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Shanghai surprise

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But to really see the backbone of Shanghai, its capacity for work and punishment, you have to go to the suburbs, to Shanghai Sigma Metals Inc. and Tony Huang's scrap yard.

Behind a metal fence in a residential neighbourhood, past a security gate mounted with stone busts of Marx and Lenin (an ironic touch, salvaged from a scrap yard in Russia), is the inferno of China's ambition — and its sharpest rebuke, where China takes what the West throws away and turns it into a more valuable future. By the middle of August, China had bought 65 per cent of the copper scrap exported by the U.S. And this is said to be a slow year.

Here, against the rev of loaders and the din of scrap smashing to the ground, under the sour tang of vast buckets of molten aluminum melting in furnaces, in the hot dust and the filth amid ridges of chrome faucets and valleys of hubcaps and giant meatballs of residue and massive doughnuts of old wire, are entire warehouses filled with fist-sized chunks of grey metal.

And over these fields of gnarled and knuckled waste, like hordes of nimble locusts in turquoise company overalls, gloves and thin cotton surgical masks, crawl 700 young Chinese women, sorting the scrap by hand. In Europe, million-dollar mechanical separators and flotation tanks do the job for the equivalent of $124 a ton. Mr. Huang's women do it, and do a better job of it, for $19 a ton.

For this, they earn $125 a month. "It's a tough job for not much money," Mr. Huang acknowledges. But this is the Wild Wild East. "Maybe for people in the Western world, this is torture. But for the women, if I use machines, then 700 people would not have a job."

Their $125 is better than the $50 a month they earned as farmers (if they were lucky) before they came to Shanghai; many of them stay with Sigma for eight to 10 years. And it's twice what Mr. Huang paid them 10 years ago, when he opened the plant.

"China's labour costs are going up very rapidly," he says. "That's a double-digit salary increase, 14 to 15 per cent, on average, every year. Do you get a double-digit increase every year?"

When he advertises 50 openings for scrap pickers, 500 women apply. They can live free in Sigma's company dorm, "but most of them don't like to stay here, because there's no freedom here. They have to be in bed at 9, turn out the lights at 10. But if they live four in an apartment, they can spend time with their boyfriends, or stay out all night.

"Westerners come here the first time," Mr. Huang says, "and you think this is a Communist country with no human rights. But people who live here, they hear you talk about human rights, they say, 'What are you talking about? Communism was 20 years ago.'. "Today, it still says Communist Party, but even they call it 'Chinese-style socialism.' You know what Chinese-style socialism is? It's capitalism. But they don't want to admit it."

"It looks different from the West," I say as we drive around the scrap yard in a golf cart.

"They had hard lives," Tony Huang says. "But now they're happy. They've got all the freedom they can handle."

[-bugs-]

Numbers define Shanghai the way history defines London and money defines New York. Begin with the 17 million people who make it bigger than any other city in China: Shanghai's a place where "follow the crowd" really means something. From there, the numbers quickly become unreal.

The average density of the city proper is 15,500 human beings per square kilometre. Downtown, it's 50,000, and can rise as high as 120,000. (Toronto's downtown density is 6,732 per square kilometre, which is marginally higher than Manhattan's.)

Even the city-planning department doesn't know exactly how many buildings there are: Its best guess is 7,000 over eight storeys high. Nearly all of them were built in the past 10 years.

Twelve million trips are taken on some form of public transportation in Shanghai every day. Eight million fares ride 18,600 buses (the fare is one yuan, or about 15 cents, unless the bus is air-conditioned, in which case it's two yuan). Another million and a quarter use the subway. There are 46,000 taxis, somewhere near a million cars and trucks, a million scooters and motorcycles, 10 million bicycles.

With the exception of the bikes, this is all new to Shanghai, part of what makes it feel so progressive and filthy and noisy and modern, so intense, so awake, so much like unstoppable destiny.

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