In April, an elderly tenant surnamed Wang, living in flat 702 of an apartment complex in Shanghai’s Pudong area, was woken up at around 2 a.m. by a sound that went “tock, tock, tock.”
It was, she says, “Like someone knocking a wooden fish (a Buddhist percussion instrument) on the floor.” She counted ten knocks in all — but it was still ten fewer than the night before.
The noise didn’t end there. The flat 702 resident describes what followed as ear-piercing shrieks, chaotic radio static, and the sound of several people talking simultaneously — all echoing across her house at unbearably loud volumes. “It put so much strain on my heart I thought I’d die,” she said.
And it wasn’t the first time. The persistent din meant her octogenarian husband was often groggy from lack of sleep. On Aug. 24, 2018, he sat in the living room wide awake until dawn. When he finally stood up, he was overcome by a wave of dizziness and fell, fracturing four ribs. In a similar incident in May 2019, he fractured another rib.
X-rays of the fractured ribs sustained by the resident of Apartment 702, Shanghai, 2021. Chen Canjie for Sixth Tone
For five years, the couple in flat 702, along with most other residents in this Shanghai apartment complex, have been overwhelmed by this relentless racket.
It began after an argument over water dripping into flat 502’s balcony from the floor above and quickly spiralled out of control. When talks reached an impasse, the residents in flat 502 turned to extreme measures: they deployed a “floor-shaker.”
Shaped like mops and priced at around 200 yuan ($30), such gadgets are built around vibrating motors originally designed to run industrial sieves. They come with multiple modes: vibration only, pounding only, or a combination of the two. A fourth option activates both, along with other random sounds including static, persistent knocks, and even piercing shrieks.
A video clip shows how the floor-shaker works. From Taobao
A video clip shows how the floor-shaker works. From Taobao
The floor-shaker serves one purpose: when installed on the user’s ceiling, the deafening noise it makes is projected into the house above — in this case, into flat 602, literally shaking their floor.
But such is the gadget’s capacity to exact vengeance that for five years, its perpetual use terrorized not just flat 602 but the entire 11-storey apartment. When attempts at reaching a compromise with flat 502 failed, other residents of the building tried calling the police and filed complaints, petitions, and even lawsuits.
But the occupants of flat 502 stayed adamant; the cacophony did not stop.
Until April 30, 2021. That’s when both neighbors called a truce after the feud triggered widespread media attention. Since then, the silence returned, as have several residents who had moved out to escape the din. One elderly homeowner who “hadn’t slept all year round” says his “old life had been saved.”
Others are still worried though. They say the truce between the two neighbors at the epicenter of the feud is tenuous at best, and fear that the ear-splitting racket might return any day.
An interior view of the living room in Apartment 702. The apartment’s resident fell over the windowsill, fracturing four ribs. Chen Canjie for Sixth Tone
Knocks, shrieks, and static
When the first rumblings began in 2017, a second-floor resident went upstairs to visit Wang in flat 702, the head of the building’s residential committee at the time. “[The 2nd floor resident] thought there was an earthquake, because a tea cup on a stool was gently rattling,” says Wang.
A former occupant of flat 802, who moved out in the fall of 2020, says about that time, “Everyone who sold their apartment did so at least partly because of the noise ... Nobody really wanted to sell — they just didn’t have a choice.”
Residents say the neighborhood committee, the police, and other authorities repeatedly investigated the source of the racket. But every time they approached flat 502 — the owners of the floor-shaker — its occupants refused to answer the door.
But they knew who was responsible: When electricity to flat 502 was cut, the noise immediately ceased.
Flat 502’s primary target is 602. In a complaint letter to the head of the Pudong New Area, an occupant of flat 602, a woman also surnamed Wang but not related to the elderly Wang of flat 702, stated that she was forced to sleep in the living room, where the noise was softer.
In her letter, the younger Wang described the noise as a looping series of “piercing, high-decibel, low-frequency” sounds such as “rusty gears turning, toilet bowls flushing, small children wailing, and someone knocking a wooden fish.”
On April 29, a reporter of the local Xinmin Evening News visited flat 602, where a phone app that measures sound levels showed the noise was above 60 decibels. This far exceeded normal levels — no greater than 30 decibels from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and no more than 40 decibels during the day.
A notice regarding a replacement gas meter left on the door of Apartment 502, Shanghai, 2021. Chen Canjie for Sixth Tone
A friendship gone awry
When the floor-shaker is engaged, the noise spreads indiscriminately — its owners are as affected by the noise as everyone else. The fact that they were willing to suffer as well just proves how far the residents of flat 502 were willing to go.
But neighbors say that one occupant of flat 502, a woman surnamed Li, and the younger Wang of flat 602 were once good friends. They went shopping and took walks together and, on occasion, even carpooled to work.
The Paper contacted the occupants of flats 502 and 602 on multiple occasions in May and June about the incident. While Li’s husband Yan of flat 502 didn’t respond, the younger Wang of flat 602 refused interviews saying she was “in the midst of negotiations and didn’t wish to provoke the other party.”
However, Wang’s side of the story is detailed in a report sent to the city’s Bureau of Public Complaints and Proposals on June 19, 2019, which was also signed by nine other apartment residents.
In the report, Wang attributes the origin of the conflict to “old pipes in her balcony, which caused water to seep into flat 502’s balcony in October 2016.”
According to her statement, the occupants of flat 502 blocked her balcony gutter and refused to negotiate. She also alleged that they later even blocked her apartment’s water outlet altogether. As a result, Wang and her husband had to ask property managers to dredge the gutters.
Wang said in the report that confrontation with the residents of flat 502 even turned physical. On November 9, 2016, for example, tensions escalated when occupants of both flats crossed paths at the entrance to the elevator on the first floor.
Wang alleged that they assaulted her husband, who held his arms up to shield himself from the onslaught and ran outside the building. Unwilling to let him get away, Wang says he was beaten with direction signs pulled out of the ground. The quarrel lasted more than ten minutes, and was only broken up when other residents intervened.
According to the elderly Wang of flat 702, a security camera filmed the entire incident, and the neighborhood committee called the police.
The Wangs of flat 602 then decided to seek compensation from their attackers, alleging mental and physical distress. But flat 502 refused to pay and the Wangs decided to let the matter of compensation go.
After a brief lull in hostilities, the occupants of flat 502 installed cameras at the entrance and windows of the flat above, reigniting the friction.
A camera installed by a resident of Apartment 502 and pointed at the windows of the apartment above theirs, Shanghai, 2021. Chen Canjie for Sixth Tone
Pulling the plug
With talks between the neighbours going nowhere, and tired of the neverending din from the floor-shaker, other residents of the apartment decided they had to intervene.
According to the elderly Wang, they initially tried to speak directly with flat 502. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Next, they contacted the neighborhood committee, the Bureau of Public Complaints and Proposals, and any other authority they believed could help broker a settlement.
They also filed police reports, but nobody could get flat 502 to open the door, particularly since police didn’t possess a warrant to enter. Whenever the authorities came, the results were always the same: the noise would cease, only to start again the moment authorities left.
The elderly Wang said the occupants of 602 even attempted to fight “fire with fire” by slamming the floor with wooden objects at night. But such counterattacks didn’t last long, and stopped the moment neighbors complained.
“Whenever flat 602 banged the floor in retaliation, I’d visit them the next day. They’re not like their downstairs neighbors — they open the door and talk to me,” says the elderly Wang.
When repeated attempts to resolve the situation failed, the building’s residents turned to the courts. In 2018, a local court ordered them to approach a designated testing agency to commision a noise report. The agency, however, said it could only conduct tests when organizations were involved, not individuals.
Forced to drop the case, on July 4, 2019, the building residents ratified an agreement prohibiting anybody from disturbing the peace and mandating that all households cooperate with the police. Of the 22 households in the building, only flat 502 refused to sign.
Another occupant surnamed Shen of flat 1002 wrote an open letter to the owners of the floor-shaker on July 21, 2019. Deeply disturbed by the noise, the elderly Shen urged flat 502 to set aside the past and negotiate the dispute. That too went without reply.
Exasperated apartment residents then zeroed in on the only way to reclaim tranquility: cut power to flat 502.
But this was easier said than done. According to the elderly Wang, to shut off the electricity to one particular house, residents needed to follow set protocols: first, inform the police of the situation; then, call the property managers, who pull the plug.
Wang says that a ninth-floor resident who had moved in during last year’s Spring Festival had the power cut to flat 502 on several occasions, complaining that the noise negatively affected his sick wife.
The repeated power outages did draw a response: According to the ninth-floor resident, the occupants of flat 502 called him and asked him to “mind his own business.”
Only late in April 2021 did the din subside after the years-long feud was covered widely in the media, evoking thousands of responses online. Residents recall that following the media reports on April 29, the daily staccato dipped significantly; the next morning, it ceased completely.
Since then, several residents who had moved out of the apartment slowly returned. But Wang of flat 702 is still worried. She believes that sooner or later, “it will start shaking again.” She even underscored that neither she nor the other residents would demand compensation as long as the occupants of flat 502 stayed quiet.
Asked about the mediation process, Yan of flat 502 hung up the phone with The Paper while the younger Wang from the floor above said there were “no results” to report.
The entrance to the building where the conflict took place, Shanghai, 2021. The sign reads “care for the building.” Chen Canjie for Sixth Tone
The fallout from the media storm over the feud has been swift. It isn’t possible to search directly for “floor-shakers” on e-commerce platforms. However, they can still be found using certain keywords: shaking floor, upstairs neighbors, or noise retaliation.
Some of the online catchphrases for floor-shakers include “Won’t damage the walls! Won’t leave marks!” and “Quiet in your apartment, loud in theirs!” In product reviews, most customers say they bought such gadgets in an attempt to retaliate against the clamor from the floor above after diplomatic attempts failed.
On the Q&A platform Zhihu, a user from northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, under the avatar Xinxin, says she had trouble sleeping because of the constant noise from above: children running, furniture being dragged, and heavy objects crashing.
Failing to reach a compromise with her neighbors, she built a soundproof ceiling at her own expense. While that did help, the rumbling continued, particularly when the children upstairs ran around at night.
And when calls to the property managers and police went in vain, Xinxin says she began to “retaliate” by playing very loud music and slamming the ceiling. But it only made things worse: her neighbors began making even more noise in return.
On April 5, the conflict escalated to physical violence. During an argument, Xinxin suffered minor injuries and her mother, who tried to intervene, was assaulted — severely enough to require hospital treatment.
When Xinxin described the incident in a Zhihu post on May 3, she got more than 100 responses, many suggesting she use a floor-shaker; others claimed vibration speakers were more effective.
Unwilling to cause serious harm, however, Xinxin says she won’t follow their advice. “It’s no longer just a matter of noise. Now that we’ve taken turns getting back at one another, either she will end up leaving or I will — but I won’t give up the fight that easily,” she says.
Some have used floor-shakers to force the other party into negotiations. Online product reviews for the gadgets include comments like “quite effective” and “the upstairs neighbors have finally settled down.”
A Zhihu user named Qiu Yue wrote about his successful experience of “fighting fire with fire,” receiving more than 16,000 likes. After deploying the floor-shaker, Qiu Yue says his noisy neighbor got in touch to negotiate and even vowed to not to make noise again.
However, despite his “victory,” Qiu Yue says he isn’t “encouraging people to use this thing, and even advises against it.” In his view, floor-shakers “are only a last resort, a bargaining chip that allows both parties to finally sit together at the negotiating table.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Visual elements from nPine/iclickart/People Visual, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)