Young security guard
Photo Credit: VCG

Meet the Young People Working as Security Guards

More and more young people are taking jobs as security guards, positions normally reserved for middle-aged migrant workers—why?

The pandemic has brought a series of new realities to our daily life, such as scanning health codes and measuring our temperature at the entrance of buildings. These, in turn, require us to interact with security guards on a regular basis.

However, the profession is evolving: While the stereotype of the security guard is that of a middle-aged man not qualified for or unable to work at another job for whatever reason, the gatekeepers of today may be youthful contemporaries of ourselves, sitting there quietly or occasionally checking their phones. What might make a young person choose this job? Do they ever feel bored? What do they plan to do in the future?

On today’s episode, we speak to three young men, all in their 20s, to find out how they became a security guard and whether their occupation brings them any meaning or satisfaction.

Zhang Sai

Family First

My name is Zhang Sai. These days, I work in a factory in Fujian, but I was a security guard at this hotel in Wuhan when I was 18 years old.

I initially worked at a factory in the southern China. My brother and sister-in-law ran a restaurant in Wuhan that gave our family its main source of income. The restaurant had an extensive, flavorful menu, and business was thriving for a while. This was due in no small part to the business acumen of my sister-in-law—that is, until she got pregnant. With a new addition soon to join our family, they asked me to join them over in Wuhan.

Zhang Sai’s brother on dumpling duty

Zhang Sai’s brother on dumpling duty (Zhang Sai)

My brother rushed to the hospital when my little nephew made his grand entrance in this world, leaving our father and myself in charge of the restaurant. However, my father had a disability that greatly limited his mobility. Business slumped so much that we were reluctant to even cook. Eventually, it became apparent to me that if I wanted to support my family during our time of need, I had no choice but to go out and find another job.

Back then, I’d heard that you only need to have a pulse to be hired as a security guard. I applied for one such job hoping to snooze my working days away, so that I would still have the energy to go lend a hand at my brother’s restaurant after work. I picked a random hotel, put on whatever clothes I had and headed to the premises. Once there, I went straight to the receptionist and asked point-blank whether they were hiring. I was then taken to the head of security, who glanced at me and said “yes.” The next day I went back with my ID card and went through all the hiring procedures.

The head of security initially assigned me to the hotel entrance and lobby, complete with a suit and tie. He probably thought it appropriate, since I was so tall. I had never owned such fancy clothes, so I was thrilled. That day my new boss gave me a demo on how to wear my brand new tie. When I got home, it took me ages to untie the knot.

I thought I looked pretty good in my suit, but I didn’t get to flaunt it for a long time. I lost that job within a matter of days.

Empty Bottles

I’d barely started working at the hotel when one of those grandmas who pick up trash from the streets for some extra money came to our entrance.

I still remember the strong wind that day. As she wobbled around, picking up plastic bottles, the elderly woman resembled those empty containers she was collecting, pushed around by the elements.

Loot in hand, the grandma made a sudden beeline into our hotel. I quickly intercepted her and she turned around. I thought that was that, but she doubled back. This time, she caught me off guard and managed to slip in. I kept trying to reason with her, “Ma’am, this is a hotel, you can’t just walk in!” All in vain. She just didn’t seem to hear me.

Short of a better idea, I followed her around as though I was her shadow. We certainly caught the attention of the hotel guests, at least until the supervisor came and barked, “Zhang Sai! Get her out right now!”

I thought, we had a lot of paper piled up behind the front desk to throw away. If I gave that to her, would she go away? After all, why bother an old lady? So I hurried to get her a stack of paper, and sure enough, she started making her exit.

At that moment, another security guard pounced on the woman and grabbed her like an eagle pouncing on its prey. If that wasn’t enough, the guy kept pushing Granny until she got to the road.

I turned around just in time for the supervisor to wave the walkie-talkie in front of my nose. “The hell just happened here? You’re a big, burly dude and you couldn’t deal with a lousy old woman in rags? What’s up with you, huh? Did you skip lunch, big boy?”

Soon, other hotel bigwigs came over and said, “We all knew you were a real sissy, but who would’ve thought you can’t even stand your ground with some old granny! Weakling!”

I didn’t answer back. All of a sudden, my late mother came to my mind. Once, when I was just a kid, she’d assured me that she’d pick up trash if that’s what it would take to send me to college. My mom herself never got a college education, nor did she manage to fulfill her goal—she didn’t even live to see me graduate from elementary school. When I finished junior high school, I dropped out and went off to work.

Looking at that granny, I could only wonder whether she was supporting someone herself.

Switch On, Switch Off

The higher-ups discussed among themselves and decided to demote me. My fancy-suit days by the hotel entrance were now behind me. I wouldn’t need any special attire to manage the hotel parking lot.

However, I felt a surge of relief when they notified me. You see, I don’t enjoy that two-faced behavior. Why are we supposed to crank out a smile for some big boss and go full throttle on some poor devil collecting trash? At my new position. I just had to sit in my post and press the switch to raise the barrier. Switch on, switch off. That was about it.

At first, I took comfort in those inspirational stories. You know, that dude who worked for Peking University as a security guard and spent his shifts studying like crazy until he managed to pass his college entrance exams. With those stories in mind, I started taking books with me to work, thinking that I’d study like a champ and get into university, too. Soon enough, I realized I just couldn’t do it. It was too boring, too lonely. Go figure.

Most people hope to extract some meaning from their job. But I wasn’t finding any meaning by playing hooky on my shift as a security guard to read some books. I came to think of myself as little more than a switch with only two functions—on and off. I could hardly see any value in myself.

Still, I did try to encourage myself at the start, particularly during my night shifts. I recalled the story of the monk Xuanzang from Journey to the West, crossing the desert and scrambling to study Buddhist scriptures. But it occurred to me that Xuanzang never had it quite as bad as me. His apprentices kept him company, while I sat alone in my sentry box, staring at the lights from the compound in front of the hotel.

Screenshot of Zhang Sai’s QQ feed

Screenshot of Zhang Sai’s QQ feed (Screenshot from QQ)

One day, I posted on my QQ Space blog, “I will perish if I can’t beat this loneliness again.”

The following day I posted once more, “Spared from the blowing wind and the pouring rain outside, I indulge in the Song dynasty poet Yan Shu’s words: gentle as jade.” A friend left a message of praise below, “Oh, what a poetic image.” But I was too despondent. “Poetic images are no remedy against solitude.”

A Boundless Night

Still, I persevered through the days. After all, this job allowed me to sleep at night, which in turn meant I could spend more time helping my brother at the restaurant and caring for my disabled father. Family bonds were the most important thing to me at that time.

In order to have a good night’s sleep in my sentry box, I purposefully kept the parking lot barrier up. That way, there was no need to switch it on and off, up and down with each car coming in or out. All in all, I could sleep some eight hours every night. In fact, had the shift not ended after eight hours, I could have slept an extra hour.

One night, my slumber was brought to an abrupt end by the boss hitting me over the head with his walkie-talkie. He hit me, and he shouted, “You’ve got an accident happening on your shift and you didn’t even notice?” I was stunned. “What happened?”

He pulled me to the front of a car and pointed at a scratch on it while he droned on and on about my inattention. He even went on to check my record book and found a blank for the time slot when the car came in. I realized that I had slept through the whole incident.

Later, the owner of the scratched car lodged a claim for compensation. The fine ended up amounting to 250 yuan, and the hotel simply deducted it from my monthly wages of 800 yuan. At least they did not follow through with their initial threat of firing me, though a firm sentence did come from management: “He’s such a sissy. Just put him in the restaurant.”

My fate was thus sealed. I was once again demoted, this time to being a mere waiter, and my career as a security guard came to an end. Everyone will tell you that you only need a pulse to be a security guard, but honestly, I find it’s actually pretty difficult.

I made do with various factory jobs after that—a shoe factory, a sanitary products factory, an electronics factory, you name it. I set up a breakfast street stall, and delivered takeout. Then I became a courier. All sorts of things. You name it, I did it.

Looking back, my youth seems to be all mixed up in my experience as a security guard. They’re one and the same in my mind—both fused together in those boundless nights, stretched into oblivion by work.


Though Zhang Sai is currently an assembly line worker at yet another factory, he has not given up on his reading and writing. In fact, he says a publishing house purchased the rights for his first, forthcoming novel. The news recalls Zhang Sai’s own memories of his mother vowing to send him to college even if it meant she’d have to pick up others’ trash. Mother and son longed for this goal, but one has to wonder—if he had the chance to go to college, would his life have turned out differently?

Today’s second narrator is Xiao Zhou, who became a security guard fresh out of college.

Xiao Zhou

My name is Xiao Zhou, I am 22 years old and I just graduated from college this year. I majored in special effects for film and television, but somehow I was tricked into going to Beijing for this security guard gig that should have lasted a little over 10 days.

Jobless After Graduation

As I just said, I went to college in order to get a job producing special effects for movies. Since I come from Jilin and I went to school in Changchun, the provincial capital, I wanted to stay in my province after graduation. However, there are precious few companies in this field, and recruitment is currently at an all-time low due to the epidemic, so I returned home with my diploma and stayed there for some two months. Needless to say, without any income, I was a homebody during this time.

Now that I was done with school, it felt as though it was no longer something to even bring up in conversation. I was riddled with anxiety and self-doubt. Perhaps I hadn’t applied myself enough at my studies, otherwise my career prospects would be much different. Eventually, I figured I could just take on something less demanding. I browsed this recruitment website, which suggested me a job as an armed escort for vehicles delivering cash to banks. The listed salary was about 6,000 yuan per month, plus room and board and even the whole insurance package—pension fund, healthcare, unemployment, industrial injury, maternity, and housing. That’s higher than what I’d get at any gig related to my major, so I checked the details online for the contact guy and added him on WeChat.

Armed guards must qualify twice—both as your average security guard, and then specifically for deployment at banks. I am fresh out of college, so it goes without saying that I couldn’t possibly have either qualification.

The contact guy assured me that the company could provide both certificates for me free of charge, as long as I underwent a two-month training program in Beijing, likewise at no cost to me. I agreed to it, figuring that I could always just leave if the guy tried to scam me out of cash.

Sunset at Sanya Beach

Still from the long-feature film Our Lives Are Filled with Sunshine

When I first arrived in Beijing, the guy sent me a location in the suburbs in Fangshan district. There, I was met by the person in charge. Though I didn’t pay much attention to it in the moment, the name of the company on its sign didn’t match what the job listing said.

I signed the trial contract and then the manager instructed me to report at another location. When I hopped out of the coach, I was stunned. It felt as though I was flat out in the boonies—there were mountains not far away. I came from a village, so it felt like I was taking a step backward. The canteen at this place only had one window. Dining there was like being at some tiny, remote grocery shop in the mountains.

I would have a hard time trying to recall the full menu at that place. I do remember that the steamed buns and meat pies came with eggplant, and the eggplant had shredded cucumber. Now that was some odd flavor. In fact, eggplant was the star ingredient there. There was another dish where it came in this potato stew that was not seasoned with salt, but with chili peppers. I had two bites before putting the whole thing in the trash. I really didn’t have it in me to stomach that stuff. I thought I deserved better.

Muscle for Hire

I arrived here on Tuesday and officially started working the next day. Neither our working hours nor our resting times are fixed. You must be available whenever they call you, that’s all. We’re a dozen guys, and every morning we wake up and are driven for a few hours to wherever we are assigned to work for the day.

The first day of work I was sent to this demolition site in Fangshan. The place was a residential area that was slated for redevelopment, where some stubborn homeowners were refusing to vacate their homes despite pressure from property developers. As it turned out, the real estate company had a deal with the security company that employed and subsequently shipped us there. There were about 100 to 200 of us, looking all mighty with our uniforms and helmets.

We set out to work in groups led by these tattooed dudes that went on knocking on doors and asking, “When are you moving out? When are you planning to sign the contract?” Whenever some elderly folks answered the door, the men changed their script to something like, “When will your kids get home from work?” It’s not like they were asking us to do anything other than stand behind the guys. Still, I felt that I’d been hired to intimidate people. That felt pretty immoral.

After clocking off on that first day, I got a sudden incoming video call from my sister. When I asked her what was the matter, she replied that my little niece missed me and wanted to see me on the phone. Typing my reply instead of accepting the video call meant that I could hide my tears from them as I wrote, “I’m fine here.”

My sister asked me how many people lived in the dormitory, and I lied to her saying that the facilities had quadruple rooms with private bathrooms and a really great environment. The truth is that they pack 20 of us in each room, and the toilets are all outside.

I felt very uncomfortable in the beginning. Honestly, I had been willing to put up with some hardship. I could even consider it physical exercise. However, I felt most uneasy at having to hide stuff from my family. I spent four years at college, preparing to work as a special effects technician for film and television. Imagine the disappointment for my parents if they learned that I am now working as a security guard after graduation. They’d think school was a waste of time.

At this point, I still thought that this was surely just the beginning. Sure enough, I told myself, things would change in the next couple of days.

“Among security guards, who hasn’t been scammed?”

The next day we were pulled out of our sleep and bundled into cars at 4 a.m. Much like the day before, we were a dozen guys, with no further information on our destination. On arrival, we were issued work permits that read “Beijing International Film Festival.” As it turned out, I was going to be a security guard at the closing ceremony of the showcase.

We were provided uniforms. Just one glance at them, and you could tell that whoever had worn them last had sweated profusely, down to the hard leather shoes that had undoubtedly been worn by plenty of other folks before. We were told to stand from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with no break in between.

I was pretty upset that day: a graduate in film and television, guarding the gate of a film festival in order to bar access to those not deemed fit to enter the venue. The whole ceremony finished at around 10 o’clock in the evening and I snapped a picture that I sent to my mother and my sister. I told them that I’d been to the festival and had a blast there.

Photos of the venue for the closing ceremony of the Beijing International Film Festival taken

Photos of the venue for the closing ceremony of the Beijing International Film Festival (Xiao Zhou)

You know, at first I assumed that this was just a temporary trainee period. I’d serve a two-month probationary period for the guy who hired me, and he’d get me my certificates. That’s until I did my research on the internet and saw testimonies of fellow security guards online, plus the stories of the other folks in our dormitory. We’d all been duped.

As it turned out, seasoned security guards are well aware of this situation. There were two guys who lived with us who’d been in this job for a long time, and knew what had happened to us as soon as they saw us. They even tried to comfort us, saying, “Among security guards, who hasn’t been scammed?”

At the time, I felt pretty disappointed in the face of this dull, plain truth from those two old guys. All I could say was that I’d been duped only because I was inexperienced and had not been cautious enough.

Choices in Life

I did not run with questions to the guy who’d hired me after finding out that he was a liar. To begin with, there was no guarantee he’d tell me the truth. Also, I didn’t want to act rashly and put him on the alert. If they confiscated my belongings in retaliation, or something—I’d be in a real pickle then.

There’s a reason that none of us ran away. When we got here, the agent took our ID documents on the pretext that they were needed to help us apply for the job. The process usually takes a little over a month. I asked them for my ID card back a few days ago, arguing that I needed it to take a PCR test, not because I was planning on leaving. I was actually not lying.

I’m not sure what’s going through my mind. Maybe I’m still clinging to this thread of hope. You see, my family pictures me happily working in Beijing. My mother said she’d come visit me here in a couple of days. It’s just going to take me a while to clear up this whole mess. If I just pack and leave and tell my family I’d been scammed, they’d be real sad.

Then, there’s also the money issue. If I were to beat it now, I’d have to pay the agent 2,000 yuan by way of penalty. I don’t have that kind of money on me, and I am not going to ask my family for money anymore. I have room and board here. I’ll put up with this for two months until I start getting my salary. Then, I’ll make do on that money until I can find a new gig.

It’s not like I didn’t know that there’s plenty of work in film and television in Beijing, but to be honest, I didn’t even consider looking for those jobs here, mainly because I think that my credentials aren’t strong enough just yet. Upon graduation, I worked for three months on probation at this film and television special effects company. Once that time came to a close, they didn’t give me a contract, so I had to leave. Later, I switched to this editing company where I handled short clips for them daily. I cut short videos for them every day, but it wasn’t long before someone new came in with lower salary expectations. Maybe they weren’t satisfied with me either. Anyway, I left again.

Now, I’m working as a security guard in this office park. Watching white-collar workers around my age bustling about, I feel removed from my former life, as though it stood at some faraway location.

Had I persevered, is there a chance that I could be just like them right now? Wearing whatever clothes I liked and walking around in my own shoes, commuting to a regular job with a regular schedule and regular breaks?

I feel that while we may be presented with many choices throughout our lives, I’ve always missed the mark with every single one of my choices.

Two days after this interview, Xiao Zhou was faced with yet another choice in life. He confided that all his peers from his batch of recruits had ran away. Now it’s just him, and he’s scared. But where would he go if he really up and left?

One thing’s for certain—no matter what choice Xiao Zhou does end up making, he is already counting down the days left in his career as a security guard. Two months maximum, that’s his deadline. After he gets these two months’ wages, he will never work as a security guard again.

Today’s third narrator, Ah Hua, is a veteran security guard.

Ah Hua

My name’s Ah Hua and I’ve been working as a security guard for some nine years. I am currently working in a hotel in Hainan.

A Fresh Start

I actually majored in mining extraction, and that’s exactly where I went directly upon graduation. As it turned out, business was not exactly thriving in the coal mines, so I was transferred to the security department to work as a security guard.

This was in 2015, when I worked 30 days a month, eight hours a day—sometimes even longer hours, all for some 1,000 yuan. This kind of money is too low even for a fourth-tier city like Jiaozuo, my own hometown in Henan province. I needed at least twice that amount for a normal, frugal life there. The endless daily grind was starting to take its toll on me; I was depressed.

The air quality in Jiaozuo is terrible. At that time, the PM 2.5 reading was already estimated to be above 500. One day, I saw that the PM 2.5 in Haitang Bay, Sanya, was only in the single digits, and this piece of information stirred something in me. Suddenly, I was tired of breathing in the smog every day, so I moved to Sanya vowing to reset my life.

I don’t have any skills, so I was bound to work in the service industry and eventually wound up doing the exact same thing as before—I became a security guard again. However, the change of locations made a crucial difference. From a coal mine to a high-end hotel in Sanya; here, I had some special rules to observe in addition to the usual task of stopping unwanted folks at the door.

Take the status of guests’ cars in our parking lot, for instance. The guy in charge instructed us that luxury and sports cars—think Lamborghinis and those fancy Mercedes-Benz G-Class—had to be parked next to the hotel’s façade, for appearances, you know? But for those guests driving ordinary vehicles, you must gracefully herd them to the underground parking facilities.

Let me tell you, this is no walk in the park. Often, having just witnessed some luxury car comfortably parking at the entrance, the driver of an average car will complain, “But I just saw that guy parking here, so why can’t I just do the same?” I usually dole out the same excuse to them, “Sir, all these cars are from a previous shift. My instructions right now are that no parking is permitted by the entrance.” Sometimes the guests will listen to you; sometimes they won’t. You end up really tired—both physically and mentally.

Usually, we changed our shifts at 4 in the morning. However, on a really rough day I found myself stuck there until 8. I no longer have that much steam left in me; I was exhausted and yet nobody came to replace me. The next day I told my boss, “I’m half dead.”

The head of security just said, “OK, go get a form from human resources.”

I’d been at this job for almost three months, and the guy made no effort to try and persuade me to stay. He regarded us as mere cogs in the machinery. If you don’t like it, just beat it and they’ll hire someone else; you’re nothing but disposable goods, and once they’ve used you up they’ll move on to the next. You might as well have been a robot.

Honestly, I’d been hoping for some thoughtfulness. Just a little empathy. In the end, though, they just let go me like it was no big deal. It left a very bad taste in my mouth. Though to be fair, even if they’d actually cared about me, I would still have left eventually. This was a systematic issue, and I became entangled in an endless cycle, just changing from one hotel to the next.

The Moon on the Water

Why did I not just leave, you may ask? The way I saw it, it was easy to change jobs within the system and it was even easier to somehow do the mental gymnastics to have it make sense. Gradually, I began to turn a blind eye to the realities of my job. Letting hotel guests get away with stuff became a way of letting myself off, too.

I’ve always felt that you couldn’t space out if you worked on an assembly line. I just happen to need quite a lot of moments to space out, and I find that being a security guard grants me plenty of them. I can watch the sea, the sunrise, and indulge in the pleasure of a sunset. I was most impressed by the sight of the bright moon gleaming over the sea.

“As the bright moon shines over the sea, from far away you share this moment with me.” This was a poem I’ve been familiar with since my childhood, and though I had seen the moon shining on the surface of the sea before, a question lingered in my heart—how could the moon possibly emerge from the sea, from none other than the same spot from which we can count on seeing the sun rise daily?

That behemoth of a moon dazzled me. On the surface of the sea, its reflection was seemingly eight times the size of the actual moon suspended in the sky. It was lightly shrouded in some small, dark clouds, casting a grand silhouette despite its haziness.

I was only now realizing that the moon can be that big. I sat by the sea, alone on the beach and away from the prying looks of my colleagues or even the hotel guests. That moment was mine alone to savor.

The moon rises slowly, following a different process to that of the sun. The sun emits too strong a light, allowing no trace of a shadow on the sea. At night, though, when the sea is a black mirror, the moon casts a long shadow in front of it, which ripples on the surface.

Having witnessed this, I’ve developed a closer, more romantic bond with nature. Even if everything else will pale and seem meaningless in comparison, I still have it easy as a security guard, so I may as well put up with it all.

Sunset at Sanya Beach

Sunset at Sanya Beach (Ah Hua)

The Future

At the end of the day, being a security guard boils down to putting food on the table and keeping a roof over my head. Any line of trade will suit you if you stick at it long enough. If you want to strike out for greener pastures, then you need to wait until your abilities are up to the challenge.

I took my lifeguard certificate test a while ago, and subsequently met a guest at the pool who was looking for swimming lessons. He asked me whether I could teach him, so I figured I could give it a go. I would have never imagined that teaching others to swim could make you money, and here I was bagging 300 yuan an hour.

What’s more, I gradually came to the realization that I seemed to be quite good at this swimming teaching business, and that if only I’d apply myself seriously at it I could make something out of it. I began teaching a bunch of kids, and this confirmed my impression that I really was a good instructor. Seeing them slowly becoming more confident also brought me a sense of accomplishment.

All in all, I think I have struck this balance between my hobbies and my job. Next year, I am planning to take my junior swimming coach certificate in order to further my career.

I still have a vivid memory from a few years ago, when my whole extended family paid a visit to my grandfather, who was in the hospital due to cancer. As I was there talking about my career development, one of my uncles said, “What do you mean by career development? You’re a security guard.”

Though he wasn’t intending to scold me, his words were really hurtful.

Just yesterday I was thinking, tomorrow I’ll be sharing my story as a security guard with Story FM, so my next goal is becoming this cool, awesome guy. I hope that next time I’m telling my story, I’ll make others go “Wow!” instead of just listening vacantly. That’s my dream right there.


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