Home sweet home

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-20 16:18:01


These stacked shipping containers are homes for a group of migrant workers living in Pudong. Photo: Yang Hui/GT
These stacked shipping containers are homes for a group of migrant workers living in Pudong. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

When Li Ming (not his real name) told his fellow villagers in rural Anhui Province that he was now living in Shanghai, they wouldn't have thought that his home was actually a rusty iron box, 2.5 meters wide and 6 meters deep. But a used shipping container has been the Shanghai home for Li and his family for the past two years.

Beside Li's container home, there are another 18 containers, some stacked on top of each other, on the northern side of a dusty street in Guijing village in Pudong, about one hour's drive from Shanghai's city center. About 10 people, including three children, call these containers home. For them, the glamour and excitement of the city can only be seen - for the moment, it is unreachable.

Li is an average-sized man in his late 30s. His right eye protrudes slightly, a result of the hyperthyroidism which he has suffered for years, along with kidney stones and other minor complaints. Illness forced him to give up his job as a factory delivery driver in nearby Liuli town two years ago and move to suburban Shanghai with his wife and son.

The rent for the shipping container they live in is 500 yuan ($80.44) a month, with electricity included. "It's cheap - that's the main reason we live here. We're migrant workers, you know, and we can't afford good living conditions in Shanghai. The rents in other places are too expensive," he said, as he carried two buckets of water home from a water tap opposite the street.

Considerably cheaper

Compared with the monthly rent for an apartment in the same district (1,000 to 2,000 yuan), the rent for a shipping container is considerably cheaper. But more importantly, the container has become a source of income. Li has turned the half of the container that faces the street into a mom-and-pop shop, selling soft drinks, toiletries and everyday items to the people who live or work nearby. Even so, the family's income is only about 2,000 yuan a month, just enough to cover the expenses.

Li and his wife sleep behind a curtain on the other side of the container. A cable brings electricity into the box, and Li has installed an air conditioner inside, which warms the space on the cold winter nights. The kitchen is found in a small wooden lean-to outside.

"It's actually convenient living here. It's even better than living in an apartment," Li said, pointing to an adjacent brick house as he cooked in his mini kitchen. "Shipping containers are solid and many brick houses in the countryside are poorly built and unstable."

The only inconvenience is the lack of a bathroom. They have to use the public toilets and visit a public bathhouse and pay when they need baths.

Their teenager son attends a local middle school. "That's another big reason why we live here. Education in rural areas is horrible. We want him to get a good education in the city," said Li.

Li's container home neighbors didn't want to be interviewed. In one container home, a young woman and two toddlers were having supper, and in another container, two middle-aged women were living. Li said their husbands were out working in factories and hadn't returned home at that stage.

Landlord and gardener

Their landlord is a tanned 69-year-old man named Zhang Baofa. He owns the 19 shipping containers in the mini settlement. A Pudong native, he moved to Guijing village about nine years ago, after retiring from his job as a security guard at the Shanghai Third Steel Factory in Pudong. Zhang looks younger than his age, and normally wears a stained blue working jacket.

A passionate gardener, 10 years ago he rented around 1,000 square meters of land, where the containers stand today, from the village committee and used the land as a nursery to experiment with plants. His favorite flowers are winter jasmines, and he also grows plum trees and tea trees. He figured that he could sell them for a profit if they grew well.

He bought the shipping containers in around 2010, after realizing that the use of containers was a gray area in Shanghai's construction laws.

"If someone wants to construct a building, he has to apply to the local authorities for approval. Shipping containers are not bound by this regulation," said Zhang, who studied law at the East China University of Political Science and Law in the 1980s.

"When I wanted to build some greenhouses on my land to house my plants, I found that buying shipping containers were the quickest way. They are great at conducting so the heat of the sun penetrates them quickly. And if someone buys my plants, I can deliver a complete shipping container of them directly, which saves work," Zhang said.

So he hung around the Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone in Pudong, the center of Shanghai's shipping industry, where the companies that sold used shipping containers could be found. He paid between 9,000 and 15,000 yuan for each container.

Zhang also lives in shipping containers, although he occupies two: the upper container on the second "floor" is his bedroom and his living room is in the ground container. A rusty iron ladder connects the two "floors" on the outside. He has installed a phone, an air conditioner and a washing machine in his living room. Inside the containers, he has wood paneling as insulation.

Zhang calls his tenants his partners. "They're my partners because we live together, and we often help each other. They are migrant workers and sometimes I collect rubbish and recycled iron and glass from them. I need the iron and glass for my nursery, and sometimes I let them pay rent with the iron and glass they find."

In the yard at the back of the containers, piles of steel pipes, wooden planks and glass panes are stacked around Zhang's flowers and plants.

The shabby but placid life in the container homes was shattered several times last year when their power was cut. Zhang said this was the work of a neighbor who cut the electricity cable. Zhang called the police to help and now the argument with the neighbor is going to court - the neighbor maintains that the electricity cable runs through his property illegally.

"It was horrible when the electricity was cut, but we lived with it," Li told the Global Times.

The worker problem

The village of Guijing stands about 2 kilometers east of the Huangpu River and just outside Shanghai's Middle Ring Road, which is regarded by many as the boundary between Shanghai's city and countryside. It's one of the 16 villages in Sanlin town. Several large factories are located in the area, including the Suntech Power factory, (the world's biggest solar panel manufacturer) and the leading food company, Wanchai Ferry Dumplings.

These factories need large numbers of workers and attract many migrant workers to the area. The workers come from Anhui, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and as far away as Hebei provinces. According to official figures, Sanlin town has a population of nearly 300,000 people, and about 60 percent are described as a floating population, a euphemism for migrant workers.

Walking along Shangpu Road West, the narrow main street of the village lined by shabby one- or two-story buildings, one can immediately feel the impact of industrialization and urbanization, as illustrated by the scores of employment agencies which occupy most of the buildings. Job advertisements, scrawled in chalk on blackboards or printed on paper sheets stuck on walls, promote the vacancies in nearby factories. The advertisements are usually terse. It seems like the name of the factory, salary, age and sex of a worker is all that is needed.

Migrant workers come to Shanghai hoping for a higher income, but they often have to endure living standards which are a bitter contrast to the standards enjoyed by the Shanghainese.

This was an issue highlighted by Premier Li Keqiang in his inaugural press conference on Sunday. "We need to prevent urban malaise and avoid the situation in which high-rises coexist with shanty towns," he told the conference. "What we stress is a new type of urbanization that puts the people in the heart. It needs the support of job creation and provision of services."

Official figures show that China's urban population surpassed its rural population in 2011. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, by the end of 2012, the urban population accounted for 52.57 percent of the country's total population.

However, the survey's definition of an urban population is broad. As long as a person has lived in the same city for more than six months, he is counted as a member of an "urban population." Yin Zhongqin, the deputy chairman of the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress, said that the statistics could not reflect the reality of China's urbanization.

He told China Newsweek: "The essence of urbanization is the urbanization of the population, not the land. It's a three-stage process. First, farmers migrating to cities become 'city dwellers,' then they become 'citizens' who lead a real urban life. It's a long, step-by-step process. Currently about half of those living in the cities are not living the life of a citizen. This is not true urbanization."


Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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