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Urban Nomads


Text and photographs by Tian Fei

With her one-year-old son Li Zixiu in her arms, Xiang Ying ducks out of the scorching early summer sun at a flower terrace near a vegetable market in Wuhan’s Hankou District, Hubei Province. Her light blue truck with an Anhui plate sits nearby, packed with daily necessities such as cooking utensils, stoves, and gas jars. Atop the truck, an unpleasantly striking sign reads”Professional Building Leakage Repair.” The vehicle serves Xiang not only to make a living, but also as her home.

While chatting with an elderly man also enjoying the cool shade, Xiang grows worried-for eight days straight, her husband hasn’t found any work. At 5:00 p.m., another truck with the same sign arrives, driven by her husband. He brings news: First, he still can’t find any customers. Second, more relatives are arriving in town with two more trucks, ready to join their team. An hour later, the couple leads their new teammates to a downtown overpass they use as a campsite.  

When they arrive, nine trucks are already waiting under the overpass, all with the”Professional Building Leakage Repair” sign. With the newcomers, their fleet totals 13 vehicles. In every truck lives a family, and almost every person is related. When leaving rural areas near Fuyang City in northern Anhui Province, they brought a special rubber-a waterproof PVC-like material. Like them, most young and middle-aged men from the village rove around cities earning income repairing leaks. Xiang recalls that leakage repair was not a popular business a decade ago, and then only a few young men were willing to learn the trade. But gradually, people began realizing the service could be lucrative in cities, and wasn’t difficult to learn. After carefully watching experienced tradesmen, quick learners can effectively mend leaks with only minimal practice. However, hardship comes with the territory. They subsist on simple food and sleep in trucks. They stay on-call 24 hours a day in case clients find a leak in the middle of the night. Those who can endure the most can generally earn the most. Like so many migrant workers, Xiang and her husband arrived in Wuhan with hopes of finding a pot of gold.

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