Repairman peddles new services in an uphill battle to survive
Hebei native Zhou Shuqiang has spent a third of his life repairing bicycles in Beijing. Business has dropped off in recent years with fewer urban cyclers, but he tells Jane Cai how he has survived by introducing novelties and other services.
Q: Why did you come to Beijing in 1991?
A: I was born into a farmer's family with four sisters and brothers in Baoding , Hebei province . I got married when I was 20, then I decided to leave home and explore the world as an adult. Two of my relatives live in Beijing, so I could easily find somewhere to live.
What did you do before you took up bicycle repairs?
In the first year, I delivered goods for an uncle who had a food store. One day, the cashier found I gave her 100 yuan less than the due amount. My uncle fired me because he thought I was cheating him. I didn't know how I lost the money, which was a big amount in the early 1990s, but I didn't think I should have been treated like that. I had been working diligently and deserved his trust. Anyway, I left his store and found some odd jobs on construction sites.
Life was hard for an unskilled labourer, but I got opportunities to work in other cities with the construction crews. Once I went to Jiamusi , Heilongjiang province - that is the northernmost place I've ever visited. I'm happy I've been to many places that my home-town friends have never set foot in or even heard of.
What made you think of becoming a repairman?
It was common in the '90s to see people waiting in front of a stand to have their bicycles repaired. One day, the idea jumped into my head - I could be a repairman, too. It's not as back-breaking as being a construction worker. It was an easy job because I often repaired tractors and farming tools at home. I spent less than 100 yuan on tools, and began to serve the city's cyclists in 1993.
How do you compare business now with before?
There are fewer cyclists as people are richer. This road has a top Beijing primary school, and cars flow along here continuously, most of them driven by parents sending children to school and picking them up. And Beijing has become a bigger city so many people have to use the subway, buses or other time-saving vehicles for their long-distance commute. Ten years ago, I made around 2,000 yuan a month, but I could only get half of that a month in some of the past few years.
Could you make any changes to lift business?
I know some repairmen make good money selling second-hand bicycles. People prefer second-hand bikes because in a city with rampant theft, a new bicycle is likely to be stolen within months. Many people learn a lesson and opt for second-hand ones, which are not so attractive to thieves. Some of my counterparts get second-hand bikes discarded by their owners, while some directly or indirectly got them from thieves. I don't want to take the effort to find the supply sources, so I don't do the business. I prefer to introduce something else.
What novelties have you introduced?
I bought an electric pump a few months ago, which is the only one in the district, I think. It saves energy compared to the traditional hand pump, and it's popular with women and the elderly in summer. It does not help my business much, but it does bring more people here. When they come, they find other services I have recently introduced, including shoe repairs, key copying, and lock-making and -picking. With all these services, I'm able to make around 1,500 yuan a month. But Beijing police have recently banned the lock-picking business without their authorisation, so I may have to abandon this part of the business soon.
Are you happy with your life?
It's the only thing I can do. I did not get a good education, nor do I have any other useful skill. It's good enough for an easy and stable life. I work 11 hours a day. I have an old radio which only cost 8 yuan. I listen to the radio to kill time when there are no customers. Many of my customers in this community have become acquaintances over the decade, while strangers sometimes bring me surprises. One day, a customer told me he was a Beijing TV station reporter and wanted to interview me on an expressway construction project. Several days later, I found I was on TV saying the things I was told to say. It was an unforgettable experience.