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September 11, 2009

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Walk the dog, watch the kids, call a cab and park all those cars

IN Chinese neighborhoods, security guards used to have it easy - registering all visitors, stopping strangers and asking their business, opening and closing gates - that sort of thing.

Today, they must multi-task to meet new demands.

They park cars, call cabs, walk the dog, watch the kids, take deliveries, set off fireworks for residents on festivals and do all manner of things for busy urban residents.

Residents appreciate it; some guards enjoy new responsibilities, some feel pressured.

"It's actually fun to take on new functions. Guards don't really have much to do, except during rush hours when we park cars," says Xu Lilin who works in a small gated residential community in Putuo District.

"Most of the time, I just sit there and chat with the other guards, so I enjoy helping residents and meeting their needs," says Xu, who is in his 40s.

In China, security guards for residential communities are usually middle-aged men; most are laid-off workers, some even retirees. In Shanghai, many come from out of the city, since the job is often considered to be inferior and the pay is relatively low level.

However, as residents' demand and requirement are rising, especially in terms of functionality, more young people are joining the service.

Child care is an important new task as more than half the residents are young couples. They often have to go to work before grandparents - the traditional baby sitters - or ayi arrive.

The guards step in.

"We are not required by the management to do it, but it's natural to help and I consider it part of our responsibilities. After all, you get to know most of the residents after a while, and who doesn't now and then need help in life?" says Xu.

As the number of private cars skyrockets, traffic congestion and parking have become major problems. Parking residents' cars has become an important responsibility for guards.

Ten years ago, only a very few residents owned cars, but today many have private vehicles.

In the past, guards just had to check strange cars in the neighborhood and make sure the few private cars around were parked in their allocated places. Today, traffic congestion and lack of parking space are a problem.

The evening rush hour, usually from around 7pm to 9pm, is the busiest shift for guards as they must direct and coordinate the flood of vehicles pouring back into the residential community.

Parking cars and retrieving them for residents is just part of the job for nine guards in the Huajiao Apartments on Nanchezhan Road in Huangpu District.

The 20-story building has 90 apartments, it's small, and there's no underground parking. On the closest street there are just some 30 parking spots.

Among the 90 flats, 20 are rented by companies and many employees drive to work.

"Residents have about 90 cars," says guard Gao Henglun. "Not every one of them is parked all the time, but there are commonly 50 to 60 cars parked at one time."

Now guards require considerable skill to maneuver cars, park them and back them out carefully and quickly without any damage.

Some guards get lessons on proper driving, parking and backing out.

"In 2006 parking had already become a serious problem in our neighborhood," says Wu Dekun, manager of Huanan Property Management Co, which manages Huajiao.

The company and residents conferred and agreed that guards would handle all the parking and retrieval of cars. The company sent some guards to driving school and afterward all residents gave a set of car keys to the guards.

"Fortunately, all the residents trust us and our guards are excellent," says Wu. "In the past three years, they have never damaged one car."

Now, when visitors and residents arrive at the gate, they give guards their keys and tell them how long they will be in the building. Guards park the cars in the appropriate places and retrieve them when drivers return.

It makes life much easier for residents.

Guard Gao now spends around five hours a day parking and retrieving cars and with long practice he's a better driver than many residents.

"Since parking spaces are so limited, we have to park cars on the street. It can get complicated when several cars are parked and the one furthest in back needs to be moved," he says. Then he has to move other cars to make room.

George Li, a businessman, moved to Huajiao in 2006 and owns two cars.

"I was astonished when I first saw those keys for fancy cars hanging in the guard's post," he recalls. "Some of those cars were very expensive. I couldn't believe it would really work."

But his fear of theft and damage never came to pass. Today he has a different opinion.

"This parking plan would be unworkable without real trust between guards and residents," Li say. "If we couldn't trust them, we would still be having problems finding parking spaces and maneuvering our cars with difficulty."


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