Gu the Shanghai tailor shows entrepreneurs can thrive in China

Not long ago a Chinese seaman on his way to Burma walked into Gu Dehua's tailor shop and wanted to have a pair of trousers made in a hurry. Young Mr. Gu accepted the woolen material the sailor had brought, took his measurements, and promised the trousers would be ready the very next day. (State-owned tailoring shops require a month for such work, and even Mr. Gu usually asks for a week.)

Unwrapping the material after the seaman's departure, Mr. Gu was surprised to find 60 yuan ($30) in its folds. The next day, when the seaman called for his trousers, Mr. Gu returned the money to him, taking only 5 yuan ($2.50) as his standard tailoring fee.

''I'm not in private enterprise just to make money,'' he told the surprised and delighted customer, who apparently had carelessly left the bills on the wrapping table in the store where he bought the material.

''I have to get a moral satisfaction out of my work as well.''

This is the kind of service that has made Mr. Gu's tailor shop a roaring success in a city where government and collective-owned enterprises still far outnumber private establishments.

Shanghai is a city of nearly 12 million people, over half of whom live in the central urban area. According to municipal foreign affairs official Wang Mingyang, the city fathers have found work for 11/2 million young people since 1977, the year after the fall of the ''gang of four'' and the official end of China's 10-year-long Cultural Revolution.

One million are employed in municipal organizations in Shanghai, and half a million in collective enterprises run by neighborhood committees and the like. Only 30,000 young people are in private enterprise.

The city is encouraging private enterprise, Mr. Wang said, but apparently many young people still either lack the required skills or prefer the ''iron ricebowl'' of work in a state-owned factory or office.

Mr. Gu is more fortunate than many of his friends, he freely admits, because his father is a tailor and taught him all the skills he needed to get his business going. He can make Mao jackets, of course, but he is also good at ''three-pocket suits'' - in other words, Western-style suits, which are increasingly in demand among young people, especially for weddings. (Mao jackets usually have four pockets.)

The Gu tailor shop, a cramped, one-room affair, is on a fairly busy shopping street in the Luwan district of Shanghai. Chubby-faced, stocky Mr. Gu has been in business since 1980, four years after he graduated from high school.

''The 'gang of four' was still in power when I graduated,'' Mr. Gu said, ''but I didn't have to go to the countryside, like all the rest of my classmates , because I was still recuperating from an illness. Since there was no work for me, I just stayed at home, cooking meals and keeping house for the family. My father and mother were both working, and so was my older sister, while my younger brother and sister were going to school.''

In fact, even today, that is the situation of the Gu family, although Mr. Gu is about to take a bride. Of that, more later.

For many years Mr. Gu Sr. had his own tailor shop. But when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, he was forced to join a government collective enterprise, where he still works.

By 1980 young Mr. Gu still had not found work. One day he read in the newspapers that as part of the economic reforms being carried out by the post-Cultural Revolution leadership, private individuals could apply for licenses to provide some needed service to the community.

Until then, although his father had been teaching him tailoring on the side, ''I was never allowed to get a license,'' he says. So Mr. Gu, being well-qualified as a tailor by this time, went to his district office and filled out the necessary applications. Soon thereafter he was in business.

''Some tailors operate in stalls outdoors, but I was lucky, I had my own house,'' Mr. Gu says.

It is a two-story house, with just one medium-sized room on each floor. In these two rooms the Gu family eat and sleep, somehow making space for Mr. Gu to do his tailoring in the downstairs room during the day. He hopes that if the city carries out a longstanding street-widening project soon, he and his family will be given priority housing elsewhere.

Otherwise, he plans to rebuild the house as a three-story shop-cum-dwelling. (This is a relatively new measure adopted by the city fathers to alleviate the housing shortage.)

''Any marriage plans?'' Mr. Gu was asked.

He pointed upward at two paper-wrapped hams hanging from the ceiling just above where his visitor was sitting.

''As a matter of fact,'' he said, ''my prospective bride said she was coming to see me this afternoon. Unfortunately,'' he continued, peering out the window, ''it's snowing rather hard, so I don't know whether she will come or not. If she does, these hams are a present from me to her parents.

''We met at an outing organized by the Young Communist League,'' he went on.

''We hit it off well together and spent almost the whole excursion talking to each other. And then I found out that she is a tailor, too!''

Mr. Gu says he has no thought now of looking for another career. ''I am already making three times as much money as I would working in a factory,'' he said.

''I make more than 150 yuan per month (about $75) and I only need one-third of that to live on.''

The rest goes into his savings and in contributions to the family furnishings - an electric fan, a television set.

Wasn't he concerned about company housing, health care, retirement benefits - the kind of thing he might expect if he found employment in a large government enterprise?

''I save over 80 yuan ($40) per month,'' he said. ''That should be more than enough to take care of emergency needs. We don't have a tailors' association yet , but when we do, we will set up a joint welfare fund. Anyway, I don't think we should be relying on the government for everything.''

''I hope you meet President Reagan when he visits Shanghai,'' he was told. ''Mr. Reagan would heartily applaud what you have just said.''

Mr. Gu's face creased in a wide grin.

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