along his way.

“(…) it turns out that there’s another way of comprehending the reality of modern-day China — one that captures the contradictions of the place and allows them to co-exist.”

“So the tug-of-war continues, and the stories keep rolling in. The bigger story is a long way from over. Stay tuned.” ~ Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, 28 February 2010 “Beijing’s Labor Pains”

November 2009


Everyday is bring-your-child-to-work day

At the moment, existing or ‘live’ old neighborhoods that are spared from the wrecking ball are either refurbishing their exteriors or reconstructing in slivers of spaces that can be found. It makes the tight squeeze of the alleys and courtyards all the more … ahem, intimate.

Often, they appear to be just a light facelift. Other times, the safety codes are simply so appalling that occasional inspections lead to warnings of much-needed home improvement.

Home improvement is a constant activity in the alleys and courtyards and help is not very far away. There is a surfeit of available handymen (or women), trained and otherwise, to help you with plumbing, wiring, repaving, unclogging drains etc. Hence, they are very much part of the daily on-goings within the communities.

Labor can sometimes be a family operation. In this case, husband and wife are paid a little money to haul bricks. Since a babysitter is out of the question, often times, you just have to bring the little tikes along. Plop them in a pile of dirt, and they will be endlessly entertained.

November 2009


Worn sole, worn soul

Apparently, in shoe factories in China, it takes two hundred pairs of hands to make a running shoe. Cutters stamp sheets of fabric to form soles, stitchers then sew them together along with logos, shoelace eyelets etc, followed by sole workers who use an infrared oven to glue the soles and frame together. Assemblers will, of course, further assemble the various parts into a final product and finishers will do a quality check and pack.  (“Factory Girls”, Leslie Chang, 2009)

So much labor and so many man-hours. A never-ending supply chain that envelops an entire country.

How many pairs of shoes does a construction worker go through in his work-life time? I wonder.

October 2009


The makings of a humble pancake

For poor construction workers, each meal is about loading up enough carbohydrates to carry them through the day of heavy lifting, shoveling or jack hammering. The foundation ingredients don’t vary much. Dough-based products for breakfast and rice or noodles for lunch and dinner, preferably, all in large quantities. The idea is to keep it cheap and utilitarian.

Once customers gather en masse and the orders begin to roll in, the hawkers work at full speed. In a short 10 minutes, 6 pancakes are rolled out, cooked and stacked, 7 bowls of porridge are dished and about 8 dough sticks are deep-fried and served.

The beauty of street fare is not only its humble composition but freshness and taste especially when consumed standing in a cloud of aromatic steam. The liberal use of oil in street fare can sometimes be a deterrent but not necessarily a non-negotiable for a curious foodie.

November 2009


Office space

They all called me 小姑娘 or “Young miss”. This group of workers is by far the most cheerful lot since I started visiting construction sites and photographing workers around Shanghai.

“Come and take my picture!” the elder man, seen above, waved me over when he spotted me. A female worker paused from hauling debris and joked that I should take a photo for him to send home to his wife.

“Show her how hard he’s working!” she cackled, slapping her knee at her own joke.

This particular building was part of a key thoroughfare that connected one live neighborhood to the main street. Residents on their way out of the alleys had no choice but to walk through all the unsightly and dangerous activity. To get the worker’s attention, they would raise their fist and yell angrily at them to stop hammering so they can pass through, often shielding their head from debris dust coming down like a heavy mist.

So while some of the workers were having a light laugh, a handful of older residents at the end of the alley were scowling endlessly at the whole affair. For they knew that not only was their peace permanently interrupted, but their houses were next to suffer the hammer’s end.

November 2009


Bringing down the roof

You see them almost immediately as you emerge from the Dalian Road Metro (大连路地铁站) station along Changyang Road (长阳路), a jarring picture against the late afternoon sun.

Two men were perched precariously on top of a roof ledge, swinging their thin hammers to break up, brick by brick, yet another old house.

What was immediately disconcerting was the way the demolition was taking place. It was incredibly manual and alarmingly dangerous. Most building construction (ground up) have basic scaffolding and even if they seldom meet onerous Western standards in the same industry, efforts are made to provide basic safety beyond a rickety plastic helmet.

Demolition can be a different matter.

They are often outsourced with little proper supervision or regard for basic safety since the objective was to just flatten everything and have the debris carted away. Moreover, demolition of old houses is not done by bulldozers largely because they cannot fit into the alleys and it is not uncommon that there are still-occupied neighboring ‘hoods. An engineer would have surveyed the land to identify public water or sewage pipelines to avoid but otherwise, the task is left to workers with instructions to hack from morning to night.

This man was part of the demolition crew.

November 2009


Feeding the workers

The business of construction involves more than labor and machinery. It often extends to an integrated supply chain of services solely aimed at addressing the daily needs of the construction worker. Street hawkers are one obvious example.

Most street hawkers are mobile for the very reason that they often lack permits to do what they do and business is largely dictated by the ebbs and flows of the construction work day. Hence, they would appear at regimented times unless deterred by police patrols which have stepped up as the Expo nears.

Every day, mobile food hawkers gather outside construction sites all over Shanghai to feed the armies of workers at the break of dawn and return at lunch to do the same.

Like construction workers in Shanghai, mobile street hawkers tend to be poorer migrant labor also from outside of the city.

They are often seen pushing, on foot or bicycling, huge wooden carts containing their portable stoves and cooking paraphernalia. The assembly process is deft and practised. Heat up the vat of oil or hot plate and lay out base foods and an array of condiments.

For the street hawker, the business day starts painfully early and if they take on the late night snack shift, the hours tend to blur together.

October 2009


Power breakfast

CEOs have their executive breakfasts at the Hyatt or Shangri La in gleaming skyscrapers.

The ordinary construction worker has his by the side of the road amidst the cacophony of honking cars, the hissing of portable gas stoves and the cackling of dough in oil.

Call it al fresco dining under a canopy of light road dust.

What to eat? With some monetary shrapnel, I could have soybean milk or red bean soup. Perhaps pair it with some friend dough sticks or a hot piece of shaobing or flatbread.

I opted for a nice diluted omelet on thin dough and some barley water, and settled in with the gentlemen above. One even generously gave up his good chair for me.

Ladylike bites wouldn’t do in a place like this. The words gobble or scarf come to mind. After all, there were many things to do besides breakfast and time was of the essence. Catch up over small chit-chat, a cigarette break or even some light shopping of displayed wares ranging from towels, shoes and clothes.

The hustle and bustle was efficient and its flow quick. With the last of the construction workers headed to the sites, the street hawkers disassembled as quickly as they had set up, leaving a trail of litter that will be cleaned up, probably for the lunch shift.

October 2009


The face of Shanghai’s skyline

We don’t pay enough tribute to the backbone of Shanghai’s construction fervor, as unhappy as Shanghai residents seem to be by all the Expo-driven noise and air pollution.

We crane our necks to identify the peaks of skyscrapers that overrun the city but tend to sweep over the ubiquitous orange and red helmets dotting the sides of streets – hauling concrete, climbing into sewers and soldering windows in unfinished buildings. They are migrant labor that are building the China dream but are rarely able enjoy the luxurious fruits which the well-off take for granted.

They are also the unrecognized residents of Shanghai, and in many cases, looked down upon because they are mostly from out of the city, or 外地人 (wai di ren) from poorer and far-flung provinces of China. Perhaps they make enough to help the family back home to buy a pig or send their children to school. If they are lucky, they can help their families buy a television with the help of generous rural subsidies that the government recently introduced.

This gentleman, in a group of mingling workers, was most pleased to have his portrait taken in front of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC) as his workplace backdrop. Upon looking at the resulting image, he scratched his head and stared back at the building, as if it had never occurred to him to do so.

For having poured their blood, sweat and tears into building Shanghai’s skyline for minimum wage, they ultimately have no ownership or belonging in that part of China’s dream.

October 2009

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