Published: June 2007

China's Instant Cities

China Laborer


China is in the fast lane, ignoring every speed limit. Cities spread like a cartographic contagion.

By Peter Hessler
Photograph by Mark Leong

At 2:30 in the afternoon, the bosses began designing the factory. The three-story building they had rented was perfectly empty: white walls, bare floors, a front door without a lock. You could come or go; everything in the Lishui Economic Development Zone shared that openness. Neighboring buildings were also empty shells, and they flanked a dirt road that pointed toward an unfinished highway. Blank silver billboards reflected the sky, advertising nothing but late October sunlight.

Wang Aiguo and Gao Xiaomeng had driven the 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Wenzhou, a city on China's southeastern coast. They were family—uncle and nephew—and they had come to Lishui to start a new business. "This whole area just opened up," Boss Gao explained, when I met him at the factory gate. "Wenzhou used to be this way, but now it's quite expensive, especially for a small company. It's better to be in a place like this."

On the first floor, we were joined by a contractor and his assistant. There was no architect, no draftsman; nobody had brought a ruler or a plumb line. Instead, Boss Gao began by handing out 555-brand cigarettes. He was 33 years old, with a sharp crewcut and a nervous air that intensified whenever his uncle was around. After everybody lit up, the young man reached into his shoulder bag for a pen and a scrap of paper.

First, he sketched the room's exterior walls. Then he started designing; every pen stroke represented a wall to be installed, and the factory began to take shape before our eyes. He drew two lines in the southwest corner: a future machine room. Next to that, a chemist's laboratory, followed by a storeroom and a secondary machine room. Boss Wang, the uncle, studied the page and said, "We don't need this room."

They conferred and then scratched it out. In 27 minutes, they had finished designing the ground floor, and we went upstairs. More cigarettes. Boss Gao flipped over the paper.

"This is too small for an office."

"Put the wall here instead. That's big enough."

"Can you build another wall here?"

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