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Xu hui qu Xing huan fei Pin jiao tou zhan

Xu huiFrom a UK perspective, recycling is endemic in Shanghai in a way that we crave in the west. Some people, mainly migrant workers, actually make a meagre living from their collecting and gathering. Money is exchanged. Everything moves on. Bicycles are even specially adapted to carry large plastic vats of food waste, strapped on either side of the rider, presumably to feed the pigs. Tricycles carry dry goods of every kind. Downtown in the city centre this is also a regular sight: men and women gathering waste materials and loading them up, strapping them on, riding off, seemingly very precariously. “I have this guy’s mobile phone number. Soon as we have stuff to get rid of I call him and he’s there in less than an hour. He takes anything.”

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So is this recycling in the languid, self-consciously virtuous, western sense, or something more fundamental to the cultural and eco-system of China? Can the fish see the water they are swimming in? And would this be such a successful process in Shanghai without the wide bike and moped lanes built into the major roads? The Shilong Road bike lane is 3.3m wide and has its own rules of the road.

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This constant movement of materials was one of my first observations in the Square Mile. The combination of pedal power and recycling appeared idealistically holistic. It was later that I came to understand the relationship of the corner of Shilong Road and Yongchuan Road, right outside the Shanghai E Arts Bar, to the bigger project. This was wear the tricycles turned off, the through route to the Xuhui District Recycling Centre, 500 metres away, and also in the Square Mile.

Compellingly filmic for the sculptor and commentator, this centre has an altogether different feel to its London equivalent, a place on the Isle of Dogs where I’ve heard confusing stories of French companies “being paid a fortune by the Council to deal with Tower Hamlets’ rubbish” or with horror and embarrassment that “it’s all being shipped out to China”. London would prefer not to think about what happens to its rubbish, it’s all too overwhelming. “Well we do try to recycle but you know how it is…”

Here, behind a concrete wall on Luocheng Road, lies the destination for the laden tricyclists, a place of continual movement, sorting, shifting, measuring and weighing, and subdued human interaction, not unlike an artists’ studio complex.

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Now in an ongoing working relationship with a group of Pioneers from the nearby Xiangyang Yucai Primary School I dreamed of a symbolic intervention, in recognition of the excellence of this facility. We talked about wording and salutation, timing and surprise. It all made a certain kind of sense, the foreigner making comparisons with his western city struggling under a garbage mountain, highlighting a local facility, the students owning their statements and actions, the workers receiving them. Terrain would be crossed. Diligent Angels and Heroes of Recycling. We Salute You (completely lost in translation).

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