Just beyond the shadow of neon-lit skyscrapers, Cao Xiuzhen lives in a tiny dark room up a makeshift flight of steps that is more ladder than staircase, under the eaves of a house precariously packed with people just like her: former peasants barely struggling to scratch a living in the world’s largest economy.

It’s just past dawn on a lowering Shanghai day, and in this impromptu village of migrants — so similar to temporary migrant settlements all over China — a housewife chases a live waterfowl through the clutter of an impossibly narrow lane, until it ducks under a scooter and sets off the vehicle’s earsplitting alarm.

Inches away on the other side of a thin plywood wall, a baby sleeps in a small lean-to room with its parents. Cao’s husband squats nearby, brushing his teeth meticulously at an outdoor tap, while the next-door neighbour sits on her haunches washing clothes in a basin full of suds. Others fetch buckets of water from the communal tap, or load discarded cardboard on to three-wheeled carts, preparing for a day sorting through other people’s rubbish to make a few cents selling it up the recycling chain.

The sheer industriousness of it all is exhausting: so much life, so much effort, so much sacrifice, so much hope, packed into so few square metres. Like Cao, her neighbours have come to Shanghai — from her native Anhui, traditionally one of rich eastern China’s poorest provinces, and from other provinces across China — because the living they can make in the city is better than in the countryside. So many millions have obeyed that imperative that China reached the point, earlier this decade, where more than half its people live in cities.

“Shanghai is fabulous, it is so fabulous,” says the bright-eyed, 47-year-old Cao, with a weather-beaten face and ever-present smile; for our visit, she has dressed up in her best second-hand clothing. “We can easily make money here,” she says. “I am not educated,” Cao adds apologetically — in fact she is only semi-literate — “so when I came to Shanghai I had no choice but to become a trashpicker”.

It’s a good trade to ply, in a city full of the detritus of a new consumer society. Shanghai has an army of people who make a living as part of the unofficial — but hugely efficient — recycling industry. They pick plastic bottles out of bins, collect newspapers at subway stations during rush hour, or go door to door buying up old newspapers, books, cardboard or plastics, for a pittance. They earn a margin on that pittance by carting it all off to suburban recycling stations, where they join a queue of tricycle-carts waiting sometimes hours to sell to consolidators. At the pinnacle of that trash pile are some of the richest people in China, such as “rubbish baroness” Zhang Yin, of Nine Dragons Paper, ranked in 2010 by the Hurun List of Self-Made Women Billionaires as the richest self-made woman in the world.

Cao’s recycling profit margins are a lot narrower than that: an average of Rmb100 (£10.34) per day; sometimes more — and sometimes nothing. Most of her profit comes from selling old newspapers and books in bulk; but her most profitable items are Mao-era memorabilia: “Cultural revolution books are my bestsellers,” she says, noting that she was just a child then “so I don’t know anything about it — I only know it sells”. Her current selection includes a 1969 copy of Albania Today magazine, complete with foreword by (former dictator) Enver Hoxha; and a 1975 Chinese aviation manual. But despite those treasures, Cao makes enough profit only to cover her university student son’s Rmb1,000 monthly living costs, with Rmb500 left over to rent the room under the eaves.

The Pudong financial district in Shanghai
The Pudong financial district in Shanghai © Alan Copson/Getty Images

Previously, her grown-up daughter shared the room with her mother and common-law husband. It’s hard to see how the room could possibly have accommodated three adults. In fact, it’s hard to see how its eight square metres can accommodate even two people, given that Cao is currently feuding with her husband (she chokes up while confiding that she fears he is skimming money off recycling sales).

Cao and her mate have called this single room home for five years already: but though it is beside one of Shanghai’s largest ring roads — one that millions of people drive along each day — one would never even know it was there.

A modern, tarred road leads off the main thoroughfare, but soon peters out into a jumble of narrow footpaths lined by ramshackle two-storey structures scarcely visible behind all the plywood, corrugated iron and plastic lean-tos tacked on to serve as outdoor kitchens or makeshift sleeping quarters. Most residents are migrants, who rent from native Shanghainese landlords, one step up the Chinese pecking order because they have an official urban residence permit, which the migrants lack. Complaints about the landlords are common: on the padlocked door of the room under Cao’s, residents have scrawled a note in magic marker on to plywood. It says: “Landlord please fix this room or we will move out.” When asked how many people live in the building in total, Cao’s husband cannot even hazard a rough estimate. “There are a lot,” he says, pointing out that residents turn over regularly, leaving as soon as they find something better.

The eaves are so low that even a diminutive woman such as Cao narrowly misses braining herself on them. Floor space is so limited that everything that can possibly be hung from the eaves or tacked to a plywood wall has to be. A fat side of pork is suspended from a coat hanger, and the family spatula is tucked between two layers of the cardboard that lines the inside of the roof — to stop the crumbling roof tiles from raining dust into the stir fry.

The rice cooker, wok and gas bottle in Cao’s room
The rice cooker, wok and gas bottle in Cao’s room © Algirdas Bakas

To cook, Cao has to pull her wok and gas cook-plate out on to the narrow landing, where she fires it up with a gas bottle. A dusty shrine to the Buddhist goddess Guanyin clings to a shelf on one wall. Walls are papered with pages from a 2009 calendar. The bed is a thin bamboo mat on a wooden platform, heaped high with colourful comforters. The loo is down the lane, in the direction the duck was running in.

But still, this isn’t Mumbai, or Soweto — or for that matter, parts of Baltimore. What passes for slums in China’s most modern city are not quite as desperate as some of those in other parts of Asia or Africa.

One important difference is Shanghai is relatively safe: murders are rare here. And for a big city, it is pretty clean, with no stinking mounds of faeces-strewn trash or fetid waterways of sewage. That’s already quite an achievement.

And like many such makeshift migrant communities in Shanghai, it is remarkably self-contained, offering many of the necessities of life. Directly opposite Cao’s front door, scarcely a metre across the lane, is a laundry complete with dry-cleaning equipment and a sewing machine for alterations. Right next door is a small, dry goods shop selling rice, drinks, soap and other essentials. Down the lane are butchers who display ribs and cutlets and chops and other pig parts, en plein air — as well as caged live chickens, basins of squirming eels and flopping fish, all ready for the cooking pot.

And at 6am, a cooked traditional Chinese breakfast is easily to hand also: an open-air stall dispenses fresh-fried local breakfast delicacies. Frugal Cao makes her own morning repast, a bowl of rice and preserved vegetables, and packs her lunch for the 40-minute tricycle ride to work, to save money. Where she works, in one of Shanghai’s most expensive residential and commercial areas, lunch at an upscale diner can easily cost more than her total profit from a 12-hour day.

Cao could live somewhere more expensive: but she prefers to invest what she earns in the future of her 23-year-old son, who plans to attend graduate school to study economics (she also has a 21-year-old daughter, who cost her a fine of three times the family’s annual income, because she was born in violation of China’s one-child policy).

The narrow staircase leading to Cao’s room
The narrow staircase leading to Cao’s room © Algirdas Bakas

“If my son can make Rmb5,000 a month, he will be more than willing to give me Rmb500 or maybe Rmb300 a month when I am old. But if he makes only Rmb2,000 a month, then he will not be willing,” she says, assuming like most migrants in China that her son will be her pension. But it will be “quite a few more years yet” before her filial investment begins to pay off.

So every morning she sets off on her tricycle-cart at 7.30am, and each night she returns home more than 12 hours later. From the neon towers, to the room that she calls a “hole”, in the city that she calls “fabulous”. But she’s not complaining: at least it’s warm in the winter — and definitely better than where she came from.

Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent. Additional reporting by Jackie Cai

Photographs: Alan Copson/Getty Images; Algirdas Bakas

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