I spent the summer of 2008 in Beijing. I lived 4 blocks from the Olympic village, and I had front row seats to the colossal transformation leading up to the games. I acquired an electric scooter and explored the various parts of the city, biasing my direction towards places I hadn’t been before.
One sweltering day in Beijing, when we were out on another non-specific exploratory scooter patrol with RJ, we came across a peddle powered vehicle with an unbelievably large load. This wasn’t in itself unusual. You see these guys everywhere in Beijing and they make it into all of the tourist photographs. But being right there on the scooters next to such a load presented us with the very real possibility of discovering where all this stuff actually goes.
We tailed this vehicle for a few blocks, riding circles around it in traffic, examining the contents. The driver was dark from spending all his time in the sun and grimy from the Beijing air, beads of sweat reflected the sun on his forehead, his clothes were shredding from wear and acrid sweat. The insides of his knees were calloused from an improper peddling position which undoubtedly also hurt his knees.
His cart was fantastically overloaded with computer monitors, cardboard boxes, sundry electronics, water bottles, stacked tall and precarious. On the top was a slight middle aged female. She was the captain steering the upper story of the ship while the peddler focuses on the chug of the peddles, (in the engine room.) She was a skillful jockey corralling the amorphous pile of stuff, banking it into turns, using her arms and legs as dynamic counterweights, to adjust straps, and to hold on herself.
I’ve seen many such carts but this wasn’t the usual kind. The two person technique allowed them to be particularly ambitous.
We made a northwards turn near Tsinghua University Science and Technology (TUS) park, and passed tall office buildings which house the likes of Google China, Microsoft and Baidu, fancy restaurants, and a language learning boutique called “Wall Street English”.
On the road we spotted several more recycling vehicles, and we started to swim faster that the current chasing down the next and the next one. There were all kinds, electrical, gas, or peddle powered, and even some drawn by donkeys.
When we crossed the train tracks the recycling trickle became a recycling stream — half the vehicles on the road were loaded with recyclables, and when we rounded the next corner, we merged with the main vein of traffic through the heart of a neighborhood we dubbed trash city. The vehicles were no longer driving, but lined up in a long queue.
(This is a video of this crossing, but going in the opposite direction.)
At the head of the line was a weigh station, which the vehicles would mount, get weighed first and tarried after. The load was examined by an inspector whose stomach was exposed by a rolled up blue shirt. (This was the preferred way of cooling oneself.) He would issue a receipt to the driver who now rolled his empty cart onward in search of more filling. A few shouts (or was it signals using gongs and bells and some form of morse code) would summon the relevant section peddlers. Immediately, the monitor kid would run over with a wheel barrow, and the cardboard guy with his donkey, etc.
The economy of the whole neighborhood is dependent on recycling, and the physical layout of the streets and the people that lived there, constitute the recycling factory. If you followed the wheel barrow full of monitors, you’d soon find yourself in an unpaved alley where the disassembly process unfolded in the open air. What used to be whole, now became parts, and the parts were handed down different alleys and eventually out the back on large trucks. I do not know how money flowed through this system, or how much pay the receipt entitled the driver, but we could follow the trail of the material.
The first intersection on Monitor street branched into Plastic Alley left, Monitor Glass Road to the right. Going straight on Electronics Way led to a Circuit square which was also fed by a few other disassembly pipes of electronics from computers, radios, and cellphones.
If you tossed a gps transponder into such a cart anywhere in the city, you could probably track it through the maze of Beijing streets down to trash city, a brief pause at the weigh station, and a short leg to the point of its final transmission. There, typically a young kid would wrench out the critical circuit and toss it in a bin with others like it, and pick up the next circuit board and do the same. And there would be right here, in Circuit Square.
The boards themselves along with other scraps back in to Smelter Cul de Sac and are transmuted to hazardous fumes and a little bit of precious metals.
This place has a remarkable counterpoint in other parts of Beijing in the form “cell phone repair” stores where older masters and young apprentices micro-solder damaged components using stereoscopes. Here, they rip these components off and toss them into sorting bins, to be transported somewhere else. Disassemble and reassemble. Large Motorized Diesel Trucks filled to the brim left from the back of Trash City directly onto the highway.
Trash City had the appealing character that you could return and discover more. You could come back to a place and ask for someone you met there last time, and they would turn up. You could be invited into the run down communal homes where there are no doors to hide behind, but everyone’s business unfolds in full view. In the first room by the entry, there would typically be a computer internet and several people sitting on benches waiting for their turn to use it, to play games, chat or watch videos.
You could come there at 2AM, buy a large beer for 2RMB (then 25 cents) and play a game of pool on the street. There would be kids in their underwear, and people in pajamas crossing the street, brushing their teeth, or walking to the communal toilet around the corner.
The kids and the grownups never let themselves be separated from their most valuable possessions. The cellphone coordinated their work in the day and illuminated their way at night. Everything that was workspace by day was living quarters by night.
RJ and I returned to visit (and photograph) our friends on several occasions. Once, I got a call from RJ telling me to come see another part of Trash City we hadn’t seen before. And it was true. A disjoint orbit, with a different entrance way! The Prosthetics Quadrant and Mannequin Circle, and in the middle of it all was a peculiar kind of mannequin leg jousting match. (Rarely do the kids arm themselves with a prosthetic arm or a hook, as those are actually more complex instruments to wield and not so much suitable as fighting toys.)
By it’s own admission, Beijing verge of trash crisis …