When you live in a Chinese apartment, something will stop working. Actually, most things will stop working. The majority can be fixed using duct tape, paper clips, newspapers, rubber bands, chewing gum and/or various other items laying around the house. Occasionally none of those will work and you have to call a repairman. That’s when the fun starts.
I’ve previously written about the plumber who left his infected toenail on my bathroom floor in Shanghai. A few years later in Shenzhen, I had another water leak and that ordeal made me long for the days of a simple toenail and some dirt.
In Shenzhen, the hot water faucet for my shower sprung a small leak. Hoping to avoid the hassle of a handyman, I tried wrapping it up in half a roll of duct tape. That didn’t work.
Next, I talked to the security guards in my building. I couldn’t really explain the problem in Chinese, so I shot a video of the leak and played it for them. Of course they started poking at every inch of the screen and opening every app on my ipod touch. I have no idea why my ancient 3G ipod fascinated them when they all have modern smart phones, but it did. Once the excitement died down, they assured me they would send someone to fix my leak.
Instead of an actual repairman, they sent one of their own. And not their finest—it was the security guard who had always struck me as the dimmest of the bunch. Nevertheless, he took one look at the leak and confidently assured me he could fix it in about 30 minutes. I believed him, since I knew I could easily fix it, if I had the tools (really just a wrench) and valued my time less than the few dollars he was charging.
An hour after he started, he told me he was finished. I checked out his handiwork and it seemed fine. He had installed a new faucet and while it was crooked, that was to be expected and not really a problem.
Also expected were the cigarette butts on my floor, since I had smelled the smoke as he was working. Less expected and a wonderful bonus were the chunks of phlegm oozing down my wall. I had heard him hacking those up and spitting them out, but I had assumed he was spitting into the toilet. But no, he had spit them onto the wall. And naturally, he had never once thought to ask if I minded him smoking or spitting or to clean up his cigarette butts and bodily fluids. I gave him his money and was happy to see him leave.
Two hours later, I noticed puddles of dirty water in my kitchen and my living room. It had been seeping through the walls they shared with the bathroom. It turned out the guy had broken the pipe inside the wall as he was unscrewing the old faucet. While I can’t really blame him for that, since the pipe was old and rusty, I can blame him for trying to hide this by pushing the broken section of the pipe deeper into the wall and sealing it shut. As a result, the concrete wall was now saturated with water causing the plaster and paint to peel off.
I’m sure this will come as a surprise, but he was suddenly very hard to find. I eventually tracked him down and of course, he claimed there was nothing he could do (at least that was true), so he called an actual repairman. When this new guy showed up he was shocked at how badly this little job had been botched and explained he would have to drill a large hole into the solid concrete wall to replace the pipe. I called my landlord and had her talk to him. After a ten-minute conversation, he handed the phone to me and left. I never saw him again.
I contacted my landlord the next morning, after a refreshing shower in a jet of cold water blasting from the hole in my wall. She agreed to come by that evening and check out the problem. When she showed up, she had the same security guard in tow who had created the mess in the first place. She began negotiating a price with him. He was now charging $50 to repair the mess he had created for a mere $4 the previous day. I warned her not to hire him, but she assured me that he assured her he would have it fixed that evening.
After three hours of chipping away at the concrete wall with a hammer and a screwdriver, he informed my landlord he would have to come back the next day at noon to finish the job, since it was much more complicated than she had led him to believe. He seemed to have forgotten that she was relying on him to asses how complicated a job this was—not to mention the fact that he had created the whole problem in the first place. After he left, she admitted I may have been right about him.
He did not show up at noon the next day and when my landlord called him, he gave her a flimsy excuse and said he’d be there in a few minutes. An hour later he gave her an even worse excuse and an hour after that another. Soon he stopped answering the phone altogether. At 8pm, my landlord showed up with another repairman.
He seemed to know what he was doing. Naturally, that also meant a much higher quote than before. After hearing the new estimate, my landlord promptly decided this new guy didn’t know what he was talking about. She had to work the next day, so she told me she would send her brother in the morning.
He showed up as promised with yet another repairman in tow. This one seemed to be a friend of the brother’s but he appeared competent and quickly got to work destroying my wall. He used a cement drill that sent vibrations through my whole apartment and ten neighboring apartments in every direction. This is actually a common occurrence in China—wherever you live, at least one nearby apartment is always being drilled at all hours of the day or night. This was the first time my apartment was the source of the noise. It was not pleasant, being that close to the drill.
Nevertheless, the new guy seemed to be working hard and actually making progress. He replaced the pipe and restored my water by the early afternoon. He also refilled the hole in the wall with concrete, but had to let it dry before he could finish it with plaster. He did re-plaster the other side of the wall, but that had to dry, too, before he could repaint it.
This meant I would get to play host to a repair guy for one more day. At least this one didn’t smoke. Even more surprising, he and my landlord’s brother actually cleaned up the huge mess from all the drilling. I was shocked.
I thought it was simply the standard operating procedure for repairmen in China to leave behind their messes, but apparently those other guys were just assholes. Actually, my landlord’s brother informed me that the cheap pseudo-repairmen like the security guard will always leave a mess and treat your apartment like they would any disgusting public toilet, but a good professional will be just that: professional.
Whatever the standard practice may be, I was impressed with the final repairman, especially since he wasn’t actually a professional himself, but just some friend of the landlord’s brother. Even more, I was impressed with my landlord. She paid for all the repairs herself and never once suggested I was responsible. That is definitely not the norm here. Many, if not most, Chinese landlords would have flat out refused to do anything. Despite that, I really hoped nothing else would go wrong in my apartment. In fact, unless the next problem was one I could quickly and easily fix with duct tape, I was fully prepared to just move out and find a new place. It knew it would be less of a hassle.