Voices from the Grassroots

Reinterpreting Construction-Site Culture

2020 / September

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Phil Newell

Small children are always dazzled when they see the machinery at construction sites, while the workers who put up buildings seem like heroes. But after growing up, children are no longer curious about the world behind the construction hoardings, and life inside the hoardings is like a parallel universe to life outside. Fortunately, through books, theater, and performances, we can explore the vitality and energy of construction sites.

On a summer’s afternoon in Taipei’s Wanhua District, we are taking a walking tour offered by Walk in Taiwan, entitled “Workers Plus, Bangka Inside and Outside the Hoardings.” Wandering through wide streets and narrow alleys, we hear our guide explain such things as why ordinary workers love to drink herbal teas, and how changes in construction workers’ wages affect the exterior appearance of buildings. It feels like we are getting a better understanding of the lives of these laborers.

First-hand site experience

Our guide’s name is Lin Yaqing, and he has written a book of the stories of workers’ lives from his vantage point as a construction-site supervisor.

Lin published his first book, We, the Laborers, in 2017. It authentically describes construction-site life as he saw it, and in its first year achieved impressive sales of 40,000 copies. The next year he published The Laborers’ Lives, in­corpor­ating workers involved in nightlife businesses and those who have suffered occupational injur­ies into the book, which gave it even greater impact.

In 2012 Lin Yaqing began posting essays on Facebook. At first he wrote about strange things that he encountered at work. For example, a client wanted a technique to change out the tiles in a bathroom without workers going into the bathroom, on which Lin ironically commented that what was needed was not a technique, but magic. At first few people took notice of these essays.

As Lin continued working at sites, over time he dealt with owners, health and safety inspectors, and police, and got to know the lives of the workers. He lent money to laborers to tide them over emergencies, and spoke out boldly in defense of justice when the police issued citations. His frustration at being powerless to change the system and at deeply held prejudices among the public made it hard for him to sleep at night. His outlet was to write the workers’ stories down. In the end, the more essays Lin wrote, the longer and more in-depth they became.

In 2016 Lin wrote “The Bagajiong Generation at Construction Sites” in an attempt to reverse the general preju­dice against people associated with temple perform­ance troupes.

At that time Lin had fewer than 500 friends on Facebook, but his essay got nearly 10,000 likes and was shared more than 1000 times. Encouraged by this response, Lin went on to write essays about betelnut girls and the use of painkillers by construction workers. Lin had observed up close these marginalized workers who were so often targeted for criticism by people holding mainstream values, and he used his pen to speak out on their behalf. His writings attracted the attention of a publisher, and he became Taiwan’s first author with a background as a construction supervisor.

The real value of workers

The perspective provided by his work gave Lin, who considers himself an atypical writer, deeper and more penetrating insights than most people can achieve. Besides being a construction supervisor and an author, he also is a volunteer who accompanies social workers on home visits to understand the lives of disadvantaged people. Lin not only writes down their stories, he helps them to gain access to resources.

For example, there was a large family in Jiufen living in a small house with a leaky roof and no working toilet (they had to use the public toilet up the mountain). Seeing this, Lin sought out his friends from a volunteer construction team, and a group of them went to Jiufen on a hot day to build a house for this disadvantaged family. In fact, the members of this volunteer organization were people whom most see as temple performer types, wearing hats marked with the name of a temple. They may not be polished, but they go where they are needed. “The real value of workers comes from labor, and actually working gives us a sense of self-confidence and happiness,” says Lin.

Lin says that for his next book he wants to write about traditional markets. “In markets you can see the energy and conscientiousness that characterize Taiwanese. They are places of enormous vitality.” Although publishing a book can’t immediately change anything in the labor environment, Lin says he wants to go on writing the stor­ies of workers, because in his ideal society, “everyone’s voice can be heard.”

TV adaptation

After We, the Laborers made a big splash in the book market in 2017, producer Jayde Lin, who was very moved by the stories in the book, bought the rights to make a TV drama series based on it, entitled Workers. She was really shaken after reading Lin Yaqing’s text. She was especially touched by one essay about the occupational hazards of welding—the power­ful light from the welding arc, the fumes, and the intense heat cause night blindness, pulmon­ary fibrosis, severe skin peeling, and other conditions. Despite these problems, welders need to work to make money, and so some choose to take drugs to numb their pain so that they can keep working.

Lin Yaqing’s essay authentically depicts the living conditions of construction metalworkers. It includes the story of one elder brother who, after suffering a stroke, implored his younger brother to inject him with an overdose of drugs to end his life and allow him to escape his condition. The brothers’ emotional attachment and the frustrations of workers are all condensed into the lines of the text. Jayde Lin and director Cheng Fen-fen were both very moved by this story, and decided to make it the main storyline in the TV show adapted from the book.

Jayde Lin and Cheng Fen-fen visited numerous construction sites with Lin Yaqing, and got to know a variety of workers. Jayde Lin says, “We felt a sense of vitality in them, a sense of hope they got from giving their all for their families.” Their optimistic never-say-die spirit made a deep impression on Lin and Cheng, and was the basis for their decision to make the show a comedy.

Positive energy

Workers premiered on HBO Asia in May of 2020.

The show is centered on a pair of metalworker brothers who have completely different personalities. The elder brother, Ah-Qi, is a happy-go-lucky dreamer, while the younger, Ah-Qin, is quiet and conscientious, and is always helping his elder brother out of fixes. The episodes tend to begin with one of Ah-Qi’s get-rich-quick schemes, such as putting up a temple to Phra Phrom or secretly raising an alligator at a construction site. He not only gets himself into trouble, but also draws in coworkers and family. The audience is both exasperated and amused by Ah-Qi as portrayed in the bizarre and absurd plots.

Besides the brothers, the show includes an excavator operator who lives in his car, and a woman construction worker who plays peacemaker at the heavily masculine construction site. It also incorporates other workers whose lives revolve around the site, such as a betelnut girl, a convenience-­store employee, and a sex worker. The serial shows what life is like for hardworking nobodies, and also depicts the sadness and compassion with which their children view their parents’ professions. At the end of the story, Ah-Qi suffers a stroke, and the two brothers decide to end their lives with an overdose of drugs; what began as a comedy ends in tragedy, leaving a deep impression on viewers.

After the serial was broadcast, some children of workers began to tell their stories online. One viewer shared with Jayde Lin their memories of how they resisted contact with their father, who always returned from work dirty and smelling bad, but how now, as a result of this program, they had something to talk about with him. Another viewer wept in front of Lin as they said that their own father was like Ah-Qi and would give money to help others yet ignore the needs of his own family. Workers seemingly loosened the shackles on people’s hearts and everyone was able to find some warmth in the series. As Cheng Fen-fen said at a special showing, “I hope that after watching this program, we can all show more concern for the people around us, and feel some positive energy in these characters.”

Connecting with design

With good intentions and a little effort, it is poss­ible for people with expertise in the arts and design to bring changes to construction-site life.

The Kong-Ke Museum in Taichung is Taiwan’s first arts venue dedicated to construction-site culture. Its forerunner was the CMP Block Museum of Arts, a city-block-sized experimental museum founded by the CMP Pujen Foundation for Arts and Culture that had the mission of linking local culture with contemporary life. In 2018 construction began to replace the CMP Block Museum of Arts with a permanent museum.

The project is expected to take three years. Typically construction sites are surrounded by hoardings and closed to the public. But the team at the foundation couldn’t bear to see the city block culture they had spent so many years working to nurture just come to an end. They also considered how the public has a stereotype of construction sites being dirty and dangerous, and how, if people have no way of learning about what a construction site is like, it will seem as if the building just magically appears.

To break through pre-existing notions and to salute the nameless heroes of the construction industry, the foundation opened the Kong-Ke Museum next to the construction site, using the format of a site office. They hired ten teams of designers and artists to create a new type of site office. The result is a two-story building with a trans­parent exterior, with a restaurant and outdoor garden on the first floor and a shared space for construction workers and the public on the second. There is a big demand for take-out meals at construction sites, but usually meals ordered from restaurants are made well in advance, so they are cold by the time they get to the workers. However, the restaurant at Kong-Ke provides freshly cooked take-out meals and makes a point of providing healthy balanced fare for laborers.

On most days the space on the second floor is closed to the public until 2 p.m., before which it is only available for workers to take their midday naps. It then becomes an exhibition space for the public to visit. To reduce the sense of unfamiliarity that construction workers might feel toward an arts venue, the designers have laid out the space with items that are common on construction sites, such as corrugated steel sheets and scaffolding. There are specially made sleeping pads, inspired by bags of concrete, so that workers can use the space for midday rests. Construction workers often prefer not to enter air-conditioned rooms, to avoid the discomfort that can result from dramatic temperature changes, so electric fans have been installed to provide cooling. Such thoughtful attention to detail puts the workers at ease inside the museum.

Closing gaps bit by bit

Since opening last year, the museum has held three exhibitions, for which they sought out several artists whose works reference construction-site culture. One made a statue of a deity of good fortune using a traffic-­directing dummy (a common sight around construction sites). Another made a truck cab out of tatamis. For the latest show, the museum hired designer Angus ­Chiang to turn construction-­site vocabulary into slogans printed on throw pillows and other products, using a riot of colors to express the vitality of construction sites.

They also invited people from the neighborhood to grow edible plants on the sidewalk outside the construction site. On weekends and holidays they hold construction-­related arts activities, such as percussion music played on construction tools and equipment. “We hope the Kong-Ke Museum will help break through a certain kind of alienation in the city,” says Jonas Ho, CEO of the CMP Pujen Foundation.

Since the opening of the Kong-Ke Museum, many construction companies have come to have a look around. Even the original site office next to the museum has been inspired to gradually improve the environment it provides for workers to take a break. Although change won’t happen overnight, the reinterpretation of construction-site culture can create new opportunities for understanding, which can help improve the work environment in the future. The next time we pass a construction site, we will feel a greater sense of understanding and affection as we think with gratitude of the dedication of these unsung heroes.

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