Empowered Laowai

I just discovered a cool new blog called Liuzhou Laowai (via danwei.org). I especially related to his story about how he got his power switched back on through guanxi. It reminded me of how I got my Chinese credit card, and also of the time I also had my power shut off myself (sort of).

The problem is that a lot of the utility companies in Shanghai are way too nice. One time I forgot to pay my gas bill or my water bill, and I didn’t even realize it until the next bill came. It charged me for both months. Realizing I had neglected to pay the previous month, I looked for a late fee. There was none.

Naturally, I took this as a loud and clear I can pay my bills whenever the hell I get around to it! I became very lax about paying.

Pretty soon I found out that the power company don’t play that game. When you’re late paying they send you a reminder, and if you still don’t pay, they send someone over with a notice that they’re shutting off your power in three days if you don’t pay up.

When I got that notice, I renounced my derelict ways and immediately headed over to the office to offer my monetary contrition. They reassured me that since I paid in time my power would not be shut off. I was relieved.

Day three came around. It was a Saturday. I was taking a morning shower, when the water suddenly went cold. This is not so strange, because the gas water heater for that shower is an old capricious bastard. I was used to wrestling with the thing every time I showered, dodging alternating icy and scalding blasts in my desperate dance to get clean. This time, however, the water didn’t get hot again as it usually did. Wouldn’t you know it — I was all soaped up, and now if I wanted to rinse off I had to use ice water to do it.

I got out of the shower all soapy and went to the breakers. They were all on. This could only mean one thing: they shut off my power!

I was forced to rinse off with ice water.

I figured whoever had just shut off the power was still in the building, so if I got dressed quickly, I could catch him and coax him into turning it back on. As soon as I got out the front door I saw a guy fiddling with the electricity meters. It turned out the whole buildings’ meters were decrepit and needed to be replaced, so we were all experiencing about 20 minutes of no power while the meters got swapped. My power was back on shortly.

Personal note: I have successfully moved into my new place, but the wireless network isn’t ready yet, so I still don’t have internet access at home yet.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Beijing (or at least all the places in Beijing I¡¯ve lived in) has a kind of pay as you go system for electricity. There are meters out in the hall, and you get an IC-card which you can recharge at banks and put into the meter to transfer the credit. If your credit gets low the digits on the meter turn red and you know to go buy more. For some reason though, the meters have always been on the landing ABOVE me, so I never walk past it to see the red digits. Sometimes a passing neighbour will let me know, but more often I find out when the lights go out . . .

  2. Whenever I was back from the village (i.e. no showers) to my husband’s apartment (shower!) I would either a) have to make sure he was home when I was showering so I could yell out suitable wife-like instructions (turn it up! oww! What are you doing you fool! Turn it down! Honey, please come back..) or b) dance between the bathroom and the gas meter thingy (in the laundry) naked and wet every time I got burned/freezled (this can not be done after dark except if all the lights are out since no curtains…)

    The worse time was arriving from a 15 hour journey from Jiuzhaigou to Pengzhou absolutely covered in black exhaust pipe filth because of some kind of dangerous suicidal leak into the bumpy bus only to realise on arrival that our water was turned off, city wide, and had been for three days.

    I called the Blue Sword water-filter company. Man comes, gives us filtered water. I waited for the filtered water thingy to heat up in its tiny cylinder (meant for tea-making) and emptied basically the whole thing into a basin and washed myself village-style, the main difference being it was with purified expensive water.

    Funny how funny that sounds now but how I was just about in tears at the time!

  3. Amy & I were staying in a dorm in Crakcow. The students weren’t back yet, so the water heater & the building heater weren’t turned on yet. Since it was August, not having building heat was no problem. Not having heated water was! Ever try to take a shower trying to keep the water at arm’s length?

    Fortunately, some fellow ‘pilgrims’ in the Holiday Inn across an empty lot offered to let us use their showers whenever we wanted. What a relief!

  4. Shanghai uses the “Japanese method” of paying bills. (I can’t be sure they learned it from Japan, but I know that Japan has already been using this method for a long time.) When your bill comes, you take it to a convenience store. They scan the barcode on the bill, then you pay them. They stamp your bill, tear off their part, and give you a receipt. Bill paid.

    I usually pay at KEDI (¿ÉµÄ).

  5. About a month ago I came home to find a water bill for RMB800 attached to my door. The next day my girlfriend called the company and found out that the bill was correct, but it was that large because it hadn’t been paid in two years. In the few months I had been there I’d only spent like RMB20.

    Apparently my landlord just “forgot” to pay, and the company forgot to charge him for a couple of years. At least the water never went out.

  6. They use the same method in Taiwan, John. I didn’t realize it was originally japanese, but it makes sense considering how japanese influenced Taiwan is.

  7. Although that method is the same as NZ, except we do it through the post-offices (although since internet and phone banking came in I’ve never bothered). Why is this special??

    When I was in Chengdu we paid our bills through the banks not convenience stores though.

  8. Newsflash: I just got my gas disconnected and I have to pay $98 if its only temporary (whereby they remove the meter) and heaps and heaps of money (landlord though) if its permanent (remove all the pipes!!!). I thought it was insane the meter removing people in John’s story, but don’t worry NZ is just as vindictive 🙂

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