Shanghai Journal: A Pedestrian Drama That’s Anything but Pedestrian

February 20, 2006 – Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI, Feb. 19 ó Working six-hour days at one of this city’s busier intersections, where he cajoles pedestrians to respect the traffic signals, Li Debao has a hard-earned insight.
“Chinese people have some bad habits, and a lack of awareness of traffic rules is one of them,” said the 36-year-old crossing guard. “Two-thirds of the people ignore the rules, and simply can’t be bothered.”
In rain, snow or the merciless heat of the Shanghai summer, crossing guards like Mr. Li can be seen during daylight hours at every major intersection in this city, trying their best to hold back groaning, impatient crowds with little more than a sharply blown whistle and some well-chosen words.
Shanghai’s traffic, horrendous at peak hours and steadily growing worse with the city’s runaway growth, would be frozen in perpetual gridlock without the traffic assistants, especially given the penchant of pedestrians here to flock across the street against red lights or even dash headlong into oncoming traffic, as oblivious to what is happening at ground level as an outfielder locked in on a pop fly.
That the guards have no powers of arrest, or even the ability to issue tickets, allows many pedestrians to feel free to ignore them. What is worse, they are frequent targets of aggression from crowds of sneering and cursing pedestrians. According to the city government, they are physically assaulted at a rate of about 20 times a month.
“This is not an easy job to do,” said Mr. Li, expressing with considerable understatement the frustrations of a weaponless army of 8,000 in a pushy, adrenaline-fueled city of 17 million. “Particularly when you feel people look down upon you. We’ve even come to calling ourselves fifth-class citizens.”
The traffic assistants each have their own ways of coping, their own strategies for managing the impossible. Short of stature, and with a lively, expressive face that puts some pedestrians on guard even before she makes a gesture, Li Hong, a two-year veteran of the force who works on the city’s most famous business street, Nanjing Lu, is a study in quiet persuasion.
“Hey, you two, the intersection is going to lock up if you cross now,” she says gently to a couple of men who started out against the traffic into the street. “The light will change in just a minute. Try to wait another moment, O.K.?”
With that, the two men look at each other and return to the curb sheepishly, their hands buried deep in their pockets.
Working diagonally across the same intersection during the peak traffic flow of lunch hour, another woman, Zhou Genlan, tall and severe, waves her arms and whistles like a force of nature. “Hey you, off the bike,” she says to a man in his 30’s who is riding on the sidewalk, extending her arm and pointing her finger like Uncle Sam in the famous recruiting poster. The rider quickly dismounts.
That task accomplished, she declares to a bystander, “There is nothing harder to do than getting people to obey the rules.”
Ms. Zhou, like all of the city’s traffic assistants, is dressed in a billed cap, light brown pants and shirt, a reflective vest and thick-soled black shoes. Each agent receives two uniforms from the city each year.
Most of the people in this job, which was created by Shanghai three years ago, are in their late 40’s or into their 50’s, the country’s so-called lost generation ó casualties of China’s sharp change of course from a Communist economy composed of state enterprises that provided lifetime employment to freewheeling capitalism, where layoffs and corporate restructuring are the rule, and people without higher degrees in sought-after fields are the first to go.
Take Qi Fang, formerly with a state-owned home decoration company whose closing left him in desperate need of income and security to put his high-school-age child through college. Six months after he joined the force, so did his wife, who had worked previously as a maid.
“When I started, I felt embarrassed,” Mr. Qi said, explaining how he coped with his fall in social status. “I live nearby and bump into my neighbors and former colleagues almost every day. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey Qi Fang, how did you get to be like this?’ In cold weather, I’d pull my cap down really low, like the street sweepers in the old days.”
The steady salary of about $120 a month, a shift that’s limited to six hours a day and especially benefits like health insurance have gradually helped take the sting off. Nowadays his wife works at a downtown intersection just a few blocks away.
“The first month I worked, every day I went home with very sore legs,” Mr. Qi said. “In summers you stand in the sun and burn, and in the winters the wind blows, but I’m 50, and people my age have difficulty finding jobs. Plus, we don’t have any skills, so for us, it’s O.K.”
Zhang Changhua, a 54-year-old man working at another downtown street corner, said he was satisfied with the job. “As long as citizens cooperate well with me, I feel happy,” he said. “But you always meet two or three people every day who are not rational. They don’t care how many times you plead with them, or remind them to step back to the curb, or not to go beyond the stop line. They just pretend not to see you and rush across the street ignoring the red lights, our call and whistles.”
If each of the traffic assistants brings his or her own style to the job, what seems to unite them is a deep wonder about what puts people in such a hurry nowadays, and an almost philosophical resignation about their powerlessness to do anything about it.
“You see these five fingers,” said Wu Wei, a 54-year-old agent who works in the heart of the commercial district. “Some of them are long and some of them are short, and it’s the same with the people you meet every day. Some are poor, some are scalawags, and they all have different educational levels.
“What can be done other than accepting reality?”

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