Ashtrays and expectations

A pair of repurposed food tins have been tied around trees to act as informal ashtrays. Not surprising, in light of recent increasing strictness when it comes to keeping central Shanghai’s streets clean. While the white snack tin, secured as it is with flexible rope, seems simple enough to empty with minimal difficulty, I’m curious how the cylindrical tin, secured tightly to the tree with wire, is emptied without covering oneself in cigarette butts, sand, and ash.

As the spaces where one is allowed to smoke in Shanghai are also evolving (smoking has relatively recently been banned “in all indoor public places, work places, and public transport as well as in many outdoor public areas”), these tree-bound ashtrays also signal an area where smoking is (at least informally) sanctioned.

Separated by several trees, one of these improvised ashtrays is placed in front of a branch of a real estate company where (even at eight at night on a Saturday, as this is China, after all) a dozen men dressed identically in smart-looking, fresh-pressed white shirts and black slacks sit behind their desks. A few trees down, the other tin hangs off of a tree in front of a bustling hair salon, out of which syrupy strands of cantopop are carried down the dark street on the brisk autumn breeze.

In both offices and industries, the appearance of employees (and the space those employees appear within) is important. Both are service industries, where a typical day can be punctuated by uneven or unpredictable periods of slack or inactivity, followed by small windows of intense activity, which is a cadence that lends itself to cigarette breaks, even as the expectations of the job call for preventing the litter that would typically accompany those breaks.

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