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Reflections: toil and trouble

Wee Kek Koon

 

If it weren’t for the “Made in Bangladesh” label, I would’ve bought the nice shirt I saw in a store in Central without hesitation. Workers in the sweatshops of countries such as China and Bangladesh, where a shoddily built factory building collapsed in April – killing more than 1,000 people – are victims of a whole food chain of commercial and consumerist predators.

Like these modern-day taskmasters, engineer Yuwen Kai (AD555-612) was a man who forced his workers to meet unrealistic targets. Implicated in his brother’s armed rebellion against the Sui dynasty, he had long been stripped of any official rank by the time he was put in charge of the construction of a palace for the Emperor Wen. So eager was he to repay this imperial favour that he forced his conscripted labourers to work in double-quick time to complete the ironically named Palace of Benevolence and Longevity. Many workers had their lives cut short by sheer exhaustion, and Yuwen simply threw their bodies into pits. Many of his most brilliant feats of engineering were for the next emperor, the Emperor Yang, who built grand architectural works as expressions of his power.

 

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