Street Vendor Life in China

Sociologist Tricia Wang has written an account of her time living and working with a family of street food vendors. The family faces relentless and exhausting 18-hour days, cramped and unhygienic living conditions, exorbitant electricity bills and the threat of interference from heavy-handed city management officials.

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 ….

See more of Wang’s work, Sleeping in Internet Cafes: The Next 300 Million Chinese Users and ‘How I Was Treated on the Subway While Doing Fieldwork as a Migrant Worker‘, via CDT.

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