Street Food Blues

The woes of Chinese street food vendors – by Michael Taylor



It’s 4am. In the damp dark coolness of morning in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, nothing seems to stir – huge expanses of roads are left empty, basking in the unused yellow glow of street lamps. You could be forgiven for thinking that the whole city is sleeping, but if you look behind the huge, developed face of Ningbo, into some of the darker corners and alleyways away from the main roads, you will find someone like Mrs X – who does not wish to be named – busily preparing for the day ahead. She, and thousands like her across China, is an unlicensed street food vendor.

Mrs X’s story begins in a rural village in Henan province. In 2001 she left her village to search for more work and a higher salary in China’s big cities. The first place she found herself in was Wenzhou, a former treaty-port city in China’s western Zhejiang province. She recalls, “I had various family members to support and there simply wasn’t enough work in my village, so I did what many of the young people did at that time, I left to find work in Wenzhou.”

Upon arriving, Mrs X invested the small amount of money she had saved in her hometown into a three wheeled bike with a barbeque mounted on the back, which she used to ride around the city and sell barbeque skewers or shaokao. She spent the next years making a meagre living and sending it back to her village to support her family, but because of local competition and a decline in sales she decided to up stakes and leave again, this time for Beijing.

Beijing treated Mrs X well at first. “When I first got to Beijing,” she said, “business was very successful, I had bought another stall and it was making more than enough money.” But like so many other so-called “black businesses” and “unwantables” in Beijing, she was forced to leave before the Olympics. “The chengguan [urban enforcement officers] would come by, sometimes three times every night, and move us so it was impossible to do good business.” While China was busy cleaning up its image before the world came to its door, people like Mrs X were quietly pushed away. “We were told that foreigners wouldn’t want to see us selling food on the street as they would think it was dirty.”

With business failing, and the authorities more and more severe towards street food sellers, Mrs X again made the decision to sell off her stall. She returned to her hometown, where her situation was still dire. “I had hoped to ... find some work in my hometown. I was tired and wanted to spend time with my family and relatives. My son was living with my parents and their health was beginning to fail.” After being home for only a couple of months, and unable to find stable work, she had little choice but to leave again and return to selling food on the streets of big cities. That’s how she came to be in Ningbo.

Mrs X’s story is similar to thousands of people across China, who leave their hometowns to work in the cities in semi-legal businesses. Many of them leave their loved ones behind, and send money back to support them. Being in the street food industry carries huge risk with relatively small gain, but it’s a risk many are forced to take. The authorities, up until recently, have remained quiet on the subject and the street food sellers are offered little or no support from higher up.

Mrs X gave her comments on some of the problems encountered by street food sellers. “There is always the risk of chengguan coming and moving us on. Usually when this happens we move to a different spot, but it’s less busy and business suffers.” Chengguan refers to the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, a government body set up to tackle minor crimes in urban areas. They have become notorious in China for their brutal treatment of street food vendors. In 2012 an international human rights watch condemned them as “thuggish” and “relatively unsupervised”. They have been involved in more than one case where street food vendors have been beaten to death.

Another challenge the street food vendors face is the urban registration or hukou system. Under this system, workers who are not from the city are not entitled to certain welfare benefits, such as free schooling for their children. This was the main concern of another street food vendor, Mr Y. He told me, “l married a woman from Shandong, so my child’s hukou belongs to Shandong, so sending my child to school here is a huge problem for me.” Recently, the government has recognised the problems caused by the hukou system and there are rumours about reform – but nothing has happened so far. With many like him, Mr Y sends his son to a school specifically for the children of migrant workers, which is severely underfunded and at constant risk of being closed down.

As with the whole food industry across China, street food has been hit hard in recent years by health scares, such as the recent outbreak of H7N9 or bird flu. But the sellers are adaptable and determined to stay open. “During the last outbreak of bird flu,” Mrs X said, “my barbeque business got so bad I decided to begin selling tofu and various soups instead. Actually it proved to be more successful than my barbeque business, because people buy soups at any time of the day. I don’t have to worry about meat related scares any more.”

Selling street food isn’t an easy living, yet the vendors remain upbeat. As Mrs X put it, “I never received a high level of education, so I have never had a formal job, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.” Also surprising is the satisfaction and faith that the vendors have in the government. “China is developing now and it has brought great benefits to our country. Business is generally good. But the chengguan should have more restrictions on them, they can almost do anything they want.” Last year, in the aftermath of an incident in which a vendor was beaten to death, causing huge public outcry, the government vowed to implement measures to reduce the chengguan’s power.

Street food vendors face many difficulties, from long working hours – sometimes sleeping at 1am – to harassment from police and little welfare provision, but there is a spirit of optimism to them. Mr Y commented, “Although right now we have many welfare problems, I don’t think we are being ignored, and as China develops, we won’t be left behind.” They fulfil a public need and will be around for at least the foreseeable future. As Mrs X says, “My regular customers enjoy coming here to eat, and I have no intention of stopping. I’ve done this my whole life.”

A version of this post originally appeared on Michael’s blog Ramblin’ Mik, “an accumulation of experiences, knowledge, stories and views about the great land of China and the current changes it is undergoing."