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Phone repair in Guangzhou March 30, 2008

Posted by François in Uncategorized.
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Jack Qiu sends the following field notes from his recent interview of Xiao Zhang, a young mobile phone repairman in Guangzhou. (Jack was also quoted in a recent NYT article on “the Afterlife of Cellphones“.)

Guangzhou repair shop“On the right side of this photo sits my main interviewee of today: Xiao Zhang. I got to know him through his dad, Lao Zhang, whom I’ve interviewed many times since spring 2007. His parents migrated from rural Henan in central China to Guangzhou in late 1990s. They began as janitors but later had their small payphone store in one of Guangzhou’s largest migrant enclaves. Xiao Zhang came to join his parents at 16, a typical age when kids in rural China stopped going to school. He lived with his parents in a cramped room, right above the payphones they operate. The up-stair “domestic” space and the down-stair “business” space is connected by a bamboo ladder.

When I first knew Xiao Zhang, he just started to be apprentice for a large mobile phone repair plaza, about three blocks away from his family/shop, which consists of 20-30 repair counters. He was shy and reluctant to discuss things in front of his dad, although at one time he was excited to talk about Internet cafes nearby where people go and play online games. Last time I saw him was in December 2007, when he had fever and was on his way to see a doctor. Apparently he was overworked, and with malnutrition, as other teenage apprentices in the phone repair business.

Guangzhou repair shopBy then, his dad had told me their plan was to let Xiao Zhang have his own mobile phone repair shop. Today, when I saw them, they had moved one step further toward that goal. For one thing, Xiao Zhang had stopped working as someone else’s apprentice. Six months ago, his dad already had one piece of used equipment that blows steady hot air for the softening and loosening of metal parts in mobile phone. To this they added several other gadgets including meters measuring electronic flows, screw drivers, a small welding device, and another equipment that blows less-hot wind for the softening and cleaning of plastic parts. All except the last one were from the second-hand market. The total cost is about 70 dollars.

Today Xiao Zhang was quite talkative, in part because they already knew me, in part because they now needed as much information as possible about low-end repair shops in Guangzhou, so that they could decide where to open the new business. We talked about this obviously most important matter for about 30 minutes, and then I asked Xiao Zhang to show me what he learned and his new equipment.

Guangzhou repair shopXiao Zhang took out a Nokia motherboard and went into great details explaining the function of each part, the CPU, the controls, the switches, and what might go wrong more often than others. He talked in an enthusiastic way that made me feel this was perhaps his most favorite toy. We talked like this for about 20 minutes in the inside of this multi-function shop — of payphone, accessory and prepaid phone card sales, and, phone repair, at least temporarily.

After talking to the son and his father, it is quite clear that the two has some different plans for the new phone repair shop. Xiao Zhang, the teenage phone repairer, wants to be as indepedent and as far away as possible from his parents. But his dad, who will turn 50 in a couple years, wants him to be nearby. His mom always smiles but seldom says anything.

I shall return in 1 or 2 months to see if and how their idea for the new business materializes. In October 2007 we have located more than 70 mobile phone repair shops in this migrant enclave. If Xiao Zhang can finally have his own business, that will make a nice study case to examine the complete life of a phone repair shop from when it is still in cradle.”