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Dinner at Yangji Building Site

October 11, 2011
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Two weeks ago I walked through the construction site near the Yangji subway and tried to get as many pictures as I could of  the remaining  structures.  A scale was set up to weigh the bricks, steel rods, and all other materials that would be sold  as scrap. I saw an assortment of bicycle parts and asked the boss if it was possible to make a junk bike for 100 RMB. The offer just wasn’t worth the effort.

The parts of homes being hauled away could transform into anything. Metal rods from a buildings frame could become a ten-thousand key chains. The gravel could even be turned into concrete that the new highrises could be made from the actual dust of these homes. When buildings are torn down they really just evolve.

The landscape of rubble has the backdrop of the skyline; very beautiful. Some homes are still untouched, some have been stripped of doors and windows, some are marked with spray paint

indicating that the owners had not signed contract. One home still had people inside, and a garden in the front with a trench was dug leading to an open sewer.

I asked the boss of the flea market which buildings still had people inside. He shrugged his shoulders and told me he wasn’t clear. It wasn’t really his business or mine for that matter. Out of curiosity I returned for pictures during the sunset but got there too late.

I saw a camp fire with several tables and chairs with a few moving silhouettes. A man was sitting in a chair while a woman was chopping vegetables. The man asked me to sit down. I told him I wanted information about the development and he told me everything. The concrete Soviet style buildings were mostly dust, two Lingnan style buildings were preserved for tourism, while some people had refused to leave remained in buildings and were in a stalemate with developers.

The remaining buildings were of mixed materials from wood, brick, tile, to clay were built over time by the owners. Even though these workers empathized with the people; even though it was their job to destroy their homes. One worker pointed out a stray cat mewing in the distance which returns every night looking for the family. Like an orphan.

I asked for a rough estimate of what people were getting for their property and they all said unanimously ’30,000 RMB per square meter.’  I couldn’t believe it, and square meter was enough to buy a new car. This was word of mouth; true or not, that is a lot of money in any city in the world.  Though  people don’t like being told when to retire and when to move.

More people came out of the shadows and sat by the fire. I had no idea where they were coming from, it was too dark to see. The conversation got more elaborate and involved ten or twelve voices each politely taking their turn. I felt like I’d stumbled into a bizarre science fiction movie; only this was real, and everyone had a country accent wearing dusty sandals and il-fitting sport coats. A community labeled “migrant workers.”

They asked me questions about American politics. They were all well-informed referring to Libya, unemployment and weapon sales to Taiwan.  Information was referenced to their mobile phones. Men and women with limited bathing and heating options were much more savvy about the current events than my University students. The conversation moved to Chinese politics and  the general changes in the country.

They wanted to know about my home, New York. I didn’t know where to begin. They asked me if there was a similar process of demolishing old buildings and replacing them with high rises. I told them there were only developments happen slowly in America.  The fact that it’s taken more than ten years to rebuild the world trade center sight is just laughable. Americans love to argue, it’s part of our culture.In China there are very few rules and everyone wants money, so development happens quickly. Everything in China is new and fast, while everything in America is old and slow. I told them how much more efficient Guangzhou’s transportation is cheaper and more efficient than New York. They hadn’t even taken the subway yet, they came directly on a bus Guangxi Province. All big cities are built by people who can’t afford to live in them.

No one seemed to harbor animosity towards the people in Guangzhou. In this country, ‘rich and poor’ are synonymous with ‘urban and rural,’ the farmers work in the factories, build the buildings  and knock them down a generation later. Like most societies the people who keep the country moving are the  disenfranchised misfits.

This is the wood fire, surrounded by bricks from the building site. The pot was used to cook the food and to boil the water for washing.

They asked me to stay for dinner and I couldn’t refuse. I hid my excitement, I wanted to know more about their culture and their daily routine. I accepted the invitation and one of the women announced dinner was ready. Tables and chairs made from found objects appeard. The movements were choreographed. Shadows were moving like a scene change  in a Broadway play. I was ordered to grab a bowl and get in line. They challenged me to fill my rice bowl the to top but I was worried that everyone would have enough.

The table was a former book shelf turned on its side. From the writing on the wood it was a sandwich board sign in another life. Every object is recycled. The food was cooked over a wood fire enclosed with bricks from the building site. Two dishes were served in laundry basins. One chicken and one eel. The flavors were new to my palate.

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They told me it was a distinct flavors from the rural areas of Guangxi Province and that they were all Dong ethnic minority. One man made a point to tell me that China has 50+ ethnic minorities; he sounded almost like a museum tour guide. (Secretly, I wanted to ask why the ‘minorities’ of the country were working in fields and construction sites while the Han aristocracy controlled government and business.) I inquired more about the food.

They told me that the eel was flavored with a small black spice shaped like a pepper corn called a Zhongzi (emphasizing the ‘G’ in pronunciation) . One of the ladies who cooked pulled a small red bag out of her pocket and told me to eat one. tasted a bit salty with a numbing effect like chewing a clove. They told me that one kilo of the herb was  200 RMB. I shook my head in disbelief of the quality of the food I offered around a campfire. The chicken was sautéed in diced cilantro; this month the price of cilantro has doubled! I pointed this out and the conversation moved real estate law to the price of vegetables. The meal I was just served would cost a small fortune in any of the restaurants down the street. I was absolutely grateful.

The women did the cooking while the men drank baijo and chain smoked. Drinking punctuated dinner conversation. If there is an awkward silence or someone tells a joke that isn’t really funny they are forgiven with a request to drink like a military salute.  No one drinks alone, always eye contact with ritual. I hadn’t pounded baijo in a long time. I started slurring my words after the fourth glass and realized it was time for me to go.

They invited me to back another night, though there was no guarantee they would be working on the same project from one week to the next. Hence the label: “Migrant Workers.” I couldn’t understand the  amount of hospitality without wanting something in return, other than good conversation.

After three years in China I’ve grown jaded and callous from random idiots approaching me with their business cards, looking to practice their English or just get a picture taken with a white face. That’s why I moved to Guangzhou. I like a big city where no one celebrates mediocrity.  Some people need mountains and lakes to be reminded of a greater power, I need buildings and constant movement of people.

As I walked off the site they gave me directions of where to step to avoid being cut by random shards of metal.  I moved away from the fire and into the street lights and noticed my shoes were covered in dust. At the Yangi subway station I moshed my way into the overstuffed train like a 90′s rock show. Looking at the people trying not to make eye contact with each other, I thought everyone was just silly.

They were not people. The were cheap manufactured copies of people. They all had skin that had never seen the sun, they wore clothes with foreigners names: Gucci, Klein, Lauren. Walking commercials. Not humans. Their conversations were rehearsed. Emotions were learned from soap operas. I erupted in laughter. I wasn’t subtle. Too happy. I kept laughing.

Everyone backed away from me and stared.

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