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!
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.