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Minding the phone' in China is no easy task

Liu Qiuju has a job that would be considered unusual in most Western cities: She is a public telephone-minder. Private telephones are rare in Piking, which has 200,000 telephones for a population of 8.6 million. So what do you do if you are about to have a baby and need an ambulance to go to the hospital? Or if you are young, and in love, and your boyfriend lives across town?

You go to Mother Liu's, or someone like her, whose job it is to mind public telephones in the innumerable neighborhoods into which Peking is divided.

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Mrs. Liu and her husband, Wang Juni (Chinese women keep their maiden names after marriage), live with their five children in a neighborhood of typical one-story brick houses near Taoranting Park.

Mr. Wang is a carpenter and works for a state construction company. Mrs. Liu stays home and looks after the public telephone.

The alley on which the Wangs live is not paved, and the houses have no running water. One brick house is crowded up against another in mazalike succession, often with several families occupying the four sides of a single modest courtyard. The Wangs' house is tiny, with just three rooms, but they have their own courtyard, shared with no one else. Furniture is sparse but crafted with loving care: Mr. Wang made most of it himself. The Wangs sleep in the main room, their our unmarried daughters (ranging in age from 26 to 16) in another, and their son (who has just graduated from high school) in the third, which juts out into the courtyard and houses the public telephone. Anyone who wants to use the public telephone steps through the Wangs' gate into their courtyard, abloom with red and pink roses, and directly into the son's room without bothering his parents.

For every call that someone wants to make, he pays 4 fen -about 2.5 cents -- to Mrs. Liu. Half of this goes to Mrs. Liu, half of the phone company.

What about incoming calls? Mrs. Liu's telephone serves 385 households in her neighborhood. If a young man from accross town calls up his girlfriend in the Liu neighborhood, Mrs. Liu gets on her bicycle and brings the girl to the telephone or gives her a message, as the case may be. For this service she charges 3 fen (2 cents), all of which is hers to keep.

"I imagine I make about 20 yuan [$13.3] a month," Mrs. Liu said. Scarcely a princely sum, but enough for pin money in a family that has four wage earners. Prominent on a table by the big Chinese double bed is a television set -- symbol of affluence in a society where consumer goods are still in very short supply.

Life was very hard for Mr. Wang in the 1960s when his children were still small. He was the only wage earner, and the 70 to 80 yuan he brought home each month ($46 to $53) had to feed and clothe him, his ill wife, and five children.

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Now, however, "life gets better year by year," Mrs. Liu says with a smile. Her first daughter works as a weaver in a factory making bed sheets; her second operates a crane; her third is in a lampmaking workshop. The Wang family's monthly income is now over 200 yuan ($133), her husband says. It will increase still further when their son gets the driver's job he hopes for.

Meanwhile, all members of the family help Mrs. Liu mind the phone. Sometimes emergency calls come in at 2 and 3 in the morning. "Only the other day," Mrs. Liu recalls, something went wrong with the electrical system in a factory.

"One of the electricians for the factory lives in our neighborhood. We got an urgent call for him to go to his factory immediately. That was at 2 in the morning."

Mrs. Liu also looks indulgently on the long calls young people make to each other. "Sometimes they are on the line for 20 minutes," she says. And she can also help to clear up misunderstandings.

Once, she says, a boy gave a message to his girlfriend via his aunt to meet him at the park at a certain time. The aunt came to Mrs. Liu's house to make the telephone call, but gave the wrong time. The boy was furious with the girl for arriving an hour late.

"I knew the whole story," Mrs. Liu says, "because I'd heard the aunt making the telephone call, so I could explain the situation to both sides, and they made up immediately."

She won't say how many couples she has played Cupid to, but it is obvious this is one aspect of her job that she finds most satisfying.

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