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.

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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

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 11 Comments

Solidarity, brother.

There are new people moving in above us and we have had it 8am-8pm weekdays for the last month or so. They should stop at 6pm and we have complained to the “Management Company” who deal with our apartment complex, but they have failed to stop them.

Additionally, it’s illegal according to city laws to make noise from decorating on weekends – of course, in China laws are simply made to give officials something to do between banquets. I went to the managament company to ask them to *please* remind the workers not to make any noise. They said “Oh, they know! It won’t be a problem, we promise” 7:30m on Saturday,, they start again. A call to the management company, swilence for ten minutes. Then off they go again. Saturday morning 8am.

I recorded the sounds for about ten minutes, then went upstairs and hammered on the door.

Brain-Dead Decorator: What? What’s the problem?

Handsome Narsfweasels: You are making noise. Shut up.

Brain-Dead Decorator: (Looking hurt) ME? Noise? No, I would never!

Handsome Narsfweasels: Shut your ugly peasant mouth, because if you lie to me like that again, you’re going to eat my fist. Watch this video (Hammering sounds from mobile phone recording)

Brain-Dead Decorator: (Remains silent)

Handsome Narsfweasels: Listen “friend”: if I hear another peep out of you this weekend, my friends and I are going to come up here, break down this door and shove a drill up your ass and turn it on. Are we clear?

Brain-Dead Decorator: I understand.

Handsome Narsfweasels: Good.

Result: quiet weekend.

If you are complaining about decorating noise for 10 hours a day during the week, it means you don’t have a proper job.

July 31, 2013 @ 8:00 am | Comment

Horrible, horrible, horrible. My children, born in Hong Kong, consistently tell me that the thing they like best about other places (e.g. New York) (!) is how peaceful and quiet it is there.

July 31, 2013 @ 8:22 am | Comment

Ironically read this while the same noise can be heard quite well in a nearby unit…

July 31, 2013 @ 4:51 pm | Comment

Haven’t had the drill for a while, but we did get the lesser known Symphony of Scraping Spades as workmen mixed concrete at 6:20 this morning…

July 31, 2013 @ 5:41 pm | Comment

With a modicum of respect to everybody. Lived in four older style 90s apartments, and nothing bloody exceeded traditional funeral bands which began at 7am on the Saturday morning.

The Chinese cornet will haunt me with bad nightmares till the day I die.

Then the band generally climbed onto the back of a very lo-fi truck and drove off to the next gig.

If you haven’t experienced this, then you are blogging without having lived in the Middle Kingdom.

July 31, 2013 @ 7:00 pm | Comment

I can sleep next to heavy-metal concerts, construction sites, or funeral caravans. But there was that family living one storey further up, with their little daughter and that piano. The girl practised for at least two hours every night – Für Elise, and nothing else, day in, day out.

It wasn’t the noise which disturbed me. It was that her playing was lousy, and it never improved. Not a single bit. Depressing.

July 31, 2013 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

The toneless Chinese cornet was the very same instrument used by the PLA as the means of battle field communication and a sign that troops should advance into withering enemy fire during the then Korean Civil War.

Great depiction of this menace musical instrument can be found in the tremendous novel War Trash by Ha Jin.

And, oh yes, talking about life in more traditional suburbs in second tier cities, so I’m excluding all you effete consultant/corporate types who think Beijing and Shanghai is the Middle Kingdom.

Yeah. I know. Most of the chatterati here.

July 31, 2013 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

@ JR. You are lucky that it was that instrument of old dead European culture the piano. Just imagine bagpipes.

Fact. There are as many aspiring pianists and teachers in China today as Party members, all plinking away in the most disciplined way…around 80 plus million.

This mad embrace of Western culture. Richard Clayderman, Andrew Lloyd Webber vomit, over the hill and just out of the fat farm rock bands (Metallica, John Lydon, etc). The mass piano/violin fixation.

China has entered another Century of Humiliation.

As all of the above has been stated before, comment 9 is reserved for Jason and his mandatory Lang Lang riposte.

Rumour has it that Guangdong has just purchased the Bayreuth Festival and is relocating it to Guangzhou. A little rewriting and Wagner should fit nicely into the official narrative.

August 1, 2013 @ 5:48 am | Comment

I WISH the Bayreuth Festival were moved to Guangzhou – it would be easier for me to find a hotel room there than in Bayreuth, where I’ve been to the festival twice and had to stay as a guest in people’s homes for a lot of money. But back to the topic….

August 1, 2013 @ 7:55 am | Comment

I must confess I’d forgotten all about the hammer drill. Our upstairs neighbor in Korea did some remodeling, and the sounds were with us for several weeks. Luckily we lived in a ‘villa’ that had only four residences, so it only happened once in seven years. Drove the wife bananas, but I was used to working late and missed much of it.

I found lunch hour in one of Kowloon’s seven story restaurants to be far noisier.

August 6, 2013 @ 10:55 am | Comment

In the city where I lived the rules were that construction work had to stop by 10 PM. However at about 11PM it would start up again and go through the night. This is because the contractors would give the work illegally to sub-contractors probably at a lesser rate to make a profit and get the job done more quickly. Therefore officially they, and the noise “didn’t exist”. At least the jack-hammer noises from neighbouring apartments would finish fairly soon. A worse form of permanent auditory torture in apartments were people in the floor above with hard plastic or metal bits on their shoes or slippers clack-clacking on the tiled floors above to all hours of the morning. That, and the continuous slamming of those heavy metal apartment doors of neighbouring apartments. Eventually I learned that the quietest apartments were those on the sixth floor at the top. Worth the stair climbing for peace and quiet.

August 11, 2013 @ 8:00 am | Comment

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