Mr fixit and his trusty toolkit
Huang Weiguo, 58, has what he describes as a somewhat humdrum job that entails carrying a 20-kilogram bag to work every day. But if your apartment lights go out or your kitchen faucet springs a leak, he’s a godsend at the doorstep.
Huang is an electrician and plumber who works for the Housing Maintenance Co of the Shanghai West Enterprise Group, a state-owned real estate developer and property management firm.
“All I ever do is repeating a simple job day after day, but I enjoy helping people resolve problems,” he says.
It is that dedication to his work that won Huang distinction as a “Shanghai Standout” — an honor conferred on those deemed to make worthy contributions to the city’s progress.
About 40 years ago, Huang was recruited from his native Chongming Island, along with dozens of fellow townsmen, to become a plumber in urban districts of Shanghai, where such menial work was snubbed.
He was paid 50 yuan (US$8) a month, a salary so low that most of his colleagues eventually sought better-paying jobs elsewhere. Even today, Huang’s monthly salary of about 3,000 yuan isn’t all that much above the city’s monthly minimum wage of 2,300 yuan.
Huang started to work for the Urban Real Estate Management Bureau in Putuo District in the early 1980s. At that time, governments or their entities owned and managed nearly all residential properties, and many such complexes were in a state of dire disrepair.
“In an old apartment building, one meter used to cover all households, so it would take a lot of time to locate the problem when a power failure happened,” he says, adding that rampant irregularities in use of electricity and messy circuitry only made things worse.
He remembers once it took him long hours to fix a power failure that affected about 20 households.
Plumbing work came up against the same problem of old, decaying infrastructure.
“Sometimes it took me up to five hours to figure out where a sewer pipe led and to pinpoint the location of a problem,” Huang notes.
He slept in a bureau dorm so he could be on call for emergencies at any hour.
In 1994, he was cited as an “Model Worker” by the city, a top honor recognizing diligence and excellence.
In the late 1990s, he was given an apartment by the government as part of a worker welfare program. He moved in with his wife and son.
The booming commercial property market and burgeoning professional real estate management firms toward the end of the last millennium changed Huang’s trade. Workloads declined from about 20 jobs a day to six or seven.
“Nowadays, modern residential buildings are sleeker and smarter, but new flush toilets and faucets are also more complicated than the older ones when things go wrong,” he says.
Electric wires are usually buried underneath floors, and if a wire is halved in the middle to connect two different appliances, it can be a headache for an electrician to locate the problem when a power failure happens, Huang explains.
“Replacing a faucet valve could cost a few hundred yuan, but in many cases, the problem can be solved for under 100 yuan by replacing just a small spare part of the valve,” Huang says.
In his office, there are boxes of faucets and spare parts collected over the years. He has also improvised many small tools to deal with specific problems — like a combination bent wrench and two screwdrivers to handle hard-to-reach bolts. His toolbox even contains slender surgical scissors.
Huang says he is not Internet-savvy and doesn’t need the digital realm for his work.
“We have to see the problem with our own eyes,” he says.
For Huang, being a plumber often means being soaked in dirty water, working long hours outdoors in heat or cold and even missing important family occasions when emergencies occur.
In 2014 on the night before Chinese New Year’s Eve, Huang’s company received an emergency call from an elderly woman living alone. She said the lights had gone out in her apartment. Huang was not technically on duty, but he rushed to her assistance since none of his colleagues was available.
“She reminded me of my mother who lived in Chongming and of the many family reunions I had to miss because of my job,” he says.
“If I couldn’t be there for my mother, I could at least be there for her.”