Tales from the Bargain Bin – China Shoe Shine

Despite what the talented local propaganda spin masters would like us to believe, China and Liuzhou have not been immune to the worldwide economic crisis.   The effects are definitely being felt here in South China, where most notably, food prices, electronics (read camera equipment), rent and utilities have all risen sharply during my time here.  Still, some things are downright bargains.  I am talking “stupid good” deals, even when taking into consideration East vs. West cost of living differences.

In my previous life I used to polish my shoes nearly everytime I wore them.  Even though I hated the chore I still did it because it was part of  my fabric.  Before his death in Vietnam in 1967, my father had been a career soldier.  I learned very early on how to perfect the “spit shine” using  a diaper, kiwi wax polish and a little water.  When I later did my own four year stint for Uncle Sam, I was way ahead of the “shoe shining” curve.  Over the years it would never occurr to me to take my shoes to anyone else.  Oh sure, I would occasionally get a shine while waiting in an airport somewhere but most of the time I bit the bullet and buffed them out myself.

Well I’m happy to report that I’ve finally beaten my shoe (shine) fetish.  It was actually pretty easy, because here in my neighborhood I can’t walk a city block without passing a shoe shine gal.  Maybe it’s the same across China but here, especially in the areas around the parks and in the city center, they flock together like ducks on a pond.  I recently counted 15 women in one block of Fie’ E Lu near my home.  They crouch together in groups of three or four, jabbering excitedly as they wait for the next customer.  I have been seeing the same girl for nearly two years now.  Meet Xue Feng Qin .

Shine On

Xue Feng Qin

Xue Feng Qin is a 33 year old mother of two.  She and her husband come from a small village in the south of Guangxi, near the border with Vietnam.  She has been polishing shoes on the streets of Liuzhou for more than 10 years.

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

I’ve been taking shoes to her every couple of weeks for nearly two years now and it never fails to draw a crowd of gawkers.  Aside from the usual “Where are you from?” queries, everyone wants to know what size the shoes are.  When I reply “si shi ba” or 48 (13 US), there is always some good-natured ribbing about my “boats”.  My Chinese has improved to the point that I recently realized Ms. Xue charges me more than her other customers.  Her usual fee is 1 1/2 kwai but she always charges me 2 (about 30 cents).   Yesterday I asked if she charges me more because I am a laowai.

“No, no!”, she said excitedly, “I charge you more because your shoes are so big!”

Everybody had a good laugh…

So, that was yesterday’s afternoon excursion.  on the way back to the house I came across this old fella’ .  I find folks sleeping here anytime, anywhere and in any number of positions.  Sometimes the balancing acts are quite impressive.  I am actually gathering a nice little collection you can see here.  This cat today was totally out of it, enjoying a nice spring afternoon in the riverside park at the south end of Liujiang Bridge.  Most impressive was that he stayed in this position for at least half an hour while I was getting my shoes polished down the street.  Traffic, people in the park, even a jackhammer on the corner across the street and he was gone!



I should probably write about the whole Chinese barber shop experience sometime.  Talk about a deal!  What you get for 25 RMB  is crazy.  There are so many barbers the competition is fierce.  That’s good for me.

So I made some progress on my list.  I didn’t finish of course but I did manage to take a big bite out of it.  Still more email to return and I absolutely must get some stuff together for Ryan (Dao by Design) so he can begin to work on my websites.  If you are reading this Ryan, I swear, I’ve been working on it… really, I have been.  Little sister and Jo Ellen, email still to come tonight, I promise!

Apparently a fellow by the name of Mr. Chan has opened a doughnut shop here in Liuzhou.  Pray for me…


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~ by Expatriate Games on April 7, 2009.

19 Responses to “Tales from the Bargain Bin – China Shoe Shine”

  1. Hehe. My father was a cop. I too learned about shoe shines when a younger lad. There’s a bus stop in Shenzhen with a long line of shine ladies. I never seem to be wearing the shoes that need a shine when I pass. One lady did approach me at the bus station last week, pointing at my hiking boots.

    “Madame, these boots have hiked uncountable countries on three continents. To shine them would be a disservice, an insult,” I said, or would have if I knew the proper Chinese. Bu yao was my response.

    I look forward to your take on the barber. I’ve been meaning to write something but can’t seem to get right “awe” factor in my prose.

    Your sleeping set is great. When I was riding the London Underground in January I was taken a back by the passengers reading newspapers, not a one was asleep.

    aside: I am stunned, WordPress is unblocked. I wonder how long that will last?

    • I know what you mean about getting that barber shop “awe” factor across to the reader. It might truly be one of those things you have to experience. I figure I’ll give it a shot later this week.

      • I figure your shot will be better than mine. The first few paragraphs of your college basketball post were amazing. If you’re as passionate about the barbershop….

        (Not a barbershop with a pink light I hope?)

      • What do you mean “pink light”?

      • You don’t have “barbershops” with pink lights? I thought that was universal in China. The shops with a barber chair, mirrors, and a dozen bored looking girls in short dresses?

      • I am absolutely certain I have no idea whatsoever as to what you are talking about. 😉

  2. Yeah I’ve heard about the “stupidly” cheap deals in China. The shoe shine thing is definitely one of them! One of my friends who just started living in China also gets her hair washed and a massage almost every weekend! Such luxury! I shudder to think what they would pay in Japan for that kind of service…or in the States as well.

    • Yeah, what I get here for 25 RMB at the barber just might be the best money I spend here. Some places go as low as 15 or so. A friend of mine pays just 5 kwai for his haircut but he chooses to skip all the extras!

  3. Really enjoyed reading this post EG and your photographs are, as always, excellent.

  4. I see Stevo and I have yet another thing in common. My father was a cop, too, and I learned to shine shoes from him. I liked helping my father with stuff like that when I was a girl.

    The only person I’ve met who wears a size 13 is my youngest son. His feet are almost twice my size.

    I really like your “Tools of the Trade” shot.

  5. Love that second photo, Michael. What a great capture. Waiting for your barber shop observations…

  6. Shoe shines ROCK!

  7. Great photos as usual, and a good read. Perfect combination as I ease my way into another busy day. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a pair of shoes that needed to be shined, unless you count the Dr Martens I had in high school.

  8. I am reading this in fact 🙂 No rush – you’ve got great excuses, and great photos! Did you PS the lomo effect?

    • Hey Ryan, yeah I did shop it. I have been playing around for the last few months doing all kinds of PS “stuff”. I figure I’ll eventually settle down and find a happy medium but it has been fun for now. I’ll probably be talking to you tomorrow!

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