Shanghaiist remembers when they first appeared on street corners throughout the city. Shanghai’s crossing guards look like lost UPS workers with whistles. And we’ve always felt kind of sorry for them. Because they have no real power — they can’t issue tickets, or even official warnings — and everyone knows this. So pedestrians ignore them. And all the crossing guards can do is blow their whistles louder. Shanghaiist was a crossing guard in elementary school. Back then, in the mid 1980s, it was the cool thing to do for an 11-year-old. Not the case for a 40- or 50-year-old in Shanghai, as Howard French points out in the International Herald Tribune:
“Chinese people have some bad habits, and a lack of awareness of traffic rules is one of them,” said the 36- year-old crossing guard. “Two-thirds of the people ignore the rules and simply can’t be bothered.”
In rain, snow or the merciless heat of the Shanghai summer, crossing guards like Li can be seen during daylight hours at every major intersection in this city, trying their best to hold back groaning, impatient crowds with little more than a sharply blown whistle and some well-chosen words. …
That the guards have no powers of arrest, or even the ability to issue tickets, allows many pedestrians to feel free to ignore them. What is worse, they are frequent targets of aggression from crowds of sneering and cursing pedestrians. According to the city government they are physically assaulted at a rate of about 20 times a month.
“This is not an easy job to do,” said Li, expressing with considerable understatement the frustrations of a weaponless army of 8,000 in a pushy, adrenaline-fueled city of 17 million.
“Particularly when you feel people look down upon you,” he said. “We’ve even come to calling ourselves fifth-class citizens.” …
Most of the people in this job, which was created by Shanghai three years ago, are in their late 40s or into their 50s, the country’s so-called lost generation – casualties of China’s sharp change of course from a communist economy composed of state enterprises that provided lifetime employment to free-wheeling capitalism, where layoffs and corporate restructuring are the rule, and people without higher degrees in sought-after fields are the first to go. …
“When I started, I felt embarrassed,” Qi said, explaining how he coped with his fall in social status. “I live nearby and bump into my neighbors and former colleagues almost every day. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, Qi Fang, how did you get to be like this?'”
The crossing guards make around US$120 a month — which is actually not too bad in Shanghai — and they only work six hour shifts. Still, it’s bad karma to be cruel to a crossing guard.
Photo from Shanghai Streets. (She must be a plain-clothes crossing guard.)