July 19, 2010

From Iron Rice Bowl to Stainless Cafeteria Tray

The Iron Rice Bowl (tiě fàn wǎn in Mandarin) was once the symbol for the lifetime employment and welfare given through many state-run enterprises during Maoist era socialism in China (as well as Taiwan's clientelist developmental-state era). Benefits were channeled and managed through danwei (commonly translated as "work unit"). The colloquial term "rice bowl" means a job and livelihood. Thus to fire someone is to "break his/her rice bowl" (dǎ pò tā de fàn wǎn).

The Iron Rice Bowl was weakened during the reform period under Deng Xiaoping (1978-1990s), and was finally broken under the implementation of the "Socialist Market Economy" and full repudiation of the Maoist planned economy. Under the Hu-Wen administration, full integration into the global market economy under the norms and "harmonization" of the WTO regime has unfolded along with intensive privatization, fiscal decentralization and state retrenchment. Over the past 10+ years, China's rapid growth rate has been fed by footingless labor as well as footloose capital. Major restructuring of the economy and the development of flexible labor has meant that workers' livelihoods (let alone iron rice bowls) have been increasingly fragile and subject to the economic bottom line.

Although China continues to be characterized by many writers as "the world's factory" with limitless labor, a paradoxical outcome has resulted from the restructuring that enabled that rise. The rapid growth of a flexible national workforce—including a massive "floating population" of well over 100 million migrant workers—has also made annual labor shortages typical in the coastal provinces. Beginning in the 2000s, shortages of 10-20% were reported in many factories in Guangdong at the same time that national underemployment continued at crisis rates (official unemployment stats for urban areas persisted at over 10%). This year (2010), the manufacturing hub Dongguan was short over 150,000 workers after the Spring Festival according to the local labor bureau. This, despite increased unemployment and the fact that over 400 factories closed in Dongguan during 2007-2008 (as documented in the amazing photos of Jin Jiangbo).

The concept of the danwei is crucial to understanding how workers are retained and employed as the China's development models and corresponding modes of organizing production and social reproduction have transformed. Fei Xiaotong (費孝通) first formulated descriptions of an 'orthodox' model of post-Mao development and transition in Jiangsu province's "Sunan model." Fei described this model in distinction from the "Wenzhou model" of private enterprise-led growth in Zhejiang province. The Sunan model consisted of collective-run town and village enterprises (TVEs) as a primary engine for growth and industrialization. TVEs mobilized rural labor in industrial networks to distribute labor intensive industries, while enabling economic growth and investment in major cities such as Shanghai.

The current models of development in Jiangsu are much more complex and savvy to global capital, leveraging previous modes of state intervention while allowing for flexibility and private corporate governance. Employers are likewise responding to current conditions with hybrid models of management that take advantage of state-run labor recruitment and infrastructure. While lifelong employment is no longer a consideration, non-wage benefits are an important factor in retaining labor, especially in rapidly growing industries that demand skilled workers.

In my headline example—I call it the Steel Cafeteria Tray (bù xiū gāng cān pán)—workers are housed and boarded in facilities that are actually owned, managed and subsidized by state-run entities such as various special economic zones (SEZs). This model encourages investment by reducing labor management costs and helping to retain labor for longer periods. Private enterprises also use hybrid state-owned private human resource companies that help companies find and even manage and train workers through a temp-dispatch system. For a start-up company with simple labor needs, this system can save up to 80% in HR and management costs.

Pictured below is a cafeteria in the Innovation Park of the Yixing Economic Development Zone. The space of the cafeteria is common to private enterprises, state joint ventures, state-owned private enterprises, and state units such as the Zone administration itself. Factory workers, Zone admin staff, and resident enterprise managers (and researchers) exchange Zone-printed tickets for their meals.

all photos copyright 2010 by J
ia Ching Chen

June 28, 2008

Visa to the Other Revolution

Bureaucracy has a 'rational' character: rules, means, ends, and matter-of-factness dominate its bearing. Everywhere its origin and its diffusion have therefore had 'revolutionary' results... The march of bureaucracy has destroyed the structure of domination which had no rational character.
--Max Weber

I thought twice about writing this post. First, I didn't want to seem like a culturally-insensitive, whiny tourist. Then, coming to grips with reality, I thought the information herein may be of some use to others of my demographic.

I wrote most of this post earlier from a hotel computer. I needed the computer because my laptop had quit on me and was in the shop. I needed the hotel room because I needed to be registered with the local police. This is the law in China. Within 24 hours of visiting any city (and each time you return after leaving said city), foreigners must register their presence and place of residence with official affidavits from the host/landlord at a local district office. This is also a taxation mechanism. The prevalent easy route is simply to check into a hotel. Most visitors don't realize that they're satisfying these obligations as they peruse the breakfast buffet.

In major cities across the country, officials are stepping up security in time for the games. I was getting doubtful that I'd get an extension at all, but they at least entertain the idea here in Jinan. In Beijing, it's pretty much out of the question right now. All foreigners staying long-term on extended tourist visas and weird work-arounds are being cleared out by July 1.

It turns out that Shandong Province (of which Jinan is the capital) is hosting the Olympic sailing and some other water events. Jinan is not a typical tourist destination, and after the games, it will continue in that tradition. Government workers are not particularly accustomed to dealing with foreigners. The online address for visa issues was given as the Jinan City People's Government offices. After some confusion, they sent me up the street to a Police Bureau for Entries and Exits. [I had to go back to get clearer directions, though. As is typical, the clerk pointed in a general direction (in this case the wall) and said, "it's right over there." After going outside and turning the corner, i realized i had no idea what he'd meant.]

After arriving at the sparkling new Police Bureau, I was directed to a touch screen for a number (though there was no one else there). My number was called and after explaining my situation, I was given a slip of paper with the address of another Police Bureau for Entries and Exits office. A cab ride through tiny alleys later, I found my way to another touch screen. My slip read: 3004, there are now 02 people waiting ahead you, please wait peacefully until you are called. I did, and I was.

I asked the handsome, nicely demeanored policeman how one would hypothetically extend one's tourist visa. He demanded my passport and instead of following my instinct and saying i didn't have it with me, I complied. He wrote down my passport info in a ledger and started to grill me about the details of my trip. I answered evasively, but more-or-less convincingly. He said that I had broken the law by not registering, and that I was to register right away.

Things started getting complicated from there. He said I would have to bring my friend who I'm staying with in and that she
would have to show her registration and certify that I am staying with her. She isn't registered because our landlord is avoiding taxes on our rent. So, I found my way to the Runhua Century Hotel, where guests receive phone solicitations for in-room massages, a complementary plate of fruit and a glass of "OJ" [read leftover Tang from the Challenger].

On day two, I checked out of the hotel and requested a certification of my stay in the hotel. The clerk assured me that the credit card receipt would suffice. After pulling number 3008, I found out that she was wrong. After a trip back to the hotel, I returned again as number 3010 and was given a form to fill out. It requires a photo. The clerk that operates the camera was not there. After returning home to get a photo and drawing number 3012, I sat down to wait for the 01 persons waiting ahead of me. I sat watching the officer as his neighbors attended to several people. It looked like he was playing solitaire or checking his email, but I assumed it was official. Ten minutes later, 3011 wasn't called. So, I approached and placed my completed form down in front of him. He glared at me as he snatched it, scattering other papers across the counter.

He told me that, after all, they cannot grant new visas at this office. I explained that I didn't want a new visa, but only an extension. He asked, incredulously, what I would be doing in Jinan for so much time. When I explained that I would indeed visit other places, but would be returning to Jinan because my friends are here, he told me flatly that it was his suggestion that I apply for the extension in whatever city I was in when my visa expired. When I asked him if it was too early at this point to apply, how long the process would take, and when I'd be eligible for an extension, he firmly reiterated his suggestion.

That is a long account of how I have yet to receive a visa extension. My conclusion is that you'll have better luck if you have all your papers in order and only go once. They don't want to see you more than that, especially right before lunch. I had to duck under the lowering roll-up doors as I left.

UPDATE [7/3/08 ]:
My visa is being processed. It required an additional five trips. I had to provide: 1. Additional photo, 2. Recent bank statement showing at least $100 per day of extension, 3. Signed affidavit explaining where i had been in China to date, purpose, purpose of extension and planned itinerary, 4. Documentation of registration with the local police bureau (hotel registration documents), 5. Air tickets and itinerary, 6. CNY 940 (~$138).

This process allows you an "extension visa." You cannot apply for any other type of visa.

June 27, 2008

Super Bloc Superblocks

Over the past 50 years, Chinese city centers have developed very large blocks. Soviet planning brought International Style architecture and CIAM modernism to Chinese cities. The small, disordered alleyway was to be replaced by the order of the automotive-scaled thoroughfare. In this Corbusian vision, dense towers concentrate land use, leaving park space across the city. The lessons learned are that without careful attention, this actually obliterates human scale and walkability. A grid with fewer roads may exacerbate traffic as drivers have fewer routes.

Blocks here are often 600 meters or longer between through streets. (By comparison, Manhattan are 80 x 275 meters.) The interiors of these blocks are highly varied. Some contain blocks within blocks as cycles of development and in-fill have created layered spaces and cul-de-sacs. Many areas are walled off. Others are contained by continuous building frontages. As Beijing demolishes its historic hutong neighborhoods, some redevelopments present new spatial patterns with open plazas and throughways that break-up the superblocks. Scholars have studied the importance of walls and compounds to the Chinese. We will be doing some research into the physical forms of these blocks and the actual use of space. We'll try to understand a bit of how these spaces are being transformed, and how their use is formed by --and impacts-- planning and redevelopment processes.

More photos and notes here

Corbusier: "The Ordered City, the Chaotic City"

Corbusier: The Radiant City

June 21, 2008

Beijing Arts/Industry

Beijing has a booming arts scene. An epicenter of galleries, studios, and artists' colonies has sprung up near the airport in old factories. Rents were cheap and space was abundant. Now a new wave of redevelopment in the area has transformed the area in just a few years. Sounds familiar?

Photos here

June 17, 2008

Old Walls, New Streets

Jinan is widening many of its streets. The remains of building interiors form new edge conditions for both the streets and for those continuing to reside beyond the walls. The hidden surfaces of parti-walls are turned inside-out, becoming new exteriors. Temporary conditions of demolitions-in-progress are inhabited in improvisational ways as materials are carted off for disposal and reuse. Awaiting compensation, or unable to move, families and businesses continue to inhabit their spaces even as they become exposed to the elements.

Photos taken on Shanshi Road, 6/17/08, and on Jingsi Road 6/13-6/18/08 here.

June 14, 2008

Jinan Old City, New City

This week, a section of the Qing Dyansty Old City is being demolished to make way for redevelopment of the lake front. Many of the structures are 100-300 years old.

More photos here.

June 13, 2008

They don't get many Japanese tourists around here

Today, my coworker Allie and I went up to a redevelopment zone on the north edge of Jinan. We had been told that a large area of wholesale markets would be demolished. We have been generally perturbed by the physical-determinist and design-centric planning process, but this seemed like a really bad idea. I wanted to go take a look and maybe get the "before" to the pile-of-rubble "after" that we see everywhere we turn in this city. I was walking through the market taking some snapshots when a security guard asked me what i was doing.

me: "just taking a pictures."
him: why? what do you mean? who are you?
me: uh...?
him: come with me!
me: I'm a student from Berkeley. [this means absolutely nothing to everyday people b/c they've never heard of it.] I'm working with the local planning bureau doing research.
him: this way!
me: uh... is it not ok to take pictures? are you a public peace [公安 i.e. police] officer?
him: I'M A SECURITY [保安 i.e. private] OFFICER.THIS WAY!

He leads me to a little office and I try to calmly explain who i am and what i'm doing. they are very suspicious. they don't really care. Really, they feel like i've trespassed and they want to exercise their authority over their domain. A seated woman starts barking at me, but i can't understand what she's saying. This is really annoying to her. They get the boss (of this tiny room). I try my story on him. He asks me for my ID and i show him my Cal ID. He doesn't look at it and pushes it back over to me. I ask him what he wants from me. He says to sit down.

Allie's not answering her phone, and i don't have any of the bureau people's names or numbers. They're unimpressed by my mention of the vice-director. I call a student at Shandong Uni and ask him to put his professor on the line. He tries to explain for me. The little Napoleon actually yells at the prof over the phone! He hangs up and hands my cell phone to me, seeming a little nicer. He says that I'm not supposed to take pictures without permission and that his workers will escort me. I thank him and apologize for the misunderstanding.

Sadly, this was misunderstanding number two. I thought he meant escort me around to take photos. Actually, i was being escorted over to another office! Finally, Allie returns my call. She sees us crossing the street but can't catch up b/c of all the traffic. We go into another building and start up a flight of stairs. i try and tell the guy that my friend will come and help to explain. He doesn't want to wait and tries to drag me up the stairs. I tell him to let go of my arm. I'm glad that he does. I tell him to just wait a second and explain to Allie how to find me. She finds us and the guy tries to tell her she can't come, but she shows some attitude and he relents.

We go into the manager's office of this mall, and sit down. Allie does most of the talking and they are disarmed by her being a woman and a foreigner. It goes back and forth for a while and they say that we can't photograph the market buildings from the inside or the outside. we try and explain that the market will be impacted by the redevelopment and that we just wanted to document the environs. They say that the project we're talking about is to the north and that we should go that way to see the space. We apologize for the misunderstanding and they let us go.

It turns out that this was misunderstanding number one. We had been told at a meeting at the planning bureau that this market would be torn down. Today, at the planning institute, we were told that this isn't the case. This raises other problems and questions about transportation and land-use planning, but that's another (more technocratic) story...

In the meantime, here's a photo of the bottom-less mannequins that i snapped just as the guard nabbed me.

June 7, 2008

One Day Demolition

Jinan, Shandong Province, China - An entire neighborhood on Lishan Road was recently torn down in a single day. Locals and demolition workers are now picking through the rubble to reclaim reinforcing steel, timber, glass, bricks, tile, and other materials. The demolition is part of a larger series of urban redevelopment projects along the Lishan corridor. This includes a bus rapid transit (BRT) project. Researchers from the University of California Transportation Center (based at Berkeley) have been studying the project, trying to understand the policy-making process, implementation, and trying to suggest improvements.

Using a small hammer, this woman is reclaiming thin steel wires from concrete rubble.

see photos at my picasa page:

October 27, 2007

Shanghai Informal Economy

Along with Shanghai's commercial building and finance capital boom of the past two decades has come a huge influx of new residents. Many of these come from the immediately surrounding region. Because of hukou (household registration) restrictions, these people are unable to seek formal employment. Others, are simply trying to make a few extra yuan on the side.

Toy Vendor

These things cost 40 cents each. It'd be
tough enough without ten people selling the same schlock in the same


This busker is playing in the tunnel under the intersection of Beijing East Road and the Bund.

October 26, 2007

4Rs Meets 3Rs

In the Hong Kong Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, a display defines the "4Rs of Urban Renewal": Redevelopment, Revitalization, pReservation, and Rehabilitation. Wandering around the Baoshan MRT station in Shanghai today, I thought about those 4Rs and the 3Rs of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle as Shanghai's own urban transformation Rs.


a smashed tile floor hints at this demolished longtang's former inhabitants, who were relocated in 2003


useable bricks are salvaged. workers are using them to rebuild a segment of the old wall. remnants of the last house of the demolished longtang stands in the background. some workers are now living in its fragile shell.


these workers are smashing concrete by hand to reclaim the reinforcing steel.

Just down the street, space under the elevated freeway and the light rail, people Reclaimed space to --you guessed it!-- sell salvaged machinery for Reuse.

October 22, 2007

I'm a Believer!

There is a Chinese saying about superstitions that's something like "It's better to act like you believe, even if you're not sure." Meaning it's better safe than sorry.

Visiting the old canal town Wuzhen outside of Shanghai yesterday, I saw this being played out on tourists (and their wallets). It was unlike any other Chinese temple experience that I've had. I was struck by a feeling of being on a Fordist assembly line. The efficiency of the process was impressive, and left me wondering if this is a common means of producing spirituality (and its monetary expression) in China.

I've sketched a diagram:

1. Starting at Orientation on the front steps of the temple, the tour group is told the history of the temple, its importance and its ongoing restoration process. The visitor is also told the terms of the visit: no pictures, respect, and quiet.

2. At Reception, the visitor's tour ticket checked upon entering the temple, and s/he is given a badge. Each group has its own character to distinguish it from the many others on the line.

3. Crossing the forecourt, the group enters a hall with a central daoist alter and deities representing the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Here, an Explanation of the deities' significance, and the means of worship is explained. All major aspects of one's life can be linked to one's sign, and all the manner of problems can be brought to the deities. Offerings are made, protections prayed for. The group is given the good news that the temple is their to help visitors better understand their zodiac signs and their destinies.

4. Half of the visitors queue up to receive a complimentary card explaining the significance of her sign. The other half cuts the queue. Nonetheless, few if any of the visitors can comprehend the archaic expressions. This isn't a problem, because the temple comes equipped to handle this problem.

5. Passing into the rear courtyard, the visitors are lined up in a room off to the side. In each of four corners, men dressed in "traditional" scholar robes sit and explain the deeper meaning of one's problems and how they are linked to one's year of birth. The fortune teller then instructs the visitor how much incense to burn and what to ask for. Since I am not yet married and without children at 34, I needed to appease my ancestors and seek peace for my family. The massive incense sticks, sold right outside cost USD10-20 -- a mark-up of at least 500%. In other temples that I've visited in Hong Kong and Taiwan, fortune tellers and incense sellers did not enjoy such a monopoly arrangement, and aren't set up right on the temple grounds.

I skipped out, but I'm still praying for my ancestors' forgiveness.

Creative Destruction

Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
--Walter Benjamin

the last remains of a demolished home

Shanghai --as is often said-- is a lens onto China's transformation, baffling in scale and speed. The whole city is a (de)construction zone, and I often can't tell if I'm on the inside or the outside of the barriers. A few days ago, I roamed around the demolition of a few blocks of longtang housing between the Bund and the Old Town on Renmin Road. A few fragments of houses remained within the old masonry wall. These buildings were half removed, leaving their sections sliced open like an ant farm. Gordon Matta-Clark would have been impressed. When the public toilet that remained standing on the edge of the rubble was occupied, locals climbed the excavation for evacuation, using the debris-littered back rooms as makeshift toilets.

the public toilet at the edge of one of several cleared blocks

I met two migrant workers living on the site in a seven-foot tall three-by-six foot plywood box. They said they were "renovating" (修房子), but there was no house there. They were watching over a newly poured slab as it cured.

although she let me photograph her and the interior of her small shed, she wouldn't tell me her name nor where she was from. the footprint of shed is the size a single bed.

living room 1

living room 2

the character on the wall to the left means "dismantle"

About a mile from the site, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center displays models, maps, and virtual reality fly-overs of the new Shanghai that is being built block by block over the dismantled old city. The recurring theme here--and in Hu Jintao's Party Congress speech--is "Harmony" (和諧).

the whole exhibit is quite impressively put together. above the model is a VIP-only viewing balcony. beyond that, you can catch a glimpse of the Green Shanghai exhibit.

October 17, 2007

Dual Economy

-- Shanghai Living --
Crosstown Cab Ride : ¥25
Crosstown Subway Trip : ¥5

Fancy Hotel Breakfast : ¥40
Steamer of Dumplings : ¥8

3 Course Western Dinner : ¥120
3 Course Sidewalk Dinner : ¥4

[US$1 = CN¥7.5]

My big ticket items so far have all gone on a credit card. So, walking around today three ¥100 bills (the highest denomination of the Renminbi) sat idly by while I spent my coins and small bills. When it came time for dinner, I was down to two one yuan bills. I spent one on a delicious grilled bun filled with pickled veggies. I was setting the other newer bill aside for Sam Warren because I've only seen it once. I wanted another, but I saw the vendor have to scramble to give a kid change for ¥10, so of course my ¥100s were out of the question. I went to several hardware and tool stores in a row asking for change. No one was able to change the bill. I ended up walking several blocks to a Japanese convenience store. The girl reluctantly took my bill for the ¥1.1 bottle of water, and lifted the register tray revealing only three other ¥100s. I went back to the stalls and enjoyed a deep-fried sausage and a red bean cake for dessert.

Sausage and squid

Red bean lunbin ("wheel cake")

[The vendors all refused to be photographed.]