fter more than three months of construction work on my apartment building, it was the 19th Party Congress that finally pushed me out. I learnt that having an inside line to the construction company turned out to be my undoing. And always listen to your fruit stall lady.
Back at Spring Festival there were the first indications that change was afoot. A wave of small businesses was shut down in my compound which squats under the glass and steel towers of Beijing’s financial district. At over 30 years old, it’s an old neighborhood in China. Businesses came back until a much harder clampdown hit and I counted the closure of 19 restaurants. And then building work began. The compound was being beautified with a little park.
More building materials were brought in and the new park was converted into a shanty town for construction workers who slept on camp beds in cigarette smoke filled tents. Materials started arriving at my building through the night, and people began knocking on my door asking me if I work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I couldn’t look less like I work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They needed to measure all my windows, of course. But I got the facts from them: the cost of the land makes it too expensive to rehouse the residents and use the area for development. So instead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which owns the compound, was renovating the buildings.
Renovating covered a few minor changes such as new foundations, new exterior walls, a new roof, new pipes, new windows and new balconies. Workmen started digging a trench around my building to get to the foundations. As this was the start of the summer, Beijing’s rainy season, the trench soon started to fill with water, giving the foundations a good stewing. My estate agent got in touch to tell me that the project would last six weeks and there would be a short period when water and electricity would be cut off.
I went away for a few days in July and got back to my apartment to find the door open. I went in with some trepidation, to find my bathroom had been removed, the kitchen units pulled away from the walls and piles of rubble in and among my possessions. My toilet was in the middle of the living room. It was quite a shock. The construction site foreman turned up and explained how they’d try to get in touch and that things now wouldn’t be finished until maybe the end of August.
I called my property managers who weren’t in the least concerned but said they would let me live somewhere else. They took me to an apartment filled with filth, broken furniture, a bed made of newspaper and rubber floor tiles used in kindergartens, and a fish tank with the previous tenants’ fish still in, abandoned and dying. I said this was not appropriate and we agreed that instead I wouldn’t pay rent and would stay at a friend’s.
As I moved some of my things out for the next few weeks, the lady running a fruit stall by my front door asked if I was leaving for good. No, just till it’s finished. “It’s going to be a long time,” she said, “A long time.”
I went back again to check on progress. The building was covered in scaffolding and wrapped in green plastic netting. Inside it was dark – and slippery. The new ceiling had leaked. I told the workmen on the staircase. “Nothing to do with us. It’s leaking because it’s raining.” I called the foreman. He at least agreed the leak probably was due to the building work. I checked in with the fruit lady. She said trade was down.
On another trip back to water plants, after a couple of fresh deadlines for the construction had passed, my fruit lady had been working on her forecasting. “This won’t be finished till Spring Festival,” she said. Seeing my puzzled expression she thought I hadn’t understood. “Chinese New Year,” she offered.
Again the foreman reassured me. Then pushed back the date. After the three months I had gone so far, I thought, what’s another two weeks of staying at friends’ places? Then they sprayed my windows over with concrete as part of the cladding and the foreman said they would have to stop work for the 19th Party Congress in Beijing. So I called a meeting with my property manager to try and get to the bottom of it.
We met in my apartment so I pointed out the mistakes the builders had made in improving the interior, such as putting the shower head in a place where only the side of the hot water tank can take a shower. He called a builder who, as well as a can-do attitude, also brought the voice of reason: after the Congress, work would start again, but rather than being finished by the new November 15 cut-off point for building work in Beijing (to improve air quality during the winter), they would simply stop and my building would hibernate under netting and blacked out windows until March 15, shortly after Spring Festival, when the work would resume.
I pulled the plug and moved out the following weekend. In China, your fruit lady is always right.