Shanghai is a Chinese city known for its modern buildings, its skyscrapers and tall, expensive structures. However, no matter how modern the city becomes, its alluring, old architecture cannot be ignored. Its old structures range from Art Deco buildings to French-style villas and Edwardian mansions, that have been left behind by its pre-communist days as a cosmopolitan trading hub.
“Master Ma” in action
While authorities happen to be committed to preserving these structures, carpenter Ma Jiale has been, for years, doing his part by repairing the ruined, old, historical buildings. Lovingly known as “Master Ma” in the neighbourhood, the 57-year-old grandfather is seen cycling from job to job in a part of Hongkou’s northeast district, which has been described by the World Bank in a 2002 report as a key historical site in entire China and not just in Shanghai.
Cycling around with old tools dangling from the handlebars, Ma says that he believes that modernisation is not bad, but Shanghai is not Shanghai without its historical structures. Previous residents included a late 1920s Communist Party leader and writers. Local legend says that it also included one of Mao Zedong’s ex-wives. If Shanghai only has skyscrapers, then it is not Shanghai any more,” said Ma.
Proudly declaring to be a part of the ruling Communist Party, Ma is a worker at a state-owned property management company.
Ma’s recent work included repairing a century-old house. From outside, in a wealthy London suburb, it would not look out of place at all.
According to Ma, the Japanese earlier used to live there. Now, it is divided into many rather dilapidated apartments. Once upon a time, Hongkou was known as “Little Tokyo”. Fearing that modern tools and electrical equipment will damage the house’s original features, Ma uses tools that were handed down by his predecessors.
“What is made by machines is cold and lacks a human touch,” he said. The features of the house include a fireplace with grandiose tiles, high ceilings and arched floor-to-ceiling front windows. Since there is a lack of original drafts to work off, Ma’s experience and instinct drive him to match the new door frame with the worn-off splendour surrounding it. “The meaning of my job is to protect historical buildings and pass on our craftsmanship,” said Ma.
“The big problem”
Several properties were consigned to decay following political parties, after the Communist had taken over 70 years ago, denouncing China’s “feudal” era’s symbols, reported NDTV.
According to Ma, in recent years the Shanghai government is putting in an effort for the preservation and protection of historical structures. Ma, however, openly speaks about the inadequacy he feels is there in the effort.
“We just roughly repair windows, doors, floorboards, wooden frames,” said Ma, calling for more money to be directed to the preservation effort,” he said. He further said that for years, these historical structures have not been properly protected. “Small repairs from property management companies cannot solve the big problem,” he added.
A gnawing worry
What worries Ma is that following his retirement in three years, he will possibly not be able to pass on his expertise to anyone, because there are hardly any budding carpenters. There are only four carpenters in the neighbourhood where he works, where over 10,000 residents live.
All across Shanghai, there happens to be a repetition of this inadequate ratio.
The major reason, however, is the low salary. Working five days a week, Ma earns only 5,000 yuan ($750) a month. This happens to be half the average pay in Shanghai. To compare, the 550 square feet building Ma was working on got sold off for five million yuan. This resulted in putting it at par with prices of central London. Ma is even willing to teach carpenter work to young people, but it is tough to find people who are willing to learn this work.
Be it Shanghai or Rajasthan or any other city with historical significance, there is always a sense of pride in connection to historical monuments. The very thought that they were made several eras back is exciting. Nature and human beings have long been destroying these structures. In a world where people hardly care, Ma Jiale’s effort to do his part is worth being appreciated. The Logical Indian appreciates Ma not just for his work, but for making us believe that even a single person can make a difference.