China's Professional Queuers Paid To Stand Around

Jul 25, 2011

In China, waiting in line sometimes feels like a competitive sport. The overnight queue at the launch of Apple's iPad 2 pales in comparison to the epic waits for certain over-subscribed state-run services.

Earlier this month, people waited four days and three nights to register for low-income housing in the central city of Xian, while admission to a certain Beijing kindergarten in Changping last year required a week-long, round-the-clock queue, for which people set up camp beds along the pavement.

But as with most things, one pragmatic Chinese entrepreneur has found a business opportunity out of adversity.

For the past two years, Li Qicai, 28, has made a career out of waiting in line. What's more, he now outsources the waiting to others. He employs four full-time queuers and a host of freelancers, who, for a cost of about $3 an hour, will do the waiting for you.

"I'm just selling my time for money," says Li. "You don't need any skills, except the ability to suffer. For some jobs, you need to look good. If you want to buy things for rich people, you can't look like a farmer or they'll think you're a scalper."

These are the paotui: literally, the "running legs," or runners. Their job: everything from a 26-hour wait for a limited-edition handbag to something as mundane as making an appointment with a famous doctor.

Paotui companies are springing up across China, fueled by what the Chinese media calls a landuo jingji, or an economy driven by laziness. One factor is China's low labor costs, which are driving China's convenience culture, where even fast-food outlets like McDonald's and neighborhood convenience stores deliver to people's homes.

The longest waits of the year are for train tickets home at Spring Festival; one friend waited overnight only to be told they weren't even selling tickets to his town. But Li's runners don't take those jobs because of regulations against scalping. Bank lines are also epic; half-a-day's wait is not unusual.

Thinking of the bread lines in the former Soviet Union, I ask Li if he thinks authoritarian governments like to make their subjects line up. "Not at all," he answers immediately. "It's about population density. There's no connection with politics. If there are only two people in a village, you can't make a line. But resources are limited here."

'The Secret Is: Go Early'

Li offers to take me along on a typical job: going to a famous Shanghai hospital specializing in traditional Chinese medicine to collect a repeat prescription for gallstones for a customer. He does about a dozen hospital jobs a week, and he says they normally involve a wait of two to three hours.

We leap onto his motorbike and swerve through traffic across town; it's a hair-raising 40-minute ride without helmets. When we get to the Longhua hospital, we have to register, which involves standing at the back of a line of 10 people. Li is especially pleased with the length of the line. "It was out of the door yesterday," he says, beckoning across the entrance hall.

"Aiiii!" The man in front of us sighs. He's made a common and terrible queueing mistake: waiting in the wrong line. Now he has to start over.

Hospital lines here are a fact of life: When my son recently cut his chin, we stood, dripping blood, in a total of eight different lines to get it stitched up. But Li says new appointment systems have made hospital lines shorter.

As the world's most impatient queuer, I ask him to divulge the secrets to happy waiting.

"The secret is: Go early," he says definitively, then adds some extra pointers. "Take an umbrella in case it rains, and a book. Load books and games on your mobile phone. Make friends with your neighbors in the line, so you can get away to buy food."

As we pay the registration fee, Li tells me this job took him five hours the day before. Today, we're in luck — we're fourth in line to see the doctor. Prescription in hand, we move on to the next queue, where we are eighth in line to pay for medicine. Then there's the last wait — to pick up the medicine — and we're finished in less than an hour.

Li stands in line at hospitals a dozen times a week. This, he says, is the fastest job he's ever done. So that perhaps is the last secret of queueing: expect the unexpected, because sometimes you get lucky.

And with that, he's off on his motorbike, to wait in another line.

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