The face of Shanghai’s skyline

The face of Shanghai's skyline

We don’t pay enough tribute to the backbone of Shanghai’s construction fervor, as unhappy as Shanghai residents seem to be by all the Expo-driven noise and air pollution.

We crane our necks to identify the peaks of skyscrapers that overrun the city but tend to sweep over the ubiquitous orange and red helmets dotting the sides of streets – hauling concrete, climbing into sewers and soldering windows in unfinished buildings. They are migrant labor that are building the China dream but are rarely able enjoy the luxurious fruits which the well-off take for granted.

They are also the unrecognized residents of Shanghai, and in many cases, looked down upon because they are mostly from out of the city, or 外地人 (wai di ren) from poorer and far-flung provinces of China. Perhaps they make enough to help the family back home to buy a pig or send their children to school. If they are lucky, they can help their families buy a television with the help of generous rural subsidies that the government recently introduced.

This gentleman, in a group of mingling workers, was most pleased to have his portrait taken in front of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC) as his workplace backdrop. Upon looking at the resulting image, he scratched his head and stared back at the building, as if it had never occurred to him to do so.

For having poured their blood, sweat and tears into building Shanghai’s skyline for minimum wage, they ultimately have no ownership or belonging in that part of China’s dream.

October 2009



  • Reply January 20, 2010

    Yuan Renminbi

    Dear Madam,

    I like your photography. I was moved by the photo and story behind “solitary labor” and so I decided to track down the subject of the piece and he agreed to provide some follow up commentary in exchange for two pints of palm wine. The transcript of the interview is below.

    What were you doing and why were you so angry?

    Cuz I’m a Shanghai rock breaker,
    A big money maker.
    Take a picture of me?
    I gonna fade ya.

    I take my chui
    and break some shi
    all for the good
    of the gong si.

    But what I do
    it make me fu
    sometimes I think that
    I’m just a chu.

    And so it just, it made me fen nu
    when that little nu hai —
    the one who dressed so fly —
    tried to take the pic o’ me
    I just sheng qi.

    Your biggest fan

  • Reply January 31, 2010


    I used to be totally amazed by the poetic irony of such works. And no doubt, the actual photo is fantastic. But the construction workers, everywhere, and the chaotic traffic of Shanghai is not just a “development” thing, one thing we in the West forget when we see such amazing images is that Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, these cities, are by and large, filled with chaos because the residents are mostly working with something like a high school education.

    The reason the traffic is so chaotic is because millions of locals are trying to walk in oncoming traffic, and the bikes go, in both directions, along the sidewalk.They don’t know what the red or green lights mean, which frustrates the Taxi drivers endlessly. For their part, the Taxi drivers will ride through red lights, even if there are pedestrians crossing (which of course, there always are).

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