'No, it's awful,' says Mr Du about the tea he queues up to buy five times a day. 'This is about Chinese culture, you have to remember. People see other people doing something and go over to see what’s happening,' he says as we study the throng of people in a snaking queue in a courtyard at Taikoo Li. They’re all waiting patiently to get a cup of tea from Hey Tea. I’d assumed this was because of its USP, a layer of cheese on top, but the only reason everyone had for coming was that they’d seen the queues online.
Before I get started with professional queuer, Mr Du, I talk to one of his previous customers. She’s busy taking selfies of herself holding her tea with the queuing masses as her backdrop. 'I’d seen about this online but I don’t have time to queue for two hours, so I just paid 30 kuai for him to do it for me,’ said the young lady who’d more than doubled the cost of her 23RMB pomelo tea. Did she like it? 'Oh, I haven’t actually tried it... [removes cap, takes sip]... it’s fine,' she says, unimpressed by the flavour but enjoying the 53 kuai selfie experience nonetheless.
For once, there’s only one new word for me to learn: daipai 代排, lining up on someone’s behalf. Mr Du tells me this is also common at Gui Jie restaurants. He queues up personally at Hey Tea around five times a day, each time taking over an hour. Top tip: if you only get orders for a couple of drinks, max out your allowance of three and sell the extra speculatively after.
I get in the queue at 2.55pm and start to see how it’s actually a small network of queuers working together. You can spot them because they’re not 20-year-old girls. And because they all have power packs charging their phones. One bloke I join the queue with ducks out, leaving me to save his space only to rejoin 40 minutes later. This man is particularly skilled and gets through ten times a day. Mr Du makes 300-400 kuai daily, but the super queuer was a little shy about his takings.
After around 15 minutes standing in the gentle smog, the groups of friends queuing start to get bored. Everyone’s phones come out. Earphones go in. When the super queuer comes back he entertains himself with videos of construction sites. There are Hey Tea staff going round explaining the drinks. They tell me that they don’t allow delivery companies to put in orders. They have to queue too. A security guard reassures me I can rejoin if I need to leave to go to the toilet.
After 45 minutes we’re into the shop itself and can pay for our teas. I’m pleased with getting through so quickly. 'But that was just the first queue. Now there’s the queue while they make the drinks,' the super queuer tells me, before disappearing outside, passing on the receipt to someone else to collect – a specialist in the indoor queuing section. The display tells us there are 43 orders ahead. I continue to build on the unanimous first-visit, saw-it-on-the-internet profile of the clientele as an old man with his own flask of tea walks in. He surveys the scene, takes a breath and walks back out into the brave new world of Taikoo Li. Mr Du pops back in a few times to pick up other orders his colleagues had queued for.
After an hour and 15 minutes in total, we emerge. I could have made 90 kuai at market rates, but I hadn’t actually taken an order or charged a fee. Though after all that queuing I maxed out my allowance with a cheese tea for me, the photographer and his girlfriend who’s way too cool to queue for tea but secretly glad to try it.