As he holds up his hand, palm facing the oncoming traffic, yellow brim of his hat covering his eyes, the tenuous nature of his position becomes clear.
These men and women who hold traffic at bay with their white-gloved hands, day in and day out on Shanghai’s chaotic streets, inhabit a strange strata. Neither police nor street sweepers, not quite civil servants, yet not volunteers, they are paid the bare minimum and endure disasters. In torrential downpours they stand sheltered beneath swaying umbrellas anchored on the corners. In the sweat of August they hide behind sunglasses, beneath the uniformed hats. Their khaki pants are sometimes tucked into rain-boots, sometimes into dress shoes, sometimes hanging to the ground un-tailored and unfitting. They have no power save their whistle, it’s lanyard presence their baton. They give no tickets, have no higher authority to call. The police do not heed their shrill cries, and so often neither do I.
They are , these capped and uniformed whistlers, between forty and ninety, products of a China that is struggling before the tide of age. They are passed over by children who stand idly beside them, licking ice-cream, lolling from foot to foot, waiting for the light to change. Beside the children stand the cell-phone-staring masses, the bustling business men of degrees and financial mobility. Around all these rushes the never-ceasing crush of scooters, bicycles, odd machines, precisely the traffic these whistles were designed to tame. And ever more cars, overflowing small streets, jam-packing elevated highways, ignoring waves and yells, whistles and vague hand-waved persuasions.
Will this job exist in the Shanghai of 2030? Once this generation fades, and the next, with far fewer children and far grander desires, floods in to take it’s place, who will take these jobs of a dozen hours in the summer’s sweltering heat? Who will stand on curbsides swallowing exhaust and putting out noise for a few hundred kuai a week?
Will these jobs, created in the late eighties, early nineties, late nineties, after the car’s first private introduction, before the pulse of electronic sign boards indicating the average time to Xujiahui, to Zhongshan Lu, fade mysteriously into the labor shortage, into the rising economic prospects, into the disguised waste of a half century?
By the government, for the government, to organize and protect the people. To organize, protect, and employ the people. An entire generation brought up without schooling, and placed into jobs that demand nothing but arrival, persistence, and time.
“My children will have more than I did,” words not unique, both true and sad as may be anywhere. In Shanghai they are tinged with the idea, new and startling in scope, that perhaps no one will have what he had, what he has. An entire system, created with a generation’s rise, may disappear with it’s fade.