The Squeegee Men of Shanghai

Forget running for president, Rudy. Come deal with the shoe-squeegee men of Shanghai.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Our Man in China"

A virtual tour of China's skyscrapers, fashion trends, and beer festivals, with photos and narration by James Fallows.

I like China. I like Shanghai. I like most Chinese people I see and meet.

But I’m getting pretty tired of China’s big-city counterpart to the squeegee men whom Rudolph Giuliani was famed for chasing off the streets of New York. Forget running for president, Rudy. Come deal with the shoe-squeegee men of Shanghai.

As a precaution against Colonel Blimp-ism, let me note: There is a lot of misery in China, and a lot of it breaks your heart. Every day I look for the right concept, and emotion, with which to deal with the range of beggars throughout Shanghai. These include:

The obvious professionals who camp in wait for people trying to cross at busy street corners. The women from the countryside who sit on the sidewalks at night with alarmingly immobile, drugged- looking infants on their laps. The legless man who drags himself on his stomach along the main street bordering People’s Square with a little Dixie cup in front of him for change. The crone on the steps down to the subway. The blind young man who play the two-stringed Chinese erhu near the subway entrance. The old man who kneels on the sidewalk all night, forehead against the pavement and alms cup in front of him. The smiling little girls, looking happy and well dressed, who run up and yell at a foreigner “Money! Money!” under the eye of their mother ten yards away. The con man who develops a severe limp when I come into view and later jogs across the street to beat a traffic light. The only way I’ve found to cope with this so far is to have a pocketful of small change when I go out and make give/don’t give decisions on the fly.

And then there are the people who aren’t beggars but who toil the way their counterparts did a thousand years ago, for instance hauling huge oxcarts full of junk down the street. This is why China’s drive to prosperity, for all the serious problems it is creating in this country and around the world, has had a humanitarian aspect in lifting large numbers out of misery.

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James Fallows's Web site, with regularly updated dispatches, and information about his writings and appearances.

I’m sure the shoe-squeegee men also have a hard life. They look as if they’ve trekked in from the country, and they also look as if they may be sleeping rough. But I don’t care as much as I should, because they keep violating that urban taboo against being physically touched. Their schtick is to yell when they see any foreigner and some Chinese: “Shoe Shine! Shoe Shine! Cheap! Cheap! ” OK. Everyone’s got to make a living. But they are armed with tubes of some whitish cream which they rush to squirt onto your shoes before you can dodge them — so that, as with the squeegee men, you are obliged to buy their “service” to undo what they have done. The problem with the shoeshine men is that words won’t stop them. At least not mine, in English or Chinese. They come on a run, squirt-tubes aimed at the feet, and unless you dodge them or (all too often) stiff-arm them, you’re caught.

In the range of the world’s problems, this is fairly small. And it’s part of the tax you pay for being visibly foreign and from a rich country in a society where hundreds of millions of people are still so poor. But the problems created by the squeegee men were also small in a cosmic sense and could also be seen as having a kind of economic-redistributive logic. Still, Giuliani argued that by removing such abrasive aspects of daily life in New York he could promote what the Chinese now say is the country’s goal: a “harmonious society.” Rudy, I have a job for you in 上海.