I’m back from a glorious walkabout in Australia. It’s cool and sunny in Shanghai and I have the doors and windows wide open, enjoying the respite from summer’s heat. My patio garden is finally a pleasant spot to eat or read a book. I admire the butterflies on the purple verbena hanging down the wall. In my tingzijian, I throw open the windows i and inhale the fresh air, thinking about the great work I am going to do in this charming space.
I should have known it wouldn’t last.
Wednesday afternoon, there are stacks of bamboo poles in the lane, the kind used all around here for scaffolding.
As I walk in, a car runs over one and it gives a loud crack, but that’s about all that will break stout bamboo. “What are they going to do with those?” I ask Ou Yang, our driver, who passes a lot of time with our gatekeeper. There has been so much construction around the street and in the lane lately.
“Fix the houses,” he replies. “Some leak water and aren’t safe. It will take about two months.”
Thursday mid-day, when guys with hard hats are clambering around erecting scaffolding outside our kitchen door, I protest to Ou Yang, “Our house doesn’t leak and is safe.”
Not to mention that our house is privately owned, unlike all the other houses in the lane, which the government owns and the residents merely have use rights. I go inside and email our landlord, who is a good friend and lives in Hong Kong, thinking that he might want to find out what’s up with his house. At the end of the day, he reports that after phoning the management company that takes care of the government-owned houses (not them – they did major repairs 4 years ago), the neighborhood committee (who said that the local government was doing the work), and the local government (who denied that they were involved), our landlord still can’t figure out just exactly who are the guys twisting wire around the poles to construct the scaffolding.
By early Friday morning, I am worried. I see piles of green netting, usually hung from scaffolding in these parts. It is ugly and I am afraid that they are going to hang it and block the light.
On my early morning walk, I take a photo of what looks like a notice about the work in the lane to send to my landlord.
After I get dressed in my bedroom, where I see poles sticking up level with the window, I walk down to my tingzijian.
Aaack! There is a man on the scaffolding about two feet from my desk!
And another guy outside the other little window. I better make sure I am dressed when I walk around the house in the morning. As I go out the garden gate, the guys outside are friendly, in a cat-cally kind of way. “Hello,” one calls out to me in English. I return the greeting to peals of laughter from all three of them.
At noon I get a call that yanks me back home as soon as I email my landlord the photos of the notice sign and the guys hanging outside the window. Our housekeeper has reported that the workers are putting up scaffolding in my garden. The entrance garden to our house. The little garden that is walled on three sides, the fourth side being our house with the huge living room picture window, normally so sunny and private that we only have sheer curtains that don’t even reach all the way across.
I find my gate open and walk in with a friend who is providing moral support. Two guys are hanging out on bamboo around my front door.
One of them drops the cigarette that has been dangling from his mouth onto my patio. The scaffolding is erected all across my pepper plants, over the lemon tree, the bonsaied gingko, and the gardenia. “Hello,” calls out the sort-of English speaker from the morning. He is behind me in my garden.
I don’t fool around with Chinese. I am shaking too hard. “What are you doing in here?” I shout. “Stop! Stop right now. Get out of here!” His English is apparently limited, because they all look surprised but uncomprehending until I switch to Mandarin, “Ting yi xia!” They stop banging on the bamboo long enough for my friend and me to slip under the scaffolding into the house. One of the guys outside is plodding around the picture window and stares straight in my living room and waves at me.
I call my husband, nearly hysterical. He phones our landlord, who is extremely sympathetic, but there is little he can do. He has finally gotten confirmation from the local government official who yesterday denied having anything to do with this project that his office is sprucing up all the houses in the lane. And there is nothing you can do about it, private property or not, he told my landlord curtly. Apparently this is considered priority work – painting the houses to look good – “to get ready for Expo.” It will probably only take a few days or a couple of weeks.
Shanghai is hosting a world’s fair in 2010 and we have already been hearing about it for years. Oddly to me, Shanghai seems to think that the world will care about this as much as it did about the Beijing Olympics. And now that the Olympics are over, I suspect that “it’s because of Expo” will be the new excuse for just about everything that doesn’t go right. Like “it’s because of the Olympics” was cited when my son suddenly couldn’t get his asthma medicine at the pharmacy this summer.
I come home in the afternoon after my son has taken me out to lunch to calm my nerves. I start photographing all the guys clambering around the scaffolding on the block. My sort-of friend comes over and frowns. “Why are you always taking pictures of us?” he asks.
(That’s our house on the left, all battened down. My friend who likes to talk to me is in the jacket.)
I have recovered enough to speak Chinese. “Because to me this very strange,” I said. “In my country, in America, nobody could just come into my land, to paint my house. This is my landlord’s house and he didn’t hire you. I didn’t invite you. We don’t want the government here.” A number of people from the neighborhood had drifted over. “Nobody even told us you were going to do this. In my country, if I want someone to paint my house, I pay them and I decide when to do it. The government can’t just come in my house, in my garden. I am a foreigner, but I find this very strange, so I am going to keep taking pictures.” Nobody said anything.
“Besides,” I add, “you should give me a hat.”
“A hat? Why?”
“You are wearing a hat. Why? Because it is not safe. I have to go in and out of the doors and it is not safe. So I want a hat.” Several people burst out laughing at that.
“Okay,” he answers, “I will bring you a hat.” And switching to English, “tomorrow.”
In this city, people have to put up with far greater intrusions by the government than I have had to so far. In the name of progress, whole neighborhoods are destroyed whether or not the residents want this. For that matter, it hasn’t been all that long since their very thoughts were policed during the Cultural Revolution. They must think that I am nuts for caring so much about scaffolding around my house and a forced paint job. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s all relative.
But on this cool and sunny day, I have all the windows locked, the shutters swung into place, and the shades pulled. My husband has nailed a sheet of plastic dropcloth to the top edge of our picture window. The guys climbing around outside are polite enough and now I can only see their shadows a few feet away. It’s only a matter of time before they are on the third floor balcony just outside the French doors that open into my bedroom. And I think to myself: What if the government wanted to send its workers inside?