On March 17 Li Zhen and I spent time walking around the Jing’an neighborhood with our cameras to capture life on the streets. We ended up meeting quite a few people, which lead me to realize that I should capture the economic slow down by talking to ordinary working people in my neighborhood– even if they have nothing at all to do with the cotton industry. In fact, a common problem for us has been that textile companies are reluctant to speak about economic issues. A few companies denied shooting because they do not want the public to know they are struggling. A company turned us down last week because they are worried their American buyers might find out they aren’t doing well and then quote an even lower price that they would then have to find a way to meet. Hearing this made me wonder about the stress foreign companies place on Chinese factories to produce more and more at cheaper and cheaper prices. At what point does a Chinese factory absolutely have to turn down the business because the price doesn’t cover their costs? And at what point do the American buyers start to look elsewhere– to India, or to Pakistan, where they can place the same order for less money? Is it greed that drives the foreign buyer to pay less? Is it that foreign companies must always have a large profit, no matter what, even at the expense of others? And, actually, who makes the most profit? Is it the American buyer, the middle person who sells to the company, or is it ultimately the company who sells the goods to American consumers?
This day of filming helped me to understand that I should expand the economic narrative to include people from all walks of life, especially because I don’t want to jeopardize the companies who are so generously opening their doors to us. And even more so, I want to do more of this kind of shooting because it’s interesting. On this day we were able to capture quite a number of topics integral to the film:
The pace of change in Shanghai: a man rode by on his bike and asked the construction worker standing nearby, “Where is Changde Lu?” The worker pointed to the rubble before him: ”Here is Changde Lu!” What must it be like to be lost in a city where you have lived your entire life? The construction workers at this intersection didn’t really know what they were building, it seemed. They were digging and clearing rubble– some said it was a road, and others said it was a new subway line. Most said: the construction is for the Expo. The theme of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is “Better City, Better Life.” While we were at this intersection, another man rode by on his bike and stopped to talk to us. He makes noodles for a living and said that his shop’s business has slowed considerably.
We also met a cobbler who has been fixing shoes for more than 30 years on the streets in Jing’an. He does not have a permit for a permanent store, so he has to work wherever he can. He stays in a location as long as possible until the police drive him away. We met a woman in the lane where the cobbler was working who is desperate for a new house. The Shanghai government has been promising her for some time that they will demolish her old neighborhood and move her into a new high rise like the one across the street that is called Park Avenue. She is still waiting. She invited us into her home and showed us her living conditions– a house probably 400 square feet or smaller, with a narrow ladder leading upstairs to a small room where she and her husband have been living for 60 years. She wants change desperately. She wants her old neighborhood to be torn down so that she can have a better place to live.
We also met a cotton farmer, a man who followed his uncle to Shanghai to find work until it is time to return to his province to plant this year’s cotton crop. He told us that he would like to see American farmers planting cotton. He plants by hand, and he also hires a lot of people to help bring in the crop. Right now, though, he has some time to work and play in Shanghai. His uncle is the gate keeper for a building where we filmed laundry hanging in the sun. Two women waved at us from the building and came down to talk. They told us that it’s an important Shanghai custom to hang laundry outside. The sun should shine on laundry in order to sanitize it. We asked them if they knew about the ban on the display of laundry for the Expo. They hadn’t heard of it, but they were hanging laundry behind their building, not in the front where it might be considered unsightly.
We also spoke to a young couple who have been running a business that provides trimmings for doors and windows. They said they are just breaking even and if their business does not pick up soon, they may have to return to their home province, even though they have been in Shanghai for more than 10 years. I am not sure how all these stories interface together, but it was a great day of filming. It was comfortable and easier than I thought it was going to be. People were curious about what we were doing, and only a few people refused to be on camera, like the baozi vendor where we had a snack. Most everyone wanted to share their experiences and opinions.