Fix Everything in China

In Australia we rarely fix anything  anymore – the need to fix things disappeared when we got rich – but in China nearly everything can be fixed. In fact everything in China seems to be in a constant state of repair.

China’s “developing nation” economy encourages repairs. First, wages are low enough that the consumer is generally willing to pay someone to fix their stuff. Secondly, stuff is always falling apart, so there is demand. Thirdly, surplus labor – there are more than enough underemployed older men in China who have been fixing things their entire lives that they keep the industry alive, even as China slowly moves out of the developing phase.

We have an Apple store in Chengdu, the largest stand-alone building in the world, and a host of other signs that Chengdu’s economy is exploding, yet every day men in rickety bikes ply the streets calling out to repair TV sets, dishwashers, shoes, and even kitchen cleavers.

China repairman

Everyday repairmen can be found on nearly every street in China, in corner hardware (五金店) shops

The Drawbacks of Cheap Help

I was reminded of China’s fix-it nature when the door to my second bathroom could not be opened. It broke, and no amount of rattling or wriggling or shoving would budge it. So this morning I reported the problem and the office in our community sends a maintenance man, who announces that the door cannot be opened.

‘I know … can you open it for me?’

Much rattling and shoving and wriggling ensues and then he announces ‘there is nothing to be done!’ ‘Yes there is’ I say ‘Take the lock off – I must get into my bathroom’. ‘No … there is nothing to be done.’

‘Well … can you call a locksmith for me?’

He calls a locksmith and twenty minutes later there is a man, Mr Xu, at my bathroom door rattling and shoving and wriggling – much like I did, and the maintenance man after me.

He deliberates. ’50 RMB’ he says. ‘Ok’ I say ‘can you fix it for me for 50 kuai?’ ‘Yes of course’ he says. ’50 kuai, ok?’ ’Fine’ I say.

He gets to shoving and wriggling and rattling in earnest. I wonder if this is standard locksmith procedure. ‘Can you take the lock off?’ I ask. Apparently not. He is telling me that the latch is broken. ‘Yes, I know’.

‘I have to push the door open’.

Before I can say anything more he has put his shoulder to the door and pushed, and it opens to the sound of splintering wood. The latch breaks and crashes to the floor. It is not splintering wood after all – it is the latch that lies on the floor.

‘Will you fix the latch?’ I ask. ‘Yes, I can replace the lock … tomorrow’. ‘Ok’ I say. But then he says: ‘Pushing it open is 50 kuai, replacing the lock is more than 200 kuai’.

‘Oh …’ I say. ‘Hang on – I better ring the landlord’.

‘I know the landlord’, he says. ‘I did the electrical work recently’. My brain re-wires my understanding of the world I live in as I absorb this new information.

All-Around Handy-Man

I was away when the electrical work was done. Previously I had spent 120 RMB trying to get some power points to work in the kitchen. The job took a long time and some things still did not work. Then, while I was away, suddenly nothing worked at all, so my wife had the power fixed (I thought by an electrician).

That re-wiring took four or five hours and cost the landlord 650 RMB.

China electricianNow everything works except the microwave. But the new work is in conduits (mostly hanging at a weird angle) and the switches are dislodged from the wall. Mr Xu enthusiastically points to one of the power points sagging off the wall – ‘I did this’ he says. ‘That was me!’ He is proud of his work.

‘You mean you do the work of an electrician and the work of a locksmith?’ ‘Yes’ he says … ‘I do both’. In Australia we would call that a handyman … except that both are licenced trades.

Mr Xu is a nice bloke. Despite all that has happened I am beginning to warm to him. He can’t give me change, or a receipt, but he shows me how to cope with the broken latch. ‘You don’t need a latch’ he advises sympathetically. At one level this is perfectly true. ‘When you are inside you can turn the lock and it keeps the door closed’. I nod and smile.

I give Mr. Xu 100 RMB and he says he will bring back my change. I believe him. I have not yet experienced dishonesty in China so I expect him to return with the money. But I still take insurance.

‘I may need more work done … can you give me your phone number?’ ‘Sure’ he says. ‘And what is your full name?’ I ask. ‘Can you write that down too?’ He is back in ten minutes with my 50 RMB change.

The Professional Touch

I have had work done on the hot water system by a qualified plumber. He came in, examined the problem, quoted 80 rmb, and expertly replaced the pipes. It looks like new. He was goneChina repairman in twenty minutes, cleaned up and all. He even gave me a receipt.

I have also, a few years ago in another city, had a similar problem handled by a handyman. He came in, examined the problem, and set about repairing a broken part that in Australia would have been thrown away without a moment’s thought. He took several hours to solve the problem, building a new part, but in the end it was also like new. And he didn’t want payment because he is a friend of a friend. (We got around that by giving his baby daughter a present.)

How do you tell the difference between Mister Fixit and the Professional? Both are prone to repeatedly mutter ‘nothing to be done’. Both are likely to get the job done, eventually. Perhaps the professional has more finesse. The price is similar – unless the Mister Fixit is your father-in-law, or the friend of a friend.

The Final Word

What’s the final word on the Mister Fixit industry? First, it provides jobs for those who may not otherwise make a living. Secondly, it is good for the environment. Less stuff is thrown away and, even if it is, someone gets it out of the rubbish and re-uses it. Thirdly, it presents healthy competition for the ‘professionals’ – never a bad thing.

But I can see the Mr. Fixits of China slowly disappearing as quality rises, driving prices up as well. It’s only natural that a developed economy will transform amateur handymen into professionals who work according to clear guidelines. Middle class Chinese will demand better quality products, which in turn require clear return and repair policies, which in turn create a professional class of repairmen.

But the verdict is far from out. China tends to maintain traditions and trades in the face of headlong modernization and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if cobblers and locksmiths of the old stripe are still breaking down doors and fixing soles many years into the future.

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About David Brett

Having grown up in Papua New Guinea, David has been in Chengdu since 2009, teaching economics. He writes about business as well as Chinese language and culture.

26 Responses to “Fix Everything in China”

  1. In my country we call these uneducated people ‘rednecks’. Our whole culture mocks them! :) Let’s do this to these fixit men, they’re ripe for it!

    • China is filled with these people, they are everywhere! It’s hard to think of any equivalent to this in the US. I suppose a near parallel would be auto mechanics, who are greasy and hang out in auto shops, but there are some significant differences. The first and most obvious, to me, is that they charge a lot and make a good living.

      What I find with a lot of the “fix everything” types in China is that they work for dirt cheap. A few weeks ago I had a bicycle shop guy adjust the brakes on my bike (the Natooke Bros. were in Taiwan) which took about 2 minutes and he didn’t even want to charge me. I felt bad and offered money but he seemed to not care at all. This is fascinating to me – does he do that because he doesn’t need the yuan, or just out of goodwill? I can’t figure it out.

  2. Thank god for these guys! They are just fantastic!

    On Christmas Day all our electricity went out. Called the worker that we usually use and he fixed it all for free. He didn’t have to buy anything and we use him regularly so nothing to pay.

    He has fixed our lights, fitted towel rails in the bathroom, fixed the plumbing in the kitchen sink and put a new curtain rail in.

    These guys are just great. Find a good one and the workmanship is just brilliant.

  3. “I have not yet experienced dishonesty in China”

    So….. Did you see the chinese tourists in Manhattan? There were all happy, smiling and fun aren’t they?

    Please don’t abuse our intelligence.

    • I think he is talking about a certain brand of dishonesty.

      People don’t usually look the other way and pocket the cash if you accidentally hand them the wrong bill. If they say they will be back with your change, they usually are.

      Of course, they are more than happy to take advantage of you if you stupidly *agree* to pay more than something is worth.

      • This is so true, although it’s something I’ve noticed in Western China in general. I’ve had people rip me off in many cities on the east (to varying levels of success) but in somewhere like Chengdu, you almost never see that happen at all. People have chased me out the door because I left an extra yuan or two on the table. Remarkably honesty.

        I had an experience a few years ago where I failed to grab some very expensive equipment out the trunk of a taxi late at night. I waited on the street and the driver came back when he realized what happened. The same thing happened to a friend in Shanghai (twice) and both times he lost $2,000+ in equipment, including a laptop both times.

        • Charlie,

          I had the same experience as you in China regarding the sincerity of people in Chengdu versus eastern metropolises.

          Having spent a half year in Beijing before moving to Chengdu, I can say unequivocally that the people in Chengdu are degrees more friendly and jovial. I think a lot of it has to do with climate, as Beijingers are subject to a harsh living environment which makes them a bit more edgy. Higher cost of living in Beijing also makes it more competitive and causes people to worry more about money and life in general.

          Just to say a few things anecdotally, people in Beijing are a lot more rough around the edges, including taxi drivers. I’ve seen multiple fights in the city. Once I was in a 7-11 in the CBD during lunch hour and there was a huge line snaking through the aisles. As I was patiently waiting to make my purchase,a young woman suddenly jumped over the counter and started beating and pulling the hair of one of the women working behind the cash register. Even after it ended, I had no idea what that scuffle was about.

          Another time I was walking along a congested boulevard and saw a guy on a bicycle pulling a carriage full of fruit get sideswiped by a windowless white van. His fruit fell all over the road, getting crushed by passing cars. When he tried to confront the driver of the white van, about 4 or 5 guys jumped out the back and started beating the hell out of him while 30+ bystanders (including myself unfortunately) stood by and watched. The guys jumped back in the van and drove off.

          I’ve also been in old Beijing neighborhoods off the beaten track where I definitely did not feel welcome and even heard people uttering disparaging things about me behind my back (much worse than just “hey look at that laowai over there”).

          This is not to suggest that this stuff doesn’t happen in Chengdu as well, but I didn’t feel quite the same sense of angst as I did in Beijing.

          My experience with people in Chengdu is that they were always super friendly, from the people selling shaokao on the street to the taxi drivers to the women who did my dry cleaning and tailoring to the cobbler who fixed my shoes. Not once did these people rip me off because I was a foreigner. Sure you get stares, but that always came across as genuine curiosity rather than some misdirected anger one might experience in Shanghai or Beijing.

          The most crazy story though is about the maintenance man who worked at my architecture office. He definitely fit the profile of the “fix everything” guy you see around Chengdu. Whenever I had a maintenance issue in my apartment, he would more than gladly come over to help. He never asked for payment nor ever once accepted it when I offered.

          One time I asked him to help come fix my the clothes drying dowel which had fallen down from the ceiling onto my balcony. Instead of going to get a ladder, he JUMPED onto the railing of the balcony as I looked on in horror with nothing to catch his fall behind him except the pavement 14 floors below. While he balanced himself on that thin little railing he fearlessly lifted the dowel up with one hand while simultaneously putting new screws in with the other. A few moments later he jumped down onto the balcony as if he wasn’t just about to fall to his death moments before.

          It’s moments like this that left me with a very positive impression of Chengdu. My only hope is that the crazy pace of development and quest for wealth won’t ultimately alter the laid-back DNA of the city.

    • Hi Rackgen,

      ‘Please don’t abuse our intelligence’

      Abusing your intelligence is the last thing on my mind. This is a personal perspective – just my experience – to this point in time. I have lived in China for about four years (including a fair bit of travelling, through about 20 provinces) and have never had anyone short-change me. It’s as simple as that. Call me lucky. I have never had anything stolen either, touch wood.
      But I include this in my story not just because of my own experience – it seems that Chinese people, as individuals, are unusually keen to ensure that transactions are completely correct and fair, down to the last mao. I am used to a bit more trickery in my home country of Australia – guess this makes me jaded.

      Sorry – I don’t think I understand your reference to Chinese tourists. Are you suggesting that they are happy in the US because they are less likely to be ripped off there than in China? Reminds me of the story last year about Chinese tourists being charged A$100 each to go onto Bondi Beach in Sydney, a beach that has no entry charge – victims of opportunists.

  4. Ray

    Years ago i bought an old 2nd hand place here and gutted everything (literally, everything). Was shocked when the ‘renovating team’ we had hired turned out to be one guy. He did it all; plumbing, wiring, carpentry,windows, painting, even hauling rubble up and down 7 flights of stairs. Was kinda skeptical that one guy could be so multi-skilled, but all credit to him, he did a good job with most things (some carpentry was kinda slack. Walked in one day, saw the shelving and immediately said “that ain’t straight”)…

  5. I was at the Bookworm yesterday and they are painting the wall. One of the Chinese staff brought in a one handed old man and his retarded son to do the job. Andrew (the manager of the Worm) was like hell no. And then this guy Sean shows up, Chinese contractor with good English, and he’s like no sweat I can handle it.

    He looked real familiar and he knew my name, but i couldn’t place him. After a few calls he brought HIS man out. A four foot tall cross eyed peasant covered in paint chips and saw dust. Dude was like.

    “He can paint your wall” in his best Darth Sidious impression.

    Andrew was like, Oh jesus.

    After a while I remembered where I knew this dude from:

    He was the contractor that inspired this post: On the Frontlines of China’s Real Estate Bubble

    • Hey Sascha, your ‘peasant covered in paint chips and saw dust’ reminds me of the first job I had done by a fixit man. We had a room painted, and this little guy turned up with a can of paint, a paint brush, and a newspaper. When shown the job, he immediately sat down and carefully made himself a hat out of the newspaper, which he then popped on his head. Then he asked me for a ladder and some drop-cloths. His work was first class (and he kept himself clean – that hat stayed on his head for the whole job), but he was the first painter I had met who did not invest in a ladder or drop-cloths.

  6. These guys may be cheap, but you get what you pay for. Personally, I think 50% of what they do is downright wrong, and 75% is poorly completed whether by the builders or the fix-it men. They don’t have a clue.

    For example, in my last flat, who ever wired it randomly chose colors. Some plugs have all green wires some all yellow, some with red or black. Great job!

    One came to plaster a small section of wall to fix some cracking/falling plaster. All he had was a bucket and a huge concrete trowel. “Where’s your paint?” I asked. “I mixed it in the plaster.” Where’s your sand paper?” I asked. “Don’t need. It’ll be good”… you get the picture. The guy slops plaster on the wall for 20 minutes, uses a broom to smear the dripped plaster around, and goes out the door. 200rmb. Absolute crap.

    I’d rather pay Westerner to come to my home and do such work rather than having a local do it. You get what you pay for after-all…

    PS. I’ve mentioned this plaster work and other related things in a blog post here.

    Pic of the wall here: pic

    • I know exactly what you mean and have witnessed the same thing before. Your random-selected colors for the wiring job is really funny.

      In my personal experience though, I’m usually having repairmen either fix something of inconsequential value to me, like a blender, or something that my landlord actually owns, like a heater or washing machine. In these cases, I’m more than happy to have a Chinese repairman do his thing for 50-100 yuan. I rarely expect a high quality job, but the value proposition seems fair to me since I’m paying so little to have a problem fixed.

      You do sometimes get what you pay for though, and costs for these kind of jobs are incredibly low here.

  7. My old roommate always used to complain about the quality of the work done by these itinerant handymen. I told him, you get what you pay for – in American, the guy who comes to fix your dryer charges 50 dollars for a home visit, 65 dollars an hour, and 35 dollars for an o-ring and two washers. I’m happy to have an option here to fix things on the cheap.

    Then again, sometimes it would be nice if that were more quality options available as well.

    • I do most things myself now. If I don’t know precisely how to fix something, I google it. If only these fix-it men had google…

      As a result, I have quite a selection of tools now. My next purchase will be a power drill. Now if I have to get a fix-it man to fix something, at least I can provide them with the appropriate tools.

      BTW: The horribly repaired wall above cost 200rmb to, ahem, “fix”. I had gone out to B&Q before the “fix’ was done and bought wall repair Spackle, a sand paper holder, 2 grads of sand paper, a wide putty knife, a can of high quality paint, and a roller, roller handle, and paint tray. About 600rmb in total. When the guy came, he refused to use any of it. Looking back, I should have taken the landlord’s 200rmb and did the job myself.

  8. I fix everything my self!

    Why? Well till now the so called “handyman’s” in Chengdu do a very bad job!

    If you look around in the city you might notice that there is hardly any maintenance done to bikes, buildings, trucks, pavement, street lights, lights for decoration etc…

    Even new buildings are of such a bad quality, I can’t believe it! Doors and windows that don’t shut properly, leaking drains, bad electrics, low quality building materials etc…

    The landlords still ask a shitload of rent every month, I moved back into an old cheap ass apartment and done it up a bit, I pay very little rent and everything works!

    • Hi Frank,
      If you fix everything yourself you are every landlord’s dream tenant! Good for you by the way – why not, if you can do it.
      I get the impression though that you think that lack of maintenance is part of the local culture – correct me if I have that wrong – and at one level I agree, but I probably come at it differently to you.
      I could probably come up with lots of counter-examples for you; I don’t want to bore you. Just one: when our fairly new washing machine gave up, our landlord gave us the one from his own house that was ten years old – it worked perfectly for the following year we lived there. (It’s hard to find washing machines that old because we always upgrading to the new model.)
      If you look around you, actually it is not true that EVERYTHING is bad. Did you fly to reach Chengdu? China has a very good safety record – so the planes are maintained properly. When they do heart surgery I think that there would be problems we would hear about if the equipment was not properly maintained. (But under your bed in hospital it may not be swept and mopped, granted.) Have you looked at some of the showcase buildings in China – there is often a remarkably high standard of workmanship and maintenance.
      But yes, the brakes on e-bikes do squeal (dust the problem?) Etc.
      Also, I don’t agree that they don’t do maintenance (compared to where we come from). Actually, as I mention at the top, they repair and maintain more things than we do (because with low wages they can afford to). They also use things well after we would have thrown them away.
      Not enough time or room to expand on this too much – but I think things are maintained in this country in a way that is consistent with their priorities and what they consider important. The Chinese value many things differently to most foreigners.

  9. Hi, well don’t get me wrong, planes and trains are public transport, they have to be in good condition, it has nothing to do with a handyman. That is what we are talking about right?

    Anyway, sure we don’t live in a western country, Malaysia or for example Japan, but maintenance is not done or done to a minimum.

    If you pay your landlord or real estate agency a lot of money each month for a new apartment, you want good service, and if something is broken it will be fixed well and in a reasonable amount time.

    If a restaurant charges you 80 rmb for a pizza, it should be good, if not you complain till they do it right or you will never go there again.

    • Hi Frank, thanks for clarifying. I did think you were drawing the net widely talking about bikes, buildings, trucks, pavements, street lights, – but to be fair you don’t expect a handyman to maintain all these things so, looking back, I think that my confusion over your comment is justified.
      I think that societies are going to have different approaches – different norms – and that if we choose to live in that society we need to be aware of the norms, even if it different to what we would normally expect back home.

  10. i just wonder if the maintenance man said “没问题(mei wen ti)”,coz in this context it could mean “no problem,i can fix this”

    • Personally I am very happy with these Mr.”I will fix-it” guys.You cant expect a professional maintenance for 50 kuai and you cant expect a one-stop professional guy for every problem.
      Initially it really surprised me that our complex has only 1 guy for maintenance but than realized that this can can repair kinda everything…Bathroom Sink, washing machine, electrical problem, Internet connection, Door handles…
      You mention a problem and he will fix it and any problem is like 20-50 Yuan.

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