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Incessant drilling a way of life in city that never stops
By Emily Ford

I'M in the middle of a reasonably pleasant dream when I'm woken abruptly by a loud mechanical noise coming from inside my head. The noise is so loud, I think my head might be about to explode. The room is vibrating visibly. It feels like the end of the world has arrived.

"DDDDDRRRRRRR" the noise says loudly. "DDDDRRRRRR."

"Oh my god, an earthquake!" I sit up with a jolt. After the typhoon last week, this is almost too much to handle. "Am I supposed to leave the building or stay inside?" I think in a panic. "What about the cat?"

With a slow thudding feeling, I realize the noise is not, in fact, an earthquake, but the builders in the apartment above mine.

"Oh, it's the upstairs neighbors," I think exasperatedly. "They're drilling."

Shanghai is famous for its unstoppable construction work, its entire skyscraper district rising breathlessly from marshland in the 1990s in a matter of years. As a result an incessant, maniacal hum has become a sort of soundtrack to the city. "Vienna has Mozart, New Orleans has jazz. We have pneumatic drills," I think, with a sigh.

Unstoppable work

The old West side of the city where I live is supposed to be "finished," but on Gao'an Road the tide of destruction proceeds merrily on. A house will vanish in a day, only to be replaced by a new one a week later. Sometimes I think my neighbors are pretending to be drilling simply to outdo one another. I look around my apartment for things to drill. "There are only so many holes you can make," I think darkly.

The next morning I wake up at 7am with a jolt.

"DDDDDDDDRRRR." The noise has moved up a notch and now seems to be coming from several different directions at once, a kind of stereo surround-sound version of hell.

I find myself looking up ancient Chinese forms of torture on the Internet. "Slow slicing," or "death by 1,000 cuts" sounds pretty nasty, but the water drip technique sounds relatively pleasant, at least compared to drilling. "At least water torture would be quiet," I think.

After a few days I am not sure if the drilling is actually going on or not, because I can hear it all the time anyway. The drill has an uncanny sense of timing. Sometimes I think it has stopped, but as soon as I turn on the television it starts again.

"DDDDDRRRRRR" it says spitefully. "DDDRRRRRRR."

"That's enough," I think one evening. "This is show time." I go up to the ninth floor. A builder answers the door wearing what look like underpants and brandishing a huge pneumatic drill. I peer into the flat. To my dismay, it looks distinctly unfinished. There are drill holes everywhere.

"Hi, I'm from downstairs," I say. "I wondered how much longer this was going to go on for?" The builder grins proudly and looks down at his drill.

"We have a lot of work to do," he says, pointing the tool directly at me and making a drilling noise. "DRRRRRRRRR."

"When do you think it will be finished?" I say.

The builder's workmate comes to the door to see what is going on. He is also wearing underpants and wields an even bigger drill.

"It's hard to say," the first builder says, beaming. "Probably by the end of the month. Maybe even sooner."

I breathe a sigh of relief. I have a blissful vision of snoozing in the balmy quietude of my flat. "Hallelujah," I think. "That was really getting too much."

"Then we start on the house downstairs!" the second builder says joyfully, pointing his drill at the wall. "DRRRRRRRRRRR."


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