He crouches beside the road, booted feet on a grid of window bars. In one gloved hand he holds a small welding torch, from which the sparks have just ceased to scatter. The sidewalk beneath his work is slick with mud made by last night’s rain, and the air is chilly. Keqiao in March is cooler than Shanghai, and no less wet. The sky overhead is darkened by clouds, an even more impenetrable layer than the normal haze of white. All along this block men work in similar attire on similar projects, welding square bars into shapes or ferrying cartons of them on and off small open-backed trucks into stores fronts that have no doors. It is a strange symmetry, most of their business conducted in the public space of this dirty sidewalk, almost five meters wide.
He is young, this welder, his companions are paunchier and less concerned with their tasks. Disturbed by my passing for a moment he turns back to his structure, checking the corners. I imagine it walling off an entry way in the evening, a visual impediment. Each square bar is hollow and, from the way they are hefted in bunches, quite light. They restrict access to houses all over this country, and I have tested them with pressure years before. Never though have I seen these men with masks creating them, not in such a group. The block houses thirty of these shops, each with metal shelves along the walls that hold bars of varying length, each with groups of men who turn them in to objects on the sidewalk. The street is filled with the sound of it, radial saws chewing through metal, and the bright flash of the tiny welders at work. In front of one shop a man is welding a hinge onto the back of a small flatbed truck. One side of the hinge is on fire, the solder slowly burning. He continues to affix the opposite corner, ignoring the flames as they singe the truck’s paint.
It is their masks that stop me. I have seen dozens of men welding in China without any, simply covering their eyes with an arm as they work. This is not a method that lends itself to precision.
These men each have masks though, in the fashion of Keqiao, this suburb of Shaoxing known for it’s fabric mills and rivers. Each mask is a pair of black sunglasses, plastic ones with small horns that flare out at the tops of the lenses, where the ear pieces connect. They are dark enough to obscure the eyes completely. Over these in careful composition sits a piece of cardboard cut in the shape of their face, the glasses’ space removed, hung on the earpieces to replicate a welder’s mask. Each one is a unique construction, lending the scene a striking individuality.
The crouching worker, whose face I noticed first, is instantly recognizable, his face the mirrored red white and gold brands of a Double Happiness carton, centered on the opaque black glasses.