A Northern Chinese Plastic Farmer

If you spend time in the Chinese countryside you’ll eventually run into factories filled with entire farming villages now displaced by industrial development. I’m not one to romanticize an agrarian lifestyle that I wouldn’t to live, myself, but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I find the disconnect from the land – and the skills to maintain it – occasionally disheartening. Thus, I present the photo below. It was taken a few weeks ago in northern China, in an area where plastics recycling has completely supplanted an agricultural economy and lifestyle that must have lasted for millennia. And yet, at least at the odd little factory where I took the photo below, it seems that certain instincts and skills haven’t quite disappeared. So, despite the fact that it looks as if the farmer in the photo is plowing dirt, he’s actually “plowing” wet shredded wire insulation to help it dry more quickly (for eventual reprocessing). Click for an enlargement.

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After the jump, a closer look at the ‘crop’ … Continue reading

Angry Property Owners STILL Agree: Shanghai Film Group President Tarnishing the Party (Pt. II)

In April I blogged about a Shanghai (Xujiahui-area) highrise cluster that had undertaken a very public protest against a neighboring real estate development threatening to take away their views, sunlight and – presumably – property values. Hoping to inflict maximum face-loss, the affluent residents hung large, inflammatory banners from the sides of their buildings, calling for the developer – Shanghai Film Group President Ren Zhonglun – to obey the law, “stop tarnishing the party,” and, well, stop building the new high-rise cluster. This would be notable anywhere in China, but particularly so for the location of these banners: they hang in busy Xujiahui, and look out upon some of the most heavily trafficked intersections in all of Shanghai.

April wasn’t the only instance of indignant banner-hanging in Xujiahui. I know of at least three others (in one case, the residents promised to exact a “blood-price” to preserve their views). And Sunday, I came across the most recent. I post this time mostly to give visual context to the earlier images. Here, for posterity’s sake, is the view from the construction site’s gate, facing the buildings – and banners – owned by the indignant property owners (click for enlargement):

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Representative banner messages:

“Hoping Government Does Right and Enables the People to Live in Peace and Prosper.”

“The Only Correct Way Out is for Shanghai Film to Reduce the Floors” [That is, we’re gonna keep hanging banners until you turn your highrises into low-rises]

As of yesterday evening, when I was down there yet again, the banners were still hanging and construction was continuing [UPDATE: still hanging at noon on Tuesday].

[I should mention that my interest in this protest was sparked by Ren Zhonglun’s decision to demolish a 19th century Carmelite convent – until recently, one of Shanghai’s oldest buildings – on the site of his sunlight-blocking highrises. Click here, and especially here, for more on that unnecessary tragedy.]

[Thanks to an admirer of General Grant for help with the translations.]

Shanghai Expo out my window.

[Apologies if you’ve arrived at this post expecting news on the troubled US Expo 2010 pavilion. My ongoing posts on that subject can be found here.]

I’m not sure when, exactly, Shanghai officially started polishing its main thoroughfares for visitors to next year’s Expo 2010 (World’s Fair). Me, I began to notice the renovations in late Spring, when the boulevard that runs in front of my building was suddenly torn up in the dark of the night. Soon after, the sidewalks disappeared, and for several dusty, then muddy, weeks, my usually quaint French Concession neighborhood was transformed into a major construction zone. Fortunately, for the most part, the worst is over: the streets look great, the sidewalks are now cobblestones (of sorts), and even the dowdy subway station has a spiffy new coat of paint.

But there still remains one glaring eyesore. Namely, my faded brown brick twenty-five story apartment building, and its identical twin across the way. No way to sugar-coat this: they’re ugly. So, I must admit, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find this outside of my window today (click for an enlargement):

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According to the notice pasted to the wall beside the elevator, starting today, building exterior work will be ongoing from 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM, until completed. No sense yet as to whether the crew is going to erect bamboo up both of the twenty-five story buildings (based upon this photo, it would require a forest of the stuff), much less how they plan to improve the exterior. And goodness knows who or how this is all being paid for (presumably from the same pot of US$45 billion that the NYT claims is being spent on Expo-related developments). But rest assured, Shanghai Scrap is on the scene, camera in hand, ready to document every last chisel hit (especially the ones next to my windows) belonging to this most personal (and welcome!) of Expo 2010 improvement projects.

Japan’s Benedictines

Typically, I don’t post links to articles that I write for my hometown media (back in Minnesota), lest I come off as the provincial rube that – frankly – I am. That, and I think interest is fairly limited for things Minnesotan among my readers – the vast, vast majority of whom have no interest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But once in a while an exception is in order, and so I hope interested readers will enjoy having a look at “In Japan, a Minnesota monastic community thrives,” my account of Trinity, a small Benedictine monastery in the mountains west of Tokyo with roots in St. John’s Abbey, a much, much larger Benedictine community in Collegeville, Minnesota (I’ve had some positive feedback from non-Minnesotans who read it via a link off my twitter feed – thus, this post). Below, the view just past the monastery’s driveway:

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Quite a bit of thanks is due to the very kind, very hospitable brothers at Trinity. I had the privilege of spending a long weekend with them (and doing the reporting for this story) in the midst of a long, totally unrelated reporting trip in late May and early June.

New category: Expo 2010 – US Pavilion

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve received a serious uptick in visitors in search of information on the (still non-existent) US pavilion for Expo 2010, and the sorry fiasco that has tarnished it. So, to make these searches a bit easier, I’ve just added a new ‘Expo 2010 – US Pavilion‘ category. Click there (or here) for a chronological listing of posts that I’ve done on the subject. More to come soon …

Why are 40,000 containers of scrap metal idling in Hong Kong and Guangzhou?

Unless you trade in non-ferrous scrap metals, you probably weren’t aware that this was a problem. But let me assure you that it is a big problem, indeed, and if you have any interest in how business works in south China, the origins of this mess should interest you.

First,  a bit of background.

Ever since China began importing scrap metal in the mid-1980s, south China has been the preferred port of entry for a broad class of low-grade loads of mixed scrap recyclables. These range from electric motors, to insulated cables, and loads of – yes – mixed metals. Why? Taxes. For twenty years (with a few interruptions) Guangzhou Customs has accepted lower declarations on the value of imported mixed metals than other ports in China. Let me explain how this works.

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Say you have 5 kg of aluminum ball bearings, and 5 kg of steel ball bearings. To make this simple, let’s say that the aluminum bearings cost $1/kg, and the steel bearings cost $.10/kg. The correct value declaration on the two loads of bearings would then be $5.50. But say you take those bearings, mix them together in a bucket, and then present them to a customs agent with a declared value of, say $2.80 (claiming two kg of aluminum and eight kg of steel) – what are the chances that the Customs agent is going to pay someone to sort through that mixed pile in order to determine whether or not your declaration is true? Continue reading

Plywood Infernal.

Generally, I never turn down the opportunity to visit a factory. At a minimum, they’re invariably interesting, especially if – like me – you’re at all interested in how the things that one takes for granted are created. At best (in my case, at least), factory visits might lead to new stories. So I was more than happy when told that – as part of something else I was doing – I would have the opportunity to visit a very large plywood factory in a northern Chinese city that manufactures several types of wood products (for various reasons I won’t go into now, I can’t and won’t reveal the name or location of this factory). Over the years, I’ve visited facilities where safety and environmental conditions were abominable; but I can say, I’ve never left any of them feeling as physically and emotionally upended as I felt after exiting this plywood plant.

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Some background. The facility manufactures unfinished plywood, and coated plywood. Its markets are Chinese and – increasingly – Africa and Eastern Europe (that is, places that value cheap building materials and don’t have very tight requirements on quality or safety). It does not export to North America or Europe. At some point, in the past, it exported to Japan, but for reasons that weren’t revealed, that relationship ended. It employs 100+ people, almost all of whom are migrants. This latter fact surprised me: the factory is located in a relatively small town of the sort that one expects people to migrate from. But the economy of this town is quite unusual, and most of the locals prefer to work in the other major industry (which I won’t name). Like the manufacture of plywood, the other major industry utilizes hazardous chemicals with well-known negative health effects. Even so, despite two bad choices, the locals know that the more fatal choice is plywood. According to two knowledgeable people with whom I spoke about the issue (one of whom was very local), locals expect employees of the plywood plant to contract a terminal illness within two to three years of employment. I suppose it’s no accident, then, that few of the non-management employees that I saw at this plant appeared to be older than 25. Continue reading