Posts Tagged ‘migrant labor

19
Aug
10

It’s a family affair

Along a quiet part of Huoshan Lu (霍山路), an old, wrinkled woman was parked by the curb in a rattan chair, quietly fanning herself. Surrounding her were two young mothers and a child entertaining herself with an empty plastic bottle. They were lying on a thin rattan mat as if they were in a grassy park rather than dirty asphalt throbbing with heat.

A few degrees cooler, it would have made for a lovely summer day.

“That’s our mother,” a man waved in the direction of the old woman. “And those are our wives,” another man affirmed.

The Jiang (江) brothers were part of a team of migrant labor from Anhui and Henan, dismantling and emptying all scrap materials from an old factory building slated for demolition. The ground floor served as temporary living quarters, together as a dumping and sorting ground for all the wood, clear glass, mirror glass and all other recyclable waste. In the distance, a group of shirtless men were playing cards and listening to a small transistor radio.

I chatted with them at length, charmed by how similar they looked and amused by the elder (or younger?) brother who peppered me with questions, upon learning that I was from Singapore, how he could move there and make big bucks. “In fact, how about you bring me over to Singapore?” he asked. Everyone laughed.

The following week, I returned bearing 2 copies of this portrait for them. The heat was unbearable and everyone had migrated into the building. The brothers were there, as were their families sans the matriarch. Pleased as punch, his wife pushed an ice-popsicle into my hand. “It’s too hot. Cool down, cool down!” she clucked. I stood there awkwardly holding the popsicle in one hand, camera in the other. Something had to give.

And so, their son, who was eyeing my cold treat, got to slurp down another popsicle. Everyone won.

August 2010

27
Jul
10

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

13
Jul
10

The steel nest

I’ve always wondered how much steel is required to hold up an entire building.

Tons, I imagine, snaking through concrete and plaster.

I watched a group of construction workers bend and weld apart long twines of rusted steel and pile them high into a massive truck, which came up to almost 2 stories high.

Interestingly enough, I discovered the core group of workers to be from Chonqing, as the demolition company was owned by a Chongqing family.

One young worker swaggered over to me, shirt wide open, and peered at my camera. I pointed to this picture of him and said, “You look like you’re building a bird’s nest.”

He responded with a blank look, and laughed, “Only a person who doesn’t do construction labor would say something like that.”

July 2010

02
Jul
10

The street that became a gulf

On a balmy spring day, I had ducked in a narrow corridor to get away from the frantic market activity along the stretch of Anguo Lu (安国路), where the street market bustled with clucking chickens, flopping fish and a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.

I found myself in a compound with squat two-storey apartments. It was a mix of communal housing from the 60s and modest shikumen from the early 30s – non-descript concrete intermingled with old wood.

What struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was. Burgeoning blooms rested in small garden patches that lined a courtyard devoid of clutter and decorated with warm, red windows. What the space lacked in interesting architecture, it made up with a quiet and homey space that was bathed in sunlight.

I struck up conversation with two older men which naturally attracted more people. House-proud, the first gent said he had lived here his whole life, “giving” his apartment to the government after 1949, and reclaiming it in the 1980s.

When I complimented on the state of their residence, they beamed. The second gent pointed out, “We make it a point to be civilized (文明) and clean up after ourselves.” Furrowing his brow, he lowered his voice, “Not like the waidiren (外地人) (or out of state residents) who now dominate the houses across the street. The houses are old and have grown messy and dirty and they don’t take care of it.”

Others in the group nodded. A middle-aged woman lamented as she sorted her vegetables, “When more outsiders started moving into the neighborhood, locals would move out. Or maybe the Shanghainese could afford better housing elsewhere, and start renting their old homes to migrants.” She seemed confused about who to blame, then quickly added, “We renovate and upkeep our houses. Whereas they (outsiders) can be so uncivilized and dirty, destroying our surroundings.”

An old man tottered by and offered his two-cents worth, “Even the Shanghainese living opposite don’t like those outsiders.”

The first man jumped in, “If we can help it, we discourage landlords around here not to rent to outsiders. We prefer local Shanghainese.”

He then summed it up for me, “That street (Anguo Lu) is like a river that separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon/New Territories.” Hong Kong Island is where businesses thrived and living standards are high, compared to New Territories which still has vast tracks of rural land. “We’re all the same city yet different.”

I didn’t respond, only smiled distractedly. I knew a few residents across the street, including a fish monger, a vegetable hawker and a store keeper. Like almost all the street hawkers in the vicinity, nobody was from Shanghai.

When locals refer to out of state residents, or waidiren (外地人), with such distaste, they usually refer to working migrants or labor from poorer neighboring regions. They could have lived here for years and be a permanent blind spot to society. Accustomed to harsh conditions, these migrants take on jobs that locals are less willing to carry out. They tend to be a little rough round the edges given their poorer living conditions. I’ve witnessed rather appalling behavior of construction workers near their living quarters. Enough said.

Of course, there are many wealthier waidiren, like my Wenzhou landlord who owns multiple properties across Shanghai. Or my work colleagues from Zhejiang, Guangzhou and Wuhan, who have called the city home since their university days. They refer themselves to “New Shanghainese” (新上海人). Locals tend to have mixed reactions to them, focusing more on the fact that they no longer feel they owned the city, than how much the city has thrived as a result of local migration.

I recalled a conversation with the fish monger from Jiangxi. In between naps in a plastic tub meant for containing fish, she told me that she felt sorry for many Shanghainese trying to afford property in the city.

“With the money a Shanghainese uses to buy a 90sqm apartment, I can afford a 3-storey house in my home village. At the end of the day, this is not our home and we will all go back. We may even have better lives in our villages.”

It was quite a revelation for me, putting the local vs. waidiren socio dynamic in new light. 

I left the compound after being offered snacks and tea. Whatever the local residents’ opinions, I appreciated warm hospitality and a chatty demeanour.

As I stood in the middle of Anguo Lu, engulfed by bustling crowds, I looked east at the compound where the Shangahinese locals lived, then west-ward where many waidren lived.

There I was, in the cacophonous street that had turned into a gulf, a reminder of the persisting divide that plagues the city.

May 2010

14
May
10

Shanghai’s scrapers

The other day, a woman fell out of the sky and missed me by an inch.

You think I’m making this up?

I was hurriedly striding along the pavement when suddenly, a middle-aged peasant woman from above pounced in front of me and instinctively grabbed me for balance. I did the same but she fell to the ground anyway.

I cursed irrately, my heart still racing from the shock. Was this just a bad accident or was I an unsuspecting support stoop? Bad enough I have to deal with tourists who stop in the middle of human traffic to gawk at the Pearl Tower, and the occasional shovers with nary an apology to be heard. Now, falling human bodies?

The peasant woman had long greasy hair tied neatly in a pony tail and wore a clashing outfit of a red office jacket and jeans, paired with dusty heels. She brushed herself off without a word. That was when I noticed a pile of scrap metal scattered on the floor. I realized she had scaled the wall of a construction site to pick scrap metal for sale. Where profits were concerned, it was a mine field.

Suddenly, I heard a loud clang followed by a thunderous bellow.

Another scraper had thrown a large piece of scrap over the wall without even looking. It barely missed another pedestrian, who was so angry he began hurling verbal abuse at the pair of them. Clearly used to this (disturbingly), they merely picked up their wares and walked away.

I notice them everday now, hanging outside the construction site, occassionally in mid-climb. I’ve stopped walking on that side of the street. Lest more falling metal and women rain on my way home.

The photo above was taken in March 2010 of scrapers in Dongjiadu.

For more stories and news on China’s scrapping industry, I heartily recommend you check out Adam Minter’s work.

28
Apr
10

The gentleman who does construction

In his paint-speckled work jacket, he had a laizzare-faire air about him that was striking yet charming at the same time.

A profile shot was irresistible. Yet at the sight of my camera, he was unfazed. Rather, a lazy grin spread across his face as he fingered around in his pocket for a cigarette. Keeping a steady gaze at my camera, he whipped out a pack of cheap ciggies and even offered me a teasing stick which I politely declined.

A lit cigarette in his hand, a breakfast omelet in another, he raised his left hand to toast me and ambled away to a corner to enjoy his breakfast. No doubt whatever hard labor that laid ahead of him that busy day, he seemed like a man who would take everything in stride.

October 2009

07
Apr
10

Hello Kitty keeps his ears warm

Judging from his blue uniform with yellow reflector stripes, he was a sanitary work or the likes. We were both standing in line for some hot flat bread when I noticed his earmuffs.

I had a silly grin plastered on my face which he clearly noticed. His hand automatically reached for his ears and blushed. It appeared it wasn’t the first time someone had pointed it out. 

Flat bread in hand, he chuckled abashedly and walked off.

It was then I felt a tingling in my ear lobes as the wind picked up.

Seemed I needed a pair myself.

December 2009




All rights reserved

Please do not use content from this website without the author's permission.

Archives

Twitter Updates

August 2017
M T W T F S S
« Sep    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031