Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ambulant Vendors

Here lately The Street has been filling up with vendors of all types that sell all kinds of things: clothing, jewelry, socks and shoe inserts, fruits and vegetables; everything from little knickknacks to computer accessories to bread. They crowd the sidewalk and the street, making it nearly impassable at its narrowest point. They reserve their place by throwing down tarps or blocking off a section of sidewalk or road with bricks and boards. Come sundown, just as the students are going out strolling these vendors set up shop and start hawking their wares. Their cries and the vigorous bartering that ensues lend a human counterpoint to the cars that honk their horns, hoping to drive past and get home.

This is part of the charm and magic of living in China. It simply wouldn’t be China if there were no vendors at every turn of the road. Quite frankly I have missed this scene because, until recently, the only ‘official’ night market in Wuhan was a 2 hour bus ride away. That night market is so crowded and so far from campus that I’ve only been there once. It is a regimented affair with official stalls set up and no one squatting on the ground with their goods spread out on a tarp. Unlike the casual vendors who just find a street corner and throw their tarps down to lay out their ‘store’, the night market was not a delightful experience for me. However, I find these smaller trade areas are quite charming and a lot of fun. The Street, being a mere 1/4 mile long does not afford a lot of room for such vendors to set up shop. Also, construction on the main road kind of kept our area isolated and vendors did not like to head this way for such a limited market – college students and the small neighborhood behind campus.

As the school year wore on more and more vendors set up shop. The more the weather warmed up the more vendors found their way to The Street. Is there some sort of Vendor Underground Network where untapped markets are communicated and vendors are dispatched to fill the sidewalks? Is this a coordinated effort on the part of Trinket Sellers LLC where, in their office there is a huge map of the city with red flags denoting where vendors are already deployed and potential new markets are marked with blue flags? It is hard to believe that this sidewalk filling activity is done independently, by vendors who have no network or communication at all with each other. I wonder if there is a periodic vendor convention where such information is passed on.

One could liken the vendors to flies. How do flies know where to go and end up there en masse? I think maybe even scientists do not have the answer to that question. If flies have a sense about where to go for a meal, couldn’t one say that vendors also have such a sense that communicates an available stretch of sidewalk to crowd on and sell? OK, well maybe the ‘fly’ analogy is not flattering but it certainly is apt.

Please note that these vendors are different from the ones that line Snack Street, which is located in the alley behind campus. The Snack Street vendors have paid a licensing fee for permission to stand in the alley and sell their food, and they pay a monthly maintenance fee for permission to keep doing so. You could say that they are legitimate vendors renting their little part of Snack Street, as opposed to the ones who throw tarps down and lay their goods out after sundown.

I had gotten used to the vendors lining The Street starting dusk and shouting and crying late into the night. After all, this is their livelihood: if they do not sell, they do not eat, so they shout and barter vigorously. I actually found it convenient to be able to buy fruit and veggies from them on the way home rather than stopping at the farmers’ market up the road. Usually these vendors’ goods were a bit cheaper than at the farmers’ market. Bartering was certainly more fun with them; most had never dealt with a foreigner before. I got a lot of good deals from these vendors.

One day, I hit The Street to go buy a roast chicken. I do not like to cook after my long day of teaching; a nice roast chicken and baked potato or rice and salad makes a nice, effortless meal on such days. I buy the chicken and provide the rice or potato and salad. Imagine my surprise to see The Street flooded with police shooing the vendors away. Most had already marked their area and were squatting in anticipation of nightfall, although they had not unfolded their tarps or unpacked their goods yet. From body language and gestures – and the outraged tone of the vendors I guessed that the vendors were being shooed away like so many flies.

Why were the police cracking down on the vendors all of a sudden? Has someone complained? Does a contingent of policemen live in the neighborhood behind campus and got fed up with having The Street blocked every night when they came home?

Just like I don’t know how illegal street vendors know where to set up shop, I couldn’t begin to tell you how the police knew that The Street was suddenly a haven for such vendors. I can tell you that The Street is now much quieter and a lot less fun to walk come sundown. I miss all of the activity and I’m sure the students do too.

The vendors got the last laugh though. Instead of throwing down a tarp to set up shop they now conduct business from the back of their bikes or scooters, with the more affluent ones having a tricycle bed to work off of. They are now ambulant, so that all they have to do is mount up and ride away ahead of the police. They must have a lookout posted somewhere.

I’m glad they’re back, if only in limited numbers.

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