A few weeks ago, Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly had a very interesting feature on the McRefugees – people who, due to low pay or homelessness, spend their nights at 24-hour fast food restaurants – living in Shanghai’s Xujiahui area. They were thrown into the spotlight in March, when one man stabbed a McDonalds employee who tried to kick him out.
Of the articles in the months proceeding the incident, this one is probably the best I’ve read. It follows several McRefugees around and gives a feel of their daily life, their troubles and their friendships. So I’m translating it below. Since the feature’s actually quite long, I’ve split it into two. Here’s the first part:
“麦难民 (McRefugees)” Living in Shanghai
This is an exposed yet lowly group, in highly materialistic Shanghai, they spend their days in fancy high rises, and their nights dwelling in McDonalds or KFC 24-hour restaurants. In March 2010, an accidental killing exposed “McRefugees” and put them in the spotlight.
It’s 4am, 18-year-old Sun Long (psuedonym) sleepily walks out of an internet cafe, where he has been residing for the past 15 hours.
The internet cafe is inside his workplace, Metro City (美罗城)in Xujiahui. Sun Long knows these roads like the back of his hand, crossing the street will get him to Tianyaoqiao Lu; there’s a McDonalds 24-hour store there. He plans to buy two burgers to ease his hunger, and then walk 200m to a 24-hour KFC to rest until daylight. Compared to the McDonalds, that place has leather seats and is more comfortable to sleep in.
While ordering, Sun Long hears someone yelling: “Get up! You can’t lie sleeping here!” In the quiet of the deep night, this phrase makes Sun Long turn around. He sees a middle-aged man’s body lying on a row of round swivel chairs. A younger store employee asks him to sit up. Right now, it’s time for McDonalds’ breakfast preparations. This scene, in the eyes of someone who makes his home in fast food restaurants like Sun Long, couldn’t be any more familiar.
But, just as he was chomping down on one of his burgers, the man who was woken from his dream began to quarrel with the young employee. The two began yelling about “going outside to fight,” and began pushing and shoving. What happened next Sun Long could hardly believe: the middle-aged man pulled a knife out of his bag and stabbed it into the employee. The stabbed employee fell to the ground. The man went back to his seat, grabbed his black bag, threw the knife in and ran out the door. Sun Long, scared to death, hid in the bathroom and called the police.
The day was March 19, 2010. In the afternoon, Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News and other media reported the murder. According to their reports, the murdered McDonalds employee was called Li Feng, born in 1987, from Shanghai’s Jingshan District. This was a hardworking and talented young person, after graduating from college, he worked part-time as an McDonalds employee from 10pm to 6am to help with family expenses.
In safe and lawful Shanghai, this kind of murder is a big event. On Shanghai forum KDS (宽带山),Shanghainese’s harsh words towards YP (外来人口 Outsiders) became explosive.
After the fright, Sun Long walked out of the McDonalds and entered the throngs of people working in Xujiahui like a lone water droplet entering the ocean. In Shanghai’s most prosperous commercial district, in those high-rise office buildings, Sun Long has always felt that everyone walks a couple steps faster than they do in his village.
Sun Long works at Metro City’s (大食代)Food Republic food court in a Guangdong bento shop. Everyday he stands at the register accepting orders and relaying them to the kitchen. The 8-hour-a-day job earns a monthly salary of 1300RMB. Though it offers eating and living arrangements, he doesn’t like the dorm they’ve offered him – a tiny little room in an alley off to the side of Metro City that sleeps seven to eight people.
Sun Long was born in a backwater village on the border of Qinghai. When he was ten, he got into a gang fight at school. Afraid his parents would discipline him harshly, he stole 1000RMB from his home and, with two friends, ran away. In the eight years since, he’s been to Fujian and Zhejiang. Because of “Shanghai Tang (上海滩)“”s Xu Wenqiang (an old 80s movie starring Chow Yun Fat), this year he came to Shanghai. Only after he got here did he realize “Xu Wengiang’s Shanghai, whose streets are paved with gold, is actually the Old Shanghai.”
At first, Sun Long was sleeping in his workplace’s kitchen, but the water faucet went wacky and showered him. Thankfully there was 123 Tianyaoqiao Lu’s KFC – there were people like him who also couldn’t pay rent, and they would congregate together and slowly bear the long night.
These urban poor who use fast-food restaurants as cheap motels have the same name – McDonalds Refugees. This group first appeared in America. In 2007, Japanese people coined the term “McRefugees.” In September 2009, McDonalds opened its first 24-hour restaurant in China. December of the same year, a Beijing media outlet reported that several of the restaurants had turned into impromptu homeless shelters.
123 TianyaoQiao Lu
Being Shanghai’s famous commercial outlet, Xujiahui has at least a dozen fast food outlets like KFC and McDonalds.
At the time of the incident, a cleaning lady at Metro City’s KFC saw Li Feng’s killer on TV. She recognized him immediately – he had originally planned on sleeping at KFC, but was ushered out because the store needed to close. This KFC is just across the street from McDonalds on Tianyaoqiao Lu.
In response to questions about people sleeping over at McDonalds, a spokesperson named Mr. Lu said the store “doesn’t explicitly allow it, but doesn’t explicitly disallow it.” But for all the stores in the Tianyaoqiao Lu area, KFC has the most serious McRefugee problem. “Because there’s sofas there, [McDonalds] only has hard stools. In the winter, people will even bring their blankets and bedrolls into the restaurant.”
Every time night falls, 123 Tianyaoqiao Lu becomes like a railway waiting room. Young couples and people returning from a late night of KTV fill the place, most customers have nothing to do with the McRefugees.
This is a loosely connected group. Every night after 10pm, they gradually gather here. All they have is a backpack or a canvas bag, or sometimes nothing at all. They usually sit at the farthest booth from the ordering station, and never order a drink. To entertain themselves, they bring kung fu novels, financial or educational books, and leftover newspapers from other customers. After midnight, they are scattered around every corner of the restaurant. Some in the sofaed partitions, using their books or newspapers as pillows, leaning over tables or even using rows of seats as beds.
Over here, Sun Long belongs to a group of ten or so people.
During the day, they straggle to the high-rises and five-star hotels for work, the jobs are for the most part freelance: in front of Metro City is an ad board that shows jobs for restaurants, cleaning, part-time waiter work for banquets, acting extras, security, and even solicitors for blood donations.
When it gets dark, they sit around a table and discuss 20 to 30,000RMB properties, laughing at the possibility of buying that kind of housing, but even more love to chat about the lottery – this is their most unlikely way of getting rich in Shanghai, but also their likeliest. They discuss where to get work at dawn, passing around tips and recruitment information. But, since they are brought together only because of similar circumstances, their relationship is ultimately shallow, never prying into deeper matters such as their backgrounds or where they’re from. Sometimes older members leave, but they are replaced quickly by the new, keeping an ongoing balance of ten or so people.
At 123 Tianyaoqiao Lu, they are worlds apart from the employees, well water doesn’t touch river water. The employees say, “We have no relationship to those people.”
When a female employee finds melon shells in their booth and angrily demands to know whose they are, they laugh and don’t answer. Of course, there are those who do try to build relationships with the shop workers as well, like Sun Long. If he sees a female employee trying to takeout the trash, he’ll offer to help them with the can. He is one of the few live-ins with a sense of obligation, one time telling his Qinghai friends that “as long as you find me someday, no matter how poor I am, I’ll give you some of my meal.”
Security is something these McRefugees can’t not come across. Every night from 9pm to 7am, 123 Tianyaoqiao’s security does their patrols. Sun Long is constantly woken up.
“Sleep sitting up, put your feet down,” this is the phrase most said by 25-year-old security guard Shi Jigao. He spends the entire night wandering his route making sure no one “sleeps, sleeps and lies down,” which would give KFC a bad image. His monthly salary is 1500RMB, which never lets him relax.
In Sun Long’s eyes, in this high priced city, Shi Jigao and his lot are the same, both are in sad work situations, the “outsiders” looked down on by Shanghainese.
At the start of this year, Shi Jigao came from Gansu’s Dingxi to Shanghai Railway Station. As soon as he got out of the station, he landed a job at a Pudong-based security guard company. He became this KFC’s security guard, he makes up the city’s foundation.
2 to 3am is the hardest hours and it’s also Shi Jigao’s most crucial time frame – at that point live-ins are the highest, sometimes reaching as many as 30 or 40 people. Shi Jigao will remind them to watch over their bags, sometimes he will stop a fight.
After a while, he’s become familiar with these McRefugees, and will even compare salaries with them. Sun Long’s friend Zhang Dongjie often laughs about how he earns more money than Shi Jigao. But this type of camaraderie doesn’t mean Shi Jigao won’t wake them up when need be. This makes Zhang Dongjie annoyed, which makes the job even more thankless.
To be continued…