This year, I’ll remember not to walk underneath the plane trees in the French Concession while the annual work crews are busy, unlike last year when I copped a branch to the head. Shanghai is pretty much a Workplace Health and Safety-free zone.
The elegant plane trees of downtown Shanghai are one of the city’s most recognizable features, planted over a hundred years ago to line the streets of the massive French Concession. Other than a few dark years of over-zealous development in the 1990s when a number were ripped up (and later replanted after a huge public outcry), they have been carefully preserved. Every winter, from December to February, after the last leaves have fallen, crews of orange-suited workmen sweep through like a locust plague, trimming the trees back to winter bareness.
The climbers come first, scaling the trunk in four steps of a bamboo ladder, then scrambling along the branches to cut back to the start of last year’s growth. They wear safety harnesses around their waists which aren’t actually attached to anything, because they can work much faster without having to hitch and unhitch all the time, but their green-sneakered feet are agile and grip the branches and I’m yet to see one lose his balance. Underneath the tree lies a growing tangle of large and small branches. When their work on that tree is done, the climbers jump down and move on to the next, from one end of the street to the other. The careful attention given to the trees doesn’t extend to passersby walking below, or passing cars or cyclists – they just have to swerve to avoid the branches being tossed to the ground left, right and centre.
Now come the rope guys, on their bicycles, with coils of thick, hand-made hessian rope. They sort the branches into two sizes, then bundle them up ready for the pick-up truck.
Last are the repairmen. They paste any holes in the trunk or branches with a hard-setting concrete paste, to prevent rot setting in.
The trees look naked but now the winter sunshine is streaming in to the upper floor windows of lane houses on both sides of the street. In six months the windows will be invisible again behind the dense green canopy of the summer foliage, and the crews will be back to trim and thin out the lush summer growth. It makes me feel good that these trees are so well taken care of, a small sign that Shanghai is recognising the value of preservation, the value of old over new. It’s a start.