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Holiday exodus, with all its implications, has begun
2015-01-19
By Doug Young

THE annual Spring Festival travel rush has been hogging the headlines the last few weeks, but several news reports this week are casting a more human spotlight on the millions of people who have already started leaving Shanghai for the annual reunion back home.

Those reports focus on the headaches local employers feel when their workers leave for weeks or even months, driving up salaries by 50 percent or more for the people who stay on the job.

The issue adds a more human face to the millions of people who now call Shanghai home, even though they have no official status as city residents.

Many of us depend heavily on such people, from the waitresses at our favorite restaurants, to the ayis (domestic helpers) who clean apartments and trainers who staff the gyms where we work out.

I have quite mixed feelings about the annual Spring Festival exodus of many of these people, which transforms Shanghai from a bustling metropolis to a sort of ghost town for a few weeks each year around the holiday.

On one hand, I enjoy walking around on streets where the number of cars and pedestrians are far lower than usual, creating a more relaxed and comfortable feeling that makes being outside more enjoyable. Shopping in stores and eating in restaurants are also more pleasant, since many of the long lines and unruly crowds suddenly disappear.

On the other hand, I also quickly start to miss the feeling of bustle and broader energy that is one of my favorite things about Shanghai. Of course it’s also just slightly inconvenient when the gym closes for a few days, or my ayi misses a week or two, ultimately leaving my apartment just a bit less tidy.

For those reasons, I usually find myself eagerly awaiting the return of these millions of people who in many ways are the lifeblood of Shanghai.

The reports that got me thinking on the subject look specifically at the soaring rates that employers have to pay workers during the Lunar New Year.

Such a phenomenon isn’t unique to China, and employers in the US also have to pay double or sometimes even more to waiters, clerks and other employees who work during big holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year.

But while such a wage spike usually lasts just a day or two in the US, it can last for weeks or even a month or more in China due to the prolonged vacations that many people take.

According to the reports I saw, wages for the ayis who clean homes and babysit typically jump around 50 percent to 50-60 yuan (US$8.33-10) per hour during the holiday season.

Industrious nannies can do quite well during the period, earning more than 10,000 yuan for the months around the holiday. Making matters worse are the increasingly long vacations that migrants take, with this year’s period of “nanny nervousness” starting as early as mid-December.

This kind of labor shortage and salary price spike was non-existent in the 1980s and early 1990s, when travel during the holiday period was less common and usually involved shorter distances. The term ayi in its current form didn’t even exist when I lived in Beijing in the 1980s, since hiring someone to help around the house would have been considered extravagant and would have been far too expensive for most people.

Shops used to just shut down

The numerous massage parlors, beauty salons and other service-oriented shops that are typically big employers of out-of-towners didn’t exist back then, either. In those days many barber shops consisted of a man with a chair and pair of scissors, often doing business out on the street.

During that time I remember making half-hour trips on my bike every month or two to visit the closest thing resembling a Western-style barber shop, which was located in the Friendship Hotel in western Beijing and mostly catered to foreigners.

An interesting recent twist to Spring Rush is the growing number of people I talk to who say they aren’t going home for the holiday, preferring to skip the hassles of travel and spend the time here in Shanghai.

Many of these are young people whose parents have moved to Shanghai to work or help around the house, making it convenient to hold family reunions without traveling to distant places. Others simply prefer to wait until quieter travel periods to make their trips home.

For now at least, the worker shortage and salary spike will remain a fixture of the holiday season, creating minor inconvenience for people like myself and bigger headaches for shop and restaurant owners who want to keep doing business during that time. But that’s how a market economy works. And at the end of the day, the situation now is certainly preferable to an earlier era when it was impossible to find any shops or restaurants open for a week or more during the holiday period.

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