Small businesses in China are the backbone of employment and prosperity. But size can be a drawback when hard times hit. This series explores the consequences of lockdown on the sector.
Members arrive at Zheng Yi's studio early on July 1 to work out.
The past week has been a real roller-coaster for Zheng Yi.
Just a few days after he reopened his fitness studio Oubisi, coronavirus broke out again in Shanghai, rekindling his worries as the past outbreak forced him to close his business for nearly three and a half months.
He understands anxiety is not helpful, but a sense of helplessness just washed over him.
"I can only do what I can right now," he told Shanghai Daily. "Step up disinfection; provide our members with good and professional services. Apart from that, just simply trust the government."
Shanghai witnessed a pandemic resurgence in early March, which forced massive lockdowns and left many businesses at a standstill.
Oubisi closed in mid-March.
It was very heartening for Zheng to see news that the city would broadly reopen from June as the pandemic gradually waned. The long-awaited permission finally came on June 30, after the city government announced the reopening of cultural, tourist and sports venues in July. That night, he stayed at his studio until 10pm, getting everything ready.
For him, Oubisi is like his second home since he opened it in Hongkou District three years ago. Nurtured carefully, it now has more than 50 members. Still, he found it hard to survive the pandemic outbreak in 2020. And this year it's a heavier blow.
"A lot of small fitness studios were affected, and there were a lot of closures or transfers," he said.
According to an industrial report released by the Shanghai University of Sport in June, nearly 14 percent of private fitness studios in major cities in China went out of business in 2021.
Zheng spends nearly 30,000 yuan (US$4,474.8) every month on his 192-square-meter studio. Three-month closure really put a strain on his finance.
"I did consider closing my studio," he admitted. "But I just didn't want to give up, and currently I'm still able to get my business running."
A friend, however, fell on hard times and closed his fitness studio in mid-June.
"His studio is larger and more popular than mine, it should have been not that difficult for him to go through," Zheng said, sighing deeply at the randomness of life.
Besides rental fees and personnel costs, he is also concerned about the loss of members.
"The pandemic and lockdown forced many people to retrench," he said. "They may hold a careful attitude to spend spare money on fitness."
Xiao Gu works out on leg muscles under Zheng's guidance.
To keep current members and attract new ones, Zheng gritted his teeth and spent 40,000 yuan on new fitness equipment. It has worked, and excited loyal customer Xiao Gu on the day of reopening.
"I saw the notice of reopening last night and arrived quite early this morning," he said. "I won't leave until the afternoon. I've waited too long for this day."
Gu didn't choose a studio near his home in the Pudong New Area. Instead, he crosses the Huangpu River and takes Metro to Zheng's studio as he values Zheng's professionalism and quality service.
Zheng has more than 10 years of experience in the fitness industry. Because of this he was invited by the Dragon TV to give classes in front of the camera during the lockdown. What's more, unlike regular chain gym clubs, his is a home-style fitness studio.
Zheng's anime toys in the studio
Zheng, a huge anime fan, has decorated his studio with his treasured collections. His four cats are also there to play with the members.
"I want my members to feel at ease," he said, adding that they are friends.
Member Xie Xiaoya really appreciates this.
"I don't like the atmosphere of those large-scale gym clubs," she said. "Their prices are high and their coaches are of varying levels of profession. But this place is fantastic, and I always stay for at least three or four hours."
Zheng thinks the positive side of the pandemic is that it could "reshuffle" the industry, leading to the "survival of the fittest."
"Large-scale and hefty investment is not necessarily synonymous with profession and quality," he said. "It's the core competence that really matters, and it ensures a bright future."
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