My kind of place

By Wang Danyang (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-02 07:53
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 My kind of place

Late in the night, 24-hour eateries such as McDonald's are known more for "McRefugees" than for their McBurgers. Sun Jong for China Daily

Homeless people in cities such as Shanghai are discovering new comforts in 24-hour fast-food restaurants. Wang Danyang reports

It is four in the morning. Sun Long, 18, steps out of an Internet caf in Shanghai and walks toward nearby Tianyao Road, where he hopes to spend the night at the 24-hour McDonald's or KFC.

He decides to buy two burgers at McDonald's and sleep in KFC, where the leather-upholstered chairs promise a more restful sleep.

As he is ordering, he notices a waiter stopping two men from lying down on a row of round swivel chairs.

It is a scene Sun has witnessed many times before.

But what happens next shocks him. One of the men pulls out a knife, stabs the waiter, and flees.

Sun makes a dash for the restroom and calls the police. He then walks out of the restaurant and mingles into the crowds of Xujiahui, Shanghai's busy business center.

Nobody notices his disturbed state.

The day was March 19, 2010. According to local media the waiter, who later died, was a Shanghai native called Li Feng. The 23-year-old college graduate used to work the night shifts at McDonald's. The killer was arrested 10 days later.

Sun works in a restaurant in Metro City, a shopping mall in Xujiahui. He makes 1,300 yuan ($190) a month, manning the cash counter for eight hours every day. He was offered a dormitory, but eight people shared the cramped place. He opted out.

The teenager had run away from home in a small village in West China when he was just 10, after getting involved in a gang fight. Surviving on the 1,000 yuan he had stolen, he drifted around Fujian and Zhejiang provinces before landing in Shanghai - the land of gold in his imagination.

Initially, he slept in the kitchen of the restaurant he worked in, but when the water tap began malfunctioning, he was forced to look elsewhere.

That's when he discovered the KFC on Tianyao Road, where people like him gather for a free night's rest.

China's first batch of 24-hour restaurants were opened by McDonald's in September 2006 and soon began to draw hordes of vagrants, dubbed McRefugees - a term first used in Japan in 2007.

But of the McDonald's and KFC restaurants in Xujiahui, the most popular is the KFC on 123, Tianyao Road.

Late at night, it resembles a small inn. Barring a few lovers and young men stopping by from a nearby karaoke venue, the rest are all the so-called McRefugees.

They usually make an appearance after 10 pm; some bring along a bag, most come empty-handed. They sit on the chairs farthest from the counter and never order anything. Around midnight, they stretch out on the sofa or a row of seats, or put their heads on the table, using their arms as pillows.

By day, most work as cleaners, part-time waiters, film extras and security guards. At night, they gather in the restaurants and talk about the sky-high housing prices - more than 20,000 yuan per square meter in the city - or striking it rich in a lottery. Sometimes, they exchange leads on where to find work when day breaks.

There is usually little interaction between the restaurant's waiters and these people.

But Sun is often woken up by Shi Jigao, a 25-year-old employee of KFC. Himself a migrant worker from Northwest China's Gansu province, he makes about 1,500 yuan a month. Part of his job is to evict the refugees. He gets most busy at 2 or 3 am, when there are easily around 40 people sleeping in the restaurant.

One of them is Zhang Dongjie, 23, who does bit parts in films and small modeling assignments. Although he makes about 4,000 yuan a month and can afford to rent a room, he prefers a KFC night and even carries his toiletries and clothes to prepare for the next day.

There is also the martial-arts school graduate Du Longlong, who came to Shanghai with dreams of becoming a kungfu star. But after six years, he is unable to even find work as a waiter, as he has no health certificate.

Unlike Shi, who hopes to make enough money to return home and marry in five years, Zhang and Sun want to continue in Shanghai.

They often check out the bookstores in Metro City. While Zhang likes poems and essays, Sun has difficulties understanding most books.

"Boys of my age are still in school," he says, nostalgic for the grasslands and friends of his hometown.

Liu Xiaolin, a PR manager at McDonald's, says many 24-hour venues have people resting there for the night. The Tianyao Road stabbing was a rare occurrence, he adds.

However, police have stepped up night checks at the fast-food restaurants in Xujiahui and look at all identity cards closely.

As dawn breaks, Zhang and Du line up to wash their faces. Zhang wants to take a bath and buy some new clothes while Du hopes he will finally get that health certificate so he can join the crew at McDonald's.

Liu Wei contributed to this story. The story was first published in Southern Metropolis Weekly

(China Daily 06/02/2010 page18)