The Secret Life of a Sherpa's Courier

Little Wang, also known as Harry, sits in the interview room slightly stiffly and more than a little anxiously, wearing the trademark orange and black uniform with a running man on the pocket, and (a little bizarrely for an indoor interview) he's also wearing a black motorbike helmet, a black satchel held tightly across his body, and a giant photograph ID badge on a lanyard around his neck. He looks ready to spring out of his chair and on to his motorbike at any second, and also looks like he'd really welcome the opportunity to avoid being interviewed.

Little Wang is the newest employee at Sherpa's, Shanghai's food order and delivery service, and in the afternoon lull between the lunch rush and dinner I'm at their headquarters in downtown Shanghai hoping to get the inside story on our favourite food couriers.

Every expat living in Shanghai knows Sherpa's - the orange book stuffed with menus from two hundred restaurants across the city, and the English-speaking phone operators who will order food on your behalf from any one of those restaurants, dispatch the order to a courier, and have him deliver the food hot to your door within 45 minutes, along with a bottle of wine if you'd like one. Want to order from multiple restaurants at once? No problem. Want to order nothing but a cold milkshake? Also no problem.

Sherpas is so well loved that when a friend asks "What are you cooking for dinner?" you need only answer "Sherpa's" and she automatically knows what kind of a hellish day you've had. Sherpas will miraculously take care of dinner. And even though they had nothing to do with the cooking of the food we've all come to regard those guys in black and orange as a type of domestic Chinese angel, appearing at our doors with hot meals for a delivery fee of just 15 rmb ($2.30). 

Back to Little Wang, who has relaxed just enough to undo the chin strap under his helmet. He's a fresh-faced twenty four year old who arrived in Shanghai three months ago from Lanzhou in far-off Gansu province, always memorable to me as the home of Lanzhou lamian hand-pulled noodles. 

He studied to be a Physical Education teacher at university, but after graduating and before ever working as a teacher something pulled him towards Shenzhen, the glittering Special Economic Zone in China's south that lures young people from all over China, wrings out their dreams with menial, low paid work, then spits them back out, often poorer than when they arrived. 

Little Wang lasted three months there in a sales job before making the move to Shanghai. He started at Sherpa's within days of arriving, and yes, he might be overqualified for work as a motorcycle courier, but he senses an opportunity at Sherpas to start from the ground up in a foreign-owned enterprise, something he considers beneficial. 

When I ask him the funniest thing that's happened to him so far, he says that a lot of foreigners on the street call out 'Hello Sherpa's!' to him when he drives past. That's just silly. I press him for something funnier and am rewarded with a long story about an escaping cat. No naked ladies answering the door then? None.

Sitting next to Little Wang in the interview room is his group leader Master Xu (or as I like to think of him, shifu), a Sherpa's veteran with ten years of service under his belt. Impressive, given that Sherpa's was only founded in 1999 by American Mark Secchia. Master Xu is an easygoing guy in his thirties with a little plumpness around the edges and a crinkle-eyed smile, and unlike Little Wang doesn't insist on wearing his helmet and satchel indoors. 

He works six days out of every seven, with four twelve hour shifts in a row, then two days covering the busy evening rush from four until ten. When the company switches to electric motorbikes in the next year he's worried about how it will affect the speed of his deliveries because, after all, speed is a big influence on his take home pay. The more deliveries he makes per hour, the better his pay, and he can make around 6,000 yuan per month including tips (about $1000), a pay much higher than many office jobs. He needs it because he has two children, a girl and a boy, to take care of.

I figure that after ten years Master Xu must have seen it all, delivering to thousands of homes all over Shanghai, but he insists he's never seen or heard of anything untoward. Ever. Although there was one time, making an evening delivery in late October that the door was opened to reveal four of his colleagues asleep on some foreign guy's sofa, their helmets pulled down over their eyes. Before his eyes popped out of his head, and as he hurriedly thought about what to do next, the four revealed they were, in fact, not Sherpa's couriers but had borrowed the uniforms for a halloween party.

When I asked Master Xu about how much he makes in tips he was very open. Partly he gets a bonus for delivering consistently on time and for not losing or dropping any of the food, and partly he relies on customers' tips, but these have steadily dropped from about 2,000 rmb/month ($300) two years ago to around 500rmb/month ($80) now. His theory is that many foreigners initially think tipping is expected in China, and when they discover it's not expected they simply stop. I tell Master Xu he needs to deliver to my house more often because there is apparently a very generous Australian man living there. 

After the interview, I get to see the rest of Sherpa's HQ, the massive nerve centre co-ordinating 2000 food deliveries every day. It's nothing short of impressive with banks of computers and dozens of people just waiting for someone like me to get really hungry while they are also really short of time, or cooking skills, or both. 

So wherever you live in the world, I dearly hope you have a Sherpa's to make your life easier, so on Sunday nights you can put your feet up and order in a whole Peking duck, or salmon pasta, or Nepalese food, or a single delicious tiramisu. And don't forget to tip the courier!

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