A Week in the Life: Yao Jinlan, street warden - Big Sister is watching her neighbours in the villag e of eternal vigilance

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WANDER THE streets of any Chinese city and you will still see the neighbourhood street wardens wearing the distinctive red armband: "On Duty".

Andeli district in central Peking - population 2,345 - has 106 such unpaid neighbourhood watch personnel, mostly retired women who make it their business to keep an eye on other people's lives. And 68-year-old Yao Jinlan is the Andeli street committee boss.

Ms Yao, a widow, is a model street committee chief. Her life centres on the comings and goings of Andeli, with an eye on everything from rubbish disposal to the plight of newly redundant workers. Since 1982 she has won all nine elections to be the community's Communist Party chief.

SATURDAY: "ACCORDING to the regulations, Saturday is a rest day," she said. But Ms Yao still rose at 6.30 for the cleaning and laundry. Then a solitary lunch at 11.30, the noon television news, and a nap - a midday routine followed nearly every day of her life. At 4pm she did the weekly vegetable shopping. Then she picked up the milk and the newspaper, cooked supper, and watched the evening television news - just as she does every single evening.

Time then for a stroll around her tiny kingdom. "Of course it was sort of work," she says. "I am preoccupied by work, even on a rest day. I look at how the residents feel and see if there is any rubbish or bad hygiene work in the community." Then bath and bed by 10.30pm - as always.

NEXT DAY she is up early again before the weekly venture into the rest of Peking. "Every Sunday I go window shopping to get some information about the market." So off to the Dianmen department store. "I don't buy anything; I just go for fun," she explains. "I walk around floor by floor and just get the information about the prices. When I get back I tell the others, family and friends." Then it was back to the flat at about 11am for another solitary lunch, television news, and snooze, followed by an afternoon stroll around Andeli's 12 apartment blocks, and family dinner.

THE WORKING week kicks off with an 8.30am meeting of the eight street committee directors at which Ms Yao assigns the week's work. This week there are five issues: cracking down on residents who have dumped home- decorating debris; fire prevention work; supervising and organising shifts for the 106 street-level patrols; preparation of the Andeli year-end report; and arrangements for the old people's dormitory to stock up on winter cabbage and rice.

"We spent all morning on all this," laughs Ms Yao, drawing on her cigarette, a small indulgence. "I used to have a packet a day, but now I've tried hard to reform from smoking and I am down to two cigarettes a day," she says.

Lunch break is, as always, from 11am to 2pm. "After that I walk around." The main concerns of her residents, she says, are "to have a stable life and to hope that, when in difficulty, they can get help from the street committee".

ON TUESDAY, Ms Yao, who is paid 400 yuan (pounds 30) a month on top of her pension, says she feels proud of her team. Her 106 unpaid workers "are of a higher consciousness level, but they do not like to be nosey about other people's affairs". That morning a 64-year-old Andeli woman is sick, so when word reaches Ms Yao she accompanies her to the local clinic. The afternoon, the 17th of the month, means it is the monthly political study session for Andeli's 38 Communist Party members. "We studied the spirit of the third session of the 15th Party Congress, about the reforms in the countryside. Everybody said this policy was a good policy," says Ms Yao. After disposing of political theory, it was an on-the-spot inspection of some of the street wardens. "They are very good, and all very warm- hearted when they see us directors." After dinner, with the weather suddenly turning cold, Ms Yao goes to check the radiators in the old people's dormitory.

MIDWEEK FINDS Ms Yao on duty in the committee office. "I had to stay there all day to help anyone who came," she says. It was a quiet morning, "so I studied the magazine sent by the Civil Affairs Ministry about community service". Back at her desk in the afternoon, it is even quieter. No visitors and no phone calls. Just another magazine and some planning for the year end report. "Not boring!" insists Ms Yao.

THURSDAY IS a hectic day of planning, ahead of meetings the following day. There are 500 people among Andeli's population and community education is popular. Residents are usually keen to become a street warden. "Some old ladies, when we invite them and we give them the red armband, they are so happy about that," says Ms Yao.

THE END of the working week, Friday, is a stressful day, with the meeting split between the morning and afternoon. The topics are the prevention of fire, theft and gas poisoning.

All the 106 wardens and other retired residents have been invited. "Since the weather turned cold, the apartments are closed up, and people have to be careful of the gas," says Ms Yao, explaining that sometimes water can boil over and extinguish the flame on the stove.

Anti-theft measures are already routine. "It is the duty of the street patrols to watch the doors and the yards to prevent thieves coming in. In fact in 15 years we have had no criminal case here in Andeli," she says.

So how does such a community stalwart manage to recuperate or even to indulge herself at the end of another busy week? "I am not particular about food, but I am particular about my clothes. I love rings, ear-rings and necklaces. But I already have all of these. So I don't need to buy anything," she laughs.

Teresa Poole