Skilled technician with time on his hands
Liangchen Horologe looks more like an old European residence than a watch-repair shop. Yet, this stately home is the workshop of Jiang Guoliang, who has been fixing timepieces for 40 years.
Its neoclassic interior decor, including carved pillars and beams and stained-glass skylights, no doubt impresses every customer.
The house on Wujin Road in Hongkou District was originally part of a lilong, or lane residential community. In 1978, when China launched its economic reform and opening-up policy, Jiang decided to open a watch-repair shop, built on skills he learned from his grandfather, who operated a similar shop in the same place in the 1920s.
“At that time, the country was recovering from the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76), and it was hard to find a job,” Jiang says. “We had a place and studying watches was my hobby, so I decided to turn it into a business.”
Jiang is the owner, manager and chief technician of the shop. He often wears a pair of spectacles with a small magnifying lens fixed to the bottom.
Liangchen Horologe is known to regular patrons as a shop that can fix anything — old watches, new watches, mechanical timepieces and electronic ones. People from all over the country, even overseas, come to him because of the sterling reputation.
“Many of our customers have antique clocks or watches that have been family heirlooms for generations, and they want to have them restored to working order to honor parents or grandparents,” Jiang says.
That was the case of a customer surnamed Luo, who now lives in the United States. She had a grand, made-in-Germany clock at home that had been in the family for more than a century. When she was young, she loved watching the clock tick in her grandmother’s home. Her uncles moved it from place to place to protect it during the “cultural revolution,” when such foreign items were seen as “bourgeoisie.”
When she recently visited her hometown in China, Luo was saddened to see the clock not working. Eager to fix it, she tried to find the manufacturer in Germany, only to discover that the company no longer existed. She asked a repair shop in Taiwan for help and was told it was impossible to fix because “so many parts were missing.”
Liangchen Horologe was her final hope. “We spent more than two months on the clock,” Jiang says. “Indeed, many parts were missing, and we had to made them from scratch. Fortunately, we have machine tools in the workshop that can do that. The clock finally started to tick again.”
Jiang says fixing clocks and watches is like solving a mystery. The mechanisms are so complicated and interlocking that every broken timepiece presents a puzzle.
“You need to figure out what the problem is, how it was caused and how to fix it and improve it so that the same problem won’t happen again,” he says. “That requires skill and experience.”
Jiang says he has never stopped learning. He has been to Switzerland several times to visit watch factories and meet technicians so that he can keep abreast of the latest technologies.
Despite having been involved with timepieces almost all his life, Jiang says there is always so much more to learn.
It is not just technologies that have changed, but also the way people use timepieces. Twenty years ago, watches were considered necessities for most of people. Today, they have become fashion and status statements.
“Back then, many new graduates bought themselves a watch or received a watch from parents as a present before starting their first jobs,” Jiang says. “But now, with smartphones so prevalent, people no longer rely on watches to tell time. Watches are now more like tokens of social status.”
The change has drained some of the profitability out of watch repair. Jiang has only several apprentices at the moment, and most tradesmen who once learned the skills have left for greener pastures.
“Few people can endure the boredom of sitting for long hours in front of a repair desk,” he says. “I once had an apprentice who threw a watch into the trash bin after several unsuccessful attempts to fix it. Since then, I have been very cautious in recruiting apprentices.”
Jiang himself wasn’t immune to the idea of more lucrative work. In around 2002, he decided to open a European-style cafe in a spare part of his house. He restored the decor of rooms to their original look according to early blueprints, bought customized new furniture and recruited staff.
“Business was as good as I expected,” he says. “The money came in much faster than with watch repair. But later I had to admit to myself that running a cafe wasn’t as personally satisfying as watch repair, which is something I truly love doing. In the end, I had to be true to myself. The cafe was a burden to me, so I shut it down in 2015.”
The part of the house where the cafe was located is still not utilized. Jiang says he plans to turn it into a small shop selling watches. He has been talking with some suppliers and says the shop may open by year’s end.
“For me, it was just a matter of following my heart,” he says. “Passion makes perfect, and my passion towards watches and clocks has never faded.”
Liangchen Horologe 良辰钟表店
Address: 430 Wujin Rd