America the Gutted: The island of migrant steel

Here on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Zhenhua has 28,000 workers, 280 cranes, and a fleet of 26 ships docked at their private port.</p>

Here on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Zhenhua has 28,000 workers, 280 cranes, and a fleet of 26 ships docked at their private port.

SHANGHAI, China — More than six thousand miles from the California coast, Chinese workers still speak with pride about their role in rebuilding the iconic San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

It has been more than a year since they completed the last steel structures for the bridge’s dramatic renovation and loaded them onto ships at the company’s docks. But they say it remains the biggest, hardest, and most exacting project they have ever completed.

Just ask Zeng Ye Huan, a grinning steel polisher who, under his orange safety overalls, continues to wear a T-shirt commemorating the first shipment of steel for the bridge. Or Wang Pei, a 25-year-old welding overseer who says that the five years he spent toiling on the project “left a deep impression.”

“Maybe I will be still able to remember doing it after 10 or 20 years when I can’t remember other projects,” he says.

Yang Zhi Gang, a nine-year veteran welder of the company from Anhui province, echoes him, calling the work “exceptionally tough” to complete because “the Americans have much higher standards.”

These men are just a few of the beneficiaries of California’s decision to send all the steel work on the massive, $6.3 billion renovation to China — a decision that California officials claim saved hundreds of millions of dollars.

They are the lucky counterparts of disappointed American steel workers in Portland whose employer failed in its rival bid.

And they are the face of the Chinese middle class that is rising as America’s is falling.

Here on Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Zhenhua has 28,000 workers, 280 cranes, and a fleet of 26 ships docked at its private port. The workshop where the US bridge was built is a cavernous building, 90 feet high and the length of two football fields. A riot of saws, echoing clangs, and hissing torches fills the air. Searing white flashes of blowtorches erupt from the welders' stations. 

Like most steel companies in China, Zhenhua is majority state-owned, and is seen as strategically important to the country.

The Bay Bridge project played a particularly large role in the company’s goal of growing overseas. It was the first bridge Zhenhua — largely known for making cranes — had ever built. And though the firm says it made little profit on the $350 million contract with California, it has already used that experience to expand into the European market. In August, Zhenhua shipped steel components to Norway to build a bridge with one of the world’s longest spans.