I made a second Dongtan visit the next day with a translator named Sissi, a friend of a friend of a friend who wore high-heeled, knee-high leather boots as we tromped through the mud. Sissi is 21 and owns three cellphones (she can never remember to recharge them in time, so she just swaps them out). She works as a party and music promoter when not studying, and she loves hip-hop and Beijing punk rock. Recently, she told me, some exchange students at her university taught her how to do the "booty shake." She wore a jacket with a blue faux-fur collar, and her gray sweater read "Abercrombie" (but not "Fitch"). Her mother had been "reeducated" here on Chongming Island along with other Shanghai intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, forced to work the fields for four years. Her father's office, the customs building on the historic Bund waterfront, was taken over by families who hung their laundry in its stately halls. But Sissi's family had emerged in a good position in the new, money-driven Shanghai. To walk with her through Dongtan's fields was to see the Chongming gold rush-properties already selling for an inflated $45 a square foot will climb to $70 or more when the bridge is complete-through the eyes of the elite, Westernizing Shanghainese.
Sissi and I talked first with three women planting watermelon seeds in a muddy field. They were in their 50s and 60s and were bending over in the sun, using a foot-long stick to measure out the distance between seeds. Last year their own land, allotted to them by the government, was taken away to be developed, part of the green master plan for Chongming. They now receive 440 yuan (about $57) a month in restitution-not enough, they said. To supplement it, they work here for a local boss on 40 acres of land that itself may soon be reclaimed by the government, making just over 50 cents an hour in 8- to 10-hour days.
In the nearby town of Niupeng, Sissi and I saw where many of the displaced Chongming farmers are being housed: row after row of identical gray, four-story, 12- to 24-unit apartment blocks. One complex had at least 40 of these buildings, and alongside it was a neighborhood of razed homes, traditional dwellings similar to Old Huangbaiyu's that were being cleared to make way for more high-density housing. Red banners with yellow characters-"Cooperate with the Government's Work"-hung one after another over Niupeng's main street, on either side of which were piles of rubble. One lot was a graveyard of wooden doors collected from the destroyed houses. About 20 of the neighborhood's homes were holdouts, still standing as their owners waited for a better payout from the authorities.
Before we returned to the skyscrapers of downtown Shanghai, we stopped where the new bridge and its six-lane highway will make landfall. Already all 216 of the structure's deepwater piers were in place, stretching out of sight across the Yangtze, an endless line of enormous cement stumps. Workers in yellow helmets and orange life jackets, mostly migrants from the south, swarmed the site. They told us that they worked in one of three eight-hour shifts per day; construction went on nonstop, seven days a week. Those who worked and slept on the middle section of the bridge, out in the center of the brown river, took turns each night toting the crew's cellphones to and from land, where they could get text messages from wives and families. The scale of the project-the size of the human tide that will swallow Chongming whole-was hard to miss, and Sissi didn't. "I have to bring my mother back here so we can invest in some properties," she said.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.