Street Food Blues: The woes of Chinese street food vendors
It’s 4am. In the damp dark coolness of a Ningbo morning, nothing much seems to stir, huge expanses of roads are left empty, eerily basking in the unused yellow glow of the street lamps. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that the whole city, and all its residents are sleeping, but this isn’t the case. If you look behind the huge, developed face of Ningbo, in to some of the darker corners and alleyways away from the main roads, you will most likely find someone like Mrs. X(who does not wish to be named), busily preparing for the day ahead. The reason that she does not wish to be named is that she and thousands like her across China are unlicensed street food vendors.
Mrs X. is one of thousands of street food sellers in China. In her case, her story begins in a rural village in Henan province. In 2001 she decided to leave her village in order 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 in Wenzhou Mrs X. invested the small amount of money she had saved in her hometown and bought a small three wheeled bike with a barbeque mounted on the back, which she used to ride around the city and sell barbeque or as it’s known in China “Shaokao”. She spent the next years in Wenzhou, making a meagre living and sending it back to her village to support her family, however, due to 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, business was very successful, I had bought another stall and it was making more than enough money”, but like so many other ‘black businesses’ and ‘unwantables’ in Beijing, she was forced to leave before the Olympics. “The Chengguan (Police) would come by sometimes 3 times every night and move us so it was impossible to make good business”. Whilst China was busy cleaning up its image before the world came to its doors, people such as Mrs X. were quietly pushed away as their businesses were deemed ‘dirty’ and ‘inappropriate’. “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 becoming more and more severe towards street food sellers, Mrs X. again made the decision to sell off her stall in Beijing and return back to her hometown, where her situation was still dire. “I had hoped to return back and 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 being unable to find any stable work, she had little choice but to leave again and return to selling her food on the streets of the cities. That is how she came to be in Ningbo.
Mrs. X’s story is similar to thousands of people across China, who are forced to leave their hometown to work in the cities in semi-legal businesses. They are often leaving their loved ones behind and sending money back to support them. Being in the street food industry carries huge risk with relatively small gains, 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 its 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 amongst the Chinese population 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 situation faced by the street food vendors is the urban registration system 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 us “l married a woman from Shandong, so my child’s hukou belongs to Shandong, therefore, sending my child to school here is a huge problem for me.” Recently, the Chinese government has recognized the problems caused by the hukou system and there are rumours about reform, however, nothing is yet to materialize. Like many Chinese migrant workers, Mr X sends his son to school in a school for migrant workers children, which is heavily underfunded and at constant risk of being closed down.
As with the food industry across China, the street food industry has been hit hard in recent years by health scares, such as the recent outbreak of H7N9, or as its commonly known bird flu. However, the sellers are adaptable and determined to stay open. “During the last outbreak of bird-flu, my barbeque business became so bad that I decided to begin selling tofu and various soups instead, and actually it proved to be more successful than my barbeque business because people buy soups at any time of the day”. Mrs X. no longer sells barbeque as she said soups and tofu are much more reliable and profitable. “I don’t have to worry about meat related scares any more”.
Being a street food vendor isn’t an easy living, however it was surprising to see the optimism and faith the vendors have in their daily life. As Mrs. X put it “I never received a high level of education, so I have never had a formal job, however I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, I’ve done this my entire working life.” 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. However the chengguan should have more restrictions placed on them, they can almost do what 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 power of the chengguan.
It seems that street food vendors face many difficulties in everyday life, from long working hours, sometimes sleeping at 1am, to being harassed by police and being provided little welfare, however there is an admirable air of spirit and optimism about them. Mr Y. commented “Although right now we have many welfare problems, I do not think we are being ignored and as China develops, we won’t be left behind”. They are cherished by the public and will be around at least for the foreseeable future. As Mrs X. sums it up, “my regular customers enjoy coming here to eat, and I have no intention of stopping, I’ve done this for my entire life”.