Metal Men

Sparks flying in every direction, the whine of a chorus of metal grinders in unison reaches a crescendo on the factory floor. They're smoothing down the rough edges on an enormous decorative steel panel for a new development in far-off Hong Kong, but most of these guys won't ever see the panels in their final home. They're happy to make it, then ship it.

I spent a day this week at the metal fabricating workshop of Mister Xu in far eastern Shanghai, taking photos of their work processes and some portraits of the staff. The workshop used to make air-conditioning vents but now they spend a lot of their time making customized metal decorative panels and artworks for my husband's company, shipped to projects in all corners of China. They seem to prefer the variety of the art over making the same airconditioning vents every day.

Perhaps it's years spent around my husband's own workshop watching men and women make amazing things from metal, but I love watching the welding, the metal grinding and the big heavy pieces come together into a coherent whole. Matt started his business twenty years ago in a workshop exactly like this, making industrial rubbish bins every day (despite his art degree), until the small art orders became bigger and bigger art orders and they were eventually able to stop making skip bins and concentrate on bronze casting and decorative metalwork fulltime. It's a great story, which I promise I'll tell you another day.

Like the other factories and workshops I've visited on Shanghai's outskirts, this one was clean and well-organized. None of the workers had to be prompted to use safety equipment, and none of them knew a photographer was coming. I'm sure China still has many, many sub-standard workplaces but it's great to see that conditions in many places are good, and hours are fair (here, 7.30-4 five days a week).

The workshop's lone female employee, project manager Xiao Chen looks gentle but is apparently tough and exacting on building sites, just what's needed to get the job finished on time, and on budget!

Chief Angle Grinder. He was very excited to have his photograph taken but found it incredibly difficult to relax and stood stiff and straight no matter what I tried! His shirt reads "Shanghai Olympics" with a maple leaf. Anyone know what year they held the combined Canadian/Shanghai Olympic Games?

You might also enjoy Shanghai Factory Girls, photos from a garment factory, and Hand of Buddha, about a stone-carving workshop.

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