Street Vendor Life in China

UPDATE February 2012: I turned this blogpost into a longer piece for That's Shanghai, Dumplings for Sale. As with any publisher in mainland China, the censors have final say. In the end, most of what of wrote was approved, expect for the paragraph that I wrote on the chengguan. If you want to see what was cut, click here. Thanks for Leslie Jones, editor of That's Shanghai, for inviting me to write this piece! 

(I conducted this fieldwork during the summer of 2011.)

I was living with migrants and working as a food vendor for the last few days. I want to give you an idea what everyday life is like for street vendors.


The family I am living with received a tip from a friend about a construction site in the northern part of the city where vendors have been selling food during lunch and dinner without encountering any chengguan. When the family heard of a chengguan free-site, they were excited to check it out.

Officially know as City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau (城市管理行政执法局), it's not really clear what they're supposed to do in practice. But what they're known for doing is making migrants' live miserable in cities across China. There are many stories online of chengguan beating vendors, smashing their products or food, and taking bribes. It's also common to hear about chengguan killing street vendors. A recent incident in Guizhou led to a riot when a chengguan killed a disabled migrant. Stories of chengguan exploitation of power are so pervasive that appeasing them with bribes becomes the key to a street vendor's success. Giving bribes is a matter of life or death.

But for migrants who do not have enough money to bribe, they have to constantly be on the run. Constant running means that a street vendor cannot establish a business long term. So for a street seller, like this family I am with, finding a place to set up a cart to sell food in a chengguan-free site is super important. A place to do stable business would give them a stable income to expand their business or go into another line of work.

After spending a a few days observing the site, they didn't see any chengguan officials amid the crowds of construction workers buying food and products from street vendors. They decided it was a safe and stable place to set up business. The family debated about what kind of food to sell. In the end they agreed to sell dumplings, noodles, and chaobing (炒饼) for 4RMB a serving. The family spent 6000RMB ($1000) of their savings to buy 2 battery-powered bicycles, 2 batteries, 1 freezer, 1 stove, 1 gas, 2 umbrellas, 2 large pots, 20 plastic orange bowls, 2 bags of disposable chopsticks, and 16 stools. Other than the chopsticks, everything was second hand. All 3 working adults agreed to participate in this work full-time. They moved to an an urban village slum near the work site.


We live in a city village slum (城种村) 20 minutes by bike from the construction site. Migrants from all around China live in this village, like any other urban village. 1 to 6 people rent out one room. Many parents live here with their child. Each room has a satellite dish attached to roof. The landlord lives at the end of the block and his floor is tiled. His job is to keep an eye on what happens in the area, but he appears to be gambling all day.

I sleep in a room with a four people: a mother and father with a 4 year old son, and the mother's little brother. The father and the little brother sleep on the bunk bed, I sleep with the mother and child on the floor. Rent is 300RMB/month ($50). Electricity costs around 450RMB/month at 1.5RMB/watt to keep the refrigerator on so that the food doesn't spoil. Electricity costs more than the rent. Charging the bike batteries also increases electricity costs. There is a television and a fan in the room.

This has been my schedule for the last 3 days:

4am     wake up and prepare bikes, put battery in

5am     head to market to buy fresh food for lunch

8am     return home, clean and wash vegetables

10am   cook food, load up bicycles, eat breakfast/lunch

11am   bike to the construction site and sell food

2pm     bike back to home, unload bicycles, clean pots & bowls, put stools & stuff back inside home

3pm     head to market to buy fresh food

5pm     return from market, wash vegetables, cook food

6pm     bike to construction site, sell food

8pm     bike back to home, unload car, clean bowls and pots

9pm     eat dinner

10pm   go to sleep


But our schedule has not been this precise because we encounter many unpredictable problems.

The first few days have been disasterous in terms of making money.

Their bike keeps running out of battery so we have to push it 3 miles home each time this happens. The bike and the battery are second hand, so it's not clear if the problem is with the battery or the bike. The picture at the top of this post shows me pushing the cart after lunch in mid-day 99+ degree heat.

I found out that the refrigerator is only a freezer. But the family still puts everything that needs to be kept cold inside from beers to water to watermelon and to noodles. Sometimes the freezer works really well so there are a few beer explosions. But most of the time it doesn't work well so the dumplings become sticky and uncookable. We already have had to throw away 4 bags of dumplings.

The entire family is now exhausted after 3 days of working. Even the husband, who was really excited to do this new job because he's a really great cook, is now wanting to back out of this plan. In this picture below, he is preparing the lunch food outside the room. This is what their kitchen looks like. When he finishes chopping the meat, the flies come over to stake out their places as he prepares the noodles. No one swats the flies away or tries to keep the meat under some cover where flies can't reach. You would think it was a black stone if you didn't know it was hundreds of flies on top of the meat.

The soybeans are soaked (not washed) one time in a large aluminum bowl. This same bowl is used for washing hair, washing clothes, and bathing the 4 year old child. Food is cooked in a big pot on the ground using gas to power the cooker.

But the husband discovered that he didn't enjoy this type of mass-cooking and selling. Offering dumplings in 100+ degree weather has not been easy, not because there isn't a demand for dumplings, but because the dumplings are difficult to transport and they would become too mushy by the time we bike to the site. The bike ride from the urban village to the construction site is rocky. The road is not paved most of the way. By the time we arrive at the site, most of the soup has already spilled out of the large pot onto the cart. Keeping the soup hot with gas softens the dumplings.

The husband also found out that he has not been able to make food that pleases customers. Many workers complain after ordering the food. They often get angry and yell at them, demanding their money back. In this picture below, these workers want a beer to compensate for the overcooked dumplings. The husband, I could tell, is losing patience for this work. I hear him and his wife fighting about it. He wants to return to selling clothes on the street, even if it means dodging the chengguan everyday.

The family's electricity expenses are getting out of hand just to keep the freezer running. Electricity is more expensive at this particular urban village than their previous place they lived (1.5RMB/watt to 1.2RMB/watt respectively).

I can hear the husband and wife fighting about this every night. It puts a lot of stress on the family. The mother is getting nervous that they are not even close to turning a profit. Everyday around dinner time, she says, "we have to start making at least some money so that we can buy food.We need to buy meat." She needs cash to buy food for dinner. The most they have brought in so far was 200RMB on a good day. But most days only make 100RMB. The friend who told them about this place was supposedly making 500-600RMB a day. The younger brother keeps reminding the family of the friend's situation. Then the husband says that his friend makes a lot of money because sells good food. He pointed out that they didn't have return customers. All the other street vendors' carts had regular workers but no one ever came back to their cart.

Everyday activity has begun to wear on all of our bodies. Trips to the supermarkets, washing clothes, and going to the bathroom seemed to be a big ordeal.

Unloading and loading takes a total of 3 hours a day (4 rounds in total per day). Each bike ride to the market involves a total of 1 hour of loading and unloading items back into the room. Someone had to unload the cart, put everything inside the room, and then hide the valuable stuff (e.g. batteries) with a blanket. The reason why they have to go to the market in the morning and after lunch is because the freezer doesn't work properly. As a result, they could only buy food that can be cooked immediately. Not unloading is not an option because they need the free space in the cart to bring groceries back and they can't leave their belongings outside and not have it stolen.

Anything involving water takes ten times longer because there is only 1 faucet for every 4 homes. And there is only 1 pipe for every 5 faucets. So if any of the 20 families use a faucet, none of the other 19 families have access to a working faucet. Someone is always washing vegetables, dishes, hair, or clothes unless it is 3am in the morning. A few times we were not able to get arrive at the construction site in time to sell food because we were waiting to use the faucet. Water costs 10RMB/person/month. As a result, most of the food is not washed well or at all; it is soaked, and the same water is then used to soak other vegetables.

It is hard to even find a faucet just to get water to wipe the dust and sweat off of my body. And even when I do find faucet time, I am shy about wiping my body down in front of everyone. Since it is summer, families sit outside, eat outside, and gamble outside. There is no privacy. I can't wet the towel and walk inside the room because there is always someone there. No one else is shy about this. The mother wipes down her armpits, breasts, legs, stomach, and butt cheeks in the open.

There is no physical privacy in an urban village. None. At all. Even when you are going to the bathroom, not that it is an ideal place anyone wants to spend too much time in.

When I approach the bathroom, I can hear a faint buzzing sound. When my feet wade through the piles of trash blocking the bathroom entrance, I realize the buzzing sound  are flies. The swarm of flies that is so concentrated that it could lift me up into the air if I stay too long in the bathroom. The odor is nothing that I have ever experienced in my life. I have no words for it. All of these conditions make me avoid the bathroom as much as possible. In my past fieldwork with migrants, I am usually with street vendors who sell products in more urban areas where I could easily pop into a KFC or McDonalds to do a wipe-down shower. But this construction site is not located near any restaurants. So it is my only option.

I try to not use the bathroom as much as possible. But doing hard labor in 100+ degree weather makes the body thirsty. I am now very calculating everytime I drink water. I ask myself, do I really need this water?  Is it worth going to that bathroom? I now sip as little as possible, just enough to moisten my tongue so that it is not sticking to the top roof of my mouth. Yesterday was super hot, but I only used the bathroom twice in 24 hours. Imagining the conditions are enough to hold me back from quenching down a bottle of cold water.

The pit inside is filled to the top with feces, female pads, and trash. There is a rotting dog foot (body missing) in the female bathroom. No one has removed it. I want it removed, but I don't know how to remove it.  Even though I want to get rid the dog paw, I don't even know who to call. There is no such thing as animal control. I don't even know what tools I could use to remove it. I feel bad that other bathroom users have to see it and I feel horrible seeing it everytime I come here. Then I start wondering how this dog paw ended up here. There are many dogs in the village. Maybe a  car ran over a dog. But how did the paw end up in the bathroom? After some wondering, I realize it's time for me to return back home and help the family.  Little things like this, paralyze me because I realize how much I am unable to do here and how this is a reality for people living in these kind of areas. There is simply no time and no means to do anything to make this place cleaner.

With a schedule that requires us to wake up at 4am every morning, there is simply no time to do anything but prepare for the next meal or anticipate sleep. This is exhausting work and everyone collapses at the end of the night. Every night I bike home thinking, I cannot wait to sleep. Before I get home, I pray that the battery doesn't stop. I just want to make these 3 miles home on the electric bike.

I cannot even imagine how anyone working this kind of schedule has time to read a book, follow world news, or browse the internet.