Diary of a renovator: unplugged

Xiu Fang

Ever wonder why construction workers often seem on the verge of killing each other? In the past week I have been ready to race downstairs, hose in hand, to separate the half-naked men labouring to turn my dingy ground floor into a bright open-plan room linked to my office upstairs. My nerves have been frayed by their raised voices interspersed with aggressive exhortations and the odd thump delivered, I imagine, for emphasis.

But then a friend said that they were probably just discussing what to have for lunch. Cantonese is often shouted rather than spoken, he observed, while I was preparing to leap to assistance at the first scream for mercy. But now I wonder whether my workers and rocker Pete Townshend share something in common: hearing loss.

Volumes of 85 decibels and above can damage your ears, and drills, like rock concerts, can be noisier than 100 decibels. I considered these facts, gleaned from the internet, and thought about moving into a serviced apartment while renovation work continued. But then I calculated the added expense would allow me to eat only every other day.

If I suffered, imagine the headache Ah Ming must have endured. His job was to punch a hole through the first floor of my village house to accommodate a staircase leading to the ground level. With a cigarette glued to his lips and concrete drill in hand he tackled the task with the nonchalance of someone popping bubble wrap.

'Where are your ear plugs?' I mimed to an unresponsive audience that included Joe, my contractor, who played sentinel while the floor was being opened.

Having determined I couldn't afford to move out, I insisted (illogically) on staying home during the worst of the demolition because of fears my house would collapse. But the noise, oh the noise.

Even from the roof, where I spent an entire day, it seemed as though a wrecking ball was being swung against my ear drums. Foam earplugs bought at the chemist will apparently dampen noise levels by about 25 decibels. 'That's cheaper than having to buy a hearing aid in the future,' I told myself when finally I was driven out by the drilling and down to Mannings.

There I picked up a pair for HK$37.90 and doubled back to acquire sets for my workers only to decide against the purchase because I worried they'd think me soft.

I regretted my decision. Upon returning home I was greeted by the sight of a flimsy old door lying across the hole in the concrete slab Ah Ming had been attacking. Where was the solid, fitted piece of wood I was promised? What if I fell through the opening? And what about the dust?

These thoughts coursed through my head as I picked up the phone to demand an explanation. When silence greeted my string of complaints all I could ask my contractor was 'Can you hear me?' You can guess what the answer was.

If you have renovation-related tales you would like to share, e-mail Xiu Fang at [email protected]