Millions of migrant workers have taken odd jobs in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- jobs that make the lives and businesses of urbanites easier and more convenient.
The last two weeks of December were especially hard for 23-year-old Jiang Peiyu, an employee with PonyEx Co Ltd, one of the largest private companies that provide express door-to-door courier services in Beijing.
Wearing a red jacket -- his company uniform -- and carrying a bag over his right shoulder, Jiang is one of the company's 300-plus delivery workers.
For the past week, he pedaled his bicycle over streets covered with thick layers of snow and ice, braving the chilly winds that cut through his jacket.
From time to time, his bicycle would slip. He kept moving with his left foot touching the ground for balance.
"I could only pedal slowly to avoid falling off on the slippery streets," he said.
It took much longer than normal to deliver the packages and he had to put up with more complaints from clients.
He lost his balance one day at Jimenqiao Overpass when his bicycle's wheels suddenly slid to the right and he fell to the ground.
"I had just stood up when another four bikes passing by all fell over," he recalled. "Fortunately, I did not get injured."
When Jiang handed the package to the client, she grumbled to him, "How could you be so late? You know how important the mail is to me? I will complain to your company," Jiang quoted the woman as saying.
Despite the bad weather and difficult rides, Jiang continues the work diligently, as he has done for the past three years.
A native of a village in East China's Shandong Province, Jiang worked on an assembly line in a factory manufacturing hi-fi sets in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, three years ago.
"I could only have one day off in a week," he said.
Tired of the routine work at the factory, he came to Beijing in the freezing winter of 1999. Based on recommendations from a classmate in the village school, Jiang joined a small express delivery company.
At the beginning, he had no idea about express delivery at all, and thought that it would be similar to the work of the post office.
"I took the job because I could rest on weekends. Besides, Beijing is closer to my hometown," Jiang explained. "Also, I thought I would have more contact with the office clerks and learn something from them."
There were only five or six employees doing actual delivery work in the company at that time. They took turns at a few major crossroads, where the express delivery business was comparatively concentrated. It was a kind of relay work and the company communicated with their couriers via pagers.
On the first day, Jiang followed a colleague to familiarize himself with the major clients and their locations such as the Motorola Mansion at Zhongguancun, Beijing's Silicon Valley.
"My buttocks ached after a whole day's riding that first day and I couldn't fall asleep that night," he recalled. He estimated that he rode 100 kilometers at least that day.
Jiang worked for the small company for eight months before quitting the job and joining PonyEx.
"There was no future for me there and the incompetent boss never listened to us," he said.
At PonyEx, he received two days' training covering basic information on etiquette, and propriety, company and other rules before he started the actual delivery work.
"There is no such training in nearly all the small express delivery companies," Jiang said.
One other good thing about the company is that it provides every employee with some medical insurance.
Jiang works in the Asian Games Village branch of the company. Every day, he gets up at 7 am, grabs a simple breakfast and then hurries to work for the morning roll call.
His job is to take and deliver packages from or to the clients. The mail is first picked up from their home addresses and then sorted out according to their different destinations. Afterwards, the packages are transferred to different branches across the city by employees riding motorcycles. And then, the employees at the branches deliver the packages to their clients' doors.
The busiest time for Jiang and his colleagues is between 10 am and 3 pm. They can hardly spare the time for lunch. It is common for them to have lunch at 3 or 4 pm.
Once, when they were eating in a small restaurant, their boss asked why they had dinner at such an early hour.
"It is lunch we are having now," Jiang and his colleagues replied.
Sometimes, when he could not endure the hunger, he would buy a piece of meat pie, and eat while on the bike.
"Packages cannot be delayed for even a minute most of the time," he said. "The clients would complain if their mail did not reach them in time, and the company would deduct money accordingly from our salary."
The couriers do not finish work until 6 or 7 pm, after they submit all the mail invoices for the day.
However, if Jiang still has work to do, he could stay until 8 or 9 pm. During that time, he does not buy a prepared meal which is much too expensive for him. He waits until he returns home to cook for himself. After dinner, Jiang is totally worn out and goes to bed at once.
Since he has been in the job for nearly three years, he has adapted to the long bike rides during the day and does not ache any more.
Jiang said that collisions with other cyclists are in fact a common hazard of the job, especially when other bikes go in the opposite direction in the same bicycle lane.
"A colleague of mine turned a corner one day when another guy riding a bike bumped into him. He was knocked onto the ground and fainted. Blood flew out of his nose and mouth," he recalled.
When the colleague came to, he discovered the man who knocked him off the bike had already disappeared. He has since heard that a courier with another company got hurt during a traffic accident.
At present, Jiang shares a small room -- about 10 square meters -- in a basement with seven other colleagues. "It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter," he said, which was the only reason he could find to live there. "But it is damp in the room, especially during rainy and snowy days, and I do have pain in my legs," he said.
On the weekends, Jiang and his colleagues take turns to work extra shifts at the company. They can get a subsidy of 10 yuan (US$1.21) for each day, as well as a 10 percent commission on earnings from the delivered packages. "I once worked continuously for 13 days, through the National Day holiday week," he said.
Otherwise, he washes clothes, watches VCDs, plays cards with his workmates or makes phone calls to his friends.
Despite the hard work, Jiang says he is quite satisfied with the job.
Besides a basic salary of 400 yuan (US$48), for each package he delivers he earns 2 yuan (24 US cents). So in fact, he earns a little more than 1,000 yuan (US$121) a month.
"This is more than the job of a security guard at a housing estate," Jiang said. "And I have more freedom than a security guard.
"It is not a bad job for people with not much knowledge and skills," Jiang said.
More than 80 percent of his colleagues have been recruited from rural villages in Hebei, Shandong and Heilongjiang provinces.
Others come from the villages surrounding Beijing.
Jiang grew up in the countryside and has two brothers.
"Back in the countryside, we only earn a meagre income from growing wheat, some corn and cotton and I couldn't find any manual work in the cities near my home," he said.
He said his parents are proud of him because he works in a big city.
Last year, Jiang sent half his salary to his parents and kept the other half for himself.
"But I used to send all my salary home," he said. "That was when my two elder brothers were getting married at home and our family needed a lot of money."
As the Chinese lunar New Year approaches, Jiang plans to go home for a family reunion.
"I hear that my parents are preparing to introduce me to a girlfriend from home," he said.
Moreover, he said his hard work has been acknowledged.
"The elderly people here are especially nice to us and are always ready to help us," Jiang said.
Once, the company awarded him a ticket to the Century Theatre, where he and a colleague watched a Takarazuka Revue Company production of "The Butterfly Lovers."
Though there were Chinese subtitles for the show, it was hard for them to understand, he said. "I'd wished it'd been a ticket to a popular concert and it would have been much more interesting."
(China Daily January 7, 2003)