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July 14, 2012

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Ferry engineer toils and sweats in dying profession

THE glory days of Shanghai Ferry Co have long since passed, but still the boats crisscross the Huangpu River every day, taking passengers back and forth between Puxi and Pudong.

Veteran Shanghai Ferry employees still remember when the boats would transport about 1.2 million people each day back in the 1980s. Now the ferries handle about one-sixth of that number and the company largely depends on government subsidies.

Chief engineer Qin Peijun toils in the small engine room, where there is a strong oil smell and the temperature often reaches 40 degrees Celsius in the summer.

Qin has been working for the company since 1987, when he was 18 years old.

"I advise you not to touch the running machine," Qin said. "It's extremely hot and can burn or scald you easily."

He turned toward an air-conditioner, which only works when the ferry stops. The engine room has a small fan, running at maximum power. Still, sweat was pouring down his face. A bucket of water was set aside with a towel in it.

"Water helps me cool down from time to time," said Qin.

The engine room also has a control panel, a clock, and a loudspeaker. It has changed little in the past two decades after the ship first started making its daily crossings of the Huangpu.

The ferry seems destined to disappear. A new cruise and yacht harbor has been finished beside the dock where Qin starts work beneath Nanpu Bridge each day.

Wang Huide, a manager at Shanghai Ferry Co, said: "I think every one above the age of 20 can remember being taken on the ferry by their parents and watching the river. Most of the younger generation won't have this memory."

Few young people are now willing to take the wheel of the ferry because the salary is not so great, about 3,000 yuan per month, said Wang, who will soon retire.

Passenger volume has slipped quickly as bridges and tunnels have created more convenient ways for people to cross the river.

One of the city's oldest passenger ferry docks, Mishidu, which opened in 1878, in suburban Songjiang District, was closed in June for reconstruction as the operator found "safety hazards during daily operation."

Qin, who started as an apprentice after graduating from high school, said he has no choice but to stick with it.

"Find another job?" Qin said. "I don't have any other knowledge besides this. I have stayed in this occupation for too long."

Qin is married but does not have any children, which he jokes, "can save a lot of money."

Emerging from the hot engine room, Qin grabs the towel in the water bucket and wipes his face.

As the ferry docks during the morning rush hour, its horn is soon drowned out by the sound of a giant cargo ship passing by.


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