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[My Weekender] A Street Sweeper

Cricket fighting, prawn porridge with ant dust, some illicit cigarettes -- it's a weekend on the streets for this chilled out sanitation worker.
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Lao Xu works as a government-employed street sweeper in the former French Concession, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Yesterday, someone stole my dinner. I bought some nice pork, the best part, shaved off the sides of the lower ribs and left it hanging off the handles on my rubbish cart. I left my cart for a couple of minutes and when I came back, someone had stolen my food. What can you do? The person who stole it was clearly hungrier than I was. Sometimes you have luck and sometimes you don’t.

I’ve been working for the government as a road sweeper for seven years and I work Monday to Friday, from seven in the morning till around four in the afternoon with a two hour lunch break. I earn 1,580rmb a month. It’s not too tiring. I’m supposed to have Saturdays and Sundays off, but I work on Saturdays for an extra 100rmb. My wife works in a supermarket. My daughter, now she’s amazing, she really is. She's studying Japanese, came top in her class and got a scholarship. She wants to leave the country one day. She understands the financial situation at home. At least she will have opportunities, you know? I just want her to be happy.

Today, after work, I will buy prawns, as they are cheap now, perhaps less than 20rmb a kilo and two different types of vegetables. If my daughter is at home, I will also make a soup, and maybe buy a watermelon. Friday night, I take a shower, then watch television with the family. I love war shows.

On Saturday mornings, I’ll head to work. For lunch, I’ll have a bowl of noodles. We make the noodles ourselves at home and to accompany them, we eat leftovers from the night before. You really shouldn’t throw away leftovers. We never eat out.

After I get off work on Saturday, I will organize or go to see cricket fights. Cricket fighting is my passion and the season is about to start. I used to go to Shandong to catch them myself. I know which corn fields in Shandong have the best crickets.

I’ve played with crickets since I was a child. I can tell from the sounds they make whether they are green crickets, yellow crickets or purple crickets, how big or small they are, how strong they are. You need to look after them well to make them strong. The back of a strong cricket’s head is oily and shiny, and looks like a ripe water melon. Famous emperors used to play this game.

You need to change what you feed your crickets depending on their age. In the early days, you feed them rice with some medicinal herbs. When they are middle-aged, I make prawn porridge for them, with ant dust. The ant dust is from ants in Guangxi, the big ones. When they are almost ready to fight, I will give them pearl dust or ginseng dust.

Sometimes I will host fights. We’ll weigh in the crickets to make sure that they’re within the limits for fighting. People come to bet 200rmb to 300rmb, but I’ve seen bets of 20,000rmb before. I used to love gambling, but now I have a family, I just make small bets.

After having fun with crickets, I’ll come home, eat and go to sleep. Sunday morning, I’ll have a lie in. The rest of the day I’m usually checking out different antiques markets. I love antiques and have loads of things I’ve found in people’s rubbish in my home, like teapots, red wooden boxes, cricket cages. I once found an antique umbrella. I recognized the stamp in it and knew immediately that it was valuable, so I sold it and made some money. People come to me to ask me to value things for them. Younger people usually don’t know what things are worth.

I also collect rubbish from the foreigners who live in the area I handle. There is a foreign family on Shaoxing Lu who know me. Their daughter sees me and always says "hi." They’re really organized. They sort out their rubbish, because they know I take the recyclable materials. For example, they wash the plastic containers and leave them in one place. When they give me clothes, they’re always neatly folded. Locals throw everything in the same bag, meaning that I have to sort through the dirt.

After looking at antiques, I’ll come home and drink some tea. Sometimes if my wife is out, I’ll smoke cigarettes in the house. She doesn’t like it, so before she comes back, I’ll try and hide the smell by opening all the doors and windows. We’ll have dinner when she gets back, watch TV and then sleep at 11 or 12.

I don’t get the Sunday blues, because I’m an optimist. I always look on the bright side.

This is a real account by a local street sweeper, but we changed his name.

*As told to Engen Tham