If it weren’t for sign holder Zora Hou (侯均宜), pedestrians probably wouldn’t know that the Taipei flagship of a Japanese dollar store is offering NT$39 in store credit with every NT$300 purchase for a limited time only.
“Everybody is welcome to browse,” says Hou, a 25-year-old with a placid manner and a moon-shaped face.
For eight hours a day, six days a week, Hou repeats this message at irregular intervals while holding a champagne-pink sign on a stick. She’s the only sign holder on the block, but certainly not in downtown Taipei. Just within a 500m radius, an older woman in a cap holds a sign for commercial real estate, while a band of twentysomethings hold different signs for the same online role-playing game. From the perspective of urban advertisers, these workers are an attention-grabbing and relatively cheap means of spreading the word.
For Hou, sign holding is a straightforward formula for cash.
She’s working eight hours a day at an hourly rate of NT$120, which means there’s NT$960 available in cash as soon as she clocks out for the day. If she works six days a week, that’s a monthly wage of NT$23,040, but she can quit at any point, penalty-free.
“It’s an ideal situation for me,” she says. “I work and save money for a month, and then spend the next month traveling. I’m done here at the end of September and I want to go to Hengchun (恆春).”
Hou is a Taipei native who studied early childhood education in college, from which she is now on an extended leave of absence.
Her first full-time job — preschool teaching — lasted six months, and since then she has taken only temporary offers.
“The teaching and learning environment at the preschool was not very happy. Parents work a lot, and often hope that teachers will be replacement parents. Like if a child doesn’t eat vegetables, I faced angry parents who asked why the child didn’t have the habit,” she says.
In comparison, the responsibilities for temp jobs appear far simpler. “I just need to not play on the phone all the time and wear pants instead of shorts. I hold the sign. Sometimes I say, ‘We’ve just opened. Everybody is welcome to browse!’”
Hou performs other tasks, too. “Every day there are some people who ask me for directions. It makes me feel like I’m performing a useful service by standing here. And sometimes I have promotional tissues to hand out to people … If it’s a hot day, sometimes people whip out my tissues and wipe their faces, and that’s nice.”
View from the street
But as with most sign-holding arrangements, the main job is combating boredom.
The default level of boredom varies from location to location, says Hou. “It helps the situation if I watch people.”
So Hou observes how crowds differ depending on the day of the week, and how pinched office workers appear as they pass through Taipei Main Station. Homeless people are often congenial, she says.
“One uncle — who I guess is half-homeless — sells the Big Issue, and his popularity (人緣) is quite high. Every day taxi drivers stop by to shoot the bull,” she says.
Once, she was stationed at the metro exit just by the Taiwan National University Children’s Hospital.
“I discovered that this exit is really not good for people with disabilities. Every day parents would be sweating, carrying strollers and wheelchairs up the stairs. Sometimes they carried oxygen tanks.”
While her stint for the Japanese dollar store will last just another month, Hou can see herself doing the same kind of work 10 years from now.
“I don’t really want to finish college. Getting a full-time job … probably not,” she says. “I feel that something went wrong during my education, because I do not really see a target in life. I don’t know what to do.”
She does, however, hope to eventually save up money for overseas travel. “I want to see Japan and India. Someday I would like to see the world outside of Taiwan.”