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2006 06 14
Shanghai Missive, Part 2
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Photo: AGOTW

by Emmanuel Madan

Across the river in the old part of Shanghai, I spent a bit of time walking around through some much more classic architecture. Most of Shanghai is not very old, although it has some gardens which were first built in the 1500s and then restored after being bombarded during the opium wars. Nevertheless, walking through lane-ways and happening upon full-on outdoor markets or sidewalk noodle joints gave me the feeling that this was a style of life that people had spent considerably longer developing and getting used to. The tiny streets can accommodate bicycles single file, but as the distances are not great most people just walk.

The overwhelming smells and sights made my travelling companion think of this area as a "slum", but for me the dominant feeling was a kind of displaced nostalgia. Having read about all the old traditional neighbourhoods which are being demolished at breakneck speed up in Beijing and in other cities across the country, I had to wonder how much longer this area would survive as I looked up at the skyscraper apartment buildings looming not 2 kilometres further south.

Setting up the show at the museum was a fascinating and instructive experience. It was pretty incredible to see how totally different the work methods are due to a complete reversal of the economics: when labour is extremely cheap and materials, especially foreign materials, unthinkably expensive, the approach to work is obviously going to reflect that.

Thomas and David recounted to me that on one of the first days, before I got there, two guys spent the better part of an afternoon holding a string. The string had to be held in place in order for the construction to be kept level. Whereas on a North America construction site some method would be found to hold the string up in its own, nailing it to the walls or whatever, there was no real need to pursue that particular goal of efficiency because, well, the guys were there anyway, already being paid their pittance, they might as well go on holding the string. (They were holding the string very well, David and Thomas hastened to add).

You know how you go to the hardware store here and you can never find an employee to help you with what you're looking for? There's a big box hardware store in Pudong (this time it's a British chain) and in every single aisle of that monstrous building stand three or four employees, in uniform, hands clasped in front of them, just waiting for customers to serve. An employer isn't going to think twice before mobilizing this kind of manpower, the costs of labour really just are so cheap as to be a detail.


[email this story] Posted by David Ross on 06/14 at 12:27 PM

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