Man on the Street: Curbside Cobbler

By Jocelyn Richards, July 20, 2017

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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.

“Your shoes don’t need mending,” a cobbler surnamed Hu says as he extends a stained cloth bag towards a woman who looks to be in her 70s. 

“This strap here, see…” He pulls a plastic sandal from her bag. “It’s secure, don’t worry. I’m not going to charge you.” 

At those words, the woman’s lips soften into a grin.

She chats with Hu for a few minutes until a young man arrives, demanding to see a pair of heels he dropped off the day before. “In that bag there,” Hu signals.

The young man lifts two stilettos and peers intently at the rubber tip on each heel. “Can you tell if they’re even?” He asks. “I have no idea what I’m looking at. My girlfriend told me to make sure they are even. But you think they are, right?”

man-on-the-street-cobbler

In just 15 minutes, Hu has consoled four customers (they all seem to come with baggage other than their shoes), fixed one pair of heels and entertained all of our questions.

His repair shop – a patch of concrete located halfway up a four-story public stairway in Taojin – feels more like a psychiatrist’s office, and it’s not hard to see why. Hu’s presence is calming – even for us. It’s clearly one of the reasons he’s been able to maintain the same business in the same location with (mostly) the same prices for the past eight years. Well that and the free rent. And his bro-like relationship with local chengguan.

Originally from Hunan, Hu taught himself everything he knows (“there are no real techniques required in shoe repair”) and enjoys the job to the extent that it challenges him to “use his brain” more than his previous work as a bao’an

man-on-the-street-cobbler

Fixing the tips on a pair of heels costs the same today (RMB8) as it did when he first began his business in 2009. Hu says cobblers down the street charge RMB15-20 for the same service, but they have rent to pay. 

His daily income fluctuates between “less than RMB100” and “hundreds of renminbi,” due primarily to the randomness of shoe repair demand among his sizable pool of returning customers.

The work day begins when Hu sets up a massive beach umbrella on the pavement at 9am to block the elements until he departs at sundown – 7pm in the summertime. His seat is a concrete block that’s been shoved under a metal pipe. He keeps a red plastic chair for his customers.

Though Hu’s service fees haven’t changed much in eight years, he says the quality of shoes has: “you used to be able to wear shoes from your childhood. Now a pair only lasts one to two years.” It hasn’t noticeably affected his business, however, as the greater frequency of worn-out shoes compensates for the fact that half of Hu’s potential customers today prefer to just buy a new pair.

Shrugging off the particulars, Hu divulges what he likes most about his work: “I have more freedom with this job. I can do what I want. Not like other manual labor for migrants.”

“So you can take days off,” we observe.

“Oh no!” Hu erupts. “Then I wouldn’t make any money!”


THE DIRTY DETAILS:

Monthly salary: RMB5,000(ish)
Days per week: 7
Hours per day: 10

You can find Hu halfway up the public stairway between 47 Taojin Bei Lu (淘金北路47号) and 11 Taojin Jie (淘金街11号) in Yuexiu District, Guangzhou (广州市越秀区). 

For more Man on the Street, click here.

[Photos by Jocelyn Richards]

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