Published: June 2007
Mark Leong

Careful of his footing, photographer Mark Leong—with engineer Lu Dusheng—crosses a scaffold 354 feet (108 meters) up on the new Zijin Bridge to take photos of the city of Lishui below. "I don't love heights, and I'd never go up on a windy day," he says. "But when I'm up high, I lock my body into as secure a position as possible—against a rail, for example—and then start shooting. Once I start concentrating on what's below and in the frame, I think less of how far I could fall. And I'm careful not to drop anything. Who knows? Maybe a lens cap falling from that height could give someone a concussion."

Best

I first came across the Wu family in August 2005 when I was photographing the evacuation of Beishan, a bustling village in a stretch of beautiful hilly countryside between Wenzhou and Lishui. It was scheduled to be submerged by a massive hydroelectric dam. The Wus were packing up their truck to move to a home they were building in a settlement slightly south of Lishui city proper. We became friends, and whenever I came to town I dropped in to see how they were doing at their new place. Most remarkable was the fact that almost every time I saw them, they were into some new source of income:

August 2005—Bricks. Bricklaying was the father Wu Zhiwei's main job and vital in a new settlement.

October 2005—Restaurant. Wu Zengrong, the son, worked as a cook in the city.

April 2006—Ladies shoes. Wenzhou shoe factories sent bales of piecework up the expressway, and the family would squat in the shade in front of their building, applying little multicolored beads.

June 2006—Lightbulbs. A neighbor brought over big bags of bulbs from a decorative lighting factory. They weren't much bigger than a grain of rice, and everyone on the block wired them by hand.

October 2006—The World of Warcraft video game. Wu Zengrong installed broadband in a spare room, bought four computers, and had friends come over 24-7 to play the swords-and-sorcery, where participants' characters accumulate precious metals to gain status and power. This has created a market for Warcraft gold in the real world. Working in shifts, Wu and his friends had their characters exclusively mine and plunder gold, which they then sold to players based in Germany for actual cash.

November 2006—Gloves. A local businessman rented the first floor of their building, installed a bunch of knitting machines, and gave the Wus jobs trimming gloves, applying Japanese labels, and packing them up for the wholesale market in Yiwu, a major international small-commodities hub about two hours north of Lishui.

February 2007—Construction. Wu Zengrong sold his computers and applied to go to Italy, where some of his friends have gone to work at construction sites.

So there's no miracle at the heart of Zhejiang province's economy, just flexible, enterprising, hard-working families like the Wus. And what is their driving force? When I tried my hand at wiring a few lightbulbs, they told me, "We don't even make any money doing this. We just do it because otherwise there would be nothing else to do all day."

Worst

A key sequence in the story shows Xiahe New Village, a residential neighborhood in Lishui, sprouting up before our eyes over a year's time. The idea was to shoot it in progression every other month from the exact spot, the balcony of a second-floor vacant apartment overlooking the site. Initially, the whole floor was accessible because workers were camped out there. When it closed down, I used a ladder to climb up to the balcony from outside.

I was at the halfway point in the progression by the time my April visit to Lishui came around. Eager to see the latest development, I was stunned to discover the landlord had built a steel security cage around the whole balcony. The shot was blocked. It would be impossible to get the same angle. Six months of work down the tubes!

But Lishui's can-do boomtown mentality scoffs at mere trifles like steel security cages. While I was busy moaning and groaning, my cab driver, Mr. Jin, was making calls on his mobile. "I know a guy," he said. In China, what goes up fast can come down even faster. By the next day, a worker armed with a metal-cutting saw and welding torch had cut a hole in the cage. The progression was alive again! We also rented the room next to the balcony for the rest of the year, just to be safe.

Quirkiest

The Shuige Factory Development Zone, a new factory district southwest of Lishui, was still pretty bare in terms of entertainment, so a sprinkling of carnival games and the occasional performing troupe set up on the main drag to fill the void for idle workers and villagers. They played the ring toss, softball basket-throw, and darts to win such prizes as a pack of Chunghwa-brand cigarettes, a small caricature bust of the Portuguese soccer star Luis Figo, or plain cash.

One morning, author Peter Hessler was in the bra strap fastener factory, and I was outside photographing the ring toss. When he came out of the factory, we decided to try out our game skills. A crowd gathered to watch the foreigners lose their money. The softballs looked so easy but kept bouncing out of the basket, which seemed to have some kind of springy trampoline at the bottom. Pete figured out that a bit of sidespin would keep the balls from rebounding. But by the time he perfected his touch, he was already on his second-to-last ball; so he didn't win the cigarettes.

I went over to the darts-for-cash stand and managed to get a good score on the first dart. To stay in the groove, I quickly threw a second one at the same spot, right into the hand of the woman running the game. She had been reaching over to fetch the first dart. I swear she didn't flinch, but I sure did; the dart stabbed about a quarter inch deep into the fleshy part of her palm. When Pete and I rushed over to make sure she was OK, she just stared at the dart for a moment. Then she yanked it out and put her hand in her pocket. "Meishi, meishi," she said. "No big deal."

Tough lady! She even gave me a second try at the one she "blocked." But I didn't get my groove back.