The Diligent Young Men Cleaning Up Shanghai

Here’s a form of gainful employment that never occurred to me before Friday afternoon: cleaner of the world’s largest urban scale model. I came across him – them – during a visit to the in-need-of-a-better-name Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, and epic model of Shanghai in 2020.

I’ve been taking out-of-town visitors to the model for years, and inevitably two questions arise during those visits: 1) how do they put new buildings onto the map;, and 2) how do they clean it? I’d long assumed that the modular panels which constitute the hockey-rink sized model were removed, from below, for those purposes. It never would’ve occurred to me that twice per year a small team wanders the map, barefooted, repairing, replacing, and cleaning.

According to the diligent  young men assigned the tedious work of cleaning the map, dusting only occurs on the edges – that is, areas visible to visitors. They work with paint brushes (above), sweeping the dust into the rivers and highways, where it awaits the clean-up man and his War of the Worlds-like vacuum cleaner (below) …

An obvious hazard of the job – from the map’s perspective, at least – is the possibility that the city will be trampled under (bare) foot. One of these young men, when told (by one of my companions) to be careful of the foliage that he was trampling, responded: “We don’t worry about the trees. It’s the buildings that are important.”


During the 45 minutes or so that we spent with these cleaners, and their map, the most striking thing – for me, at least – was how real – literally, real – it was to those who care for it. My favorite moment was when an irritated supervisor pointedly told one of the workers: “Hey, be careful of Pudong South Road!” Not “that small toy road,” or “over there,” but “Pudong South Road.” Proof, if any was needed while gazing at a map that could only be produced with some crazy mixed in, that somebody really cares (and for the record: I care). Below, a worker carefully placing automobiles into a parking lot beside the Nanpu Bridge.


  1. Cool! I’m writing down all the places I want to see when I come to visit China. This will definitely be on my map! 😉

  2. Thanks to you, this has been a must see on two of our three trips to Shanghai (one trip was all about the Expo). This post has been Myles-approved.

  3. Oh boy, I can’t help it..


    Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! (Translation by Burton Watson)

  4. Absolutely wicked post, Adam. I think they should invent a hologram just to be able to walk like a giant in the metropolis area!

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  6. They should have created this on movable tables so that each table could be separated like a jigsaw piece and cleaned without people and their feet oil having to stand on the model area.

  7. I’m wondering if they are volunteers from colleges or full-time employees. Never imagined before there could be jobs for cleaning those craps. Only tourists will go see that silly city model…

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