Hundreds of people walk down this sidewalk every day on their way to a suburban Shanghai Metro station. But most people barely glance at what’s behind the cement wall alongside a path that was rebuilt after a storm destroyed the old one.


Tons of trash is spread out behind the wall, in a landscape that looks nothing like the neatly-kept grounds nearby -- an enormous apartment community built by China’s biggest real estate developer, the Spring Company. A “dream home” here costs at least 25,000 yuan per square meter. Many of the residents are expats.

The garbage behind the wall comes mostly from these expensive homes – everything from empty milk cartons to abandoned household appliances. Sadly, the area is also home to five poor families who live in -- and live on -- the garbage.

They buy the garbage from bell-ringing rag pickers on tricycles, and then sort it and resell it to a recycling center. The price difference is their profit. Each family here deals with a different kind of garbage, including used paper, wood, plastic, glass and metal.

Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Li's home. Photo: Fangliang Xu

Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Li's home. Photo: Fangliang Xu

One of these families is a couple – we'll call them Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Li. They have been living here for five years. They are in the metal business; their “house” was built from what they found. The walls are old avionic doors and window frames. They use old rice cookers to store the old cans and other kinds of metal they find. And Mrs. Li grows green onions in a container that was once part of an old television set. They also have their own working TV set, but with no cable or satellite service, they have a choice of only five channels. But there is no washing machine – they do their laundry by hand.

“We have a strict routine every day: working from 6a.m. till 9p.m.,” said Mrs. Li. “We barely make any exceptions because if we stop working, then we stop making money to support ourselves.”

And she seems quite optimistic. “We don’t want to work for other people and we’d like to be our own bosses, since bosses outside usually exploit workers and bully them quite often.”

Although they are “bosses”, the money they make is not much more than what normal workers, such as car wash attendants, masseuses in salons or waiters in any restaurant earn every month in Shanghai – a total of around 2200 yuan. The last thing they want to happen to them is to get sick, not only because of the expense of seeing a doctor (they have no social insurance), but also because the work is too much for only one person to handle.

But Mrs. Li is planning to go back to her hometown in three days for the ceremony marking 20 years since her mother-in-law's death. Unfortunately, Zhou cannot go back home and needs to stay in Shanghai to work. Otherwise, they would lose a lot of income.

Zhou and Li come from Yangzhou, a city near Shanghai. Their 17-year-old daughter back home lives with her grandmother and is enrolled in a technical college. To support them, the couple sends back 2,000 yuan every month so their girl can continue her studies.

When she talks about their daughter, Li seems to feel sorry for her. “In the first couple of years I was in Shanghai, I saw that some rich people here give their dogs milk,” she said. “I was astonished because we didn’t have the money to buy our own kid milk.

“When she was younger, she had no idea how to take care of herself and keep herself clean. I found a lot of lice and their eggs in her hair. But she has grown up now and knows how to keep clean and neat.”

Right now, the couple has 7 dogs as pets. Two of them were born just last week. Most of the dogs were abandoned by their Shanghainese owners. “Look at the black one, I told him, ‘Oh poor boy, we won’t give you milk like your former owner did. I’m sorry we cannot afford it.’”

Mrs. Li says some Shanghainese – not just the wealthy ones – have been rude to them and other migrant workers over the years. “Once when we got on the subway and tried to take a seat, the Shanghainese just got up and walked away, saying ‘You are so dirty and disgusting’ with a disdainful look on their faces,” she said. “Everyone was trying to avoid us.”

But she says some things are different now; Shanghainese people don’t dislike them as they once did. But keeping themselves neat and clean is still not easy, since they literally live with garbage. Taking a shower every day remains beyond their dreams, not to mention having a warm bath.

In a corner of their house is a simple stove connected to a small gas canister. A half a bag of eggs, a bottle of homemade pickles, a bag of rice, and some basic seasonings are the only things to be found on the shelf. When I asked them what they were going to cook for dinner that night, Mr. Zhou told me they would fry a bowl of Chinese cabbage that costs less than 1 yuan per kilogram. “I don’t care if our food is delicious or not, because I know my wife does not have time to cook,” he said. “Of course I like meat, but it's too expensive.”

“It is overwhelming that it's so easy to spend 100 yuan when I go shopping,” Li complained, “and I don't even know what I bought. I mean, things are so expensive everywhere.”

One thing the couple doesn't like is rainy days, because they are bad for business. Due to the recent economic downturn, the price of metal has also decreased, and so has their income. “The price of iron dropped by 10,000 yuan per ton recently,” Zhou explained. “2008 was not a good year for us. Our bank balance did not change at all that year because of the economic crisis – which mean our entire year of hard work was a wasted effort.”

To help them manage their business and know what they can get for their scrap metal, the couple pays 200 yuan a year to an information provider who sends them the latest prices on the metal-trading market.

Mrs. Li told me the business is getting tough. They used to collect at least one ton of metal before, but not any more. “We used to be able to make 1000 yuan a ton, but now the number has dropped to 3-400.”

Li spends much of her day peeling the plastic coating off electrical wires; her fingernails are caked in dirt and dust. Meanwhile, Zhou uses a calculator to figure out how much to pay the tricycle man who just brought them some scrap metal, and writes the amount in his makeshift ledger.

The apartment developer is planning to expand the community soon, which means more construction – and more junk. But that means the couple and their neighbors on that side of the wall may have to look for another place to live where people will tolerate or ignore them. If anybody complains, the government will simply tell them to move on.