SHANGHAI, CHINA - April 11th, 2017
The evening’s last light fell behind the towering skyscrapers in the distance as the group of young migrant Chinese men, covered in dirt and sweat, one inhaling the smoke of a crisp cigarette, stood knee-deep in the alley dump shoveling piles of empty alcohol bottles into different mounds, like flying sparks of fireworks radiating through the night’s sky without much apparent direction or method to its madness.
Thousands of these empty bottles of all kinds littered the alley dump’s waiting to be sorted into separate color-coated recycling piles of green, brown, or white. Methodically, they are flipped, thrown, and shoveled into their respective mound with each motion of the migrant’s toiling and shovel-and-toss motion that rings throughout the slum’s typical evening rumble.
Their motions seemed careless, rote, and instinctual. Every bottle landed on the color-designated pile target with an exact precision, smashing into total oblivion and launching glass shards in every direction much like explosive grenades on a battlefield. Shovel after shovel after shovel. Glass shattering, shovel, glass shattering, shovel. Eyewear was of no concern to these Chinese migrants from Henan, as they hucked and tossed champagne, beer, vodka, and wine bottles every direction in an effort to finish the day’s work a bit earlier than usual. Zero protection, and draped only in short-sleeve shirts and rugged torn pants. Their faces shown weary with worry for reasons other than the notion that their very well-being revolved around shoveling the rich of China’s shattered Dom Perignon champagne bottles into color-coated piles in the slums of a city that left them a long time ago.
Shanghai is the most populous city proper in the world. The city’s 2017 population now boasts well over 25,000,000. In 1950, Shanghai’s population was 4,301,000. As the showpiece of China’s internationalized sprint towards modernism, the modern coastal metropolis is the booming economic heart of the mainland.
The glass beams of towering finance centers bounce sheering fragments of light farther into the horizon than the eye can follow as lines of buildings comfortably stack the Lujiazui skyline. Tourists, domestic and international, equipped with selfie-sticks and vintage film cameras rejoice along the shopping strips and scenic areas buying trinkets, downing delicacies, and taking photos of the city’s historic relics situated along the Pudong River. Families sit along the benches the urban planners placed before them, ships flock through the causeway, birds fly above in the evening sky’s tones of fading tiffany blue.
During the 19th century, Shanghai grew in importance due to trade initiatives and the favorable port status that was pinned on it in with high sights of economic potential and prosperity, after the British victory over China in the first Opium War. The subsequent treaties established the famous Shanghai International Settlement and French Concession, setting Shanghai on a flourishing path towards becoming the predominant financial hub in the Asia-Pacific region for years to come.
Mao’s Communist Party takeover of the mainland in 1949 altered Shanghai’s path, as history and significant figures within it have a habit of doing. The city’s trade and people were soon strictly limited to business only with other socialist countries. The city and the Shanghainese people watched its cultural and strategic influence nearly vanish in thin air. Left with a still functional economy and some remaining social stability that one could attribute to the tenacity of the Chinese spirit, Shanghai found itself left out to dry in many ways. This came at the cost of crippling the welfare of the Shanghainese and the city’s infrastructural and capital development. The city of millions and its well-being was in affect denied blossoming for decades.
Fast forward to about 1991 during which modern China’s economic reforms finally permitted the coastal city to leave the sunset of its past century of humiliation by imperial powers to fully set sail and start anew. By this point, China’s massive reengineering development rolled out under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping was well underway, and Shanghai was quick to play catch-up. An intense re-development of the city ensued, and soon the towering glass structures, foreign investment, multinationals, and finance centers that now boast the pillars of Shanghai’s global prominence would return to the city once again.
As I slowly made my way down a rounding street in the heart of Jing’an District, one of Shanghai’s central districts housing well over a million people and covering 3 km, the vastness of the city engulfed me. Motorbikes zooming by and the muffled sounds of bustling traffic drowned out my other senses. I crossed a riveria bridge onto a cobblestone pathway near the water pondering how I could possibly describe the sheer size of China to those who had never witnessed its grandeur.
China is organized into 23 separate provinces, which are home to geographic areas, populations, and economies that are large enough alone in their own right to comfortably reign as whole individual countries. Within these provinces, lie sub provincial counties and tucked within these, there are Chinese cities. Inside most of these cities, unofficially, it’s safe to assume there are more cities. And within those too. And…okay you get it. China is big. Bigger than anything you have ever seen, and bigger than anything you will ever see.
Think of China as a matryoshka doll, whose wooden figure separates, top from bottom, to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which has, in turn, yet another figure inside of it, and so on. There’s always something hiding just below the surface. There’s always something more than meets the eye. It’s too big, too complicated of a world to ever be fully sure. The booming economy, the lush landscapes, ancient culture, politics, trade. Regardless of concept or subject, it is best to take the animal that is China in terms of this doll, because abstraction is the only way to truly unfold the world’s largest economy, production powerhouse, and ancient civilization dating back over 4,000 years.
Upon crossing another bridge along the waterway, two young school children ran past me, neither a tad older than five years of age, arms entangled and filled with joy as they carried their miniature backpacks and miniature selves, passing their time with laughter, innocently unaware of the days approaching during which they would soon become more aware and molded by the world looming around them. Their mother and father soon followed, offering me pleasant smiles and a kind nod. I smiled back and carried onward.
Shanghai’s widened streets make way for vehicles and contraptions of all sorts and sizes. College students whistle by on the city’s new ride-share bicycles. Electric scooters deployed in every direction squeeze through cars and oncoming traffic. Luxury SUVs cruise along the road. A Range Rover zips by me in a sleek fashion. As I turn to my right, it appears as if a time machine transported me a hundred years back in time as I noticed an old man peddling an ancient rickshaw filled with bags of vegetables in the opposite direction. I wonder where he is heading. Continuing along the causeway, a homeless man rests to the right, huddled against a pole with a box for money sitting out. A lump of coins lay in it as the chilly evening breeze gushes by and the coldness cuts at my face. A group of older women approach ahead, followed by a few couples ho. The muffled cacophony of the street’s activity drowns out the contradictions of the city I am pacing through. Hundreds of strange yet familiar faces walk towards me from the other end of the long hallway of buildings arched ahead. I continue forward as they beckon me to register that they actually exist and that my evening walk through Shanghai is not a dream.
The realization that each random street passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as my own—drowning with their own ambitions, dreams, friends, habits, routines, fears, and inherited craziness of the human experience—hundreds of people each living an epic story of the smallest significant detail that will continue invisibly around me for the rest of my life even after they slip out of my view, like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate pulsing passageways to thousands of other lives that I’ll never know existed, in which I might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, or as a blur of traffic passing on the highway thousands of miles below them as they soar above in the night’s sky. Maybe just as a lighted window at dusk that they pass by one day.
It’s the collection of insignificant and somber moments of realization and all presumption of coincidence and intersection that make cities like Shanghai so intoxicating. Pulsing with vitality, possibility, and a million different paths that can be taken at any single point in time. A future painted bright. So many different people. So many unique lives. So many random coincidences, hellos, goodbyes, dates, meetings, hard work, tears, love, and loss. All in such a small crowded space. Isn’t that what a city is? A microcosm of everything humanity currently has to offer. The best of the best. Millions. Living, breathing, and working together, sprinting towards the finish line that no one is quite sure of. We all just hope we are running in the right direction at the end of the day.
Just below the city’s glimmering surface, unaware to the masses, or maybe just held at a comfortable distance, lies something most don’t care to acknowledge about China’s rapid rise. Impoverished Henan Province migrants living to day to day in inner-city construction slums. The future is not painted bright for all who reside in Shanghai. Despite Chinese authority’s showmanship of the region’s freshly minted office towers and airports that generate cash flow and enhance the country’s prestige, the city is not all skyscrapers and paradise.
I continue walking and peer into an undeveloped construction area from across the fence near the corner of the intersection. The sounds of shattered glass fill the air. Shoveling. Shattering. Shoveling. Shattering. Again and again. The abrasive noise is alarming, but a surge of exploratory vigor runs through my veins.
The migrant slums are tucked into a corner of a fenced-off junkyard plot of land near the intersection. A small hole in the fence acts as the entrance to a hidden land that most Shanghainese will never notice. Upon entering, construction crates, stacked rotting cars, and piles of trash sit higher than the eye can see. As the young migrant men from Henan finish shoveling the last of the Dom Perignon champagne bottles and glass into their respective color-coated piles in the dump, they wash off their hands with a nearby hose and sweep up the hazardously glass-riddled area.
I turned to my right and continued taking in the filthy lot unfolding in front of me. Rubbish piling around barrels and abandoned rotting brick and concrete buildings lined the perimeter of the area, silhouetted and surrounded by Shanghai’s massive skyscrapers in the nearby skyline. Stray skinny dogs trotted by. One sneers at me at quickly dashes away.
This was not the first time I have seen this. I call these places ‘drop-offs’. The lost pieces of a society caught in an aggressive push towards the mark of modernity. At what cost? Drop-offs are not rare in China, but one does not expect to find them in the city center of Shanghai and all its prestige as China’s most international, luxurious, and Western city.
Standing in a pathway near a shanty building that looks as if it were bombed, I glance inside the window a few feet away from me and observe two older women in their 60s washing vegetables against the dimmer of a faint light hanging from the ceiling above. A young boy and an older man sit with their headphones in on the bed staring at their mobile phones. A child walks around the room carrying a bowl. Another man exits the building out back.
Pushing forward, piles of trash loom on either side of the walkway as I trek through the mazes. Chairs sit atop the piles, random objects scattered everywhere the eye looks. Old industrial equipment, rotting bikes, broken furniture, trash cans filled with the misfit objects of a junkyard that didn’t quite make the cut. Clothes hang from a line drying and blowing gently back and forth in the evening wind. As I walk through the path of trash, a black bomber jacket hangs that says “Kate Moss fashion” brushes my shoulder as I walk by beneath. Other children’s clothing hangs adjacently. Shirts, shorts, and pants of every size. Some clean, some dirty. Holes, rips, tears. To my left sits a humungous shattered mirror, something out of a horror movie, and a large Chinese painting, something out of a national art gallery. Contradictions. Contradictions are modern China. Contradictions are Shanghai. Contradictions are what define every day of our lives.
The alley opens up into a wider clearing, surrounded by small favela makeshift buildings. Lines chalk full of electric scooters sit racketed alongside one another. Something resembling a courtyard, whose shape is made not by typical traditionally sleek and beautiful Chinese Beijing architecture, but by piles of trash bags and brick wall, forms the perimeter of the slums.
Coca Cola bottle caps, a heads-up Jack playing card, and thousands of pieces of trash litter the dirt ground. Rocks and gravel. Baskets, crates, and construction material lie around in discontent and neglect. Shanghai’s newest high-tech yellow ride-share bicycles sits against a shipment container. Trash everywhere. Truly a hidden hoover town tucked into the street corner of China’s most international metropolis, surrounded by shining lights, finance skyscrapers, and pebble stone walkways. On one side of the fence, matte-black Mercedes Benz’s roll by in the evening night. On this side of the fence, migrant workers from Henan live in impoverished shantytowns, in hopes to make a Shanghai buck through some construction work so that they can send money home to feed their families in the underdeveloped rural countryside, a place where China’s economic reengineering and financial stimulus did not quite reach.
Thousands of contradictions tucked into the smallest of spaces. The irony of it all. Hidden away. Tucked just around a corner below the glimmering lights of an international modern sprawling metropolis. Different times, different classes, different worlds, and radically different lives all juxtaposed against one another in a situation that doesn’t seem to quite fit the script of China’s fashionable revival and the rise of the Chinese Dream.
As I carried onward, more impoverished families and their shanty homes appeared. Some tucked into the sides of construction containers, some built with a makeshift inventory of whatever-one-can-find. An insatiably delicious smell bellows through the alley. Buckets of vegetables lay out ready to be steamed, and broilers hiss as supper is prepared. I approach one female Henan migrant, named Li. I ask what she is cooking and she opens the steamer lid, revealing three partially scaled fish covered in vegetables. Children run around, an old man dressed in a blue construction uniform sits reading the newspaper, and mothers and fathers traverse carrying buckets and various other things. Two young girls run up to me, pull on my shirt, giggle, and run away. Fathers yell “hello!” in English as I shouted back “Ni hao!” (Hello in Chinese). I engage in conversation with them, feeding my genuine curiosity about their lives, their families, what they are doing in Shanghai, and how they ended up here. Specifically, I speak to 2 young men in their 20s named Li Zhu and Fang, and two older women in their 50s. One is named Mei, and the other’s name I did not get. Friendliness and a culture of communalism radiates through the small secret migrant slums.
Then, a worker waves to me and curiously asks where I am from. I tell him “Meiguo” and then ask him the same question. The migrant worker hesitated. He waved his hand, laughed, and said “Zhongguo”. Obviously, he is from China. Obviously he is Chinese. But the Chinese who are not eager to reveal their hometown are the ones who are often not proud of where they are from and what they are doing. I then humbly probed for a bit more, and asked “Shenme? Zai nali?” (What? Where?), and the worker responded “Henan”.
The families were all from Henan, and they were in Shanghai to do legal construction work in the nearby vicinity. Yet, what an odd and somewhat sad notion, I thought to myself. Hesitating to answer where one is from. Not being proud of where you are from. Besides the recent controversy of the US elections among other things, I have never had that problem, I have always been proud of where I am from.
China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in recent decades, due its phenomenal economic engineering and development, that’s something many know. But the persistence of destitution in some places is still an inevitable hard economic truth. World Bank studies have found that there are still literally hundreds of millions completely impoverished across the country, especially in rural areas that have benefited far less from China’s modernization than other coastal areas like Shanghai. When you think about China, think of contradictions. #DollsAndContradictions
Henan Province, located in China’s central plains, is widely regarded as the cradle and birthplace of Chinese civilization, with over 3,000 years of recorded history. Although it is the 5th largest provincial economy in China, its per capita GDP remains low in comparison to other central and eastern provinces. It is one of the less developed areas in China, as the economy continues to remain reliant on dwindling natural resources and coal reserves, as well as agriculture, tourism, and heavy industry. In the past centuries, its historic economic prosperity resulted from its extensive fertile plains and sound location, but its strategic location also lent it to suffering endured from China’s major wars and floods.
With the turn of the century, Henan migrants have fled to urban wealth and opportunity sprawls like Shanghai in search of a better life we speak of, The Chinese Dream. Almost mockingly, a mere province away from their home Henan, lies the chance of a better life for the glass shoveling young men toiling away and standing knee deep in shards of glass.
Many tend to believe that Henan and the other highly populated rural areas of the Chinese heartland are often excluded and devoid from the central government’s financial support and reengineering towards a prosperous and modern China, one that now reigns the highest population and the 2nd largest economy in the world, at 15% of the world’s GDP. To put that in perspective, the US has about 25%. Additionally, in Henan the antipoverty and financial measures there often have little effect. Typically, Henan residents of those areas even say that money intended for them is appropriated by corrupt local officials, who pocket it or divert it to their personal business investments.
Paradoxically, the heartland and Henan is often overlooked precisely because of their proximity to the major economic centers of the east, and are forced to fend for themselves on the theory that they can make do with income sent home by migrant laborers and other forms of trickle-down wealth.
China’s GDP in 2016 was around 11,392 billion US dollars and reported a 51 billion trade surplus in January of 2017 above market consensus. Year on year, this may be China’s slowest pace of growth in 26 years, but it remains within the range of Beijing to meet its longer-term goals of doubling GDP and per capita income by 2020 from 2010 levels and goes to show that China’s economic growth is beginning to stabilize in a more sustainable fashion as the country attempts to transition to domestic consumption fueled growth and away from manufacturing and highly leveraged heavy investment growth. Strong fiscal support, loose monetary policy, and a booming property market are the mian factors driving China’s current economic growth. Chinese banks extended a record $1.8 trillion dollars worth of loans this past year, as the Chinese government is using more credit-fueled stimulus to meet its declined and reset growth target, even at the risk of exacerbating debt levels.
Concerns mount in regards to the mainland economy’s health, and there is no doubt that China faces ominously looming issues now and in the future, wealth disparity being one of them, and as a signal of result more than a catalyst for cause. Throughout time however, the quality of economic growth is much more important than the quantity. Only time will tell.
I head home to the states in May and if there is anything at all that I know after living in Chinese society for a full year and just about completing my 365 days of time here, it’s that it feels like home. The country, the people, the culture, the food, the families I see every day and say hello to, the smells, the language. I’m still American, don’t worry, but I know when I head home in May I’ll leave a piece of myself in this incredible country that has come so far in just a few decades but still has a lot of work to do. Overall, it’s painful to see the wealth disparity that China’s rise has brought like the example above I stumbled upon while exploring the city. On one side of the fence, matte-black Mercedes Benz cruising down cobblestone streets. On the other side of the fence, impoverished Henan migrants doing their best to save up some money to send back to their family in the countryside.
Glass shattering. Shovel. Glass shattering. Shovel. These are the sounds that I have gone to sleep hearing the past few nights. I cannot get them out of my head. Life for Henan’s impoverished migrant workers was a bad dice roll, nothing more, nothing less.