Buying Time in China

Last night, I went to dinner with some friends at an upscale restaurant in Shanghai that specializes in Beijing Duck. My friend's wife made the arrangement and he was delighted: it's always difficult to get a table. We arrived before his wife and were taken to private dining room #608 (by my count there were no more than twelve private rooms, but that's neither here nor there). We opened the door to find a carefully-set table for four, with one seat already occupied. A man in his 30's, quietly scrolling through his phone, looked up with a hint of surprise. I assumed he was joining us. I was about to introduce myself, but after a few quick words with my friend, he shuffled awkwardly out of the room.

Assuming it was just a mistake - perhaps he was waiting for friends in the wrong room - I didn't think much of it. But once my friend's wife arrived I learned the real reason he had been there. It turns out, using a new app, she had hired him to queue at the restaurant on our behalf. He waited for three hours to secure our table and earned $12. In exchange, we got to eat at a fancy restaurant. I couldn't believe it.

The app's use apparently isn't limited to restaurants. People here in China use it to avoid massive queues at hospitals, where to see a good pediatrician might require half a day's wait. The app looks something like uber (of course). The interface is a map, but rather than nearby cars it displays tiny red stick figures who are nearby and ready to wait for you. There were 36 people available when I looked at the app - which in a city of 18 million didn't seem so many.

This, for better or worse, is the future.