Icy work not too cool
To people caught in the scorching heat of Beijing this summer, an "ice-making factory" must sound like paradise.
A step into the room brought me from broiling summer to torturous, freezing winter.
The temperature in the 350 square-metre refrigerator is minus 10 degrees Celsius year round, nearly 40 degrees below the temperature outside in the summer.
Although wrapped in a four-kilogram wadded jacket and pants, and canvas shoes, I could still feel the mist penetrating my clothes.
He Zhiyuan, an ice stevedore who showed me around the factory, waited patiently as I wiped the mist off my glasses in a fluster.
Now 57, he took the job in 1984, the year he was discharged from the army.
For 20 years, he has been arriving at work at 7:30 each morning, entering the refrigerator after a quick breakfast, and beginning the process of heaping, unloading, and transporting ice cubes. He never leaves the factory before 19:30 and often has to work later into the night.
Due to the soaring temperatures this summer, He and his colleagues often stay in the refrigerator for over three hours at a time.
I noticed several bags hanging on the wall of the room, which, as He explained, contained some instant food the workers brought from home.
"We are used to having lunch or dinner in the refrigerator," he said.
When we were talking, more and more stevedores entered the room, all clad in thick winter clothes.
They seemed to adapt immediately to the temperature and began their work the instant they arrived.
With a crude elevator made by themselves, some stevedores put newly-produced ice cubes, each weighing about 100 kilograms, in piles and others unloaded ice from other piles. The rest used ice hooks and pliers to pull the cubes out of the room and load them onto a truck to be sent to construction sites, factories, restaurants and markets of farm produce.
It is by no means an easy job to move such heavy cubes. When I was shuddering with cold, the stevedores, to my surprise, took off their jackets. Despite the freezing temperature, they were covered with sweat due to the heavy work.
I could not help worrying that they could catch a cold when going outside, but Feng Guoqing, a 54-year-old driver and stevedore told me that catching a cold was nothing to ice stevedores compared to their occupational diseases like arthritis (inflammation of a joint or joints resulting in pain and swelling), and rheumatism (any of several pathological conditions of the muscles, bone, tendons or nerves).
According to Feng, who has 30 years experience in ice loading and transporting, most of his colleagues have been suffering from the diseases for years because of the huge differences in temperature outside and inside the refrigerator.
But he seemed quite optimistic about his job.
"Ice loading is indeed very tough work," he said. "But if you have a job, you should do it well."
He did not have too much time to continue our talk, for the truck had been loaded with ice cubes. It was time for him to finish up in the refrigerator and send the ice to the customers.
Following him, I left the refrigerator. I was immediately overcome by a wave of heat. With every pore open to the air, sweat began streaming down.
"Very uncomfortable, right?" asked Feng with a smile.
"How can you stand this every day?" I replied.
"We have become used to the temperature," he said. "Work in the ice-making workshop could be harder."
Noticing the doubt in my eyes, he introduced me to Shang Zhiqiang, a 51-year-old who has been majoring in ice-making since the mid-1980s.
Shang led me to the ice-making workshop, a room measuring some 100 square metres.
A big pool full of ice bins occupied most of the room. Shang explained the process... He at first operated compressors to compress ammonia gas to liquid ammonia, which, in its evaporation in two evaporators, cooled the brine flowing in the pool. The circulation of the cold brine past the large ice bins then converted the water inside to ice. About 60 tons of ice is produced here everyday.
Shang told me that they have to stay beside the roaring machinery the whole day, even though an ammonia leak could be disastrous. Also a tiny error in operation could lead to an explosion.
In the past two decades, from the time Shang and his colleagues took control of the machines, there have been no accidents.
The high demand for ice this summer rewarded the hard work of Shang and all the others in the factory.
I, however, felt only fleeting happiness for them as Liu Xinfang, manager of the factory, told me of his worry about staff shortages.
"There are now 30 workers in the factory, among whom the youngest is 42-year-old," he said. When it came to the busy months Liu said he would bring in some extra help.
"Ice-making is very monotonous and laborious work. Few young people would like to join us," he said.
His words were proved by Zhao Xiangfeng, a young migrant from Central China's Henan Province, now working in the factory as a temporary stevedore. Compared to his middle-aged colleagues, he did not seem to like his job that much.
"I do not think the job is very satisfying," said the young man. "The work is tough and it does not pay well."
Even Liu, the manager, receives a salary of about 1,000 yuan (US$120.9) per month. He, however, still held hope for the ice-making industry.
"We feel needed. That is the most rewarding thing."