Working in a
Chinese Computer
Destruction Factory
We found ourselves under a heavy tea barrage. Through blind luck, we had found the Han family and were now enduring the withering assault of their generosity and good spirits. After walking down the Guiyu streets for an uncomfortable duration --- uncomfortable for the way we stuck out, for the way people stopped what they were doing to watch us and possibly ready their bricks --- we came upon Mr. Han sitting in the doorway of his workshop. He was youngish, perhaps in his early thirties, and had a friendly face. His forehead and hair were powdered with dust. He had been using a small circular saw to cut CPUs out of a select stack of motherboards. In Chinese, Cecily asked if we could see his workshop.

Like their neighbors, the Hans lived on the upper floors of their building, reserving the ground floor for a garage-like workroom. One corner of the workshop was a sitting room with a teakettle and a computer; the rest was filled with piles of motherboards, shelves of CPUs, and large grain sacks filled with sorted resistors and capacitors. We sat and drank tiny cups of tea by the half dozen while the family's tiny, eight-year-old son made a racket throwing circuit boards around in the back of the workshop.

Mrs. Han wanted to know why Cecily, in her late twenties, wasn't married, and whether I was married, and whether two single people traveling together were perhaps soon to be married to each other, and finally, once again, whether I was married.

"Is he married?" she asked, looking at me with cautious amusement, as though I were a zebra.

I said I was not. Married. I didn't elaborate. I was in fact more than unmarried. I was newly alone, and homeless. After getting back from Brazll, I had moved out of the Doctor's [his former girlfriend's --- she has just dumped him] place. Now, when not in Guiyu, I resided on an air mattress on Adam's living room floor, where I spent my nights praying to be hit by an asteroid.

We began the business of lying to our new friends. Cecily and I had not agreed on a cover story in the end, but the Hans quite naturally wanted to know what had brought me to Guiyu, and to their workshop. Improvising, Cecily threw out several stories in quick succession, no doubt creating some confusion as to exactly what an artist/university researcher/entrepreneur was. I told Cecily I was worried they wouldn't buy it.

It doesn't matter, she said. We just have to tell them something.

In the meantime, I had realized that the little tyke in back wasn't thrashing around just for fun. He was working. I told Mr. Han that I'd be happy to relieve his son for a while. I was a hard worker, I said, a claim that proved wildly hilarious to the entire family. When the laughter died down, I was still looking expectant.

Is he serious? Mr. Han asked.

I think he is, Cecily told him.

Mr. Han shrugged. Well, sure. Lang can show him how to do it. And that is how I began my career in electronics recycling, in the employ of an eight-year-old firebrand called Lang. Our task was to pull the recyclable plastic off the circuit boards, which were piled against the wall in a mound almost as tall as I was. We sat at the foot of the mountain on tiny plastic stools, causing little avalanches each time we grabbed a new board.

Most of the recyclable plastic in a computer's motherboard, I'll have you know, is in the slots where sound cards and the like are plugged in. With the use of a screwdriver-size crowbar and a pair of pliers, these narrow rectangles of plastic can, if you are Lang, be popped off the board with a few flicks of the wrist. Lang also had a preternatural ability to move boards around with his feet, leaving his hands free for uninterrupted hammering and prying. He was wearing a pair of fuzzy brown dog slippers with floppy ears, which created the illusion that he was being helped in his work by a pair of supremely well-coordinated puppies. He was a machine. In the time it took me to evict a single battered hunk of plastic, Lang might have gone through three entire boards, plastic flying from his every touch, the boards spinning underneath the jumping ears of his little doggies.

I held up a newly won gobbet of plastic. "Check that out," I said with pride.

Lang smacked his forehead. "Bu yao!" he cried, and snatched my board away.

"Cecily!" I shouted to the sitting room. "What does 'buyao' mean?" lt means 'don't want'" she said.

It turns out there is no better way to learn a few useful words of Chinese than by taking part in a little child labor. In addition to bu yao, I learned yao, meaning "want," and bao le, meaning "done," roughly. Like this, Lang and I established a system of communication, and I began to learn which bits of plastic were worth the prying and which weren't. Some, I believe, had metal inside them, and so were no good for melting down.

Over the course of several hours, Lang's excitement at getting to boss around an adult veered into delight at what was becoming an effective collaboration. Soon, when he would go to get a smoke for his uncle, he would get one for me as well, leaving me with a lit cigarette in my mouth before I could even think of saying bu yao.

The smoke stung my eyes as I worked, making me glad that we were not baking circuit boards instead. That task was done in the covered entry space between the workshop and the street, and was a job the Hans didn't do themselves. They reserved it for their lone employee, who sat in front of a hot plate that held a shimmering pool of molten solder. With a pair of needle-nose pliers, he would pick up a circuit board and float it on the silvery pool of solder. As the solder holding the components on the board melted, acrid fumes rose into a homemade fume hood, which drew them into a chimney and vented them onto the street. This is why the streets of Guiyu smell of cooking circuits. Nearly every building has one of these smokestacks.

After frying for fifteen or twenty seconds, the circuit board's connections would melt. The worker would pick up the board with his pliers, invert it, and smack it violently on a hunk of concrete to the right of the stove. The components would fly off (along with a spatter of tin and lead, depending on the solder) and go tumbling into an ever-growing pile. He would then toss the board into a heap of newly naked circuit boards.

There was gold in those boards. Printed circuit boards use copper for their circuits, but the copper must be protected from corrosion with some kind of coating or plating, often in the form of a microscopically thin layer of alloyed gold. It takes a lot of circuit boards to accumulate a significant amount of gold, but a lot of circuit boards is exactly what Guiyu has. Once Mr. Han had accumulated a sufficient batch, he would give the boards to a contractor to extract the gold. This was the dirtiest part of the entire process. I had heard tales of acid baths and toxic bonfires. Naturally, I wanted to see it for myself.

Don't, said Mr. Han. Don't try to find those people. They operate illegally, and they're very suspicious. You could get in trouble. Please don't try to find them.

Not that I had time anyway. I was focused on my work, on improving my turnaround time for each motherboard. Brand names cowered under my crowbar: Intel, Acer, Foxconn, Pentium, Philips, Virtex, Blitzen. Each time I had a CPU to unplug from a board, Lang would hold up the collection bucket for me, and I would shoot a three-pointer, and he would smile like we had won the championship.

A drag on my cigarette and I'd pull over another board to wreck out the plastic, pausing to point when I wasn't sure.

"Yao?" I would ask.

"BU YAO!" Lang would scream.

"BU YAO!" I would scream back.

And then, if I thought I was done, I would ask, "Hao le?"

"Hao le," Lang would say, sounding almost philosophical. Then, with a look of what I hoped was respect, or at least camaraderie, he'd pause his helper-dogs and slide another board in front of me, the little slave driver.

--- From Visit Sunny Chernobyl
Andrew Blackwell
©2012 Rodale
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