Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Empty Stool

I really should have taken a picture to accompany this observation, but, alas, my camera is kaput (or, at any rate, my ability to deal with digital photography is)......

The recording studio I've been visiting most days this week is in an apartment building, several storeys up. When I'm really on a fitness kick, I make a point of using the stairs; but this week, I'm still feeling a bit frail after my recent illnesses, so I was using the lift.

And I was struck by the poignancy of the empty stool next to the rank of buttons.

You see, one of the key elements of Beijing's Olympic preparations was to flush out and banish all those without the proper hukou residence registration - which means basically ALL of the city's migrant workers from other parts of China (who probably number at least in the hundreds of thousands, if not in the millions). Many hole-in-the-wall restaurants have undergone complete changes of staff in the last month (sometimes this has led to a slight improvement in the food or service, sometimes the reverse). My building appears to be down to a lone security guard on the front gate, rather than the three or four who used to man the post. And the lift girls who used to push the buttons for you (most apartment buildings used to have them, although they seem to be becoming less common in the newer places; Chinese job creation at its most desperate - an utterly pointless and unnecessary profession!) have almost all disappeared...... but in some lifts their little chairs remain, to remind us of their passing.

I suppose they'll all be back in October. I hope so. (It really is difficult to comprehend the scale of the social upheaval wrought by these ruddy Olympics!)

One of my translator friends reminded me the other day that 'the empty stool' is an image used by Dickens in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come tips Scrooge off to the fact that without a richer diet Tiny Tim is not long for this world.

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