A China Mobile office keeps island residents in touch with the modern world and each other

By Yuan Yuan
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, May 24, 2021
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Customers wait outside the China Mobile office on Hengsha Island before it opened on April 14. [Courtesy photo]

One day every three weeks, Shi Hua spends six hours commuting to and from an island on the outskirts of Shanghai. The 33-year-old Shanghai local has been making the trip for the past three years as part of her work for Chinese telecom carrier, China Mobile.

The island of Hengsha lies 60 km north of downtown Shanghai and is located at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Shi and five of her colleagues take turns to work in the only China Mobile service office located on the island, open just two days a week.

The only way to get to Hengsha is by ferry. Shi, who lives in the Shanghai district of Pudong, takes two buses to the ferry station and then catches the ferry to the island. She normally needs to leave home before sunrise in order to arrive at the office before 9 a.m.

When Shi arrives at the office, she is usually welcomed by several island locals, who are already waiting at the door. She opens the door, gives numbers to the waiting customers and sits down behind the service window to start a full day of work.

All in one

Occupying 10 square meters, the service office opened in 2008 and used to operate seven days a week. But in recent years, with many of the island's younger residents moving to urban areas, the population on the island has decreased, resulting in a reduced need for services. The office has been open two days a week since 2018. Customers can call to set up an appointment when the office is closed.

Of the fewer than 30,000 residents living on Hengsha, around 8,000 are customers of China Mobile. The services provided at this office are no different from those provided at the company's other offices, but the service time for each customer is usually longer as most of the island's remaining residents are senior citizens. As their children are no longer living close by, the office has become their last resort when they have problems using their phones.

It is a job that takes patience. "These customers come with all kinds of problems," Shi said. "Simple taps for the young are far too complicated for seniors. We need to teach them slowly, step by step. However, they might still come with the same question next time."

Chen Haifeng, a Hengsha local, is a frequent visitor to the China Mobile office. "Many times, I've seen customers come in with their old-style phone and a new smartphone, asking staff to transfer all the contacts from the old phone to the new one, as well as download apps onto the new smartphone," Chen said. "It is normal for the staff to spend five to 10 minutes helping one customer."

The customers at the office are just as patient as the staff. Although the line is always long, the customers in line hardly ever show impatience. The office provides seats for waiting customers as well as phone chargers. "Locals on the island know each other and they like to chat while waiting in line," said Su Yueming, one of the island's residents. "It's more like a gathering place for them."

Su always visits the China Mobile office when he needs to add money to his phone account. He knows it is more convenient to do that online or by using an app, but he always forgets how to do it, and prefers to visit the office and ask for help.

"It feels good to meet and talk with other locals in the office," he said. Besides, Su often passes by the office to see whether the staff need any help. "There is only one staff member working in the office each time, and he or she needs to do everything, including the cleaning up, in addition to serving the customers."

According to Wu Laichang, the security guard assigned to the office, staff and locals are more like friends. "When the customers' children have weddings or babies, they come with candies and chocolates to share their happiness with us," Wu said.

In addition to providing a place for local seniors to gather, the office also helps local street cleaners and other sanitation workers, usually also seniors, by allowing them to use its refrigerator and microwave oven to store and heat their meals.

Senior special

The office closes at 4 p.m., but after that the staff sometimes need to visit customers' homes to help with broadband and Wi-Fi issues.

"The customers are the age of my grandparents. They always remind me of how my grandparents slowly learn new skills," Shi said. "This is no easy task for seniors and it is our responsibility to take care of them."

When the weather is bad, the ferry service comes to a halt and staff will need to stay on the island overnight. "It is a special experience as the seniors sleep early and the island becomes very quiet around 9 p.m. This is very different from the bustling night in downtown Shanghai," Shi said.

Statistics from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology show that at the end of 2020, the number of senior mobile phone users was 274 million in China, half among whom still use old-style phones or don't use the smart functions on their smartphones. When they have problems, most seniors would rather go to service offices for face-to-face consultation than call their children for help.

In late 2020, China's three major telecommunication carriers, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, launched a new service for customers over 65. When calling customer service hotlines, their calls can now be transferred directly to customer service agents and answered in person, rather than by the usual automated system.

"It has helped us a lot," said a 67-year-old man surnamed Zhang from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. "Many people were reluctant to call customer service hotlines as it was too complicated to follow the audio prompts to select the correct numbers for the services required. Also, some seniors speaking dialects can't understand standard Chinese very well. Now, their calls are transferred directly to local staff who can speak local dialects."

The latest national census data released on May 11 show a sharp increase in the number of seniors in China over the past decade. People aged 60 or above account for 18.7 percent of the total population, up about 5.4 percentage points from a decade ago.

Lu Xiangdong, head of the e-governance division of the General Office of the State Council, said the government has taken measures in recent years to increase digital literacy and to make using technology more convenient for older people. More measures are expected in the near future. "Problems associated with the use of digital technologies may seem trivial, but they are relevant to the interests of tens of millions of older citizens," Lu said. 

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