“Anyone want their zongbeng mattress repaired?” The familiar, melodic street cry of handymen cycling through residential areas with their heavy bags of tools once resonated through the old lanes of Shanghai.
Today, the responses are few.
The traditional zongbeng mattress, encased in a wooden frame, is made of crisscrossed ropes of coir, a natural fiber drawn from the palm. The advent of spring or latex mattresses has largely killed off the old trade.
Yet a couple from Nanchang in Jiangxi Province has been trying for decades to carry on the old tradition. Hu Guoqing and his wife run a small store on Xizang Road N., where they have been making and mending zongbeng mattresses for local residents.
“Compared with the mattresses we use today, zongbeng mattresses provide better air circulation,” says Hu, 43. “They also are resistant to damp, mold and dust mites.”
Neither too soft nor too hard, the mattress has proper elasticity. Since coir ropes are rough and might cause discomfort, zongbeng mattresses are always covered with cotton-filled sheets and quilts.
It is not difficult to find Hu’s shop. There is an old zongbeng mattress in front of the door, used to attract public attention.
When I arrived there one afternoon, Hu was lying on a deck chair while his wife was taking a nap on a semi-finished zongbeng mattress. A short respite in their 15-hour workday.
“We work every day except for Chinese New Year, when we go back to our hometown and visit our parents and son,” Hu tells me.
“We have given our lives to zongbeng mattresses and have experienced all sorts of joys and sorrows along the way.”
Hu and his wife Wu Guomei came to Shanghai in 2000 and found work in a zongbeng mattress company. Learning from masters, Hu found he could easily master the trade.
“Maybe my father passed on his gene for ingenuity to me,” says Hu.
Apart from deft fingers, Hu also has nimble business mind. He tells me that he observed the carpentry of the wooden frame and paid attention to the sources of materials while working at the factory. That laid the foundation for his own business.
“I invested tens of thousands of yuan,” says Hu. “I was courageous because I believed we were young and still had nothing to lose. Looking back, I think I made the right choice.”
Without interior decor or air conditioning, the couple’s store is also their workshop. Hu says that there was no need to decorate the shop because it would quickly become filled with sawdust. Indeed, the white walls turned red within a year.
The store moved from No. 302 to No. 49 on Xizang Road N. last year because of an urban renewal project. Hu and Wu, who hung the old address plaque on a wall, say business has dropped to about 10 orders a month from around 30 since the move.
But even 10 keeps them busy. According to Hu, customers need to wait at least one month to get a zongbeng mattress because there are so many people on the waiting list.
“A zongbeng mattress takes around three days to make,” Hu explains. “One day to make the wooden frame and two days for weaving nylon and coir ropes.”
Previously, mattresses consisted of only two layers of coir ropes, but now Hu has added nylon net as a base in order to strengthen the mattress.
“It will last 30 years at least,” Hu says confidently. “We have slept on a zongbeng mattress we made for more than 10 years, and it’s still in good condition.”
According to Hu, most of his customers are old — the eldest is in his 90s. At the same time, Hu says he has made mattresses for babies and for parents who order them as part of a daughter’s dowry.
It’s a laborious task. The couple has to choose materials, make the wooden frame, drill about 150 holes around it, water about 2,000 coir ropes before weaving, pass the ropes through the holes, secure them with the help of wooden chips, and polish the frame. Small wonder that their hands bear thick calluses.
“In winter, the dry skin cracks easily,” says Wu. “However, our life is much better than it was in our first few years in Shanghai. At that time, we lived in a container-like house and our salary was just enough to eke by.”
Hu adds: “We saved only 20,000 yuan (US$2,800) in the first four years, even though we pinched and scraped. The price of a 4.5 or 5-chi (1.35 or 1.5-meter) zongbeng mattress is 3,000 yuan, which is reasonable. I earn only what I deserve.”
Hanging on a wall are made-to-order tools, such as bamboo chips with hooks, iron rods and knives, hammers and wooden wedges.
The couple tells me they have thought of chucking it all in many times.
“However, that’s just a way of comforting ourselves when we feel tired,” says Wu. “We know that we can’t quit. The work is very hard and only for those who can endure loneliness. We would never want our son to follow in our footsteps.”
Apart from making mattresses, Hu also delivers the mattresses on a rickshaw. He once left the store at 7pm on a delivery and didn’t return until 2am.
“It was so late that a ferry to make the trip shorter wasn’t running,” Hu tells me.
The store is their whole world. In the last 20 years, they haven’t had time to get out and visit tourist attractions in Shanghai.
“My life is eating, sleeping, making zongbeng mattresses and housework,” says Wu.
Hu is a gym enthusiast, but instead of going to a fitness center, he takes full advantage of the materials in his workshop. Changing into a sports vest, he shows me his unique exercise regime. A 15 to 20-kilogram wooden pole turns into a barbell, and a pair of benches become parallel bars.
“After retirement, fitness will definitely become my primary activity,” says Hu.
“My goal is to have six-pack abs.”