I don’t know if the clock will stop chim­ing for the city some­day. I’m just try­ing to keep it work­ing as long as I can.”

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Wei Yunsi has been climb­ing the spi­ral iron stair­case to the clock tower at the top of the Cus­toms House on the Bund for 24 years.

The 57-year-old is the fourth per­son to have held the job of mak­ing sure Asia’s big­gest me­chan­i­cal clock keeps chim­ing ev­ery hour, as it has done since Jan 1, 1928, send­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tions of the cor­rect time across the en­tire Bund in Shang­hai.

The job in­volves wind­ing the clock springs, lu­bri­cat­ing the gears and re­pair­ing mi­nor dam­age to the ma­chin­ery.

“To me, this is no longer a job. It’s also an obli­ga­tion and a way of life,” said Wei, who has to climb 117 stairs to wind the clock ev­ery three days.

The tower houses the world’s third-largest clock and of­fers views over the Bund, river and city cen­ter.

The clock and bell mech­a­nisms were built ac­cord­ing to the de­sign of Big Ben at the Palace of West­min­ster. The bells were cast by the John Tay­lor Bell foundry and the mech­a­nism built by JB Joyce & Co in Eng­land be­fore they were shipped to Shang­hai in 1927.

Lo­cated at 31 de­grees 14’ (north) lat­i­tude and 121 de­grees 29’ lon­gi­tude, the co­or­di­nates of the Cus­toms House used to rep­re­sent the cen­ter of the city in the 1920s.

“The big­gest re­quire­ment for this job is a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity — you’ve got to make sure noth­ing goes wrong with Shang­hai’s land­mark,” said Wei.

Over the years, he has watched sweep­ing changes over­take the city from what once ranked as its high­est build­ing. Now it is eclipsed by sky­scrapers on both sides of the Huangpu River, es­pe­cially the clus­ter of iconic build­ings in Lu­ji­azui on the op­po­site bank.

“I used to be able to see Peo­ple’s Square and the whole of Pudong from the top of the tower, but now the views have been ob­scured by all the sky­scrapers,” he said.

In the gear room, the huge clock ticks once ev­ery two sec­onds. It was de­signed this way to re­duce fric­tion and pro­long the clock’s ser­vice time. As such, Wei said it feels like he op­er­ates on a slower speed at work.

The tower it­self has also seen much change.

It used to chime the West­min­ster Quar­ters ev­ery 15 min­utes — like ev­ery clock made in the UK — un­til the out­break of the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76). At that time, it be­gan to play The East is Red, a fa­mous Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion­ary song cre­ated dur­ing Chair­man Mao’s era. The pat­tern on the clock face was also changed to one de­pict­ing golden sun­flow­ers.

In 1986, when Queen El­iz­a­beth II vis­ited Shang­hai, the clock re­sumed the me­chan­i­cal chimes of the West­min­ster Quar­ters and re­stored the glasses on the clock face im­ported from Ger­many, at the re­quest of the monarch.

In 2003, how­ever, the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment or­dered the mu­sic to be changed once again to The East is Red.

“The dam­age to the clock tower wrought by those changes prob­a­bly can­not ever be un­done, but for­tu­nately it still stands here and re­ports the time for the city,” said Wei.

Com­pared to his pre­de­ces­sors, Wei’s time-track­ing and main­te­nance work is eas­ier due to a num­ber of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions.

In the past, it was nec­es­sary to have at least four or five men wind the clock springs and the process could take sev­eral hours.

Now it only takes 15 min­utes as Wei in­stalled a small mo­tor in the heart of the clock where the gears are lo­cated. The heav­i­est of the three springs weighs 1,000 kilo­grams.

“I don’t know if the clock will stop chim­ing for the city some­day. I’m just try­ing to keep it work­ing as long as I can,” said Wei, whose skills are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly niche.

Though his am­bi­tious travel plans in­clude get­ting a close look at Big Ben, as well as the clock tower in Moscow’s Red Square — the world’s two big­gest clocks — Wei has found him­self stuck in Shang­hai for al­most two decades.

“My big­gest re­gret was that I didn’t have time to take my fam­ily out for trips, but I will be able to do that in three years, when I re­tire,” he said.

When asked who will re­place him, Wei said Shang­hai Cus­toms must ap­point some­body be­fore 2018.

The back of the build­ing still has some res­i­den­tial apart­ments con­nected to old al­ley­ways, but the living con­di­tions here in the first half of the cen­tury were no­to­ri­ously bad.

Zhou Yuan, a lo­cal res­i­dent who grew up in the area, re­calls the dif­fi­cult con­di­tions en­dured by her grand­par­ents, who lived in the build­ing for over 50 years. Their 13-squareme­ter apart­ment didn’t have a pri­vate toi­let or kitchen, so they had to share fa­cil­i­ties with sev­eral neigh­bors.

“I re­mem­ber the clock play­ing the West­min­ster Quar­ters and send­ing out loud gongs each hour. That will for­ever be a part of my child­hood mem­o­ries,” said Zhou, adding that most res­i­dents have since moved out.

Now this row of for­eign build­ings erected be­fore 1937 along the Bund, in­clud­ing the Cus­toms House, Shang­hai Mu­nic­i­pal Trade Union Coun­cil and Shang­hai For­eign Ex­change Trade Cen­ter, serve as his­tor­i­cal mark­ers of a time when Shang­hai ranked as one of the most im­por­tant trad­ing ports in the world.

“Those his­tor­i­cal build­ings on the Bund have been pro­tected and pre­served ex­tremely well by the gov­ern­ment, of­ten through very dif­fi­cult pe­ri­ods, which shows a great deal of re­spect for our his­tory and cul­ture,” said Pro­fes­sor Zheng Shiling, hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Ar­chi­tec­tural So­ci­ety of Shang­hai.

In the early 1900s, the old Bund was a large in­ter­na­tional port crowded with peo­ple de­liv­er­ing cargo from all over the world.

“At that time, no­body no­ticed the ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­chi­tec­ture cre­ated by the for­eign busi­ness­men, but only the goods and West­ern cul­ture trans­ported from across the sea,” said Zheng.

Zheng said the city should not for­get its un­sung he­roes like Wei who have ded­i­cated years of their lives to guard­ing th­ese his­toric relics.

clock-keeper at the Shang­hai Cus­toms House

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