Living in China: the Hammer Drill

I am almost certain that everyone who has lived in China has experienced the machine-gun staccato of the hammer drill being used to renovate an apartment in your building. It starts at the crack of dawn and makes sleep literally impossible. The walls shake, the roar of the machine breaks the sound barrier. I think I can say that for everyone it is one of their most unpleasant memories.

My friend and commenter Shanghai Slim recently sent me and other friends a brief description of life in the age of the hammer drill, along with an MP3 in which you can actually hear for yourself what this experience is like. Below is Slim’s letter followed by the MP3. Whatever you do, you MUST listen to the recording.

Every place has things to love and things to … not love. In China, one of the latter is the pervasive racket of the place. The endless construction work, incessant horn honking, stores blasting distorted music through outside speakers, supermarket workers bellowing through portable amplifiers … sometimes it can drive you batty. An mp3 player becomes survival gear. At least during the summer, the clattering chorus of the cicadas drowns out some of it.

I think anyone living in a Chinese city – local or foreigner – will agree that one of the most annoying sounds in China is the hammer drill.

When you buy a new home in China (most urban Chinese live in what Americans would call “condo” apartments), you get a bare concrete shell. The only thing installed is the windows. Here and there PVC pokes out of the wall with some wiring or a temporary spigot, places where future electrical and water systems will be connected. The buyer spends several months and a big chunk of change “decorating” the new apartment, which includes installing all lighting, plumbing, electrical, flooring, closets, cabinets, counters and a/c units before painting, appliances and furniture. This work is often managed by decorating agencies.

When someone buys a used apartment, they typically rip everything out and start over with bare concrete. In the process it’s not unusual to make some changes to the floor plan by altering interior walls (hopefully not – but sometimes! – load-bearing walls). Chinese highrise apartments are typically built with solid steel-reinforced concrete walls, with concrete-covered brick used for non-load bearing interior walls.

A key tool used in decorating is the hammer drill, a heavy duty electric drill with a special feature, the drill shaft rapidly vibrates in-and-out as the bit spins. This allows the bit to pulverize as it whirls, which makes drilling into hard substances like concrete or masonry faster and easier.

When Chinese “decoration” workers make holes in walls, cut out sections of walls, or install anything attached to a wall, they typically use hammer drills. Major cuts are made by drilling “dotted lines” and then sledge hammering out the section to be removed. As you can imagine, cutting that way requires making a lot of holes. So do things like attaching flooring or wall paneling.

If you are in the same room as someone using a hammer drill, it does not sound much different from a standard electric drill – a whizzing, whining sound. However, the sound is amplified as it reverberates through solid concrete walls. The pounding and grinding action of the bit makes a distinctive staccato roaring that is just unbelievably loud and unbelievably annoying. If hammer drilling is taking place anywhere within several floors of you, you’re going to know about it.

I don’t know how to adequately describe this sound, even terms like “skull-cracking” somehow fall short. So it seemed a better idea to simply record a short example and let you hear for yourself (mp3 file attached). Sorry for the sound quality, this was recorded using my mp3 player, the general impression is accurate. Warning – please start the recording at low volume.

The drilling in the recording is happening in the apartment above mine, directly over my head, so it’s a little louder than most episodes. On the other hand, this is just a single hammer drill, it’s not uncommon for a crew to use more than one. In new buildings, multiple crews may be working at the same time.

The recording was made on the third day of drilling, fortunately that was the last day of intense work. Over the three weeks since, it has tapered off to sporadic bursts.

I don’t know how this kind of work is handled in American apartment buildings, I never lived in a concrete building there. If any of you know, please fill me in!

Hope you enjoy a quiet peaceful day!

Sounds of China – The Hammer Drill


Global Times takes us behind the Great Firewall

This is interesting. I’ve often expressed surprise that the Global Times can go as far as they do in pushing the envelope and covering stories that seem clearly to cross the typical red lines the government imposes. We saw it very early on the year the English-language version first went to press and one article made a passing reference to the June 4 Incident — a passing and innocuous mention, yes, but it was also historic. All that said, we know the GT’s main function is to serve party interests and often to stoke nationalism and, when it suits them, to portray the US as a country that is not always China’s friend.

The interesting part: Today the newspaper published a rather detailed look at how China’s Internet community, Sina Weibo users in particular, can retrieve censored Weibo entries. For instance, it explains the machinations of the website Freeweibo:

Launched on October 10, 2012, Freeweibo retrieves data automatically from Weibo to provide “uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo searches.”

“We ignore relevant laws, legislation and policy,” the welcome message on the website reads, a response to the expression Weibo and Chinese search engines use to explain why searches for certain words come back empty.

The website, in both English and Chinese, displays posts that are blocked or deleted on Sina Weibo. When searching for keywords, Freeweibo breaks search results down to “blocked by Sina Weibo” and “official search results,” which allows users to see which search results are missing from the official Weibo.

Freeweibo has around 10,000 unique visitors per day, with most coming from China, including Taiwan, based on the language setting, according to Percy Alpha, the pseudonym used by one of the founders.

A week after the website went live, it was blocked on the mainland. But the creators of the website have also been trying to provide mirror sites that are accessible without a VPN.

From the list of blocked keywords provided on the website, it is also clear when some words become sensitive and when such scrutiny is lifted.

For instance, the name of Bo Xilai, former Party chief of Chongqing who was recently prosecuted on corruption charges, was banned from searches until July 25, the day the news of his prosecution was announced.

The article describes other tools in remarkable detail, and lets those responsible for them refer to “censorship,” a word the government usually tries to dance around. It even tells readers they can find deleted Web material over at China Digital Times, an organization you’d think they would never reference.

The entire tone of the article, especially looking at the interviews they conduct with the developers of these tools, is welcoming, as if citizens have a right to understand how the censorship works and it’s okay to tell them how they can find ways to get around it. It freely acknowledges the filtering and banning, such as Bo Xilai’s name. And it acknowledges there are ways to see sites like Freeweibo without a VPN.

This is a far cry from the usual party line that these sites are blocked due to technical or economic issues. You can read my earlier post about such excuses over here: “Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, attributed the interruptions to Internet service providers’ economic concerns.” Right.

Global Times continues to surprise. Read the whole thing; it’s like they’re lifting the curtain over the GFW, and actually admitting what it’s all about.


My blogroll and the slow asphyxiation of China-related blogs

I wanted to note that I’ve culled nearly half of my blogroll under the category, “Pearls of the Orient.” All the blogs I deleted had failed to update for some months and are depressing reminders of just how obsolete blogs have become. Right now the only really good Chinese-focused blogs that update constantly is this one, which is always a lot of fun, and this old warhorse. Even ESWN hardly ever posts nowadays. [Update: forgot to mention this impressive blog, which updates frequently.)

I have almost no interest in blogging anymore, as I now, like everyone else, use social media to offer my links and commentary. At the same time, I don’t want to shut the blog down (yet), as I still get occasional flashes of inspiration. So excuse me while The Peking Duck continues operating on life support.

To those whose blogs were taken off my blogroll: please email me if you plan to update and keep your blogs active, and I’ll add them again. Thanks.

There is a fine post about the current China-blog doldrums over here. It raises the question: “Can you blog about China without being there? Probably – but it will have to be a different kind of blogging.”

It will be a very different kind of blogging. I had far more to say on this site while I was living in China. Living in a desert thousands of miles away makes it difficult to keep the flame going.


China’s celebration of humiliation

An interesting article by Orville Schell and John Delury looks at China’s obsession with its past humiliations, noting that their equivalent of the US’ Fourth of July is China’s defeat in the first Opium War.

Every July, amid festivities and fireworks, the U.S. and France mark their birth as nations. Accustomed as we are in the West to histories that begin with triumph—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the storming of the Bastille—it may seem strange that China, the fast-rising dynamo of the East, marks the beginning of its journey to modern nationhood in a very different way: with the shock of unexpected defeat and the loss of national greatness.

Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to Aug. 11, 1842, when the Qing Dynasty, by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, capitulated to Great Britain in order to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world.

This is a subject that always fascinates me, the dialogue of China as victim of exploitation and oppression. Obviously there really was a lot of exploitation and oppression, but there comes a time to get over it and make your national dialogue one that is less self-martyring and more constructive. A lot of people throughout history have been the victims of appalling suppression and brutality. I don’t know of any other great nation, however, that hangs on to these humiliations and brings them up at every possible opportunity to stoke the flames of nationalism. It is, of course, no accident that the government focuses on China’s most dismal periods, and why, as the article notes, “In this authorized version of modern Chinese history, 1842 is Year One. Every Chinese high-school student is expected to know the official narrative dividing Chinese history neatly into pre-Opium War and post-Opium War periods. It is China’s counterpart to the familiar American exercise of learning the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.”

China’s branding itself today as a victim of humiliation may suit the CCP’s goals of keeping its people nationalistic, a strategy that has helped it maintain power. It makes for outstanding propaganda. But on the international stage, this obsession with past failures and humiliation does little to advance China’s image, and leaves the world wondering why China can’t get over events of 150 years ago. Those events should never be forgotten. They were unjust and inexcusable. But they should not define what China is in the 21st century.


Will China ever legalize gay marriage?

You can read my new post on the subject over at China Law Blog. The post is in response to recent pro-gay marriage rulings in the US and the question, Can that ever happen in China?