How I Built My Chengdu Compound
He appeared in a flash of blue smoke while I was on my hands and knees cleaning red paint off of a pair of paint rollers, pink streams running across the concrete floor of my outside patio and into the drain. I looked up and he looked down. He had cop sunglasses on and a blue suit with a white shirt underneath, unbuttoned at the top. He took a long drag off of his smoke and his too long throat convulsed around a too sharp Adam’s apple. I heard the crackle and hiss of the cherry and I thought to myself, Did I inhale too many paint fumes today? Is this an acid flashback?
But then the apparition spoke.
“You the laowai looking for some cement?”
I nodded. He nodded.
Then he motioned to my front door, which I had closed and locked because I was tired of the two old people next door walking in and out of my house asking me when my house was going to be done, what color I was painting this and that, what I paid for those over there, and so on.
I heard this grunting and crunching and gibbering through the door, and then it burst open and a troop of four foot tall Chinese workers came heigh-ho-ing across my patio with 50kg bags of concrete on their backs. Eyes pointing every whichaway. Teeth coming out of their lips like the orcs who took Osgiliath, like those teeth were still growing. Some were smiling and some looked like they had just been dug up out of an abandoned work site. They dropped bags into my hallway with a thud and a puff, then trooped back out for more.
They did that a few more times while I stood there and let the paint drip onto my shoes. I looked over at the blue-suited overseer, overseeing it all with a sick smile on his face, puffing on a cigarette, and I said to myself,
This man is a Troll, and those are his Goblins.
They’re building my compound.
Dreams of a Red Compound
I’ve been dreaming of a compound for as long as I can remember. I suppose I could trace it back to the scars of growing up an Army Brat, where everywhere is home but no place is Home, but I actually enjoyed re-inventing myself every so often. Problem was I always ended up being Me, still dreaming of a compound.
My first attempts here in China, real attempts, started back in 2007 in Flower Town. I named my first place a compound, but it was just a squat on the edge of a doomed village. At least it survived the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008.
My second attempt was also in Flower Town, this time on the other side, in the Hong Sha Cun district. You may have wandered past that compound during a break from the DOJO festivities. That place was nice, but living in Flower Town is not the same as tripping off fungus in Flower Town. Ok that’s not the best analogy because some fungal journeys may resemble your average day in Flower Town. But anyway … that place fell apart too, sometime in 2011 as I recall.
For the last two years I’ve been running around in circles (biding my time), waiting for opportunity to strike. It struck in April of this year, but even then I found myself in limbo, with a vast glittering carpet of choice-threads in front of me and no one glittering any more or less than the other.
“Remember Remember,” whispered the Homeless Man that sleeps in the Bushes in my Mind. “Seek thee out The Compound … The Compound … Remember … !”
So I tossed aside ideas of moving to Thailand, trimming weed in California, or busking in Berlin, and drifted off south to Huayang to find an empty shell that I could rent and renovate into my compound. The idea for this had been brewing for a while, but after visiting Will Kerr’s artist loft in Music Garden, just inside Huayang, the brew became a drinkable Quest.
The Origins of My Plan
My thought process at the time was this: get a long term (2-5 year) contract on a shell for a low rent, and then renovate for 50-70,000 RMB, in order to achieve an amortized rent of around 2,500 RMB per month for a location that a) I renovated and decorated c) was worth at least double that on the market d) could provide me with enough space for my two children e) had enough space for my work studio f) had quiet, clean, beautiful, and safe surroundings.
It took about a month of searching and haggling, but I eventually found what I was looking for.
A spot in Shujun Gardens, far to the South of Chengdu: 190m², two floors, three outside patios, two balconies, and a landlord who didn’t care what I did to the place, as long as I paid him 1,000 RMB a month. I signed a 5-year contract and paid for six months up front. Now, the landlord can come in and take it from me at any point, and there is really little I can do about that. But I think I got lucky in that the wife is a very sweet person and the husband is busy making money. If the place had a landlord that, say, was an extended family from outside of Deyang – with an evil-eyed older woman sporting one of those purple beehives running the money – then I would not have rented. This place seems, at the time of writing, to be exactly what I was looking for.
Now the task was to stay within the 50k-70k range during the renovation.
Sledgehammers, Chisels and Drills
After renting the place out, I took a tour with some engineer buddies of mine and tried to figure out exactly what to do and when to do it. At the time, we seemed to have a clear idea of what the house would look like, but as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, all dreams gave way to tunnel vision. Instead of grand plans for the kitchen, I focused on the little things: keeping costs down, not inhaling too much dust and glue, and painting straight lines.
I started by knocking out the kitchen wall to open the space up a bit. I used a 4kg sledge, about a foot long, and a chisel, all bought from the B&Q hardware store in Tongzilin. I thought I could just chisel my way through the wall like Andy Dufresne, but I realized a few hours in that I was probably doing it wrong. When the the Troll Overseer’s sister came to watch – she was the Shujun-designated Home Depot – she laughed at me and lent me a real sledge for the job, a massive 8kg head on a meter-plus long piece of PVC pipe. I wasn’t used to swinging any type of sledge, let alone an iron brick attached to a piece of spaghetti, but I got the hang of it. If you keep your arms stiff and just swing your hips, the spaghetti sledge can do some real damage.
I beat the shit out of that wall:
When I was done with that, I used the small sledge to crush the big pieces of brick and stone into small pieces of brick and stone to mix in with the cement that the workers brought up to fill up the space where the water pipes go. I remember sitting there in the corner of the kitchen seeking out somewhat larger pieces to crush, sweat and dust clouding my goggles and one of those useless white facemasks stuck to my neck beard, thinking to myself, “this is a complete waste of time.”
I stood up to walk out and saw the old man from next door peering into my kitchen window. He waved and gave me the thumbs up. I waved my sledge at him and went back to it. A bag of crushed rock goes for 150 RMB, I smashed up about 3-4 bags, saving me around 500 RMB.
Later I would try and sculpt the base of the wall into a counter, using the spaghetti sledge, the chisel, and a power drill. That Godforsaken base was a chunk of meteor rock warped in from a denser universe, and every time I hit it with something, the word “bitch made” rang out across Shujun Gardens. The Troll Overseer heard it, came to watch, flicked a smoke at my feet and disappeared. Reappeared and laughed at me. Then disappeared again.
I bought all of my paint at B&Q. The ladies there got to know me very well. The paint is decent quality and a can runs just under 300 RMB, more expensive than at the streetside shop, but I feel better buying from B&Q. My emotions might be getting in the way of the truth, because B&Q is basically just a big fat middleman and there is really no guarantee that the stuff they stock is any different from the streetside vendors. Their paint mixer is pretty awesome though.
I bought about 10 cans from B&Q over the course of the summer. The rollers there run as high as 69 RMB for one, but after using the Five & Dime rollers across the street in the Displaced Peasant ghetto, I figured a B&Q roller that lasts for 6-8 jobs is better than a one-off peasant roller.
I really enjoy painting. I would burn one, put on some music, strip down to my boxers and ratty sneaks, and climb that rickety aluminum ladder up to the top and just do my lines. If the whole place had been just a paint job, I wouldn’t have much to write at all. I’d just hum into a recorder, bring it to Eli’s house, and ask him to include it in a podcast.
I painted the upstairs first. The kid’s room. I painted one side night blue and the other side sky blue. On the sky blue side, I added mountains, a forest, a river, and the tree from the Khalil Gibran quote, “Shall my heart become a tree, heavy laden with fruit, that I might gather and give unto them?” It looks pretty damn good. On the other side, I plan on putting up constellations and shooting stars. I was going to finish that back in June, but the Trolls and Goblins showed up with cement and glue and tiles, so I have to put that last bit of painting off until the wife and kids take a trip somewhere and I have the house to myself for a week or so.
But I did finish the Blue Room downstairs. Getting the ceiling of that room the perfect shade of blue and the walls that bright white was my finest hour as a house painter. The lines in that room were done freehand, so if you ever stop by and spend an afternoon puffing on the hookah and watching movies with me, and you look up and wonder, Man, did he do those lines freehand, or did he tape them? The answer is:
Dealing with Goblins and Trolls
The biggest pain the ass wasn’t smashing down a brick wall or straining (alone) on a five-meter high ladder with a brush attached to a stick, sweat all up in my drawers, trying to get that top corner painted right. No. The biggest pain in the ass is dealing with workers.
Workers are paid a pittance to build up the entire nation, they get looked down upon by everybody, they live in doomed squats at the edge of an encroaching luxury complex, and their wives are constantly pissed. They are often shorter than the clients their sweating and hauling for, they look like they marched through Pakistan to get to your place, and they can never get their hair to lay down flat.
So I should have some sympathy, right? I should be the good laowai and tell them that all this China Dream stuff can really come true – not for them, oh hell no – but for their kids (This is for your kids, Goblin, so quit whining!)
Seriously, most of the time, I traded smokes and told stories. I establish bonds. Na the Bamboo Weaver is my man, he did a great job on my stairs. Hen the Tool Guy is my man, he let me borrow his five-meter ladder for months, even after his wife started hissing at me. Deng the Master has given me a new outlook on life. The Troll Overseer and his Troop of Goblins are the coolest. Whenever I see them offloading a ton of stone for some Boss in Shujun, I nod and say hello, they smile and say hello, they call to my kid, my kid calls back.
But these guys are not the average worker.
The average worker has always got some shit to say. They always find something about the job that’s mafan (麻烦, or an annoyance), or something that’s bu hao zuo (不好做, not easy to do). Whatever it is, they’ll make sure you hear it. They’ll stand around and look at stuff that has nothing to do with the job at hand and, especially with me, because I’m a laowai, ask me if I did it myself. If I say yes that adds another 3-5 minutes of bullshitting on to the job.
At first I had the patience for these types of conversations, mostly because I was proud of my work and I wanted the workers to know that I wasn’t some rich Chinese yelling into a cell phone and stepping gingerly over the glue some worker just spilt. I wanted to find common ground with the workers, and I often did. In the society I grew up in, workers are people too and I wanted them to know that.
Becoming a Troll
But that soft, weak, appeasing version of me gave way to a merciless, cell phone-toting ginger-footed Boss over time. Because all that bullshitting usually leads to one or both of two outcomes: them trying to get paid more than they should, them trying to cut as many corners as possible. So you have to be around all the time, peering over the shoulder of someone who hasn’t washed his hair in weeks and who is, right in front of my face, trying to cut some corner. Not adding a screw, not wiping glue off of something, letting something hang loose, putting two bent nails into something, then adding a third. It’s always something.
The worst is clean-up. I remember one time coming back home to a Dojo Aftermath. Food cartons all over the place, cigarette butts put out on the wall, glue and styrofoam and plastic strewn about. Soda cans piled up in one room. I said to them, What the fuck are you doing? What are you doing leaving all your food and cans and cigarettes all over the place? How in the hell could you let this glue dry on the floor?
If you yell at a worker, he just smiles at you. They don’t know what else to do, I guess. And if their Troll Overseer is around, he’ll just spin a tale of bullshit, as if he just ran into my Audi with his Breadbox van and now he’s trying to convince me that it’s ok to take a left into traffic on a red light through all of the old people and children trying to cross the street. There is no arguing. You can only crack the whip. Holding out money is the only acceptable form of coercion in China today, and that’s what I did.
Here are some before and after shots of a couple clean-up jobs I did:
I never paid a dime until I was ready to do so, and I even held out like Scrooge when an extra couple renminbi were probably forthcoming.
I had two guys moving furniture up to my house sometime in October, a fat guy with some education and a straight goblin. It wasn’t a lot of stuff to hump, but all the pieces were awkward and there is no elevator in my building, only a stairwell that goes up five floors with a twist about a third of the way up. The fat guy was sweating and unhappy and the goblin was just … goblin-ing up and down the stairs. They were supposedly ex-military guys turned movers. I could see both of them in the Chinese Army. The fat one constantly getting yelled at for hiding baozi (包子, bread rolls) in his boots, and the goblin being sent into collapsed mines to drag out black corpses.
The fat one whined and the goblin wheezed, but by this point in the renovation project, I had no mercy. Didn’t give them one fen extra and just shut my door in their slack-jawed faces when the work was done. I had become a troll and it didn’t bother me one bit.
I wasn’t always such a troll about things.
Earlier in the project I had an old man, he said he was 56, carry up more then two tons of tiles for the kitchen and bathrooms. I had mercy back at this point, must have been high summer, around August. I helped him hump half of the tiles to the bottom of my stairs, and then another fourth of them up to the top of the stairs. By then I was seeing stars. So I found something to do in the house and every ten minutes or so this leathery old man would come trudging up the stairs with another hundred pounds of tiles. He had a towel on his neck that he wrung out on my patio. While I was sweeping or something, I would hear a thud and a curse, and then this man’s sweat hitting my patio like rainfall.
It took a couple hours, so I went to the store and bought two liters of water and a pack of Hong He cigarettes. I gave him the water, the smokes and an extra red bill. He seemed really grateful for the smokes and the money, but he eyed the water like it was spiked. I had respect for the man though, he finished the job and walked out without a word.
Whenever a worker like that old man came gibbering up to my door, I would think of The Long March, and how Communist propaganda likes to depict the soldiers and True Believers who made that march as smiling, fresh-faced zealots with dog-eared copies of the Manifesto, singing and dancing, eluding the Nationalists on their way to Shaanxi. Or I would think of waves of ardent young Communist soldiers driving back the Americans in the Korean War.
But I am here to tell you that it was the collective force of a million goblins that did all that. They’re just indefatiguable. You could give them a cup of piss and a bowl of cat shit and say, Ok guys, we’re invading Russia, and it would be on.
There are Tolkien’s goblins and trolls – evil, filthy, cannibalistic, “mistakes of creation” – and then there are what I call Yeskov’s Trolls. At this point, I need to recommend Kirill Yeskov’s book, “The Last Ringbearer.” The basic premise of the book is that the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was written by the winners, so it behooved them to make the Mordorians into monsters, not the good orcs, trolls, and goblins they really were. Tolkien describes them as inhuman and hateful of all things beautiful and free … whereas Yeskov describes them as just another race of beings who love their children as much as any other race of people.
A very instructive book and highly entertaining.
Yeskov’s Trolls are hard working, trustworthy, capable. They can walk into a ruin like my compound around July, take a few quick glances around, and tell you exactly what needs to happen, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. Guys like Deng the Master, who was raised a carpenter, but can also do tiles, electrical wiring, swimming, water pipes, cement, painting, flooring, joke-telling, advanced mathematics, doesn’t smoke, and is great in bed. He crosses the line between artist and laborer the way I cross the line between fact and fiction, seamlessly and without thought. And there are a lot of guys like Deng out there in Chengdu, guys who can basically fix, install, weld together, or break anything. The only difference is whether or not they care about anything other than money. Most workers want to get the job done as quickly as possible, using the cheapest method available, so they can move to the next job and do the same thing. Kind of like the gang of cars that hang out by the Century City subway stop after 9pm. The more jobs they can squeeze in the more money they make.
China’s nuclear real estate market means that a quick worker can fill a day with multiple jobs, doing a bunch of different stuff, each tile job looking slightly different than the last. Only the workers with a bit of the artist in them are willing to trade art for money, because art is money to them.
Na and Luo, the Bamboo Brothers, are an example of such men: artists with the hands. It was a pleasure to watch them work and an even greater pleasure to just hang out and laugh about stuff.
Here, take a look:
And there were many others. The floor guy from B&Q was awesome. He popped the floors in professionally and quickly, there are only a couple corners cut, and he made sure to clean up after himself. Hen, the guy who runs the Five & Dime tool shop across the street in one of the doomed squats filled with goblins and orcs waiting for Shujun to expand their way, was indispensable. He always had a kind word for me to go with his simple advice and decent quality product. I’d buy a shovel or a bucket or some screws and then we’d chat about life.
“You know it isn’t easy for us goblins,” he told me. “We live in concrete holes that cost more than your place does to rent, we work all day and night selling tools for pennies, and the only thing we can hope for is that our children don’t have to do the same thing.”
“Sometimes I sit here at the end of the day and look out across the street to where the rich people live – you know I deliver stuff to their places all the time, right? – and I think to myself, why is it that my life is so hard and theirs is so easy? I don’t have an answer to that. I can’t really think about it too much because there really is no choice in the matter. I have to be content with what I have and work hard and just be thankful I can send my son to a decent school.”
I still see Hen on a regular basis. Bought some heads for the power drill the other day and finally returned his ladder. His wife stopped hissing the second I showed up with the ladder. I told him the project was basically done, that now I’m just installing the little stuff, and that installing little stuff is almost as stressful as hauling tiles and cleaning up after filthy little goblins.
He smiled at me and said Gongxi!
Despite the calluses and expenditure, the project was absolutely worth it for so many reasons, many of which came together for me this last Thanksgiving. I invited a few friends over and we enjoyed a slow-cooked turkey and some great fixings; I was really nervous the whole day because this was the first time that I was in charge of a Thanksgiving, the first time I had guests at the house, and the first time my family had it’s very own holiday dinner. It turned out perfect, and that made up for every drop of my blood and sweat this project soaked up.
If you are looking for your own compound or into some DIY renovation yourself, let us know in the comments.