Man on the Street: Shoe Shiner

By Christine Gilbert, October 15, 2015

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Man on the Street is a regular series where we talk to someone doing an everyday job, in order to gain insight into the lives of normal Chinese people.

Monday to Friday, a mass of office workers flood Shenzhen’s CBD, trekking through dust, filth, the fumes of stinky tofu and the Styrofoam remnants of evening street food. Before walking through glass-paneled doorways and onto marble floors, many of the workforce decide to freshen up with a polish, and Li Yuanxia, a 50-year-old shoe shiner, stands – or rather sits – at the ready.

Around the corner from one of Gangxia MTR station’s exits, Li waits among a posse of woman with rags in hand. The middle-aged group wear multi-patterned clothing and, strangely, gold jewelry, like the swashbucklers of old. They beckon male and female office workers to a seat at their squat wooden stools and polish away the grime of the city, one pair of pumps or loafers at a time. 

Li comes to her post each day from 7.30am until 6pm. Her holidays depend on the weather. Typhoons or sweltering heat mean time with her family but with the loss of a day’s wages, typically RMB70-80. Sometimes she can earn RMB120, but on bad days, her profits only amount to RMB40-50.

Originally from Kai County, Chongqing, Li moved to Shenzhen 10 years ago with her family. Since her husband works as a carpenter and her son also has a job, her employment is not vital to the survival of her household. However, she shines shoes to provide for her own living expenses. 

As much as she loves the job, she thinks it can be hazardous when the chengguan (local law enforcement) do sweeps of the area.

“I don’t want to be a burden on this family,” she says, mentioning that her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren also live in her family’s nearby apartment. They stay in a one-bedroom unit in Gangxia East and split the rent of RMB1,450 a month between the three working family members’ incomes.

But the shoe shining life suits Li. “I love this job because the work time is flexible,” she says. In a typical day, she wakes up at 7am, brings her breakfast or buys it from a restaurant near her post for only RMB10 and waits for customers until lunch time. She either eats food she makes or buys another cheap meal, and then works until dinner time. “If I am tired, I will go back home at any time,” she says, another reason why she enjoys this lifestyle.

She continues to work as she tells us this, shining the shoes of first an MTR worker, then a regular customer and finally a salesman. For each, she uses three brushes and two towels, beginning with cleaning cream, then applying colored polish and finishing with a final wipe down, leaving the patent leather with a reflective gleam. The whole process ranges from RMB3-10, depending on what the customer wants.

As much as she loves the job, she thinks it can be hazardous when the chengguan (local law enforcement) do sweeps of the area. “They always grabbed my tools and stools,” she says, but then quickly adds that some have been nice, only asking her to leave. She and the rest of the shoeshine posse stay behind this exit now, as they think it’s more hidden than other places.

As she finishes polishing the salesman’s shoes, he asks her why she does this job. Li looks rich wearing her gold hoops and necklace. She stops and stares at him. “In China, almost everyone can afford these golden things, but it doesn’t mean I am rich,” she says, then turns back to give his shoes one final buffing.


Monthly salary: RMB1,600-2,300

Days per week: 7

Hours per day: 10

To read more Man on the Street click here.

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