Decades of recording life's dramas, minute by minute

Located in Mianjin Lane, a 3-square-meter booth is probably the last neighborhood public telephone in Shanghai.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

He Acui, over 80 years old, has worked in the telephone booth in Mianjin Lane for about 30 years. 

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The green public telephone booth where He is working is a bit old and shabby.

Located in Mianjin Lane, a 3-square-meter booth is probably the last neighborhood public telephone in Shanghai.

In the 1990s, they were all the rage and in the era before cellphones were the only way for many people to make phone calls: 0.2 yuan (3 US cents) a minute for long-distance calls and 0.4 yuan every three minutes for local calls.

He Acui, aged over 80, is the only remaining worker. She has worked in the telephone booth for about 30 years.

He received about 30 percent of the phone fees, but it was still just a small amount. With the popularity of landline telephones at home and upgrades in digital technology, the earnings decreased sharply after 1995.

In a small notebook yellowed by age, she records the details of calls over the past decades — 170 calls and 68.9 yuan in February; 191 calls and 76.4 yuan in March.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

He recorded the number of calls over the past decade in her yellowed notebook. 

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The two orange telephones stopped working in March.

“The reason why I still persist in doing this job is that I am strongly attached to the public telephones,” she says.

The granny says two of the orange telephones stopped working in March. It might be because someone cancelled the numbers, but she is not sure who cancelled them.

Originally, there were four cradle telephones in the booth, and the phone numbers had six digits rather than today’s eight digits.

They were replaced with two phones with screens in 2003.

“People could see clearly the call duration from the screens, which avoided doubts of the time that we recorded,” she explains. “Quarrels commonly occurred during the days of using cradle telephones.”

For some, the public phone booth is still essential.

Several days ago, an elderly man rushed in: The wind had pushed his door closed, locking him out of his home.

Living alone, he had to call his children for help.

There are still many blank pages left in He’s vintage notebook, and she very much hopes to continue jotting down call details.

She said in an early TV interview:

“If I were 100 years old, I would keep on doing this job.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Local residents make calls at a neighborhood public phone booth in 2001. At the time when few people had telephones installed at home and long before mobile phones, neighborhood phone booths played a very important role in people’s social lives. 

Special Reports