“Establishing a civilized community is everybody’s dream;
creating a beautiful and happy life has your and my contributions.”
jiàn wénmíng shèqū shì dàjiā xīnyuàn, chuàng měihǎo shēnghuó yǒu nǐ wǒ fèngxiàn
This is the new banner that went up in our neighbourhood this week. What it actually means is, “Sidewalk vegetable sellers are officially no longer welcome here.” When this went up, the chéngguǎn (城管), which are the low-level bylaw enforcers who deal with things like illegal street vendors, came and kicked out our neighbourhood’s vegetable sellers — a migrant couple from Húnán (湖南) who daily pedal in their vegetables on a three-wheel cart — and the noodle vendors with their push carts. All of them have been daily fixtures inside the front gate of our apartment complex since the day we moved in. Jessica’s buying noodles after a walk in the park in the photo below (vegetables in the background on the left):
The Pros & Cons
We like having these people in our neighbourhood. In a big, dirty, noisy, anonymous, soul-quenching concrete wasteland where you don’t even know the people in your own stairwell, having an informal community center inside the front entrance where people play, gossip, buy breakfast and lunch, etc. really changes the feel of the place. We get to smile and make small talk every time we come and go (and show off Lilia), and the old guys sitting around doing nothing all day get just as big a kick out of it as we do, I think.
But it’s not simply a matter of vain city officials disregarding the poor in a selfish rush to create a sterile urban facade that will advance their careers and prestige (though no doubt that’s a big part of it); there are real downsides to having these vendors around. The chǎobǐng (炒饼) lady, whom we call “auntie” (大娘), leaves a pile of eggs shells, cabbage, and other rotting food waste right by the entrance every night. More than once when biking home from work at night I’ve seen and heard big rats scrounging around in it. These vendors are unregulated, and in China that often means things like dìgōuyóu (地沟油), cooking oil that was skimmed off the sewage scooped out of manholes outside of restaurants and resold in used-but-new-looking containers, usually to street vendors but often to restaurants as well. Street vendors also create traffic nightmares in a city where the traffic is already beyond brutal. Tianjin used to be known for its bustling street markets, which was a nice way of saying ridiculously crowded streets that you could barely push your bike through. These days such markets are harder to find, but I videoed a bike ride through one a couple blocks away.
Getting Kicked Out
Here’s the best shot we have of the vegetable selling scene, pre-eviction. It’s hard to see, but there are shelves of vegetables along the wall on the left, behind the chair and cabinet:
And here’s afterward, with their shelves and things torn down:
It doesn’t happen as sinisterly as I could make it sound in the telling; it’s not like there’s a squadron of stone-faced riot police that show up and bully people around. In our neighbourhood it means an unenthusiastic middle-aged guy, who looks just like the other middle-aged guys in our neighborhood aside from his rumpled, ill-fitting, cheap-looking uniform, standing off to the side smoking, almost apologetically telling the vendors they have to go. He’s just the messenger; he has no real power, but the people that sent him do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it except comply. He’s the opposite of intimidating.
That’s how it is here and elsewhere in our area: the vendors don’t get mad at the messengers — they even stand around and chat, taking their time. But that’s not how it is elsewhere, where chéngguǎn are often violent and beat the street vendors, in some instances provoking violence in return — not to mention the controversy surrounding the alleged leak of a chéngguǎn manual explaining how to use violence to enforce bylaws. In Kunming people are even getting creative in their resistance. No such drama for us, though.
I leave for work on my bike around 8:20am, and on the morning all this happened I passed the chǎobǐng lady on my way to the subway. She was pushing her cart down the road after being kicked out that morning. She’s funny because she’s tiny, can’t be more than 5 feet tall or more than 80 or 90 pounds, but she’s a real firecracker. I asked what happened and she animatedly told me that the chéngguǎn made her leave. I asked when she could return and she said, “After 9:00.” I double-checked, “You mean you can go back after 9:00? You just have to wait until after 9?” Yep, that was the deal apparently, at least for her and the other push-cart vendors. Maybe there was an inspection coming through. Since then they’ve all been back every morning like normal, except for the vegetable sellers.
Other stuff about street vendors, street markets, and city clean-up: