Just beyond the shadow of neon-lit skyscrapers, Cao Xiuzhen lives in a tiny dark room up a makeshift flight of steps that is more ladder than staircase, under the eaves of a house precariously packed with people just like her: former peasants barelystruggling to scratch a living in the world’s largest economy.
It’s just past dawn on a lowering Shanghai day, and in this impromptu village of migrants — so similar to temporary migrant settlements all over China — a housewife chases a live waterfowl through the clutter of an impossibly narrow lane, until it ducks under a scooter and sets off the vehicle’s earsplitting alarm.
Inches away on the other side of a thin plywood wall, a baby sleeps in a small lean-to room with its parents. Cao’s husband squats nearby, brushing his teeth meticulously at an outdoor tap, while the next-door neighbour sits on her haunches washing clothes in a basin full of suds. Others fetch buckets of water from the communal tap, or load discarded cardboard on to three-wheeled carts, preparing for a day sorting through other people’s rubbish to make a few cents selling it up the recycling chain.
The sheer industriousness of it all is exhausting: so much life, so much effort, so much sacrifice, so much hope, packed into so few square metres. Like Cao, her neighbours have come to Shanghai — from her native Anhui, traditionally one of rich eastern China’s poorest provinces, and from other provinces across China — because the living they can make in the city is better than in the countryside. So many millions have obeyed that imperative that China reached the point, earlier this decade, where more than half its people live in cities.
“Shanghai is fabulous, it is so fabulous,” says the bright-eyed, 47-year-old Cao, with a weather-beaten face and ever-present smile; for our visit, she has dressed up in her best second-hand clothing. “We can easily make money here,” she says. “I am not educated,” Cao adds apologetically — in fact she is only semi-literate — “so when I came to Shanghai I had no choice but to become a ragpicker”.
It’s a good trade to ply, in a city full of the detritus of a new consumer society. Shanghai has an army of people who make a living as part of the unofficial — but hugely efficient — recycling industry. They pick plastic bottles out of bins, collect newspapers at subway stations during rush hour, or go door to door buying up old newspapers, books, cardboard or plastics, for a pittance. They earn a margin on that pittance by carting it all off to suburban recycling stations, where they join a queue of tricycle-carts waiting sometimes hours to sell to consolidators. At the pinnacle of that trash pile are some of the richest people in China, such as “rubbish baroness” Zhang Yin, of Nine Dragons Paper, ranked in 2010 by the Hurun List of Self-Made Women Billionaires as the richest self-made woman in the world.
在这样的一个新消费社会里，城市里满是垃圾，捡垃圾是门好营生。上海有一只靠拾荒谋生的大军，他们是一个非官方，但极为高效的废品回收业的一环。他们从垃圾桶里捡塑料瓶、在地铁站高峰时期收报纸、或者挨家挨户上门，低价收购旧报纸、图书、纸板或者塑料，再把这些东西运到郊区的废品收购站卖掉，赚取差价。在那里，等待把废品卖给废品集中商的三轮车队伍有时要排好几个小时。在“垃圾堆”的顶点，有一些中国最富裕的人，比如玖龙纸业(Nine Dragons Paper)的“废纸女王”张茵，她在2010年被《胡润全球白手起家女富豪榜》(Hurun List of Self-Made Women Billionaires)评为全球白手起家的女首富。
Cao’s recycling profit margins are a lot narrower than that: an average of Rmb100 (￡10.34) per day; sometimes more — and sometimes nothing. Most of her profit comes from selling old newspapers and books in bulk; but her most profitable items are Mao-era memorabilia: “Cultural revolution books are my bestsellers,” she says, noting that she was just a child then “so I don’t know anything about it — I only know it sells”. Her current selection includes a 1969 copy of Albania Todaymagazine, complete with foreword by (former dictator) Enver Hoxha; and a 1975 Chinese aviation manual. But despite those treasures, Cao makes enough profit only to cover her university student son’s Rmb1,000 monthly living costs, with Rmb500 left over to rent the room under the eaves.
曹秀珍的废品回收生意利润要低得多：平均每天100元人民币（约合10.34英镑）；有些日子多些，有些日子则一无所获。她的大多数利润来自大批量卖出旧报纸和旧书；但她利润最高的废品还是毛泽东时代的纪念品。“文化大革命的书最好卖，”她说，并表示文化大革命的时候她还是个孩子，“所以我对那些东西一点都不了解，我只知道它们很好卖。”她手头挑选出来的东西包括一份1969年的《今日阿尔巴尼亚》(Albania Today)杂志，保存完整，带有（前独裁者）恩维尔?霍查(Enver Hoxha)撰写的前言；以及一份1975年的中国航空手册。尽管有这些宝贝，曹秀珍的收入仍只够负担她上大学的儿子每月1000元人民币的生活费，然后就只剩下500元来付这间阁楼的租金。
Previously, her grown-up daughter shared the room with her mother and common-law husband. It’s hard to see how the room could possibly have accommodated three adults. In fact, it’s hard to see how its eight square metres can accommodate even two people, given that Cao is currently feuding with her husband (she chokes up while confiding that she fears he is skimming money off recycling sales).
Cao and her mate have called this single room home for five years already: but though it is beside one of Shanghai’s largest ring roads — one that millions of people drive along each day — one would never even know it was there.