It is hard not to know what Chuan’r is to those who live or have lived in China. However, most people would be surprised to know that chuan’r did not become popular–China wide– as a street food item until recently. In fact, the history of Chuan’r is even more complicated than that. We will try to untangle the history of chuan’r; understand what it has become and put the theories of its origins into perspective. Our goal for the readers is to have a clearer understanding of the how chuan’r represents how societies interact .
The quintessential Chinese street food, chuan’r, are small pieces of food on a skewer placed on a grill heated by burning coal–Note that I say food, not meat, because of the myriad types of skewered edibles we can find nowadays in China. The apparent father of all chuan’r is lamb chuan’r (Or Yang Rou 羊肉 for the more experienced). It has a spicy, crispy, fatty flavor–It’s making my mouth water as I write about it. The recipe for the lamb chuan’r is rather simple (which reinforces its popularity): grind cumin, chili flakes, and mix with salt and pepper. Heat coal and place it under the grill, cut squares of lamb and mix with the spices. Tangle the meat cubes on a stick and place them over the grill.
This supposedly traditional chuan’r is still the most popular and well know. However, today, vendors have become creative in their offerings of skewered spiced meat. The varieties range from the traditional–The lady outside of the JinQiaoLu subway stop selling lamb chuan’r on a pita bread–all the way to the new and innovative –Qibao Old Street where you can find sparrow skewers, or Yunnan South Road, where you find all types of vegetables ready to be grilled.
This new idea that anything can be chuan’r and chuan’r is a way of cooking more than a dish is epitomized by Long Long Ago… A restaurant based around the idea of street food. When I was first introduced to LLA, I was weary–thinking it was nothing more that people overcharging for street food with no extra add ons. But let me tell you, I was wrong.
The full name is “ Long Long Time Ago We Were Just Street Vendors”. As its name implies, it was created by a former vendor turned entrepreneur. SJ(宋吉) started LLA in Beijing. At the very beginning, he had no money to start his own business so he decided to work as everyone else and save money. He was frugal, but after years of saving, he finally got enough for a street food stand of his own. His stand became a popular destination for young people. With his entrepreneurial mindset he came up with the idea of a restaurant based on street food. He finally managed to save enough to open the restaurant. After enjoying success in Beijing, he managed to move forward and open a branch in Shanghai on Yunnan South Road.
According the restaurant, the key to success was maintaining an authentic feel. The name Long Long Ago acknowledges that the restaurant was born froms street food, but it also implies that the times are changing, and that chuan’r is no longer what it used to be. By maintaining both an original flavour and creativeness, they create a well balanced experience
While at the restaurant, we sat down and decided to eat–luckily enough one of us was Chinese and thus ordering was not as big of an ordeal as in other occasions. Our first impression was that the restaurant was designed for groups. We were sat on stalls that had a center grill open to both sides. Apparently letting customers cook for themselves is part of the charm. Once we ordered–we had lamb and beef chuan’r– we placed the skewers on the grill, and to my surprise, the grills are high tech. They rotate automatically. In our opinion this removes the necessity for constant supervision of the food and allows everyone to have conversations.
When the restaurant first opened, the only sold beef and lamb chuan’r, but now they have a myriad of ingredients that can be threaded onto a skewer and spiced up. The beef and lamb chuan’r were referred to as the original chuan’r. I recall someone noting that chuan’r came from the west of China, and that because of the muslim influence, the people used Lamb. We were set to find out what was the original Chuan’r.
According to many, Chuan’r is a dish from western China. And they are, perhaps, not wrong. Chuan’r as we know it–crispy, spicy, fatty– the lamb skewers were first prepared by the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, Western China. The Uyghur, have been influenced by middle eastern culture, and it could be infact said they are more middle eastern than chinese.
The New York Times quotes Yidilisi Abuduresula, a Uyghur archeologist in xinjiang, saying “It’s historically been a place where cultures have mixed together.” The Uyghurs are also turkic people. Due to the history of the region being the center for the silk road, there have been many excavations and archeological sites. In 1985, at archaeological site in Qiemo County, archeologists found proof that the Uyghurs had roasted meat on skewers as early as the 11th century. “The Divanu Lughat-it Turk (Encyclopedia of Turkic Ethnic Group Languages), written by Mahmud Kashgari in the 11th century, also documents the consumption of roasted meat: it contains the words “enliqi” (a garlicky spice used particularly on roasted meat), “takelidi” (a verb meaning “to pierce meat with a stick”), and “suigulunchu” (a verb meaning “to roast meat in a pit”, as is the famous Uyghur roasted lamb).” According to the cooking methods described in this book, it would be safe to assume that the chuan’r is a derivative of kebabs, a traditional turkish cuisine.
In my hometown of Medellin, without ever having been to Asia and by only contact to Chinese food was at NY’s Chinatown (Not a great representation of asian food), I remember eating chuzos. To those who don’t know, chuzos are astoundingly similar to chuan’r–and therefore kebabs.They are marinated cubes of meat mixed with onions and peppers, placed on a skewer and barbecued. They are usually served with arepa ( a round bread-looking maize dough). As you can see from the photo below, the resemblance is uncanny. You can then, imagine my surprise when I first arrive to China and saw chuan’r. 15 thousand kilometers away and completely different cuisines, yet this two “traditional” dishes were astoundingly similar.
It turns out that Colombian chuzos and Chuan’r are not the only two kebab-looking dishes connecting two cuisines with no other apparent similarity (I used kebab as reference because I believe it is the most known dish, not as an acknowledgement as ancestor of all barbecued skewered meat). The French brochette, Spanish pincho, Japanese yakitori, and the south east asian satay all reflect the same similarity.
In France, en brochettes refers to all the food cooked on skewers. There is not specific recipe, but as all french things are, the term is only reserved for things done in France.
In the case of Spain, it becomes a little more interesting. Spain, like Xinjiang, has also been influenced by muslim and middle eastern culture. According to the newspaper El Correo, the spanish believe that the pinchito came fromt muslim societies, and they go further to state that kebabs came to be because in muslim cultures knives are not used at the dinner table–the reasoning was that they could be perceived as a weapon and that the dinner table was a place for harmony. Traditional recipe is made with cumin, black grounded pepper, ginger, sweet pepper, turmeric, and saffron. As you may see, the spices are very similar to those of chuan’r.
Going back to Asia, we have the japanese yakitori. The Japanese yakitori as chicken skewers served with a sweet soy-based sauce. The earliest recordings of yakitori date it back to the 17th century. The 17th century period in Japan, called Edo, was characterized by economic growth and isolationist policies. During this period, the dutch (through the Dutch East India Company) were the only with constant contact with the Japanese.
Finally we arrive at south east asia. Here chuan’r are known as satays. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore all have their own versions of satay and all claim to have the original satay. Indonesian satay is known for their peanut sauce; thai satay has turmeric as its main spice; Malay satay (also known as chicken satay) is also made with turmeric and served with a peanut sauce; Singaporean satay has both turmeric and cumin as its base spice.
Overall, all of these dishes have a middle eastern influence or were influenced by cuisine previously influenced by the middle east. At this point it would be easy to conclude and say that the shish kebabs are, in fact, the original skewered meat. But we have found evidence stating that maybe, it is not.
The origins of chuanr may come from the unlikeliest of places. Homer’s Iliad is said to mentions preparing meat by roasting it on skewers (maybe now would be the the time to let you know that Shish means sword or skewer in turkish and kebab means grilled in persian). Homer states, “and cut out the thighs and covered them  with a double layer of fat, and laid raw flesh thereon. And the old man burned them on stakes of wood, and made libation over them of gleaming wine; and beside him the young men held in their hands the five-pronged forks” (Hom. Il. 1.465). It can be theorized that the kebabs were not a turkish creating but were taken from the greek. This would actually makes sense if you think about the fact that turkish territory was once greek. Settlements of greeks in Anatolia have been found as early as the 20th century.
Perhaps it would be harder to trace the influence of the greeks down to South America where skewered barbecued meat is also common. The most likely explanation is that the food arrived with european settlers. The word churrasco (Brazilian skewered barbecue) can be traced to Churrasco Moçambicano, the word used by portuguese colonies to describe a dish from Mozambique.
The evidence that traces the history of Chuan’r back Ancient Greece is substantial. But it is all theoretical. It could be equally likely that all is just a spurious correlation. That the reason to why chuan’r is found around the world could be simply because placing meat on a stick is logical way to cook meat. However, what we did learn is that chuan’r and its many variations have been around for a very long time, and the spread around the world means that just like chuan’r is now part of chinese culture, other skewered dishes are also part of the cultures of their respective countries.
Andalucian Pinchitos Morunos. Digital image. Culinary Anthropologist. N.p., 10 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 May 2016. <http://www.culinaryanthropologist.org/andalucian-pinchitos-morunos/>.
Chicken Satay. Digital image. Rachel Cooks Thai. N.p., 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 May 2016. <http://www.rachelcooksthai.com/chicken-satay-one-year-later/>
Chuzos Colombianos. Digital image. Sweet Y Salado. N.p., 26 June 2015. Web. <http://www.sweetysalado.com/2015/06/chuzos-de-carne-colombianos.html>.
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Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox. “1465.” The Iliad. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking, 1990. N. pag. Web.
[Eng Sub]羊肉串 Chinese Lamb Skewers BBQ Recipe. Dir. Amanda Tastes. Youtube. N.p., 1 May 2014. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2sx09DUiJ0>.
“Japan Memoirs of a Secret Empire.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 May 2016. <http://www.pbs.org/empires/japan/timeline_1800.html>.
Malay Satay. Digital image. World Integrative Medicine Academy. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2016. <http://worldtraditionalmedicine.org/The-Journey-to-promote-the-Gastronomic-Value-around-the-world-Top-Malaysia-Cuisine_c45_d80.htm>.
Men Barbecue. Digital image. Jiaren (佳人）. N.p., 15 May 2015. Web. 12 May 2016. <jiaren.org/2015/05/15/kaochuan>.
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Thefoodsnobuk. Indonesian Satay. Digital image. Thefoodsnobuk. N.p., 6 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 May 2016. <https://thefoodsnobuk.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/indonesian-chicken-satay-my-style/>.
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Wong, Edward. “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2008. Web. 12 May 2016.
Problems of Streetfood
China has a strong street food culture, and the same could be said for one of its most famous cities, Shanghai. But as Shanghai develops more and more, gaining more and more international recognition such as during the Shanghai Expo, the government grows stricter and stricter about policing street food vendors to maintain a certain appearance of the city. This led to the creation of a special department in the local government, the Chengguan (城管), which literally translates to “city management”. They are outside the police system, but claim that they are managing the street to help the regular city management. And ever since their establishment, they quickly became the biggest “enemy” of street vendors, since street vending without a permit and illegally taking up public space, which should be accessible for everyone, is against the law. Street food vendors, though, don’t like being driven away or having their things being confiscated, especially since selling street food is one of the few ways that migrant workers can earn a livelihood and survive in the city. This has led to violent conflicts among street food vendors and chengguan.
Another motivation for the government to control street vending is the health issue connected to it. Almost all street vendors sell streetfood without any certificate of sanitation, which may lead to food poisoning for their customers. Since stability is most important to the Chinese government, cases of food poisoning from these sellers that will causes problems is not something they want to encounter.
However, simply wiping out all the street vendors overnight would not be a solution. To a large extent, street food vendors do provide cheap food to nearby communities, making them some of the most accessible and affordable food sources for people. Whenever Chengguan confiscate the equipment of street vendors, the vendors still go pay a large fee to get the things back and return to selling street food like before. It is all because customers come all the time and there is always a market.
Besides, it is actually not the street vendors’ intention to sell food to evade taxation or about selling food where the government think they shouldn’t . It is due to the fact that they are not able to be legally registered into the system. This has to do with the Hukou system, since most of the street vendors in big cities are migrant workers from less developed provinces. It is really hard for them to get a Hukou, which is the identification system in China, and it’s the basic premise for a person to get a proper job, social security, housing, health care and other benefits, not to mention the eligibility to sell street food legally. But due to the extreme unequal social and economic development in different areas in China, there are thousands of migrant workers flooding in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai each year. So what option do these migrants have when they’re so limited by their different Hukou? There is always street vending.
So, street vending isn’t a direct problem that can be regulated by the government easily , but a far more nuanced one that need some compromise between the government and the street vendors in order to somehow satisfy the vendors, government and the people at the same time. The most noted way that people have tried to achieve that is by ShuDaoDian (疏导点).
There is no specific definition of what ShuDaoDian (SDD) is online, and it is a highly debated topic among almost all the cities in China, especially those relatively developed cities. And the beginning of SDD also differs among cities, but they all more or less started 10 years ago, due to big events being held in China, such as the Olympic Games.
However, based on our initial research online, we came up with a rough definition of SDD:
ShuDaoDian is an organized space, usually near neighborhoods or by the street, that is specially allocated for street vendors whose stands were moveable, now to be settled in one place. There, they will not be driven away by Chengguan, as long as they are under the order of government. It is not limited to street vendors who sells food but extended to all of the illegal street vendors without any permits and certificate to do business. But all the SDD have the same two basic purposes, one of which is to be“convenient to people” (便民) and the other is “protect the environment”(环境保护), as you could see almost on every sign beside a SDD.
When we chose to specifically look into SDD in Shanghai, we found a policy that the Shanghai local government had made in 2014 to further regulate the proliferation of stands, which only lead to disorder ( 无序设摊综合治理).
However, when we looked at this article titled “We should never forget what the initial reason of starting SDD is” (Chinese: 管理便民疏导点应勿忘初衷), we found there are actually a lot of existing problems about SDD.
The problems of SDD
First, SDD, in some places, has already became a tool of getting illegal income for the organizations who get the permit from government to organize the SDD. In some places, vendors need to pay a large amount of money in order to get a spot in a SDD, and they also have to pay a monthly rent to the organizations as well. In some SDD, vendors have to pay 4000 or 5000 RMB per month, and in other places, the entrance fee is 10,000 RMB. We first thought this is simply government corruption, but it turned out that some organizations will charge vendors that make profit out of SDD. However, there is the also possibility of a hidden interest of businessmen and the government (edelweiss1970). Otherwise, how could the organizations get the permit to regulate/organize the SDD, which should be only under the charge of government? Why can the government sell this power of supervision and regulation to others? Is there a deal about power existing?
Under such heavy fees, it is very hard for vendors to earn money. Some vendors complain that they could barely reach a balance between the expense and the profit after paying a 1500 RMB rent fee and a 100 RMB cleaning fee. This challenge is another part of SDD, which is giving vendors a proper and legal job to survive in the city (徐一豪).
Also, after conducting more research online, it turns out that SDD actually blocks the way and causes a mess, which is the very opposite to what it was meant to be. The literal meaning of ShuDaoDian is “dredging and guiding spot”, which means dredging the street to make it clean and guiding the people to the right place to do business. According to the report of NanDao WanBao (南岛晚报), a newspaper, one of the SDD in Haikou province disturbs the nearby residents with a crowded street and the nasty smell of the trash. And all of it is due to improper regulation, which is mainly because no one is actually in charge of SDD. In this case, it does not only disturb the residents but also make the city appearance worse than before (徐一豪).
With all these problems we found about SDD, we started to think about how it’s like in Shanghai. Is it really like what we have heard? We decided to search for news reports or videos of SDD in Shanghai, and we found what is considered as one of the most famous SDD in Shanghai, the SDD in the Changning district, although it sells things instead of food.
This video clip shows that everything is strictly regulated, and it is clean and organized at the same time. Vendors find it is better than the situation they had before, where they are under the threat of Chengguan. Customers are also satisfied with it because of the formality of the SDD and its convenience.
From the video(You can click on the link to check out the whole Chinese version), it seems like Shanghai, as a big city, does not suffer from all the problems of SDD in other cities have in common do not exist here. But we questioned the reliability of the TV interview, especially since our main concern is SDD that sells food, since there are food cleanliness and environment sanitation problems involved. In order to gain a better grasp of the actual situation of SDD in Shanghai, we decided to conduct a series of interviews on different people about SDD. And thus, we come up with our core interview question that we will try to find out the answer of in the end:
Is it really a solution to Shanghai street vending problems?
There are two Jiedao we are specifically looking into. One is Weifang Jiedao near our school. The other is Jinyang Jiedao, near our dorm; the Jiedao is a government institution in charge of the cluster of streets around that area. We wanted to map all SDD in the two Jiedao so we went to talk to the officials in both Jiedao. They were not willing to tell us all of them, but they still told us about 9 SDD and where they are located. So we went there and mapped those SDD.
Here is the link of the map on Fulcrum, please check it out here if you are interested in seeing more.
As for when SDD first started, according to our interview with the vendors in the Weifang district and also through research, it roughly started 10 years ago, but no one really pay attention to when it exactly started since it was a gradual process and the starting time varies from place to place as well. There has always been strict supervision on SDD whenever there is a big event that is going to happen in Shanghai, though.
As mentioned in the mapping video, we chose two SDD to do deeper research on, one from Jinyang and one from Weifang.
- The first one: Weifang Road Songlin Road, in Yuanzhu Community
- The second one: a spot on Jinyang Road, near Yunshan Road
For this two SDD, we first interview the vendors and then the government department who is in charge of SDD in both areas, in the end, we care about what residents living nearby think about those two SDD.
We conducted the interview with three basic questions:
1. Who is in charge of SDD? What are they in charge of? (food security, sanitation, time. etc.)
2. Who can sell food here? (Who is eligible to sell food here?)
3. What do people (vendors and residents) think about SDD? (Do they feel better with SDD?)
We also had some conversations with people that we didn’t film, because we had meant to inquire only, but the conversations turned out to have some information.
First, the Jinyang Jiedao. We went there at night and talked to different vendors, who were not very open to talking.
Ziqi: Can I ask you some questions about ShuDaoDian?
Vender A: What ShuDaoDian? I’m not quite familiar with this (laugh)
Ziqi: Why? Isn’t this a ShuDaoDian?
Vendor A: Of course not, ShuDaoDian is usually in Puxi.
Ziqi: Okay. But do CHENGGUAN come and charge you guys for selling here?
Vendor A: No, we do not pay them, and they do not regulate this place.
Ziqi: Is this a SHUDAODIAN?
Vender B: Go out, and you can see the sign.
Ziqi: Do the Chengguan regularly come and check on you?
Vendor B: No.
Ziqi: Can I ask you some questions?
Vendor C: You can ask the others, why me?
Ziqi: Don’t worry, it’s just some easy questions. My classmates once came and asked you some questions, do you remember?
Vendor C: I don’t know what are you talking about.
Ziqi: Do the Chengguan come and regulate this place?
Vendor C: No, they don’t.
Ziqi: Where do you get, or rent this from?
Vendor C: I’m just a worker, I don’t know any details.
Secondly, we had talked to another vendor in the Yuanzhu community, who was much more forthcoming and answered our questions more readily.
Vendor: You guys are filming here? It’s not very clean here, not like other ShuDaoDian.
Ziqi: Yeah, but your place is actually very clean. So, when does the Chengguan usually come?
Vendor: Around 9:30. Sometimes they’re rude and speak loudly
Ziqi: Really? Do they have the right to regulate this place, though?
Vendor: No, because this is the ShuDaoDian until 9:30. But most of the time they just come by and see if there are other vendors who are not supposed to sell food here.
Ziqi: Really, so who gave you this spot to sell food?
Vendor: JieDao, of course
Ziqi: Do you pay them?
Vendor: No. We have guan xi 关系 with the JieDao because we live in this community, and so we can sell here.
Second, the residents who live around both SDD. Considering the fact that most people are quite not comfortable with having a camera in front of them talking, we used audio recorder instead. And here is the English version of some parts of the interview after we arrange the conversation afterwards.
Lingyi: Do you often buy food/breakfast here in this SDD in your neighborhood?
1, “No, I don’t trust the food here. I often cook by myself.”
2,”I sometimes buy snacks from here, it is okay to have this SDD. “”
3,”Yes, I came here to buy breakfast.”
Lingyi: Do you find it more convenient to you to have this SDD?
1, “It might be easier and more convenient for those ones who don’t have time to cook on their own. I see a lot of people buying food here everyday.”
2, “Yes, I buy breakfast from here every single day, although I don’t live really near the place. But this is the nearest place that I can buy breakfast.”
3, “It is not easy to answer, since I personally don’t buy food here. I will always walk a little bit further to the food store to buy breakfast instead of buying anything from the stand here.”
Lingyi: Do you feel like the environment here get better after having this SDD?
1, “Yes I do, it is cleaner than before. They just randomly set up their stand everywhere on the street, it was totally a mess.”
2, “It is sort of cleaner, but it still smells a little bit and the trash is left behind from time to time. Whenever it rains at night, this street will be nasty and unable for us to walk here anymore.”
3, “I feel like it still block the way some sort and it is not easy for us to get out if we are riding a bike or in a hurry.”
So, after all the research and interview we conducted, we returned to the question: is SDD a solution to the streetfood problem in Shanghai or not?
Answering the three smaller questions we used in the interview, for question one, which is trying to discern whether SDD is properly regulated instead of being a method of corruption, it’s a no. There is no entry fee or monthly rent being charged, and cleaning fee in the first SDD is also not being collected later on, so that’s not an opportunity for the government to be corrupt. And as long as the vendors are selling food in the place and the time that is assigned to them by them Jiedao, Chengguan will not interfere. Jiedao seems to be the institution who is in charge of SDD, but actually, once all the places are assigned to the vendors, they will not be in charge of SDD anymore. Except for cleaning the street everyday, there is no one regularly monitoring the SDD. Especially after the Expo in Shanghai passed, no one pays much attention to the SDD, and it is just a part of daily life. People have gotten used to it. So overall SDD is under very loose control from the government.
For the second question, we wanted to know whether there is any limitation to vendors getting a permit for a space in a SDD, and whether it can solve the problem of migrant workers who do not have a Shanghai Hukou. And according to what Jiedao and the vendors explained to us, SDD is set up for people with a low income living around the neighborhood (低保). It does not matter whether the vendor does or does not a Shanghai Hukou. The only limitation is they have to live near the neighborhood, even if they have to borrow money from their friends or relatives to buy a house nearby or rent a house nearby. So it actually rules out a lot of vendors who are not capable of doing so anyway since the housing price is so expensive. Those vendors who we interviewed are the ones who have already lived in this city for a couple of years and have a relatively better economic foundation than those who are new immigrants to this city.
Lastly, there’s the question of how convenient SDD is for both vendors and customers, and how good is it for maintaining the environment. It is a more stable job for vendors and it is a more convenient place for residents to buy food. In the interviewing of vendors and residents in both SDD, we found out almost all the vendors are grateful for what the government has given to them and are happy about not having to be afraid of the Chengguan; it’s a safer and more stable way to earn a living, even if that means they earn less than they did before. For residents, they enjoy how it’s much more convenient for them to buy food, especially those with white collar jobs who do not have the time to cook for themselves or sit down for a proper meal. However, while the street is definitely cleaner and far more orderly, people also think the SDD somehow blocked the way, and the infrastructure is not good enough in order to maintain the street. If there is an emergency, such as heavy rain, then SDD will block the street and cause flooding. And another problem, though, is that street vending is still considered unclean. Those in the SDD, while having the certification to sell in it, are not being regulated to maintain cleanliness, and the people we interviewed mentioned their health concerns, saying they preferred to cook their own food. Therefore, it is not necessarily more convenient for all the residents of the area.
But all in all, although there are some problems with SDD in Shanghai, it’s not like what the research online has said. It has proven to be an agreeable situation for all parties involved, a far better alternative than the constant conflict between the government and the street vendors, who, despite being constantly defined as “other,” are one of the most vital parts of Shanghai.
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The red cart has a name — “爱心帮帮车” — which has a meaning of “the cart of love and help”. It has a typical appearance and design of the cart. The outside is painted red with slogan of its name and the goal of the cart,such as “mutual support brings benefit”, sometimes even with the goal of the neighborhood, such as “build a ” harmonious society” etc. Sometimes the vendors will stick their menu outside too. The inside of the cart is more like the design of the common food truck that one can see in the state — collapsible, movable and utilized space. The board for cooking and placing the goods are extended from the inner part and the cover of the outside will support the board. There are shelves inside for placing either the goods or the materials for making the food depending on what the cart is selling.
The red cart belongs to Shanhai Aoshika Restaurant Management Co. (上海奥食卡餐饮管理有限公司) and is licensed and kept monitored by the company. The cooperation between the company and the government is established on October 19th, 2007. The government and the company is regulated by the contract so that the Chengguan (city police) will not keep them away from the street or selling.
Breakfast Cart is initially started as a government project to achieve these goals: 1. Deal with the unemployment. 2. Provide people safer and cheaper breakfast. 3. Help illegal street vendors to have a formalized stand in order to reduce the potential conflict between illegal street food vendors and Chenguan.
The first experiment was in Changshou Jiedao on October 19th, 2007. Facing the problem of street food vendors occupying pathways and road, Changshou Jiedao launched this program after listening to the advice of local residences. The original Red Cart is only a breakfast cart, and only planned to open between 6:30 to 9:30. At first there were only 30 breakfast carts, but now there are hundreds of carts in Shanghai, and the operation hours and types of food have been extended.
Applying for the Red Cart can be achieved through multiple ways.
- Subdistrict Office — — The subdistrict office will offer such working opportunity to those who lose their job or cannot find a job. One can reach out to the “社区救助中心” to request for the job.
- Company Hotline — — The company hotline is printed on the bottom left corner of the cart. Whoever is interested in working for the company can apply through the phone. (021–65872888)
- Friends and Neighbors — — In our interview with many vendors, they claim that they start the business because their friends or neighbors work for the company first and recommended them to the business.
Requirements for applying involves the health check and training of relative techniques.
- Chinese citizens who are 25 to 50 years.
- Have the health certificate.
- Finish the official training and intern. Start business after the final examination.
Operating a red cart is a standardized procedure. The vendors all sell Baozi (包子) and soy milk (豆浆) in the morning, fried chicken for the afternoon, and Taiwan pancake and drinks for all day. Selling their own food is forbidden by the company. The materials and goods are offered by the company and they can call to order them and have them delivered to their spot. The company will also provide them certain resources for advocating, such as the loudspeaker continuously playing the record about how good and famous the fried chicken is. Their spot is assigned by the company but some of them can choose according to their preference. The health, pension, unemployment and accident insurances of the vendors are paid by the company. The basic salary is promised to the vendors and the vendors can get bonus income by selling more products than required amount. Usually the vendors start the business at 5–6 in the early morning and end the business at 8–9 in the evening.
The Cooperation Relationship
Multiple Government departments are involved in signing the contract.
- Commercial Committee of the subdistrict —is responsible for approving all the commercial cooperation and registration.
- Social Services Office (社区服务办公室) — is responsible for helping the people who loose their job.
- Social Management Office (社区管理办公室) — is responsible for the management of the street.
- City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau (城市管理行政执法局) Office of Subdistrict — is responsible for inspecting and managing the street and neighborhood.
When the cooperation first start in Changshou Road, the relationship and the contract is established among the company, the Chengguan, the commercial committee and the Social Services Office. However, this situation seems to vary between different districts. For example, Chengguan in Weifang District claim that they have no responsibility and relationship in this cooperation contract. The Commercial Committee claims that they are only responsible for giving the licence to the red carts and are not really “cooperating with” the company. They licencing procedure is exactly like other normal food industrial companies. The mystery of the chaos in establishing the cooperation and the contracts still remains unsolved.
The street-food economy is regulated by the Chengguan (城管), also called city police. Street food stands who are not licensed, or are set on the pathway and blocking the way, will be held in custody by Chengguan and the vendors will be fined. However, with the contract between the company and the government, the red cart is registered and the vendors do not need to worry about the Chengguan.
We conducted a brief interview with the Chengguan of Weifang subdistrict. The supervisor of the Chengguan claim that registered red carts will not be expelled. However, the vendors still need to keep the cart clean and tidy, which is under the inspection of the Chengguan. If the people living in the neighborhood or working in the company around complain about the noise they made, Chengguan will also ask them to move to other places to do the business.
Chengguan in ECNU area seems to regulate more strictly than the Chengguan in Weifang Subdistrict. The Chengguan in ECNU area also inspect whether the red carts operate outside the legal hour. They have limited the operation hours which is 5:30 to 10AM every day for the vendors. If the vendors sell outside the time region, they will be asked to shut down.
The Support and Future Development
The company is working hard in extending the working hour and the area for the Red Cart Program. According to the district manager of Changfeng Area, the company plans to help vendors start afternoon sessions,which is currently forbidden by the Chengguan, with ￥1000 additional monthly payment to be charged, and the company will negotiate with the local Chengguan on behalf of the vendors. Effort in expanding this program to other districts is also made and returns good results in the past few years.
The government was very optimistic and enthusiastic about this program in the perspective of solving the unemployment. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, which is the three years since the program started, the development of thered cart is always mentioned in the document of the report, year plan or the year summary of the government. (see http://csjd.shpt.gov.cn/website/pages/content_0.html?channel=16&id=108, http://csjd.shpt.gov.cn/website/pages/content_0.html?channel=16&id=129) The government, which is mainly the subdistrict office, pay great attention in the first three years to this program. They regard it as a great opportunity to help solve the unemployment problem, especially the young people who cannot find a job. They plan to establish a long-term way to regulate the carts and promote this program to other districts as well. The promotion plan was a success and now almost four to six districts have this program. Yet as the time go on, the government is no longer in favor of this kind of cooperation as before. The manager of Putuo Disctrict of the Aoshika Company said that their business once boost to around 300 carts, but they decay to near 100 now and the government is no longer so willing to working with them. A year ago, Shanghai Business Committee launched another program that promotes the franchised breakfast restaurant including the old brands like Shendacheng and popular brands like Laoshengchang. The government not only promotes them by acknowledging their food safety, but also offer them subsides to bring the price down. This program is very threatening to the business of the Red Cart.
The Identical Cart and the Dressing Requirement
The carts are identical in the appearance and is easy to identify. The cart design is owned by the company. The uniformed cart enables people to recognize them and trust the food made there are safe and licensed.
According to one vendor, the company also has request for their dressing. They should wear hat and mask when cooking for the customers.
The type of food the vendors can make and trained is limited. They can only choose selling among Taiwan pancake, Baozi, fried chicken and drinks. The materials and drinks are technically provided by the company. The vendors need to fulfill the sale amount set by the company, otherwise they need to pay to the company. The materials and other goods are delivered freshly according to the amount the vendor requests, depending on the condition of selling. The safety of the material and goods in the company are all approved by the Food Safety Committee and licensed.
Shanghai Aoshika Food Company has specific rule for the responsibility of food safety issues: If customers get sick because of the food they get at their cart, the company will reimburse all the medical payments and compensate them. Compared to other food franchise companies who usually let the vendors take the responsibility, Shanghai Aoshika Food Company’s rule is more responsible.
The location of the carts are decided by the company. Sometimes vendors can make a request about the preferred location, but they need the approvement from the company. They cannot move to other location to do business without any transfer permission. The location the company choose take various factors into consideration, such as the needs of the costomers in the area, the width of the pathway and the distance from the neighborhood. The company also needs to make compromise to the government construction. For example, the one red cart is removed from Exit 6 of the metro station on the Century Avenue because of the on-going construction.
See the link for the map of the red carts cluster in the Century Avenue area and ECNU area.
Although the red cart seems to be a strong attempt for helping the vendors to step from informal economy and unemployment to the formalized economy, it is still problematic and is not sustainable. This unsustainability is shown in many different aspects.
Policy and Regulation
Different district and subdistrict has different regulation and different department taking charge of the cooperation. Originally, Changshou Road Subdistrict, the contract is signed among three departments — the Chengguan, the commercial committee and the Social Services Office, while in Weifang district, the contract is signed in none of these departments. The regulation then become messy because the Chengguan and officers do not really know how much they should take charge of the red cart program. On the other hand, the strength of regulation by Chengguan also varies in different areas. This causes the problem of unfairness between the vendors themselves. Some of them may have easier environment to do business while others do not, and yet they still have the same standard of sale amount and have to pay the same amount of money.
The company cannot always inspect all the carts. Many vendors are actually selling their own food, which is forbidden by the company, without being caught. They even go to the market to buy the food materials themselves instead of ordering from the company because the first-hand materials is cheaper than those offered by the company. Also, regardless of the rule in the company, requiring the vendors wearing masks and caps, rarely do the vendors do so. Although the company will send the manager of the area to inspect their business from time to time (in Weifang area, it is 2–3 times every year), it is hard to check every spot since there are too many of them and too widely distributed.
The red cart may not be the real Red Cart. Many news have reported that fake red carts appear on the street and selling things themselves without any license and registration. They obtain the similar cart from elsewhere and send the carts to the repair factory for processing. Soon they will have the red cart with very similar appearance as the offical one and people are hard to tell if not paying attention. Some vendors decide to quit the business without offical procedure of resigning, and they just leave their carts on the pathway. People then come to pick those carts for their own usage.
See the following related news. (Title 1: The Company is Strengthening Their Regular Check of the Cart 2013 Title 2: Putuo District Just Pushed Down the Illegal Construction; Fake Carts Came Back Again 2015)
Monopoly and Competition
Formalization and standardization of the food come with price. The limit food types causes monopoly inside the red cart vendors themselves. Because the vendors form a cluster around one area and they also sell very similar type of food, they are always competing with each other. However, according to the company rule, they cannot either lower the price or sell different things so their business becomes harder and harder to do. Thus many of them quited.
Migrat workers are gradually returning home since the unemployment rate is higher and higher, and this causes the decline in purchasing power, which is related to the sales of their breakfast that is sold at a relatively higher price comparing to the informal breakfast stands. Those street vendors who are not formalized are also selling similar things for breakfast — pancake, Baozi, and soy milk — but with lower price and more various choices. The red cart vendors can hardly compete with them. Eventhough their cart propagate that their food is cleaner and safer, the customers actually do not care about it so much, a vendor claims.
Higher Expectations of the Vendors
During the interview with the vendors, we find that many vendors have higher expectations to their job and regard this job as a temporary one. The vendor says that if there were other opportunities, people would not do this job. “Since this job is for the people living in the bottom of the society,” says the woman who operates a food cart near the exit of Metro Line 13 at Jinshajiang Road Station. The general business environment is not that good. Migration workers are gradually coming back home since the unemployment rate is higher and higher, and this causes the decline in purchasing power, which is related to the sales of their breakfast that is sold at a relatively higher price comparing to the informal breakfast stands.
The Red Cart reaches a premature end sadly. It is an attempt made by the company and the government to formalize the street food vending in the perspective of solving the unemployment problem. Yet it reveals many problems in the transformation from informal economy to formal economy. It is neccessary for us to think about the question such as how to regulate those red cart vendors and how to keep the sustainability of this kind of relationship. What is the next step to formalization needs to be discussed. Whether the relationship should be establish between a food company and the government based on business profit? Moreover, the more principle question to ask is that do we need to formalize the street food vending.
Vendors on Second North Zhongshan Road, vendor Li Fei and vendors on the Century Avenue, manager He in ECNU area for your interview. Weifang subdistrict for your interviewing about Chengguan and the cooperation relationship. NYUSH IMA department and ATS for equipment loaning. Professor Ana Greenspan for assisting our project. Kyle for technology support.
Ouyang, Ping “聚焦民生 奋发有为 共促和谐 推进社区建设与管理全面协调发展 — — 在长寿路街道2008年社区代表大会上的工作报告” Changshou Subdistrict Government Affairs. Mar. 26th, 2008. May 12th, 2016. <http://csjd.shpt.gov.cn/website/pages/content_0.html?channel=16&id=108>
Changshou Subdistrict Office, “关注民生 服务发展 共建和谐 努力打造繁荣繁华的平安和谐新长寿 — — 在长寿路街道2009年社区代表大会上的工作报告” Changshou Subdistrict Government Affairs. Feb. 25th, 2009. May 12th, 2016. <http://csjd.shpt.gov.cn/website/pages/content_0.html?channel=16&id=129>
Zuo, Yan “公司加强巡查‘爱心帮帮车’” Sina News. Oct. 14th, 2013. May 12th, 2016. <http://news.sina.com.cn/o/2013-10-14/151928429985.shtml>
Ma, Song “普陀违法建筑刚拆除 山寨‘爱心帮帮车’又重来” Shanghai Government Affairs and Management. Dec. 5th, 2015. May 12th, 2016. <http://www.shzfzz.net/node2/zzb/shzfzz2013/yw/u1ai939528.html>
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES IN REGULATION OF STREET VENDING IN THE TWO CITIES?
What is the Informal Sector?
The informal sector includes all workers and economic units which are not part of the regulated economic activities and protected employment relations. Certain features of the informal sector make it easier for certain groups of people to earn a living. For instance most of the jobs in the informal economy do not require many skills, thus they are labor intensive. Since workers with little or no education are unlikely to find a specialized job in the formal economy, they tend to seek employment in the informal sector. As working in the informal sector requires low skills level, starting a business there is comparatively easy and requires significantly less capital. For instance, a person with little or no education, low skill level and little savings can start street vending. However, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to own a business in the formal sector. (Bhowmik 3)
Developing countries tend to have a larger informal sector. Where the governments and the formal sector fail to satisfy the needs of the population, the informal sector emerges and provides the community with goods in short supply. It was originally believed that the informal sector is a transitory sector, which will be eventually absorbed into the formal sector as countries develop. However, today we can observe that the informal sector is growing tremendously in all countries, including developed ones (Bhowmik 4). Formal and informal economies are interdependent; the informal sector is not subject to laws binding the formal sector, and for this reason informal sector often manufactures cheaper components which are later used in the formal sector. On the other side, the informal sector relies on the formal sector for its sustenance (Bhowmik 6).
Poverty and Street Vending in “World Class Cities”
While the informal sector is unlikely to disappear, certain branches of the sector are becoming more regulated and prosecuted. This is the case with street vending. As cities grow and develop, the poor seeking employment through street vending are pushed out and denied an equal share of the city. Their businesses and their existences are criminalized. Their contributions to the city and their local communities have been ignored. In the “World Class Cities” there is no place for the poor nor their businesses. They are said to block traffic and sidewalks. They are perceived as eyesores of the urban development by the urban elites (Jhabvala 13). The poor are in every city, their informal businesses serve the local communities, as well as contribute to the development, vitality and the liveliness of the cities. Local governments of some cities have recognized the importance of their services, thus their businesses have been licensed and decriminalized. However, the situations is far from perfect.
Regulation and Licensing of Street Vending in NYC
It can not be denied that street vendors contribute to the economy of New York City. A 2012 report estimates that around 17, 960 jobs were provided through street vending, as well as 71.2 million dollars in taxes and 192.3 million dollars in wages (Carpenter, 29). However, the majority of the vendors are unlicensed, meaning that their businesses are illegal. An official NYC street vending fact sheet states that “ a person must obtain a license from the Department of Consumer Affairs. Unfortunately, with a legislative cap of only 853 licenses, and a waiting list of thousands, the chance of obtaining a license at this time is unlikely” (NYC Government 1). For food vending, one must obtain both the food vending license and a permit for the Food Unit (Cart or Vehicle) from the Department of Health. To simplify the process of obtaining the license the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health have established a combined office.
Vendors Have a Voice!
Is Shanghai a Green City?
IfI were to ask a random person on the street this question, they would probably laugh and say “no.” Can you blame them, really? With all the news coverage about China’s infamous pollution and its long list of other concerning environmental issues, it’s no wonder most people would answer the question this way. Here’s where the problem arises, however. This kind of general representation of a country’s (in)capability to be green through the media has distorted people from all over the world from seeing a reality: Shanghai can be a green city. Not only that, but efforts have been made to do so.
One of the more concerning issues the city has tried to address is the problem of food safety. Unknown to the majority of the world is Shanghai’s approach to the issue: the implementation of organic farms in the more rural parts of the city. If you somehow find yourself asking, “Those exist? In Shanghai?” You will soon find out that they certainly do!
In our research and exploration of the city, there are undeniable endeavors to solve this issue through the participation of organic, eco-farms. We hope to shed light on these efforts and challenge people’s perception of the current situation in not only China, but also in Shanghai by examining a particular area: Chongming Island, or 崇明岛.
Shanghai FDA Food Inspection Badge
Just by entering “Shanghai food safety” into the Google search bar, the results are endless with websites and blogs centered on “Expat Know-Hows” and “Food Survival Guides.” In the news media, the situation is not much better with talk about the latest food safety regulation laws.
In 2013, there was a famous issue that came to light with regard to this issue the city has been battling. According to the Shanghaiist, over 15,000 dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu River. The pigs were traced back to an illegal pig farm in Zhejiang province.
These “pork dealers” bought dead pig meat that was no longer sellable. They would later process it in illegal shops only to re-sell the meat into the regular market. When we found out about this story, we asked a student at New York University Shanghai, Chen Zian who also happened to be a local Shanghai-nese how she felt about this scandal. She remarked,
“I’m a little bit shocked, but everyone knows the food is not always safe in China.”
There is no denying people are aware about food safety problems. However, this speaks to an even greater problem plaguing not just China but the world as a whole: people generally don’t really know where their food comes from.
The local Shanghai government, however, has taken steps to trace back the current situation to agriculture. From agriculture, they’ve found a possible solution to food safety concerns through organic, eco farms.
What is Eco-Farming?
According to Greenpeace, “Ecological Farming ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow, by protecting soil, water and climate, promotes biodiversity, and does not contaminate the environment with chemical inputs or genetic engineering” (Tirado 2).
The problem with agriculture today is that its basis lies on non-renewable and artificial resources such as fossil fuels, agrochemicals and genetically engineered seeds which destroy the organic resources necessary to produce
— Reyes Tirado, Greenpeace
According to research, the solution to this problem may lie in eco farming. As opposed to traditional mass-scale farming, it conserves the natural environment, relying on “biodiversity, nutrient cycling, soil regeneration and natural enemies of pests” (Tirado 5). In addition, means of eco-farming can even overturn the destruction of soil and its fertility which is another prevailing problem in today’s agriculture (Tirado 6).
Taking this into account, through the practice of eco-farms, Shanghai can be that much closer to becoming an eco city — one that allows its fast urban development to go hand-in-hand with nature.
Eco-Farming in Greater China
The image of China in today’s world combines overpopulation, extreme pollution, developmental mindset and serious food safety issues, but it was not always this way. For 4,000 years until mid-twentieth century, China relied on traditional methods of agriculture such as
“crop rotation, compost application with organic matter recycling as well as some traditional ecological systems like mulberry trees combined with fish ponds, which help to maintain soil fertility and ecosystems”
— Yuhui Qiao, Associate Professor at China Agricultural University
Despite China’s long tradition of biological crop production, evolution of organic farming in modern China was established on the Western models of organization, trade, etc. An officially established national logo assigned to biologically grown produce was established in 2005 and since then the market for organic food has been on the growth (Qiao 132).
Chongming Island attracts environmentalists and investors as world’s largest alluvial island (Huang et al. 575). Even the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and president of the People’s Republic of China went on a trip to Chongming Island in 2004, saying that “local people should, under the philosophy of the scientific mode of development, retain the advantages of their wonderful natural surrounds and take an environmentally sustainable path of development” (Wu 77).
Indeed, agro-ecosystems dominate most of the land use and provide most of the food supply. Natural wetland ecosystems dominate the land and attract wildlife, which is another advantage of the island. provide important habitats for many wildlife species. Furthermore, every spring and autumn, 2 to 3 million birds come to Chongming (Huang et al. 578). However, as Huang and colleagues point out, “Chongming Island’s ecosystem is extremely fragile and especially sensitive to the disturbance of invasive species because it is unique ecologically and has a low resistance to foreign species; therefore, prevention and rapid response to pioneer invasion is critical” (580).
Isolated from the mainland, pollution is not at issue, especially compared to Shanghai. Due to the quality of soil and natural conditions, agriculture plays an important role in generating the island’s profit. The 2004 census revealed that 75 percent of the employed population found employment in agriculture. However, great disparities and inequalities in income exist between city and countryside. Since the development of nature reserves, tourism has also had a great impact on the economic profit (Huang et al. 580). Urban tourists can even go on an eco-tour such as “Happy Farm Households Tour” to try farming, stay in a farmhouse and eat locally grown food with the farmers (Wu 80).
Dongtan Eco-City: Case Study on the Island
The roots of organic farming in Chongming Island are inevitably connected with the Dongtan eco-city project on the island. What sustainable growth means for Shanghai, however, has to be considered in a context of an outskirt of the mega-city which seeks to attract urban population, as well as what is known as “green capitalism” — natural capital, as opposed to industrial. It refers to “a set of responses to environmental change and environmentalism that relies on harnessing capital investment, individual choices, and entrepreneurial innovation to the green cause” (Chang and Sheppard 60).
Dongtan was an eco-city undertaking in the Eastern part of Chongming Island. Starting in 2005, it was conceived as world’s future most advanced model high-technology all-natural city with green architecture possessing energy solely from solar panels and windmills, generating a very low carbon emission (Chang and Sheppard 62). In fact, its initial strategy was to make a town with an ecological footprint reduced by 60 percent, using 40 percent of the whole energy use coming from fully renewable energy sources including 100 percent of bio-energy to run buildings, as well as waste curtailed by 83 percent (Chang and Sheppard 62). The area would only allow zero-carbon-emission vehicles, and ultimately all of the waste would be either reused, recycled or composted.
Nevertheless, rather than a perfect model for eco-cities around the world, this project is now acknowledged to be a failed enterprise. Its suspension in 2008 was caused by intertwining political and economic factors. For one, cost of this project exceeded a realistic possibility. Despite investments from both Chinese and foreign companies,
Second, according to The Economist, the reason for Dongtan’s failure lies in the local Shanghai governance. Chen Liangyu, a former Shanghai Communist Party chief who was the brain behind the Dongtan project and who brought British investors into the island, was fired for corruption in 2006 and convicted to house arrest. Thus, it is believed that the Dongtan project lost its credibility together with its governance.
Learning from Dongtan
While the envisioned Dongtan eco-city never came into being, in 2006 the government of Shanghai decided to implement another idea named Chongming Three Island Master Plan. It was a plan independent from Dongtan, involving the rest of Chongming Island and two smaller ones around it, namely Changxing and Hensha (Chang and Sheppard 62). Its success is attributed to the fact that instead of an overly ambitious plan, it carried out multiple smaller eco-friendly developments. Rather than transforming these areas all at once, these incentives meant to change them into “eco-islands” one advancement at a time. These included advanced technology in organic farming, future long-term agreements on eco-friendly industry and eco-tourism.
However, what the governance of Chongming Island already achieved has not managed to change the perception of a “rural island” held by the general public.
In China, such locations have a reputation of being less developed, inaccessible thereby being less attractive.
In fact, Chongming Island is the least industrialized and populated districts of Shanghai (Chang and Sheppard 62). Before the tunnel bridge was built in 2010, the only way to reach the island from Shanghai was by ferry, a trip which took an hour. Therefore, apart from the general perception, geographical conditions and location was a significant restriction on the development of Chongming.
The Faces Behind the Farming
After having learned so much about the efforts of the city to make this happen, we decided to visit the island itself and see for our own eyes the people physically making their city more eco-friendly.
We spoke with Sarah, the owner of a family-run eco-farm on Chongming Island we volunteered to work at. Before buying a farm on the island, she worked at a marketing company in Shanghai. Sarah held a high position in the company and often traveled all over China to represent the firm. However, frequent business trips also limited her family time. As loving a mother of a eight-year-old boy, she did not want to spend this much time away from family, even despite a comparably high salary. Therefore, Sarah and her husband decided to use their life savings and with the help of her parents, they were able to purchase a farm of Chongming Island.
Two years later, using perfect English she was speaking to us as a proud farmer and entrepreneur, selling organic produce to stores around Shanghai.
Although Sarah admitted that working full-time as a farmer is physically exhausting, she said it was also remarkably relaxing to her mentally. While profits from the recently opened farm were not very high yet, they were steadily increasing and provided the family with a comfortable life. She also explained that in the age of fast life, demand for organic produce was constantly on the increase as people began to care about their diets more and more.
Another interesting story we found while learning more about the farms on the island was that of Hou Xueying. Below, you will find a video telling her story.
She recalls wanting to know where her food came from and because she felt so strongly about this, she decided to take matters into her own hand by running her own organic farm. She left the city to make available for her family an abundance of chemical-free food. According to Hou, she mentions an interesting part of her journey: the struggle to gain her parent’s approval.
She mentions, “After struggling for so long to give me a good life, they think I should live a comfortable, easy life” (Farmed with Love).
This reveals the inherent, negative label placed on people who make the food on our plates possible
However, it is these people that should probably placed on the highest pedestal of society especially those like Sarah and Hou Xueying who are trying to make the food healthier and more readily available to the public.
Conclusion: The Future of a Greener Shanghai
Shanghai has come a long way in trying to get rid of the nation’s bad reputation for basically just destroying the environment. But more importantly, the city has made the effort to address the overwhelming concern of food safety.
We’ve seen that through Dongtan and the city’s willingness to not give up on the eco-city project on Chongming Island.
Now that we’ve seen all this, another important question should be addressed:
How can we normalize these farms in the greater Shanghai metropolis? Better yet, how can we normalize these practices in China overall?
Perhaps, the latter might be a tad bit ambitious. However, we believe that it is possible. To do so, there are several factors that should be taken into account such as price of the food, availability of essential machinery, as well as general awareness of these farms as a solution to an already well-known issue in Shanghai and in general, China.
We hope to generate the latter by providing this information to the students, faculty, and staff of New York University Shanghai. Together, we can make Shanghai green-er.
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Li Fei, a diligent and sweet young man from Anhui province moved to Shanghai over seven years ago to join his father and family. After a bumpy road entering the informal street-food industry he managed to pull a few strings and cop two shiny red legal food trucks from a formal and legal street food company, both of which are now on Century Avenue. He has found a home within this economy selling his hometown Huai Nan Niu Rou Tang 淮南牛肉汤 on one of his trucks and processed breakfast food from the cart company on the other.
After many visits to his delicious Noodle and Beef Soup cart for lunch,we started to wonder what kind of life Li Fei led and we did a little preliminary research project exploring some issues he discussed with us. He once told us it takes him several hours to prepare the food he sells, especially his soup and he mentioned his daily trips to Shanghai Nong Ye Wholesale Market (上海农业中心批发市场) to get the fresh cucumber, tofu, beef and other ingredients needed for his dishes everyday. Curiously and hyper excited, we asked him if we could follow him on his little market journey on a Sunday morning and he eagerly agreed- though thought it quite a bizarre request. We met him at 2.30am in front of the market as the trucks and vendors were setting up, getting ready for their business day to commence.
Shanghai Wholesale Market 上海农业中心批发市场
The 上海农业批发市场 was built over 15 years ago and is open 24/7, with produce that arrives fresh every night and dawn from every corner of China. Once it opened in 1997, you could buy a stand and sell your products but now one can only rent the space rather than buy it.
Since we arrived half an hour early, we decided to perhaps interview some workers at the gate and in a small room at the entrance about this market — just with simple questions in mind about when the market opened and what types of food are sold here. However, it was dramatically difficult to find someone who would speak to us. When we did, a man at the info center said he would call the person who is assigned the job to speak on the behalf of the market (a spokesperson more or less) who deals with these types of questions. We agreed to meet with him but were shocked at the fact that once we were introduced, apart from the fact he whispered everything because his tone of voice was really low, he said his Mandarin was not good enough and that he could only speak Shanghainese. We took the fact that they deemed this man the spokesperson of the market as a sign that there was a lot that they didn’t want us to know. All of this set a quite mysterious and dramatic overtone to what ended up being a fantastic market experience. We found it quite bizarre that the people who are the face of the market, who work at the entrance collecting fees for trucks coming in and who work at the info center, were the least helpful or keen in the market.
Scattered in some corners of the huge space this market occupies on Middle Ring Road and Hu Nan Road (沪南路 2000), are some offices deemed as “Food Sanitation/Quarantine Offices” which theoretically regularly check on the quality and sanitation of the products being sold here. However, when we arrived they were all pretty much closed and we didn’t manage to get a hold of anyone who could speak to us from those entities on the issue of sanitation in this space. Throughout our interview and experience with Li Fei in the market, he mentioned that we shouldn’t really film all the spaces, especially some of the vendors’ food because there are some sanitary infractions and issues going on which some vendors might be concerned with if they were to find out it was being filmed, so we dully accepted.
Vendors in the Market
The atmosphere of the market was quite special, with people buying and selling bulks of hundred of fresh chickens and loading whole skinned dead pigs directly into quite rugged and old trunks of cars. Some vendors were very light hearted and quite interested in speaking to us about their routines and products. Some of these vendors have been selling there for years and it was quite interesting to see the relationship between Li Fei, a customer for them and generally a street-food vendor, and the places where he buys his products and ingredients. Li Fei has a very dynamic relationship with these vendors as we could see from the automatic reflex they all had to smile and predict the things Li Fei was about to buy when they saw him approaching (and also… di$count$$). It was also a bonus that we were accompanied by him because it meant that these vendors were openly speaking to us since they trusted LiFei, who has been coming to them daily for many years. Here we put together some of the things the vendors were keen to tell us and a little about their job and products.
Formal Economy of Street-Food Vending
After seeing how Li Fei gathered his products for his day ahead- I think it’s worth mentioning that he spent all together a striking 2,000 kuai that morning alone, which weekly might add up to spending 5,500–6,000RMB on ingredients from this market- we went on to see how he divides his time between the two carts and the two types of products he sells.
After several years being an unofficial street vendor, he started to feel uneasy about the fact that many cheng guan were regularly coming to shutdown vendors like him, in an attempt at clearing up the streets of Pudong. This was happening also because the restaurants in the area were complaining about the illegal street-food vending, like Li Fei’s, which was ruining their business. Due to how often the police, cheng guan and xie guan kept coming to check up on them, he decided to try and enter the formalized version of the economy in which he had been working in for so long.
*side note: cheng guan (城管) are local law enforcement who are in charge of making sure the streets are clean and not being used for commercial use by unlicensed food-cart owners. xieguan (协管) on the other hand are not working for the government and are simply helpers to the chengguan*
Over a year ago, he approached one of his friends who worked for the food company “爱心帮帮车” (which swiftly translates as “Love Help Car” in English) which is attempting to formalize the street-food economy in Shanghai by assigning carts in designated areas to certain vendors who are deemed suitable. The company gives you a cart and assumes you buy their food products to sell in their/your cart. Once a month they collect a fee from the vendors (ranging from 1,000-over 5,000RMB depending on the location and size of the cart) but that seems to be about the only contact you have with the company. Li Fei has told us that this lifestyle and job working from a formal cart is much more calm and stable since he no longer needs to worry about being shutdown, having his things stolen by the cheng guan or being beaten up by the xie guan.
Li Fei’s Food Carts
Hehas two carts in Pudong, both bordering Century Avenue and he spends his day between the two. Cart #1 is situated in front of Xiang Cheng Lu 17 and he is there daily (except some weekends when it’s raining) from 12–13.45pm and from 4.30–6pm. Cart #2 is situated close to the Century Avenue Metro Exit 7 and it’s on Wei Fang Lu and Century Avenue, open from 6am-9pm.
In this cart #1 he sells his delicious Huai Nan Niu Rou Tang (淮南牛肉汤)in winter and Shann Xi Liang Pi (陝西涼皮) in summer, with the ingredients he buys at the Shanghai Nong Ye Wholesale Market (上海农业批发市场) daily. Because this cart’s business relies on the emplyees and workers from banks and other offices near by, whose employees buy his delicious creations at lunch and dinner, he doesn’t open it on weekends or public holidays. His other cart, #2, is one in which he sells the company’s food products (chicken skewers, baozi..) and he has someone covering for him (his mother actually) whilst he is in cart #1 selling his home-town’s food.
Li Fei has been working for his licensed food company since it opened in Pudong over a year ago. The name of the company is on all of the food carts (“爱心帮帮车”) and most of the cart owners near Century Avenue all know each other- since Li Fei once told us many of them come from the same province as he.
It is worth mentioning that every vendor from “爱心帮帮车” is supposed to buy food products from the company itself to sell in the company’s carts. However, these products are expensive for the type of quality they are, so many vendors like Li Fei sneakily sell their own products (such as his Huai Nan Niu Rou Tang 淮南牛肉汤). This is a great dish from his province in Anhui and it takes a lot of preparation (2h for the soup early in the morning and a lot of fresh ingredients!). His cart is super packed during lunch time as workers from banks and nearby offices heard to his cart/nest and he sells out daily during the hour and a half he’s there for. He sells one of these delicious bowls from 12RMB (14RMB if you want to add an egg) and the costumers are all regulars. Just like the vendors at the wholesale market could predict what Li Fei was coming to buy from them daily, as soon as Li Fei sees someone approaching his cart, he starts putting their regular choice of noodles to boil before they even have to tell him. (Choice of noodles range from sweetpotato to rice and you can select the herbal toppings you want)
Li Fei as the voice of a street vendor
Wefollowed him around both of his carts and asked him a couple of questions about what he thinks this legislation and attempt at formalizing this classically informal, street-food economy really means. We wanted to find out what food meant for these vendors: what role does food play in Chinese culture? Do they think this formalisation will potentially take over and there will no longer be those chuanr ladies outside on Yong Fu Lu selling over MSGed (questionably unsanitary) skewers at unreasonable hours after a night out? Is food important?
Here we have Li Fei, telling us what he thinks about the issue…
Being a street vendor is tough, specially if you’re not part of the legalized economy like Li Fei was previously. There are constant risks and pitfalls which make life as a migrant very tricky in such a big and bustling international city like Shanghai. Food is an integral part of our lives and most of us become numb to the process of making it. There is a lot that goes on behind what we see when we order a simple soup in the street and we are very grateful for Li Fei’s trust and enthusiasm to let us film him and follow him on one of his working days. He’s a very interesting person to work with since he was constantly shy but open about what he wanted to tell us. There was a sense of pride when he introduced us to his vendors at the market so it was very admirable of him to let us create our whole project around him in a way.
Here is a fun little clip we have put together of three of our favourite street-food vendors, who sell food in their “爱心帮帮车” carts on Century Avenue, like Li Fei.
by Anita Bonomi (柏悅), 尹懿 (Alice), Arianna Rodriguez (芮涵)
This interview aims to explore Muslim people’s life in Shanghai, a non-religious city. We focused on an area of Muslim market which is held every Friday in front of the Pudong mosque. We interviewed three vendors at the Friday Muslim market, and mainly concentrated on the first woman we interviewed who came to Shanghai from Turpan in 2010 with her whole family. During the process of interview, we witnessed her busy business–she even didn’t have much time to talk to us because she had to sell food to flow of customers. We generally talked about her life after coming to Shanghai and her own opinion about Shanghai and Muslim people’s life in Shanghai.
Guan Guan Ji (贯贯吉穆斯林餐厅) is a chain of three highly successful Chinese Muslim restaurants, with two branches in Ningbo (宁波), and one right here in Shanghai on the bustling Zhejiang Central Road (浙江中路) and the corner of Guangdong Road (广东路). This restaurant was first introduced to us (Lilly and Wesley) by a local Shanghainese classmate as one of Shanghai’s best Xinjiang (新疆) restaurants, where its ethnic style and mouth-watering, openly displayed array of foods were described to us as authentic. Interestingly enough, after a third visit, we learned that it is in fact not a Xinjiang restaurant, but instead encompasses cuisines from all of China’s Xibei (西北) or Northwest, with the majority of workers, including this branch’s owner, being from Gansu province (甘肃省) and of the Hui ethnic minority (回族).
See the map below for further understanding of Chinese geographical context and the relative sizes of Xinjiang and Gansu provinces.
However, this discrepancy stated above is irrelevant for a local Chinese customer simply coming for a bite to eat at an ethnic restaurant. When pulling into Zhejiang Central road, the sizzling and delicious smell from the lamb kebab cart (a notable food choice within Northwestern Chinese cuisine) in the center can be sniffed out from all the way around the corner. Faces and people of all colors and nations can be seen bustling in and out of the restaurant and around the street at late hours of the night.
The types of food sold on the street are diverse and different from traditional Chinese street food stands. Here, placed directly outside the restaurant’s main door, there are vendors selling beef and lamb skewers, Xibei style baozi, halal noodles, fruits, nuts, beans, and many different types of breads（牛肉和羊肉串儿，包子，清真菜，水果，坚果，豆子，各种各样的面包).
But, this is all before even entering the main source of food on this section of the street: Guan Guan Ji Muslim Restaurant. It is clear from a first glance that all of the workers, inside and outside, are Muslim; the men grilling the skewers and working the kitchen all wear the caps photographed above, and the women all wear the same pink headscarf (头巾) pictured below.
Additionally, the architecture and art inside of the restaurant is clearly different from a traditional Chinese, or Han restaurant that one would see selling Sichuan cuisine or Xi’an noodles. There is Xinjiang calligraphy hanging on the walls, and large photographs of famous mosques in northwestern China. The restaurant also enforces a strict NO SMOKING and NO DRINKING policy, visible on signs outside of the door and in each room of the restaurant (禁止吸烟，禁止喝酒), which coincides with the employees’ Muslim culture, as both tobacco and alcohol are considered impure and dangerous to the sacred human body. In the event that someone brings a drink or smokes inside of the restaurant, they will first be gently reminded that this is unacceptable behavior. If the customer refuses to comply, he or she will be forced to leave the premises.
Placed below is an interview during our second visit to Guan Guan Ji. Interestingly, in the video, the woman interviewed says she is from Xinjiang, when really we later learned that she is from Gansu. Her response when we asked her again later was that she was afraid we didn’t know where Gansu was.
This lead us to explore the following question: How does Xinjiang/Xibei culture and being of an ethnic minority impact the restaurant business in Shanghai? Is being from Xinjiang more prestigious than from Gansu in regards to food and authenticity?
To get further explore this question, we went back for another interview and caught up with employee 苏美玲 (Su Meiling), right after she got off of her shift at 10:00 PM on December 1st, 2015.
With Su Meiling, we discussed what it is like to be of an Ethnic minority in Shanghai, and how that directly impacts the food business in the context of Guan Guan Ji. She comes from Lanzhou (兰州), in Gansu province, but grew up in Xinjiang. She discussed how part of the appeal of the restaurant is its ethnic vibrancy, and how the inside of China itself is actually much more diverse than one would think. However, although many people think of the restaurant as mainly Xinjiang style, she explained to us how the restaurant is actually “Xibei” (西北), and includes cuisines from multiple Chinese northwestern provinces. However, to please the customers, who are notably mostly locals or of Han descent, there have been modifications made to the food and drinks to please the tastebuds of those in Shanghai.
For instance, Su Meiling talked about how Xibei food is typically a lot spicier than they make it at the restaurant. This is especially noticeable in their dish, which is one of the most popular at the restaurant, called 大盘鸡, or “big chicken plate”. She explained how many customers will come into the restaurant and directly ask for this Xinjiang style chicken, using the word Xinjiang in their order, and the waiters and waitresses know precisely what they mean. She and the other coworkers will not correct the customer; they will instead nod and promptly bring over the dish, despite the fact that their version is not made in the Xinjiang style nor is publicly advertised as such. It is instead in the Gansu style, where the majority of the employees are originally from. The differences between the two dishes comes from their preparation, the level of spiciness, and the ingredients in the sauce in which it is marinated.
I asked Su Meiling, “but what if someone directly asks you if the food is from Xinjiang?” She responded “then we will tell them that it is not, but we have never been asked that question”. She then moved on to explain that there is no need to interfere with the Guan Guan Ji’s customer feeling that he or she is having ethnically diverse food experience; something as minor as where the exact origin of the food comes from precisely is not a main priority for anyone at the restaurant.
This lead us into a conversation about Muslim culture and ethnic minorities in Shanghai, and we inquired how the restaurant may utilize this to its benefit in creating an ethnically diverse experience. It widely known that China has exposed ethnic minorities to make the country appear more diverse than its 90% Han population; during the 2008 Bejing Olympics opening ceremony all 56 minorities were represented in their traditional clothing, only to be discovered as Han children dressed in inaccurate and non-authentic outfits for the sole purpose of demonstrating China’s unity and diversity.
Su Meiling adamantly answered that Guan Guan Ji does not need to over-exaggerate Muslim culture or their Hui descent in order to provide that ethnic experience; the restaurant’s authentic nature demonstrates this diversity enough on its own. In Gansu, the Muslim restaurants actually look very similar to Guan Guan Ji, and she would wear a similar, if not the same headscarf while working at a restaurant in her hometown of Lanzhou. However, while she admits that the headscarf and hats of the employees may be an attractive factor of the restaurant and is proud of her culture, she also expresses that it is difficult for her to get a taxi on the street wearing this. Inside the restaurant is a safe-zone, but once she separates from Zhejiang Central Road, she must be extra cautious to avoid discrimination, and will remove her scarf when she feels necessary.
Although many will consider Guan Guan Ji as a Xinjiang restaurant, Su Meiling explains how at a closer look, from the food to the atmosphere, it differs from traditional Xinjiang restaurants in Shanghai. These other locations are large complexes with extravagant decorations, stages and much more expensive dishes, with nightly shows, lights, and ethnic dances. These restaurants will utilize Xinjiang culture for the pure benefit of drawing in customers, and do not look like actual restaurants in Xinjiang. Guan Guan Ji tries to maintain a more authentic vibe, in the sense that the restaurant itself, and the attire worn by the staff do both look a lot like a typical Muslim restaurant in Gansu. Therefore, Guan Guan Ji’s attraction to the customers comes from its authentically authentic nature, Su Meiling explained how Xinjiang style restaurants, the culture is hyped up for the pure purpose of profit and attraction.
Su Meiling’s remarks prompted us to embark upon what would become Phase II of our mission: sniff out these so called “authentic” Xinjiang restaurants in Shanghai and determine if Su Meiling comments were valid. Are the staff members, like Guan Guan Ji, also from Gansu? Are the traditions and practices of the Xinjiang uighur (维吾尔族) exploited for profit?
These questions brought us to the location pictured below.
And it did not take us long to find answers to these questions. Near the intersection of Taolin Road (桃林路) and YuShan Road (羽山路）a brand new Xinjiang restaurant opened in May of 2015. In fact, most returning NYU Shanghai sophomores witnessed its construction on their walk back from the Academic Building to Motel 268 only a few months ago.
The outside decor is baroque and outlandish, humbled only by what the 客人 (customer) discovers once he or she enters: a grand display of tall ceilings, portraits, patterns and chandeliers inspired from an obvious source– you guessed it: Xinjiang.
At this point in our adventure–one that Su Meiling might call a more “commercial” experience– we are a bit confused. There was a significant degree of similarity between the two restaurants: lamb kabobs were being cooked over the barbecue outside of the restaurant, small desserts (usually consisting of some mixture of golden raisins/yogurt) were placed in a glass display case by the check out counter. But these are also characteristics of Xibei restaurants. Was this really Xinjiang style? Who were we to determine authenticity?
It took Wesley all of two-minutes to get to the bottom of things. After talking with one of the dancers working at the restaurant– a woman dressed in a glamorous traditional Xinjiang gown– we discovered that only two people on staff were actually from Xinjiang: the dancer herself and the head chef working in the kitchen. The rest of the staff descended from all over China, and were notably not Muslim.
Additionally, the entire restaurant was playing Xinjiang themed music, and the focal point of Yi Pa Er Han is its center stage. Even on a Tuesday night, loud music blasts from speakers in each corner, and there are hourly dance performances by the only woman from Xinjiang, where customers are encouraged to hop up from their tables and dance with her, all for the sake of having an “authentic” eating experience.
The staff were extremely friendly and greeted us with kindness throughout the entirety of our experience– but, we were not searching for overall pleasantness, we were searching for authenticity. But, what was actually authentic about this restaurant? Whereas the entire staff of Guan Guan Ji was all from a single location, Yi Pa Er Han hired staff from all over, with the only requirement being that the dancers and head chef are from Xinjiang. The hostess, when asked about the nature of the food, said that she personally assumed that the food was all authentic, but does not know for sure. In Guan Guan Ji, Su Meiling, who was also a hostess and waitress, knew all about the food they served and the way it was manipulated to fit the tastebuds of Shanghainese customers. It seems that, although the Xinjiang restaurant went out of their way to heighten the ethnic experience with campy decorations and exotic performances, we concluded that Guan Guan Ji’s ambiance that emulates an actual Xibei Muslim restaurant without overcompensation, and a staff that knows the culture and food back and front, is more authentic than Yi Pa Er Han.
As we bid the staff farewell, Wesley made two astute observations: 1)Behind the check out counter, various types of beer and alcohol were placed high on display for the customers to buy and 2) despite the restaurants multiple signs that say no smoking, right next to the hostess, a customer lit up a cigarette and continued to smoke it inside. Our previous experience taught us that both of these practices (smoking and consuming alcohol) were absolute cannot-dos in the lives of Xinjiang and Xibei muslim men and women. The moment the hostess did not react to this man’s smoking , our question of Yi Pa Er Han’s authenticity was thrown to the flames: we were dealing with the precise type of commercialism Su Meiling described.
Our project began with a trip to the halal market outside the Pudong mosque on a chilly October morning. After chatting with some of the vendors and tasting some of the food, we were hooked, and all of work in Street Food and Urban Farming began to center around the halal market. For our second assignment we returned to the market and found a friendly couple selling 凉皮 and 肉夹馍. At first we were hesitant to approach them because they were very busy and focused on their work, but once we did not only were they extremely kind and welcoming towards us, but as it turns out, they actually supply our cafeteria halal station with bread and dumplings. In the interview they spoke about how much they enjoy coming to the halal market each week and how meaningful their work is to them; this inspired us to further explore what fosters the welcoming, lively atmosphere around the mosque and what factors led to the formation of the halal market.
The Pudong Mosque
The Pudong Mosque, located at 375 Yuanshen Road, can trace its beginnings to 1935 when an imam named Hong Changjin and a group of Muslims living in Pudong rented a space near Dongchang Road to use as a prayer room. The mosque was moved to its current location in 1995 (Zhou). Every Friday, worshippers from all over Shanghai(mostly in Pudong) gather at the mosque to attend the afternoon prayer service. In response to this influx of Muslims each week, a halal market sprung up around the mosque to cater to hungry worshippers before and after the Friday prayer service. Because the prayer service only happens once a week, the market, which depends on the mosque’s attendees for patronage, is only there on Fridays from around nine o’clock in the morning to around five or six o’clock at night.
The market is comprised largely of Muslim vendors who bring with them tents, ingredients, wares, and cooking implements to set up mobile stands from which to sell their goods. The items sold range from nuts and dried fruits to fresh meat, and from laboriously cooked stews (prepared on-site) to flash-fried dumplings. Though the vendors originally came to Shanghai from all over China, a majority of them are from Xinjiang. Within Shanghai, many live relatively close to the mosque in Pudong. Here is a link to an interactive map of the vendor locations.
Though he requested not be be filmed, the current Imam offered some insights into the community of the mosque, noting that wherever there is a mosque, there is bound to be a market to serve to the worshippers. Hailing from Yunan, he has served as the Imam for two years now, and has found that the people who attend the mosque have created a kind and peaceful community. Though only 30 to 40 people typically come to pray on weekdays, anywhere from 800 to 900 people come on Fridays, thus providing an ample audience for the weekly halal market. Much like the vendors, the worshippers come to the mosque from all over Shanghai but are primarily based in the Pudong area.
The vendors themselves echoed the Imam’s sentiments about the welcoming and enjoyable atmosphere of the mosque’s community. In particular, one couple from Xinjiang revealed that they own a successful catering and delivery business and choose to come to the market each week not from financial need, but rather because they find it a very enriching and pleasurable experience.
The man (Li) and his wife
This is the previous interview that we had with Li.
A little commentary about the area that Li works in. He and his family have several stands around the Xuhui region of Shanghai down the street from the prestigious Shanghai High School, 上海中学, and East China University of Science and Technology, 華東理工大學. The following video shows a little bit about the environment and audience that Li pursued in finding his first Jianbing stand. Student’s lined up for half an hour at Li’s brand Jianbing, in this video, it is his father and mother that operate this particular stand.
Youlou Village is a small mountain village located in the hinterland of the Yimeng Mountains of Shandong Province. For those who do not know, Shandong Province is located in between Beijing and Shanghai. Prior to the widespread culture of Jianbing in Chinese cities Youlou was a very poor village. Growing and harvesting honeysuckle was the main form of income for individuals in the village. Starting in the 1990’s, large waves of families and individuals started to leave the village. However, this is not the typical Chinese migration story that many people envisage; the hundreds of millions of rural Chinese people migrating to urban centers to work in large manufacturing or textiles operations where the notorious, cheap “Made in China” wares are produced. Rather, this is the complete opposite of that story. Many of the villagers of Youlou who left the village did not leave in the typical “Chinese migration fashion.” They became entrepreneurs. They spread out all throughout China, though concentrating in large cities, and became the jianbing vendors that many people know, admire, and love.
By 2004, the cityscape of Youlou had changed dramatically. Out of the 1226 people, around 362 families, whose hukou states they are domiciled within the village, well more than half had left to seek the treasures of selling Jianbing. Over a ten year period of development, the Jianbing industry exploded. This industry came out of nowhere. The, roughly, 700 Youlou villagers who had left the village were generating profits of more than ￥20 million RMB, around $4.35 million USD in 2015 values.
Li’s mother’s thoughts about the development of Youlou.
Jianbing fit into the fast, casual dining culture that developed within Chinese cities. This largely contributed to the widespread success of this dish – besides the fact that is it delicious. Although the selling of jianbing allowed villagers who had left Youlou to produce quite substantial profits, a vast majority of these were sent back to their families in the village. Thus, Youlou got rich. Planning among the villagers allowed for a unified development of the village to take advantage of the millions of renminbi flowing into the city every year. Over the last few years, such planning has led to the development of 38 new buildings within the city as well as the development and upgrading of internet and telecommunications infrastructure within the region. Moreover, such funds have allowed for the maintenance and development of basic utilities such as roads, water, and electricity infrastructure within the village. Many of these basic amenities have been less well maintained and developed within the surrounding villages of the region. Leaving the standard of living for those within Youlou far better than the surrounding area.
Jianbing Making Contest — A New Spring Festival Tradition in Youlou Village
Although Li never attended the Jianbing Contests, he told me that his fastest record is 21 seconds making one Jianbing.
(another video that focuses more on the contest itself.)
History of Jianbing
During our interview with Li, we learned a lot about the history of jianbing. Shandong-style Jianbing experienced a major transformation during the 1990s. A Bite Of China is a phenomenal TV based documentary about the history of Chinese food and its transformations over time. There is actually a very interesting segment within this show that documents the making of traditional Shandong-style Jianbing before the transformation in the 1990’s. (30:45 – 34:38) [This episode is about the interesting dynamics of Chinese breakfast from is incorporation in daily life 2,000 years ago. Watch the other seasons, it is an extremely interesting documentary about Chinese food culture!]
Jianbing’s history according to Li’s mother.
It was during the 1990’s when one of the Youlou villagers who had left created a new style of Jianbing. This style of Jianbing is the Shanghai-style Jianbing – it is far easier and quicker to make than the ‘original’ style. Rather than Shandong-style Jianbing which typically has a more salty character to it, the Shanghai-style Jianbing is much sweeter and plays on the tastes of the Shanghainese, and, in general, people from the south. With the Shanghai-style Jianbing obsession began. Many people came to Shanghai to learn how to make this new style of jianbing. With this new recipe in mind, Youlou villagers spread throughout the country, selling jianbing.
Strictly speaking, the new style of Jianbing has only 20 years of history. The origin of this new Jianbing is actually Shanghai, not Shandong. According to Li, the Shandongese, 山东人, do not use the sweet sauce that it is now typically found in jianbing. It was for the Shanghainese people that the recipe changed. The sweet sauce that truly made jianbing such a hit in Shanghai was the sweet sauce – a base of flour, sugar, and soy sauce.
Since that time, the Jianbing industry has exploded. There are now thousands of vendors selling Jianbing all around the country – many of which are Shandong residents but not from the original founding village of Youlou. Moreover, this has truly changed the landscape of Jianbing equipment. Prior to the mass demand of this street food around the country, Jianbing equipment was fairly specialized. Professionally made equipment cost in the range of several hundred USD which led to most vendors using handcrafted kitchenware. But this landscape is different now. Many of the large kitchen supplies manufacturers produce their own versions of the Jianbing hotplate. As seen below, this equipment is easily found on online marketplaces, like Taobao, and are fairly inexpensive to purchase.
#Jianbing to Youlou People
During our interview, Li told us that while in elementary school he was embarrassed by the fact that his parents were Jianbing vendors in Shanghai. This embarrassment stemmed, not from a shame that his parents were vendors but, from the criticism and harassment that he would get from his classmates. However, this scene in Youlou has changed. The idea that families who sold jianbing were less than well off is now nonexistent. Introducing someone that “he sells Jianbing in Shanghai” now implies “he lives a decent life.” Not something to heckle someone about.
Now, the jianbing industry has gone as far as to dramatically alter the social scene within Youlou. There is now a large, a growing acceptance of people marrying into jianbing selling families. Particularly for the woman’s family, there has become more willingness to allow their daughter to marry men selling jianbing since they know that this ensures they will have a fairly good life. What we now find is a consolidation of the families in Youlou. Moreover, we find that more than ever before families are now directly associated with the jianbing trade.
Moreover, while talking with Li, we learned that finding a good location set up a Jianbing stand is far more difficult than many people realize. Li planned to set up a new Jianbing stand at NYU Shanghai, 上海纽约大学, campus. But upon learning that there was another Youlou vendor near to the NYU campus, Li decided to hold his stand by Shanghai High School.
This was not, though, a solo effort undergone by Li. Youlou Village understands its welfare is dependent of the success of the jianbing vendors all over the country. They have put tremendous effort into a network that we call the Youlou People’s National Network. This is a large database and network of all villagers who have left Youlou to sell jianbing. It works in a similar way to Chinese-American Employment Centers in the United States that serve to place Chinese in American jobs. The Youlou People’s National Network helps the villagers of Youlou find locations throughout China to set up stands. They also have lists of recipes that that play to the different tastes of different regions throughout China. Youlou villagers, thus, have an advantage to other vendors of food. They know the good locations, the spheres of influence that different vendors in locations have, and the recipes that are known to succeed. The market research needed to enter a market has already been done; there is no need to roll the dice for a successful venture for the people of Youlou. Granted, there are market risks that these vendors face – failure is always a possible outcome. But the people of Youlou understand the importance the jianbing trade has on their livelihood. Creating this network gives the vendors of Youlou every possible opportunity for successfully starting an enterprise thereby helping turn Youlou into a greater success story.
An interesting dilemma occurs for those of Youlou Village selling jianbing around the country, none of them have local hukou. Li pointed out during his interview with us that he and his family currently do not have a Shanghai hukou. Interestingly, though, for his everyday life activities, Li finds that this does not create many problems for him and his family. It is only when it comes to housing, education, healthcare, and other State funded or subsidized programs do issues really start to present themselves. Li describes this dichotomy very curtly.
“IT’S JUST THAT WE ARE LESS PRIVILEGED THAN SHANGHAI CITIZENS.”
Li and his family make an extremely good living from the small business that they run. They have quite an impressive operation going on, they run two Jianbing stands near the Shanghai High School area (上海中学), one Jianbing stand near Xujiahui (徐家汇) as well as one Youtiao stand. From these four stands they run, the Li family makes about ￥4,000 RMB a day, about $625 USD. Over a year they make around ￥1.4 million RMB a year – a whopping $227,000 USD a year. This, coming from the most humble street food vendor we have met truly took our breath away. For those thinking about dropping out of law school, we must note that this vast success from the Li family did not come overnight. Li’s father started selling Jianbing in Shanghai over 30 years ago.
Moreover, while talking with Li, we learned that running a Jianbing stand is far more difficult than many people realize. Li gets up at 4 AM every day to sell Jianbing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that Li only gets to take the morning shift at the stand. He has a huge afternoon workload that he also needs to accomplish. During the afternoon, Li prepares the Cuibing (脆饼, crispy wonton in Jianbing) and the sweet sauce needed for the next day. Li believes that the reason his food sells so well is because his materials are so fresh. This means that Li makes sure to make a fresh stock of supplies everyday without fail.
Future of Jianbing
Li hopes to expand his Jianbing business. Youlou is only starting to develop. We find as jianbing spreads across China and the world, it will become the General Tso of the streets.
Interested in Li’s Jianbing? Message Sam Chen for Li’s locations: firstname.lastname@example.org
Interviews, editing, and commentary were done by – Alec Roscoe & Sam Chen
As a group we claimed the JinQiao area from the very beginning as we eat street food every night and having the area that encompassed the vendors we interacted with on a daily basis would allow us to gain insightful and accurate information. When the time for the interview came we more or less knew who we wanted to interview, and just had to choose the vendor who had the best story to tell and would be the most willing to help us through the project. Our first choice in vendors was a group of three brothers from Inner Mongolia. However not everything in life works out the way we want, and the person we were planning to interview, the one brother who did speak Mandarin was not there the day we planned on doing the interview, so we went with our second choice – a 高 family selling skewers. (In case you are not very familiar with Chinese street food, you’ll find the following section useful) Everything happens for a reason, and the second choice turned out far better than we ever could have imagined.
Through the process we discovered that there was quite a deep backstory to this family and decided to dig deeper, tracing the story of their business: why they came to Shanghai, specifically Pudong, and when, as well as why they decided to sell chuar, how profitable it is and what their future plans are in the food industry.
Chinese Street Food Skewers/ Chuan/Chuanr (Chinese: 串儿 chuàn ér／ 烧烤 shāokǎo)
Simple snack with many variations, originated as Yangrou chuan/羊肉串 (Lamb Skewer). 串儿 are bite-size bits of meat/vegetables/tofu/fish/anything you can imagine skewered on bamboo/wooden stick, covered in a mixture of grounded spices, such as cumin, chili, salt and grilled over coals. It originated in Xinjiang Province in the northwest of China (a province neighboring Gansu Province, where our vendors are from), and recently spread throughout China as a popular street food. It reflects traditions and preferences of Central Asia and Uighur people. 串儿 is in pretty much any “must try in china” lists, check this one out and find out what else you should try in Shanghai.
Also, if you don’t have a chance to go and get an authentic 串儿, you can make one at home. Here is a recipe for delicious spicy lamb skewers!
The street food 串儿 business we are looking at is operated by a whole family. It consists of a married couple (grandparents) and their two sons. Older son has a wife and small child.
This family began their migration to Shanghai in 2001, 14 years ago. Their friends who had successfully made the transition into street food vendors in the city told the family that it was possible to make a living there. Leaving their home province of Gansu behind in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their family, the Grandparents, as we will refer to them, left their 2 children behind with the great grandparents (their parents) while they created a foothold in Shanghai. They sold everything that was not completely essential to them and created a small fund with which they would start their new lives. With this money they purchased their first cart, a 1,200 RMB combined chuar grill, bicycle and food display table.
They settled in the Jinqiao area, where we met them, about 4 years ago but have been selling chuar in Pudong since they have been in Shanghai.
They knew they wanted to be in Pudong because they could see that this is where the growth in the city was coming from and the market for street food was not as saturated as it was in Puxi. What is more, they told us that one of the other reasons why they chose Pudong is because it has a lot of residential communities, so it wasn’t that difficult for them to find the customers, as long as they put their cart in front of an apartment complex. As the city grew they moved out of the city center to where the residential areas popped up. They sent money home when they could and visited their children during the holidays. After being in the city for about a year they brought their kids into the city to live with them. They were very ambiguous from this time period up until their move to the current location at Jinqiao. During this time period we do know that the eldest son did marry and had a boy who is now 5 years old.
After 2 years of working at their current location they had saved up enough money (combined with previous savings) to buy the empty space directly adjacent to where they had been selling chuar.
They had originally been renting a very small room to store excess food in a freezer as well as long lasting ingredients such as garlic and decided it was time to branch out from the food cart and open up a restaurant.
They continue to rent the freezer space as well as a two story restaurant space and a kitchen. Since the purchase of the restaurant, the youngest son has been working part time, he spends the rest of his time self studying Mandarin and he is now able to fluently read and write, although he continues his studies everyday. He is the only member of his family that is able to read write and speak fluently.
Each member of the family has their jobs to do. The grandmother has arguably the most important job of the entire family, she is tasked with waking up at the crack of dawn and heading off to the market to get there by five so that she is able to get the best ingredients each and every morning. Her tireless work is apparent when you look at the food that this family is selling. Where many chuar stands sell limp and average sized vegetables or tendon filled meat, this stand is completely different. By being the first at the market every morning the grandmother is able to pick out the choice ingredients, and because of their industrial refrigerator and freezer and the restaurant they have, the turnover rate for ingredients is extremely high, much higher than that of most chuar stands causing their ingredients to always be fresh.
The grandfather oversees the restaurant during the day and at night assists his youngest son in cooking the chuar. On occasion, when his grandson is at the restaurant you will see him playing with the child or teaching him. The wife of the eldest son runs the restaurant and oversees the ayis that also work at the restaurant.
The eldest son works in the kitchen, which is detached from the restaurant and situated directly behind the chuar stand.
While eating at the stand you see a constant stream of plates and bowls going back and forth between the two buildings which are about 15 meters apart. The younger brother runs the chuar stand along with his father (we refer to as grandfather). The grandfather collects the money from the guests and delivers the chuar to guests at the pop up tables they arrange outside of the restaurant. If it is raining exceptionally cold outside they don’t set up the tables and all customers are invited to sit in the restaurant. The grandson acts as the entertainment source for all customers at the restaurant and chuar stand running around and jumping off ledges and tables. The child was shy when we first met this family and would run away to his mother when we attempted to talk to him, but over the months he has come to enjoy seeing us and will run over to us, as he is often surprised with an ice cream cone.
The market itself is worth mentioning. We asked our family of vendors to show us where they get their ingredients and we had the youngest son take us to the market where his mother buys the ingredients daily.
He showed us how first they walk around between all the vegetable vendors and pick out the biggest and best produce from each vendor to ensure that they are getting the best that is offered each day. This is done every day; however, other ingredients, such as meat and fish, are bought on a slightly less common basis ranging from weekly to bi-monthly.
The rent for the kitchen restaurant and freezer space is 15,000 RMB per month and after paying this as well as the wages of the workers and the cost of food, they are able to make roughly 2,500-3,000 RMB per day profit from the restaurant. They are currently saving money and looking for additional space where they can open another restaurant in Shanghai. Money is still being sent back home to the great grandparents who still reside in the hometown. The youngest son hopes to save up money of his own and open up a “Big BBQ joint” back in his hometown where he will be able to work and raise his kids in the near future. He has currently saved up about 10,000 kuai for this.
Find a location – Location is ESSENTIAL to starting your own street food cart. ESPECIALLY if you want to avoid trouble. First off, make sure you’re not selling on another vendor’s turf, and that you position your cart on fair, unclaimed property (unless you ask them, of course). But that doesn’t mean you’re free to willy-nilly sell about; if you cause too much of an inconvenience, the chengguan are happy to escort you off the streets! Indeed, chengguan, civil police units in charge of tidying up the streets, have been known to cause street vendors trouble, as street vending is technically illegal. But as long as there is demand, there is supply. Also, make sure your street cart is easily accessible by customers! Which brings me to my next point…
Know your market – Who are you selling to? Are you setting up shop in an urban part of town, where you know people will stroll along or stumble across in the middle of a pub crawl? Or is it a quiet part of the city with not much activity during sundown? Make sure you figure this out before you begin your culinary enterprise. Offer drinks alongside your food? (with a ridiculously high markup, of course).
Buy your resources with initial capital – Ah, yes, you need to spend money to make money. That is indeed the case here. But in reality, initial startup costs for a street food cart aren’t necessarily quite high. A decent cart, as we asked around, costs about 1200 kuai, a small refrigerator/freezer costs about 2000 kuai, and buying the food and sticks in order to sell them… Prepare to spend about 4000 kuai (should you want a fridge) before you will see any revenue. And who knows how long it will take until you figure out how to properly allocate your capital…
Learn to grill skewers – I guess this could fit at any step in the timeline. Also kind of a given. Unless you’re lazy, and are okay with nonchalantly giving your customers generous doses of food poisoning.
Keep an inventory of your stock and prices – Here is where it may be a good idea to buy that 2000 kuai fridge; with it you can store some of the leftover stock/food from the night before, and if stored properly, you can reuse it the next night! This way, not everything you don’t sell is a waste, resulting in a loss of money. Also, a big thing is to adjust your prices accordingly. If your lamb skewer is 5 kuai and that is too expensive, perhaps lowering the price will increase sales of that certain skewer. Instead of letting it sit and rot for the flies to eat. That do not give you money. And if your chicken skewer at 1 kuai is always selling out, perhaps consider raising the price, so that you make more of a profit off of it. The key: ADJUST ACCORDINGLY.
Make money selling chuar! – $ Cha-Ching! $ Use that money and improve your business! Who knows, maybe you’ll follow in the footsteps of the family we interviewed, and start a restaurant, with a daily revenue of around 4000 kuai! They started from the bottom, and now the whole team here!
While the overall profit of 34,200 per month may seem like a large sum of money, one must remember that until recently this was used to support a family of 6 plus their family back home, and the money is earned in a difficult manner This sum must cover rent and food for the family, sent back home to cover the living expenses of the great grandparents, and finally saved so that one day they would be able to buy a restaurant. The vendor is standing outside for the entire night cooking food inhaling smoke, then spending the next day gathering new ingredients and creating the chuar. This is a full time job that is tedious work and drains individuals.
After analyzing all of the costs that are associated with running a chuar stand, it is interesting that so little is spent on bread and vegetables. Everyone knows that meat is far more expensive than either of these two products but the vendors also sell exponentially more bread and vegetables than they do meat, yet they spend 300% more on meat per month. The skewers are also slightly more expensive than we had imagined going in. We initially estimated the skewers at roughly 1 fen each (.1 mao = .01 kuai), however we later learned they they actually cost about 4 fen each, leading to a total cost of about 6% of their total expenses. The storage costs for this family are slightly higher than that of other street food vendors in that they rent physical space to store their industrial freezers and fridges right next to where they set up their cart. After interviewing other vendors we learned that they almost exclusively use freezers in their home and bring frozen chuar in boxes to the location, having to anticipate exactly how much they will sell that night. This leads to lower costs, but also causes many vendors to sell out of food. This family does not have any issues with this as they have ease of access to their storage facility. The family said that the cost of the storage space did not initially pay for itself financially until the purchase of the restaurant, but it did ease their lives and they said that this was worth it for them. Aside from the initial cost of about 2,000 RMB (average of many street food vendors) for a freezer, most vendors do not have the same storage costs that are associated with this family, leading to higher margins and profit, but is something that makes this family unique, and unbeknownst to them may have partially led to their success. Their use of only the freshest ingredients and always having what customers wanted, never running out may have brought customers back time and time again. This paired with their kindness and willingness to engage in conversation brought us back to them.
As represented here in this price/earnings comparison graph, where the blue line resembles the maximum profit line (a selling price of 5 giving a profit of 5) shows the profitability of each select skewer. The proximity to the blue line of each dot represents how profitable it is: the closer it is to the line, the more profitable. It turns out, from the graph, that the veggies, while generally cheaper in price to buy and to sell, generate a higher profit, as the chuar workers are able to charge a high markup for the amount of food they can stick on a skewer. For example, if a huge bundle of green beans sold for 6 kuai, they could make probably around 30 skewers from that, and in turn, about 30 kuai (price of 1 green bean skewer is 1 kuai, as are almost all veggies). Green beans were in fact the most profitable veggie (aside from the bread bun skewer). Veggies are incredibly cheap to buy, giving these chuar vendors their main source of income. But do they make more from the veggies or the meats?
As for the meats, it appears that the meats tend to be more regulated in price, and the chuar vendors charge less of a markup for each skewer and in turn receive less profit from each one. The outlier of this graph, at a price of 15 and profit of 8.6 kuai, is the fish skewer, which literally is a whole grilled fish that you can eat for 15 kuai. They generate a lot of money per skewer from it, but the fish is also quite expensive, and so they do not make as much of a profit from it as the most profitable meat, the lamb (the dot located at a price of 3 and profit of 2.13 kuai). Through comparison, it appears that the chuar vendors get a high markup profit from the veggies, and less so from the meats, but combined with the expense charts from before, it is discovered that the bulk of their income actually comes from the sale of their meats. Because the vendors buy so much meat itself, it makes sense that this occurs.
The street food cart was very successful for this family, and by saving the money they made from it, they were able to open up an even more profitable restaurant. This restaurant combined with the chuar cart have created a very successful family business which continues to grow. The family now lives very comfortably and continues to grow their business. The family has told us that they are currently looking for more areas to open new restaurants. This is a great example of how small scale entrepreneurship was able to lift a family from poverty.
Meet Co-Founder Jamie Barys
- Jamie is originally from Tennessee and first came to China to study abroad in Beijing during her undergraduate years at the American University, located in Washington D.C.
- About two months after graduating, Jamie came to Shanghai in July 2007. She first worked in PR marketing advertising, and then moved into food writing, and in December 2010 started UnTour Shanghai with her business partner Kyle, also an American University graduate.
- She had a couple bad first instances with food when first in China… (see recording below for more!)
“ I wanted to know everything I could know about the food I was eating, in order to have a good experience, so a month into my program I could order a banquet but I couldn’t tell a taxi driver where to go.”
How Jamie started UnTour
- Usually if street food is good, there is a bit of a queue. Jamie would get in line and chat with the other Chinese in line to ask what it is and why it is so tasty. She also used this to practice her Chinese!
- Jamie was previously writing on food, so she already had a good relationship with a lot of the vendors.
- Her first tour, the breakfast tour, was in her old neighborhood so she had been going to the vendors for quite a while.
- When vetting new vendors, she and her co-founder Kyle would spend 3 to 6 months checking out new vendors. The hardest thing in the China dining scene is consistency, so adding a new vendor is not as simple as it may seem. Also, by consistently going to the vendors they get to know your face and you get to know them. Then they’ll let you in their kitchen and talk more about the food such as where it’s from. You get to even hear their stories, which Jamie notes are often quite sad (listen below for the full story).
What’s unique about Shanghai’s street food?
- IT’S DISAPPEARING QUICKLY. The food streets keep getting torn down by the chengguan. Roads in the French Concession are constantly disappearing.
“We kind of keep our fingers crossed and keep asking our vendors if they think they’re going to stay open. We try to stay one step ahead.”
- Additionally, Shanghai flavors are generally sweet. But, the good thing about Shanghai is that you can get the best foods from all around China. On the other hand, if you go further inland, you’re not going to get excellent Shanghainese food elsewhere.
“You can eat everywhere in China in just Shanghai.”
- Lost Plate tours show all sides of “food lover’s paradise” Xi’an from its small pedestrian alleys to its popular eateries off the beaten path
- Tours finish at a local brewery featuring the only craft beer in Xi’an
- Prices range from $39–59 USD
- Hong Kong Foodie Tours are fully licensed by Hong Kong Travel Agent Registry
- Member of HATA (Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents) and TIC (Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong), with certain tours recommended and supported by Hong Kong Tourism Board
- Prices range from $92–115 USD
- O’ngo Food Communicationsoriginally began promoting
- Korean food and culture via books, video, research, and consulting, but decided to focus on culinary tourism as a means of sharing Korean culture
- Prices range from $40–350 USD
- Bangkok Food Tours have been featured on the Loney Planet, Travel + Leisure, CNNgo, and many more
- Certificate of Excellence from the Senate of Thailand & Thailand Tourism Award 2013
- Prices range from $30–90 USD
- Food Tour in Delhi offers a plethora of tours from chef tours and introduction to spices to tea tasting and shopping tours accompanied by snacks
- ”A lot of very good photo-opportunities and bragging rights are on line”
- Customize their tours to the specific desires of their guests
- Prices range from $45–120 USD
Culinary Tourism Consumer Analysis
All of these tours emphasize taking away the anxiety from street food tours- breaking down the barriers of language, miscommunication, and misunderstanding. With foreigner qualms about sanitation and safety, street food tours provide a trusted guide to exploring the allegedly most authentic cuisine of a culture. The anxiety and skepticism from exploring the food of a culture is eased in these English-speaking, guided tours. Many of the photos advertising the street food tours online are full of Westerners, likely to make people feel more uncomfortable in these new foreign surroundings. Generally, all of the webites are enticing to traveler foodies with clean graphic design, extensive photographs, and easy to follow explanations and links. Furthermore, children are almost always provided with discounts, making the tours a family-friendly affair.
Something that we noticed in analyzing all of these tours is that they are consistently rated at the top of their categories on TripAdvisor. Some people, particularly millenials, enjoy seeking out food specialities and adventures themselves- via social media research, blogs, and independent exploration. However, food tours take the work and stress out of the equation; people know that they are getting knowledgable guides and access to allegedly the best street food that a city has to offer, they are oftentimes getting transportation arranged, and a mini cultural lesson about the city. Terms llike, “mom-and-pop” eateries, hidden treasures, off the beaten track, and hole-in-the-wall are frequently used. Furthermore, the intimacy of the tour sizes contributes largely to why people come out with such great experiences are reviews. Many of them even return to do the tours again, bringing along with them new friends to explore the culture along with them.
Expansion A lot of these tours that focus on a specific neighborhood or time of day end up expanding into an assortment of different tour options. From bar crawls to full day tours to cooking classes to tea tasting and spice classes, there is clearly a large market for people wanting to educate themselves about a variety of cultural aspects. Furthermore, the organizers of these tours oftentimes have close relations; for example, Untour Shanghai will offer discounts if you mention that you were referred from Hong Kong Foodie. The customers on these tours are likely to recommend these tours to future friends and family, and contribute to the growing cycle of foodie travelers.
Local culture/sightseeing Many of the tours highlight how they introduce the local culture to customers via food. For example, Xi’an tours lead people to one of China’s oldest and largest markets where “you will really get to experience the local life.” Delhi’s tours also incorporate sightseeing, exploring different neighborhoods including Chawadi Bazar, Connaught Place, and Gurudwara Bangla Sahib.
Additionally, two That’s Shanghai food editors, Tongfei Zhang and Zoe Zha, told us a story about one of their friends who informally ran a street food tour in Shanghai. They pointed out that their friend wanted to use street food to spread cultural awareness and education about the Shanghainese culture.
(Listen below for a great story about a small French Concession home told by Jamie!)
Expats Furthermore, many of the people who have opened these street food tours are actually expats or non-natives themselves. When Jamie was first starting UnTour and explaining her plan for the tours, the Chinese vendors did not understand why she wanted to bring foreigners to these cheap stands. They all said, why don’t you bring them to a nice restaurant? She had to explain that this is what foreign tourists wanted; they wanted to see the local food, not eat at an expensive Western restaurant.
Meaning of Authenticity With street food, authenticity is not marred as it frequently is in restaurants or abroad. For example, Thai cuisine’s trademark is the chili pepper. Sometimes the spice level of the dishes is used as a measure of nativity or authenticity, so when restaurants offer a heat scale, they are technically compromising the authenticity. All meals are catered to the customers’ often milder palates, so the meals are not always fully authentic. Allowances to authenticity are also prevalent with ingredient substitution, oftentimes when indigenous ingredients are either unavailable or too exotic for general palates (Long 57). This is particularly prevalent with the phenomenon of “American Chinese” cuisine. Therefore, customers seek these street food vendors as to get the “real deal” dishes- without any ingredient compromises or settlements. They want xiaolongbao served fresh from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, rather than from an Americanized joint with photos of the Great Wall and Oriental dragons on the walls. On the other side of the experience, food tour organizers likely curate their tours as to create generally universally appealing menus. The dishes on their tours are probably just foreign enough to make people feel as if they are getting a very authentic peek into the culture. This is an example of how this culinary tourism is a form of glocalization- the interaction of regional and global markets: thinking globally and acting locally.
Food Media It is important to remark how the food industry has exploded in the media within recent history. Food celebrities, food trends on social media, and cultures eating food different than their own are all phenomenons introduced within the past decade or two. “The culture of celebrity chefs and the obsession with food has permeated everything, including travel.Travellers have become obsessed with being authentic, in whatever culture they are going to, and one of the most important ways to do that is eating local.”
Booming Food Tourism Industry Every major city now has at least one, maybe a couple food tours. A lot more tourists will now go on a food tour instead of a walking tour nowadays. “Food is so interactive and speaks in a language that everyone can understand, where as a lot of these other tours, if you’re talking about architecture, people who don’t have a background in it, they don’t really get it, they won’t enjoy it. Whereas food everyone eats. Everyone loves food. It is one of the three things that you need to survive, so I think that really helps a lot. It’s an interest for everyone, so you have more people reviewing, the more people the higher rep it gets.” Tours in Asia are especially more interesting to native English speakers because these tours bring people to places they could never find alone. Therefore, it makes sense that such niche tours have amassed such popularity.
Changing Demographics of Customers Food tours have become increasingly popular among younger tourists with popular cities such as Shanghai attracting younger backpackers. “It’s interesting because we always ask what hotel people are staying at and it used to be Waldorf, Peninsula, Grand Hyatt, Park Hyatt, and now its like Mingtao Youth Hostel.” Additionally, specifically in Shanghai, the tours are roughly 75% travellers and 25% local expats. Some customers are also repeat customers, who either live in Shanghai or visit regularly for conferences.
Motivations Guides on these food tours are mainly expats, but tours do have local guides as well. It is important for the guides to be able to understand the Westerners needs but also be able to communicate well with the vendors. Westerners often look to their expat guides to ask them the sensitive questions they cannot ask locals. For example, in Shanghai, many travelers often had Chinese guides previous to Shanghai, so when they do have a Western guide, they are able to ask all the sensitive questions they felt uncomfortable asking locals.
Food tours are currently a booming industry in global cities worldwide. Customers are seeking these tours as a means of experiencing authentic foreign cultures.
”Not only do food experiences organize and integrate a particularly complex set of sensory and social experiences in distinctive ways, but also they form edible chronotopes (sensory space-time convergences). The capacity of food to hold time, place, and memory is valued all the more in an era of hypermobility” (Long XIII).
Many of these tourists are making memories that will last them a lifetime, especially because these experiences are so exotic for them and involve so many new sensations.
In the modern city, where issues surrounding quality of life are perhaps their most distinct, the question of livability raises its head harshly when considering food access. Having the ability to buy food near the place where you live is a factor that determines the standard of living in cities across the world. Globally, as the populations of cities become larger and their social classes more stratified, the availability of food sources is less and less certain. Street food has long remedied these issues, providing a consistent source of nourishment, work, and sociality to the communities it belongs to. Mexican peddlers sell seasoned fruit and boiled corn in California. Along Parisian boulevards, North African immigrants sell crêpes. While it is available in many forms across the world, street food has never been held in high esteem.
More recently, however, street food’s reputation has ascended from the unsavory city neighborhood to take on a new identity as an eclectic foodie hotspot. Food trucks paved the road for this rise to new heights beginning in Los Angeles where they had long been upheld as a convenient and economical way for low-income communities to eat familiar foods without hauling them from home. The food truck was forever metamorphosized into an alternative and hip food destination when Chef Roy Choi and his partners brought Korean barbeque to the taco stand in 2008 with the opening of his Kogi Korean BBQ Truck. Two years later, Food Network premiered The Great Food Truck Race. The acquisition had begun.
For the modern foodie, what greater food adventure than Asia. Shanghai is particularly alluring as a tourist destination because it is Chinese, which is exotic and alluring in a fetishizing sense, but also is a well-developed city with a healthy infrastructure to support tourism and more reliable standards of living and sanitation. Numerous articles have been written on the matter of street food abroad, naturally. Food has been an essential part of tourism for a while now. However, street food is an enjoying unprecedented appreciation in recent years. Street food in Shanghai is absolutely no exception and what better to portray this recognition than the handy-dandy listicle (a.k.a. an article written in the form of a list). An analysis of the first few search hits on “shanghai street food” give us several similarities and observations.
Several articles act as convenient encyclopedias to identify various street foods available for the tourist. They generally characterize the various types of food as points on a checklist. “Don’t Leave Shanghai Without Trying These Five Street Foods” one article is titled. The idea of missing the food at all suggests that the intended audience of the article is a person just passing through the city. Advertising the food to travelers characterizes the food as a fun treat rather than a regular source of nourishment. One article describes meat kebabs “Perfectly seasoned with cumin and paprika, they make for a perfect ending to any night out.” By assigning the food a social context such as a late night alcohol-induced binge, the author turns the food from dinner to beer nuts.
Aside from that, the author also takes the liberty to define what is and is not quintessentially Shanghainese street food. These articles generally make these choices with the intention of helping readers find the most authentic experience they can. Generally, authentic entails something very out of the ordinary for the tourist but may forego the items more often taken for granted. For example, fried rice can be found ubiquitously throughout the Shanghai street food scene.
The fact that it is so familiar to readers, however, means that the item is seldom mentioned in articles geared toward travellers.
A perpetual search for the most authentic of exoticized foods can be interpreted based on the ideas of Roland Barthes and his thoughts on social capital. While being wine-savvy is still held in high regard, the street value of knowledge on the most foreign ingredients and dishes, as of recently, holds value as well.
While knowledge of the foods themselves is desirable, even more highly sought after are the locations of the best examples of them. Despite being articles about street food, many of the listicles listed a suggested address to go along with each entry, thus taking the street out of street food. This step may seem contradictory to the search for the authentic however it’s a predictable step as street food becomes destination tourism.
Some articles go so far as to list Shanghai’s street food hotspots. Something worrisome about this kind of over-simplification is that the article twists the reality of street food in Shanghai into a treasure hunt rather than realizing that street food is commonplace throughout the city. Another issue with identifying destinations for street food is alteration of practices to suit the new customers. It’s not to say that the new food is inauthentic but rather to note that the food is not necessarily the same thing they came looking for/what the locals eat.
In order to investigate this issue, Roz and I visited a couple of The Top-5 Pick of Shanghai’s Street Food Spots. We wanted to see if there were a substantial number of tourists visiting these “hot spots” mentioned in one of the articles. Some of the mentioned places were for a specific vendor, so we chose a place that sounded like it had more of a street food “scene” with multiple vendors, as opposed to searching for one specific vendor. We were directed to a West Fangbang Road near Laoximen Station , as depicted on the map given on the website. When we arrived, however, there was not much to be seen in terms of food vendors. Rather, we saw many mom and pop clothing stores, shoe stores, a few fruit stalls, and various other small businesses. We wondered if there would be more food vendors if we progressed further down the street, but we managed to only find one baozi stall, one youtiao stall, and one congyoubing seller, all spread a fair distance apart from each other. Furthermore, it was a highly residential street, with no other foreigners to be seen except for the two of us. We decided to return to the train station and research a bit more. Turns out we were directed to the wrong end of Fangbang Road, and were supposed to be at the end of the road near Yuyuan Gardens.
We made the trip one stop back to the highly crowded tourist attraction, then walked about twenty minutes or so to the proper Fangbang Road. When we got there, we did see more street food vendors, but it was also a very densely
populated commercial street, full of souvenir shops and small clothing stores. The higher presence of foreigners was attributed to the area’s proximity to the Yuyuan Gardens, but I didn’t observe many of them buying street food. We wandered off into a small street a bit away from the main commercial road, and found a very residential community — no fuss or frills that came with the bright lights of the souvenir shops and bus ticket sellers. We saw a woman selling fresh dried noodles, someone selling youtiao, as well as a small wet market that we took a quick walk through.
Fangbang Middle road did have a bit more to offer in terms of street food, as well as a decent foreign tourist presence, but that was mainly due to the
street’s proximity to a major tourist attraction. It seems that Shanghai’s efforts to “clean up the streets” has made it harder to find large areas of street food in comparison to the past, which makes following such “hot spot” website guides difficult, as many were written a few years ago.
In contrast to the various articles referenced earlier, there are some videos that show a different side to the street food industry. Eddie Huang, chef and owner of Baohaus in New York City, went to Shanghai as part of his Munchies series for VICE. In the first third of the Shanghai episode, he shows a day in the life of a street food vendor named Wang Qiuxiang, who sells grilled skewers/chuan on the intersection of Ningxia Road and Baiyu Road. He doesn’t make any attempts to glamorize her lifestyle, or even depict her as a pitiful person trying to make ends meet. He shows her life for what it is, and her personal view of her lifestyle. It’s her reality, and this video’s approach doesn’t deter the audience from seeing that.
“This is their life, man. The thing that really hit home was that she said: ‘I’m just happy, that everything I need is in these two hands, and I feel rewarded.’ All the things that she said really reminded me of the nomads I met at Mongolia. In the Mongolia episode, the difference is that, we almost blame the city. We felt like the city was eating up their way of life. But they found a way to live in the city, find happiness, and do it on your own terms — even in a city as big as Shanghai.”
The overall tone of the video is quite light, but that is attributed to the attitudes of the subject and interviewer. It does not affect the audience’s ability to see that her and her husband have a less-than-ideal lifestyle. Many of the aforementioned articles do not address street food vendors as whole persons that must maintain certain lifestyles in order to make their living. Rather they just highlight the food being sold and whether or not that food is worth buying. The video, however, addresses Mrs. Wang foremost as a person, a singular identity, who is doing what she needs to to make a living.
The drama film Man Push Cart takes a heavier approach, depicting someone who doesn’t feel particularly fulfilled by his lifestyle. Although dramatized for the sake of pathos, it does again show the reality of the life for some street food vendors.
The protagonist in the film has a very sad story, but none of his customers ever see him beyond his role as their morning coffee guy. It allows the audience remember that the street food vendors are more than just men in carts selling food. There are reasons that they are there, living the way they do. The film sheds light on the protagonist as a whole person beyond the momentary acquaintance of street food vending.
While there is nothing wrong with appreciating food, it is important to remember the background behind certain food cultures. Street food has become a “trendy item” of sorts in foodie culture, particularly in the United States, evident from the rise in the food truck movement. In places like Shanghai, however, street food is a common, necessary part of life, both for the vendors and the customers. There is a lack of regard for the process street food vendors go through in order to be able to sell their products, instead glamorizing and romanticizing the idea of eating exotic foods made by a “local”, who usually is actually from another province in the case of the Shanghai street food culture. This problematic approach to street food also brings into question the idea of authenticity, and who gets to decide what is and is not authentic, detaching ownership from the creators of the food. As the world steams ahead into the urban age of humanity, it is necessary that lessons in cultural respect and ownership be learned early and often to sustain the livelihood of the most at-risk sectors in our society.
-Matthew Patel & Roz DeMesa
In the West, we are told consumers are value seekers. Confined to the notions of Angelo American capitalism, Westerners seek to maximize utility per unit dollar. In the West, they frown at the idea of a system that isn’t a meritocracy, but in China, relationship bias is embedded into culture. From the very first day of China, Laowai are taught the important of Guan Xiculture. Westerns — perhaps more specifically Americans — are comfortable with the idea of sacrificing human relationship with vendors for the convenience of delivery. Technology has driven us closer and closer to products and further and further from those that create these goods. Adam Smith would be so proud. Blinded by our sense of value, we lose our connection to labor — or so we thought.
In China, cash is still king, but relationships are the rule of law. As China has developed, they largely maintained their relationships with merchants. Perhaps this is the difference between a people’s republic and a capitalist democracy, or perhaps this is just the idea of Chinese characteristics.
It’s silly to think in these extremes, however. China isn’t entirely a Guan Xi culture, and the West isn’t completely capitalist society. It’s a spectrum. After all, perhaps no country in the world values tipping as much as Americans — an act that is inherently related to the interaction between labor and customer. And who’s to say Zhongguo Renaren’t value seekers? Perhaps they’ll stay loyal to a vendor that they believe gives them a fair value, but who’s to say they won’t switch vendors if that value disappears. And who’s to say Adam Smith didn’t have a little Guan Xi.
To understand where Western and Eastern consumers lie on this scale we decided to survey some of our friends to understand the relationship between consumers, vendors, food, and convenience.
NYU Shanghai’s “Street Food Ladies”
No. 166 Yushan Road, 500 meters away from the Academic Building, stands NYU Shanghai’s previous dorm. Usually being called “268”, it used to be a Motel 268 and then served as the temporary student dorm. Walking down Yushan Road after around 9 pm, a powerful aroma of fried rice and lamb fill the air as street food patrons gather with smokes blowing up to the sky. Whenever NYU Shanghai students talk about their college experience, chuanr and chaofan almost ubiquitously elicit nostalgic responses.
As nearly any student can tell you, the street food vendors and their cooking have filled an essential aspect of college life. Long-night struggles and after-party conversations typical NYU Shanghai students’ implicitly revolve around street-food. “Grabbing some Chuanr” has become a normal way of socializing in the community.
Vendors have been dubbed “Street Food Ladies” by students. Street Food Ladies typically stood beside their husbands, adjacent to the 268 selling stir-fried rice noodles. Unlike other street food spots, Street Food Ladies developed a special relationship with the whole student body — everyone knows them, almost every student has experienced their food before, and their customers are mainly NYU students. After the move-out of the whole NYU dormitory, the “Chuanr Lady” decided to follow her loyal customers to the new JinQiao dorm. However, students had to say goodbye to rest of the other vendors along Yushan Road. This historic move-out has impacted the student community. Some student have gone without street food, while others visit their old friends on Yushan Lu quite often. The dynamic and inseparable relation between NYU Shanghai students and street food vendors is indeed complex. We thought this a classic example of “Guanxi” society and a Chinese cultural context.
We invited four Shanghai students, two Chinese and two internationals, and had interviews with them individually. We were trying to explore if there are any differences between New York students and Shanghai students’ attitude towards street vending around the community and how they consider their relationships with the vendors — Street Food Ladies especially.
The interviews were extremely interesting and surprising. It ended up having a completely different result from what we expected before. We structured the questions mainly focusing on students’ need, preference of food, their frequency of going for street food and their perspectives on the student-vendor relationship.
We were trying to understand why students at NYU Shanghai continue to frequent the “street food ladies”.
The questions are attached here.
We were very surprised to learn that they claim that they go for street food for convenience, instead of a relationship. When asked, “would you be sad if the vendors would close down tomorrow?” and “would you still choose to go for the vendors even they moved away?” all four students answered that they would rather choose vendors closer than going back to their old Lao Ban. As Bill pointed out:
“The food is just a necessity. There is probably a connection beyond food between students and vendors, but in the end the relationship is more likely an approach to convenience and price.”
It seems as though a capitalist mentality is not unique to the West, as price and convenience have more of a universal appeal.
On14th Street flanked by 3rd and 4th Avenue is what is known locally as Halal Alley. Five separate halal carts operate for nearly 20 hours a day. For those that enjoy a late night meal, the smell of Halal Alley is almost beckoning. At nearly any hour of day, lines of mostly twenty-somethings wait to exchange their five-dollar bills for a taste of the Middle East at a highly reasonable price. The vendors that quite literally slave over the the food are almost ubiquitously referred to as “halal guys.” The relationships that develop between merchant and customer rarely get past “hello, may I take your order?” After all they are just merchants in the sea of commerce that is New York City.
Yet despite the capitalistic mindset that seems to dominate all transactions on Halal Alley, there is one vendor that it is always referred to by name. As one of the customers — Alec Pan — said, “When I think about halal carts, it’s halal carts and then Farook.”
“It’s a delight to the senses.”
Farook’s Halal is located on the South side of Halal Alley. His stand sits between two other vendors, who serve the exact same thing for exactly the same price. In perhaps one of the most distinct deviations from Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy, these vendors have seemly done nothing to give themselves a competitive advantage. Except Farook. “Once you try Farook’s, you can never go back,” Daniel Kim, another regular customer, proclaimed. Dan says he typically visits Farook “around 4 times a week,” and while his patronage may veer onto the extreme, his loyalty isn’t atypical. Krishna Sridharan, another student we talked to said, “If Farook wasn’t at the helm, I wouldn’t get food. I’d just walk away.”
Of the four customers we spoke too, only one customer — Charles Zhao — said he ever eats anywhere other than Farook’s. He added that he wasn’t a “regular customer” of anyone else’s cart. Almost all of Farook’s customers share an almost religious devotion to Farook and his food, but what causes this allegiance isn’t abundantly clear. We set out to determine what exactly keeps consumers coming back to the only named halal guy.
When you talk to people about Farook’s halal, one of the words you’ll hear is value.
“Farook’s is the best value in New York… for anything.”
It’s interesting to note that all the customers felt they were getting value even though they all had different standard orders. Dan orders chicken over Rrice. Charles prefers a combination of lamb and chicken on top atop his feast. Krishna, a vegetarian, opts for a gyro. Alec a convert from chicken over rice, has switched to lamb and likes barbecue and “white sauce” on his late night snacks. We thought these customers in particular would have a good sense of value because they are all business students, but as Charles put it, “any 12-year-old can tell you that $5 for that much food is a good value.” Dan, who has perhaps the most extreme view on Farook’s cooking, said he would pay over $100 dollars for a typical chicken over rice. Although this ascertain seemed extreme, he explained his personal relationship with food and compared it to other meals he’s eaten at Michelin Star Restaurants. He considers Farook’s chicken over rice to be in his top five meals he’s ever had, which he determined would justify paying into the triple digits for a Styrofoam encased meal.
Everyone we interviewed took a trip to Halal Alley to visit Farook at least once a week. Not only are they loyal, but they are also regular. It’s seems natural that if you see someone that much, you would naturally develop a relationship, and to a certain extend they did. Charles mentioned that with his patronage comes perks. He noted that if he didn’t have enough cash on him, Farook would allow him pay the next time he came. In doing so, by operating “The Bank of Farook,” he encourages Charles to come back to his stand to pay him back, and hopefully order another meal. Although Charles was the only one who talked about meal financing, everyone insisted that they had a relationship with the vendor.
Charles, Krishna, and Dan all have Farook’s phone number. This, we originally assumed, is how Farook differentiated himself. We thought just like a stereotypical American, they just craved the convenience. Charles, who after initially insisting that he thoroughly enjoyed his conversations with Farook’s, later capitulated that he’d rather forgo exchanging pleasantries with Farook in exchange for the the convenience of being able to call ahead the pick it up. Moreover, Charles admitted that even if his service was below par, he would still frequent Farook because he’s simply the most convenient. Although Charles insists that “he really does appreciate” how nice of a guy Farook is, he truly embodies what we originally thought of a Western capitalistic consumers.
Dan and Krishna were adamant that it was not the convenience, but rather the actual food. As Dan succinctly explained, “It’s all about the product.” Krishna claimed he would willingly walk several blocks and wait twenty minutes to get his midnight snack. Dan, true to form, said he would wait “over an hour on the coldest day of winter” to get his chicken over rice. He also points out that other customers who are former residents of Halal Alley, will come from relatively distant neighborhoods like Midtown and FiDi to visit Farook. It’s truly a pilgrimage.
Dan and Krishna’s devotion to Farook is also unwavering. Unlike Charles, who would occasionally flirt with other vendors, Dan and Krishna were resolute in their commitment. Never at a loss for words when talking about Farook, as Dan put it:
“As a smart, rational-thinking economic agent, once I figure out the best seller on the market, I don’t go to any other seller.”
Unlike Charles who admits that he really “has a relationship with convenience,” Dan and Krishna — particularly Dan — have a relationship with the physical product. Not unlike Charles, however, they too are maximizing their utility per dollar; they just derive their utility in different ways.
The way Alec talks about Farook and his halal isn’t nearly as romantic as the way Dan, Krishna, or even Charles would describe it. He too, however, is a loyal disciple. Alec actually prefers the food from Halal Guys Restaurant, located just 2 avenues away from Farook’s cart. Unlike going to any of the carts on Halal Alley where all the prices are all the same, you pay a premium when you go to the restaurant. Alec says the combination of the price and distance is what keeps him from going to Halal Guys Restaurant more frequently. In direct contrast to everyone else we interviewed, Alec cannot differentiate Farook’s product from any of the other vendors. So why is he so loyal?
“I default to Farook’s because he is what I believe to be, a nice guy.”
Service and relationships very much matter to Alec. “Part of the reason I come back is Farook’s personality.” He spoke at length about how Farook and how courteous he always is, even when he deals with customers that are rude and a bit rowdy. As Krishna put it, “That’s why we know him as Farook and not just another Halal guy.” Of all the people we spoke with had nothing about positive things to say about the man himself.
We asked all four consumers what they knew about Farook other than his food. The results were remarkably unimpressive. We used an NYU Local Article as a reference. Dan was the only one that was able to approximate how long he had been making Halal (13 years). Only Charles was able to identify Farook as a parent. He said he knew Farook had “a son or daughter,” but in fact he has both a son and a daughter. Incredibly, no one was able to correctly identify where Farook was from (Bangladesh). This lack of background information is important to understanding the dynamic between Farook and his customers. As Dan put it, “it all starts from a business relationship.” Their lack of basic knowledge indicates their relationship has hardly advanced despite their patronage.
If we proved anything, it’s that a one size fits all model of Western consumers simply isn’t accurate. Consumers are driven by price, product, and personality in some combination thereof. It does, however, seem that Western consumers care more about convenience and price than about the actual relationships.
Wecame into this project with an almost dubious view of Westerners, but we emerged with a more complicated view of capitalism and relationships.
We originally thought that Westerns would be driven more so my economics than relationships, and when we spoke with Michael’s American friends this sentiment was largely reflected. We observed that NYU Shanghai students were also guided by Smith-like “invisible hand.” The ideals of capitalism — the value of convenience and price — are not uniquely Western.
This discussion also brought up deeper questions about identity and culture. When Michael was selecting his friends to interview for this project, he unconsciously selected four first-generation Americans. Do they really epitomise “American” or “Western” consumer values? When Ben interviewed NYU Shanghai students, two of them were not ethnically Chinese and only spent a few years collectively living in China. Are they truly Chinese consumers? Perhaps even the the Chinese nationals were subject to bias. Does attending an American University skew your perspective?
Alec, who is Chinese-American and is currently studying abroad in Shanghai, put forward a new model for understand the dynamics between merchant and customer that we call Guan Xi Capitalism. In situations where merchants cannot differentiate their products or services, they can use relationships to give themselves a competitive advantage. Although Alec saw no difference in the products of Halal Alley, his relationship with the vendor drove his continued patronage. In Shanghai where the vendors are fewer in the late night hours, he largely has not formed the same type of relationships with street vendors. He attributes this to their late night monopoly.
After living in both New York and Shanghai, Alec pointed out that relationships have an important role in both cultures. Alec said he if street food vendors had taken the time to develop a relationship with him, he would be more willing to venture outdoors when the weather is cold or raining to buy street food. What this suggests is that relationship cannot only help vendors gain a competitive advantage, but also shift their demand curve outward. This means we can’t think of relationships and capitalism separately — they are inherently found in each other.
Alec’s ability to straddle the East and the West and the concept of Guan Xi Capitalism can help us to understand an ever-changing global economy.
Man. I’m hungry. Chi fan hao ma?
Article about NYC Halal featuring Farook.
On Century Avenue Article about Chuan Lady
Directions to Farook’s Halal Cart. Remember he’s the one in the middle!
Directions to Chuanr Lady.
I’m sitting on a broken plastic stool in the streets of the Pudong District of Shanghai, China. Trash litters the ground, beer bottles and leftover skewers decorate the sidewalk. Friends are crowding the dirty table with a stack of food we just bought for 20 RMB, about $3.50. So why am I here?
That’s not an existential question. I mean literally why am I in this exact place? Who claimed this spot as a place to sell street food? Who got dibs?
“How did you get that spot?” “Why are you selling here?”
We’re all familiar with the hot dog stands of American cities, the Halal carts that roam the streets of Manhattan, and the food trucks that crowd the streets where yuppies exit their 9–5 for their lunch break. Long story short, a good number of these mobile food businesses are licensed in the U.S. But, in Shanghai, as we learned from our first hand interaction and experience, it’s a whole different game.
That’s the area we are examining. Located on Jinyang Road in Pudong. It is a walled off area (about seven feet tall) that spans for about a block. Along the wall are four separate entrances that people can walk in and out of. What makes this little enclave interesting is that only lines of street vendors operate in this empty space, from the morning vendors to the night vendors, and nothing else. Even by looking at the space from across the street the walled area, which is referred to as Jie Dao, it seems out of place as there are apartment buildings surrounding it from both sides and behind it.
Jie Dao : Zoom Out!
So the mystery we had to solve was…
- How did these vendors come to own their spots and in what ways?
- Who or what allows them to work in that specific spot? Do they pay?
- Why does this concrete wall & enclave exist in the first place?
Watch the videos to follow our story, or read along. Your call.
THE MYSTERY BEGINS
Asthey say here, guanxi, or relationships, means everything in China. Which is why we went back to the first person we had guanxi with — the friendly skewer man in the bright yellow jacket with letters scrawled all over it. We went back, bought a few skewers, explained to him this time in more detail what we were trying to do and why we were asking the questions. However, we learned that even having guanxi doesn’t mean you can always get what you asked for. When we were there, the rain was coming down on us and our friendly skewer man in the bright yellow jacket was beginning to move his shop.
He moved from the inside the walled area to outside, near a bus stop, making it hard for him to give us detailed answers. Why the sudden shift? He told us that business is better outside of the stop after 9pm. Other vendors also followed suit. In the end, he was uninterested and had given us the same answers from last time. We moved on.
We found this couple right next to our friendly skewer man in the bright yellow jacket. We approached their cart which had plated food wrapped in saran wrap, bins of rice and floured noodles, and their fire burning wok. And this is what we learned from this specific couple:
- Worked 15–16 years in Jie Dao walled area
- They own their spot in the area by taking over their old retired boss’s spot, whom they used to work for
- Twenty years ago there were street vendors working on where Jie Dao is today
This was great because it was at least something that we could possibly use to give us historical context of the Jie Dao area. We asked why Jie Dao still exists in 2015.
Prime real estate on the street and instead you have 8 vendors on it?
They didn’t seem to have an answer. The man said it could be a dozen reasons why the government still allowed Jie Dao to run.
We also came across another street vendor, but this one seemed like a more permanent location, since it took up more rooms with tables and cooking-ware. It was a group of people, a mix of what seemed to be regular customers and friends. While talking to them we got an answer, but a very mixed one, from a man in a black cap.
“So who controls this area?”
“Well, the government of course.”
“So the Chinese government controls this area?”
“No, no, it’s not necessarily the Chinese government — it’s just the government.”
As we continued to ask him, he began to deflect questions by answering that Jie Dao existed because of historical reasons and that there were many complexities to it, also saying that there wasn’t a sole reason why it’s allowed to operate.
“It’s complicated, there’s a lot of history”
We got this response time and time again. For some reason, people weren’t comfortable talking. Maybe a bunch of foreign kids with a camera in their face is enough to keep them clammed up.
However, in the end, we didn’t get the answers we needed. We were skeptical about the answers we received, we still didn’t know how the walls came to exist, and we still didn’t know who allowed for these vendors to be here. Our night investigation came to a close, and we knew we had to give it a second shot.
Mysteries Solved: 0
It’s 8am on a new day with no rain, which means all the morning vendors are out and cooking at Jie Dao. Perfect. It’s noticeably different this time when we walk into the walled area. Behind the individual carts were vendors that were part of some sort of troupe— red aprons, red caps, red armbands (compared to the night vendors, the morning group seemed much more organized and uniformed). Which is why when we met our first morning food lady, we asked if they were part of one company. But she was just a new employee and didn’t know much about the history nor the building behind us. However, she did offer us this:
“Do you guys work for one company?”
“Yes, we do”
“Oh, so could you tell me the person you work for?”
“Oh… This I don’t know, sorry.”
Short. But bear with us, we’re starting to get somewhere.
Despite the short reaction, we at least came to the assumption that the morning and night vendors operated differently. Whereas the night vendors seemed to work individually and separately from the rest of the vendors, the morning vendors seem to somehow be unified in someway. We still needed more.
Things get good for us with morning street food vendor #2: fried dumpling man. With a combination of a red cap and red vest, he tells us that the person who organizes these morning vendors is the “Jie Dao ren”, otherwise known as the group leader or lingdao ren. But, at the same time this lingdao ren is also apparently part of the municipal government. When we asked if he had to pay the government to keep his morning spot, he said that no, he just had to pay a cleaning fee which meant that someone would come by and clean the area within the walls daily.
With this in mind we asked ourselves, who was this lingdao ren and is he really associated with the government or is he someone that just comes around every so often to ask for money like a playground bully?
Mysteries Solved: 1
We move on to street vendor #3: smiling man who sells tofu. From this guy, we learn from his version of the story that these vendors don’t pay the lingdao ren. Instead they pay the government. At this point, we’re not sure who to believe but we continue to try to gather more data and ask away.
“So if you pay the government then what does this lingdao ren do?”
“I don’t know. He does a lot”
“So he does a lot of things, but he’s not part of the municipal government in any way?”
“If lingdao isn’t part of the government then is he stupid? If he’s not part of the government then he’s heidao, if he’s not heidao then he’s baidao.”
By this point, we were at a dead end. Smiling man who sells tofu vendor wouldn’t tell us anymore and started to speak in riddles.
And then, we hit our first goldmine.
We moved towards the other end of the walled area where there weren’t lines of street vendors. Instead what we saw was a vendor that seemed to occupy a more permanent space within the Jie Dao area: tables were set up, vegetables were in bundles around the room, a sink with running water in the corner, and cookingware supplies were all set up. After a thorough and extend conversation with this group of people we learned some key facts
- The walls that separate the street from the insides of the enclave were built five years ago
- Before the walls were built street vendors used to work by the street, creating litter
- The government used the empty space for street vendors to congregate and not leave garbage on the streets
- The reason why a building was never created where Jie Dao was is because behind it is an electrical power plant
Boom. That was it. The electrical power plant (which was first built twenty years ago) that was behind Jie Dao is the reason for why this space exist. An apartment building couldn’t be built because it would be dangerous to be right next to the power plant so the government decide to utilize the space for street vendors, thereby keeping the street outside clean. Maybe it was a zoning error by the municipal government, or maybe the plant was central to the powergrid at that time. Either way, streetfood never tasted better than that moment.
Mysteries Solved: 2
Street vendor #4 with the raspy voice selling noodles was the last person we spoke to that day and the one who gave us a clear-cut answer to how owning a spot operated here in Jie Dao.
“So do you have to formally apply to get a spot here in Jie Dao?”
“No, no. The way it works is that if a vendor decides to leave or retires, that person gives up their spot and then a new one moves in.”
Quick and easy.
Mysteries Solved: 3
There’s no real conclusion. “Real conclusion” meaning no definitive, science-based fact. But that’s also why this research is valuable.
We can offer hypotheses and possible answers, based on the number of responses we’ve collected between the night and morning market of Jie Dao. How we decided what responses we’re valid were simply based on which answer was repeated the most, or seemed to be reasonable.
Once again, the goal was to solve these questions:
- How did these vendors come to own their spots and in what ways?
- Who or what allows them to work in that specific spot, whether for free or charged with fees
- And why does this concrete walled enclave exist in the first place
… and this is how we did…
Answers and Theories —
- The vendors seem to be able to secure their physical spot in two ways: one, to already be an established vendor within Jie Dao who’s been working their for years, or two, move into the walled area when a vendor leaves.
- When it came to who allowed these vendors to keep their spot, it was a bag of mixed answers. however, our hypothesis is that if you were a vendor that had a more permanent spot, then you didn’t have to pay anyone (based on the answers from street vendor #3 & #4). However, if you were a mobile vendor, it seemed that there was fee to pay to either the government or lingdao ren.
- Finally, this walled area exist because what lies behind it is an electrical power plant, which meant that it was unsafe to have a building right next to it
Implications & The Big Picture
Who would have thought a burger cart on one of Shanghai’s busiest bar streets would make a big impact on street food culture!
Watch this video to learn more about the burger cart on YongFu Road.
Inspired by the dynamic food culture in Shanghai streets where people from various places are making and selling food of different origins, this conversations with three distinctive street vendors, discusses how food cultures are blended and evolve with the migration of people.
This start-up couple just landed in Shanghai for about half a year. Bringing to Shanghai Huainan Pancake from Anhui province, they aim to further spread the traditional food of hometown by innovating on the old recipe for Shanghai and even international markets.
Sipailou Road is a dynamic place where you will meet a vigorous cluster of migrant workers and try diverse street food, including Hongkong egg tarts and Turkish kebab, as are shown in the following video.
For our final project, we decided to do something a little different. We understand while a major part of this class focuses on street food, we took the liberty of making this project something that we could call our own. Or as much of our own as possible. This project is not about us. This project is about the community in which we followed that belongs to the people. It is not about the specific, individual stories. People are just sums of the product that reside in the little enclave that exists between Weifang Lu & Zhangyang Lu, just a street over from Century Avenue.
Shanghai, China. The largest city in the world by population with upwards of 24 million inhabitants living within the defined boundaries. Within these boundaries, Shanghai is a city that continues to grow and sees change happening everyday. Marked by its impressive skyscrapers and the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the urban city life, Shanghai is a place where you expect to find the continual progression towards providing a glimpse into the future of modern metropolises.
Despite the understanding that Shanghai is a booming city that will continue its impressive growth, an interesting phenomenon must be acknowledged. Even in the business district of Pudong, only a street over from Century Avenue, lies a small community that seems to have avoided this systematic transformation of Shanghai. All over the city, the process of gentrification has been seen, from the demolition of small enclave neighborhoods to the shutdown of popular street food streets, such as Wujiang Lu. Countless examples of governmental shut downs and transformations can be examined in the Shanghai context, but how do we explain the small communities that still exist?
Located in between Weifang Lu and Zhangyang Lu lies a small community of people who continue to lead their lives in this “old” neighborhood. It’s definitely a sight to see because of the stark contrast that it provides when put up in comparison with the modern buildings on the nearby Century Avenue. Its unimpressive facade seems contradictory especially when one thinks of Pudong, they think of Lujiazui and other fancy business establishments. However, in our discovery of this small enclave, there seems to be hope that these small communities still do exist in Pudong.
This neighborhood has a history of 26 years, as most of its residents are local Shanghainese, but almost all the store owners and street food vendors are migrant workers.
There is a two-story mahjong room inside this community whose entrance isn’t that easy to find, and when we walked in we found this to be a very packed space with a lot of aged men and women playing “mahjong”, and we two are very conspicuous among them. A place like this is common in any typical Chinese neighborhood, especially old ones, and to those residents mahjong means more than a game.
Mahjong culture means a lot to a Chinese neighborhood because in Chinese tradition neighbors are supposed to be friendly with each other. There’s even a saying goes 远亲不如近邻, meaning that a distant relative is not as good as a near neighbor.
In a community where the older generation forms a large portion of the population, a communal space like this is very important for them to socialize, or to spend their time in the daytime when their children are away studying and working. What’s more, the mahjong room together with people playing mahjong is like a community within a community that gives people a sense of belonging.
We find this community to be a very self-sustainable area where there is a kindergarten, a primary school, a middle school, a market with a wide selection, several fruit shops, one or two barber shop even small estate companies, and tons of street food both in the morning and in the afternoon. Some of the stores open only before 10 a.m, some after 3 p.m, and others for a whole day. A great variety of food types can be found there, partly because those vendors are from different places of China and tend to bring food from their hometown to Shanghai. It is a bit surprising for us to find such a place in Pudong, especially when it is located close to Lu Jiazui, the financial center of Shanghai. The “street food culture” is undoubtedly more lively in Puxi than it is in Pudong, but Yuan Zhu Xiao Qu is an exception.
The following is based on our interview with a couple who sells fried food in a small store right next to the market in Yuan Zhu Xiao Qu.
“We’ve been here for ten years and know a lot of residents and store owners here very well, in fact many of them have been our customers for a really long time. All of my family members sell street food in Shanghai, but they all settled in Puxi, where business is supposed to be better. But being in this neighborhood is different, it is always bustling with life.
Our store is probably one of the oldest ones here. Some of the people we knew moved away from here, and there were some new comers, but the place itself hasn’t changed much ever since we came here ten years ago.”
This neighborhood stays pretty much the same for twenty years or so when its surroundings has experienced so many changes, and a number of tall buildings are newly built recently. We asked if there will be any relocation of housing construction(动迁), and the residents honestly believe that there won’t be any.
We also had several chats with some residents there. (We went there at around 1pm, and barely see any young people there) One of them has lived here for 20 years. His daughter grew up here with him, but moved away after she got married.
What is the significance of all of this?
Believe it or not, there is actually a method to our madness and a motivation behind this project. We didn’t focus on street food entirely because we believed there was more to be told than just street food in itself. This class has offered us a glance into the street food life and what it means to cities and how they operate. So we went ahead and expanded on that further by exploring what it means in that sense. Why do these street food establishments exist and why is it something that is frowned upon when it brings cultural value to city streets? From that guiding question, we were moved to think about what that means in the context of things that are not necessarily modern, especially in Shanghai. From there, our exploration of this small community began. Why is it that this little community exists when there is so much gentrification that is happening all around the city? While there won’t be a clear answer that we can know (the city planners may already be in the process of finding ways to deconstruct?), what we do know is the life hidden behind the facade of the modern Shanghai. There is life in these walls and that is something that no government regulation can take away.
Our biggest takeaway from this and what we hope viewers can take away is the general understanding that life here exists. And it waits for nobody. Things go on, but life continues to move on. From the interviews that we conducted, the general understanding that we concluded was that the area is full of migrant workers. None of them stay for the entire haul of the existence of the neighborhood. People move on. Some stay behind. Quite simply, that is how life is. Some people aspire to do greater things and will jump at the opportunity for greener pastures. Some may find their own little niche in their neighborhood but eventually leave for some reason. Some end up staying there and raising a family, and the offspring may look to move on somewhere else. The way of life that exists in these parts very much mirrors the lifestyle of Shanghai. In a hustling city like Shanghai, with many migrants out there to make it big, some people find it in the city that they want to stay and others move on. There is no right answer to a person’s life choice and their success is arbitrarily decided. People can do what they want for themselves and that’s fine. That’s the way life is and there’s nothing that can change it. People just learn to adapt to changes and learn how to live their lives. Things happen. And life moves on. And everything pans out.
That is why we decided not to focus on any particular aspect of a specific street food area. Or on singular stories. While we acknowledge the importance of everyone’s story, our focus was to explore an area. And that is what we did. The stories of each person contributes to the overall narrative of a place. And that is what we got to see. People live their lives and there’s something special about the fact that people will hustle in this life to get where they want to be. Where their journeys lead them and their settings will always be dynamic. But it’s the personal choice they have to try for something that is cool to see.
There’s also this other interesting thing that we came to conclude after putting this project together. Because Shanghai is such a large city with so many people, honestly? People don’t matter. People are replaceable. Faces don’t matter. Anyone can fill the void and present their own story. What difference does it make? That is the fascinating thing about this the community. It doesn’t matter who lives in it. There is no one particular person that makes the area what it is. But that’s just the way that life is. With everything. But it’s interesting right? Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that none of us matter in the grand scheme of things so we can share our worthlessness together.
This relates to our class. It may not seem like it at first because it isn’t a project that isn’t heavily focused on food. But the takeaways from the project match the general theme that our class has followed through this semester. We’ve learned much about the importance of street food to the culture of a city. However much of these street food vendors are temporary. They are migrant workers that won’t necessarily last. At a macro scale, they make absolutely no difference. But on a micro scale, they have contributed to the story of an area. Just like this area. The people come and go, but the place stays. They all make their mark in some way, but won’t necessarily be remembered for that. It just feels like the story of a migrant street food vendor. The ones that we talked to talked a lot about the idea of just trying to make a better life for themselves. Street food may be their only choice and they might not necessarily like it. But they eventually leave. They go about, moving along in their life. And the cycle continues with the perpetual change of the city, the street food and life in general.
Here is a video of what we accumulated. There are no words. Just video. We just want to show life.
The Most Artsy Neighborhood in Shanghai:
North Sichuan Road 四川北路, Sweet Love Road 甜爱路, and Shanyin Road 山阴路
Note: Embedded above is the Map of the Hongkou Neighborhood that we explored . The Green-colored path is the travel path for someone interested in a self-guided tour. The Red-colored path is most famous for its breakfast food.
Shanghai is a city where the eastern and western culture amalgamate to create something wild and extraordinary. It is a city where old houses and skyscrapers co-exist with each other without conflicts to add a subtle touch of modernity to the vintage. A city that never sleeps and where people from all around the world come to travel, work, and study. Such is our group that consisted of three people from all around the world, and together went to explored one of the most artsy and legendary areas in Shanghai- the Hongkou area.
The first area consists with three roads: Si Chuan North Road （四川北路）, Sweet Love Road （甜爱路）and Shanyin Road （山阴路). This area reverberates the life of old Shanghainese people and also preserves a strong ambience of literature and art as the most famous, leading figure of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun, lived on Shanyin Road. In addition, his friends, including famous social activists and other literary intellectuals from his time, all lived on the perpendicular Si Chuan North Road.
(Lu Xun late life Residence in Shanghai)
Instead of the serious atmosphere of history rudiments, this area is incredibly lively and energetic. It is probably because Si Chuan North Road for old Shanghainese people is the third biggest business street after East Nanjing Road and Fu Zhou Road. Si Chuan Road mostly caters to the blue-and-white-collar workers, and therefore in comparison to East Nanjing Road, Fu Zhou Road and Huai Hai Road, Si Chuan North Road is not that fancy and still has a unique, Shanghainese taste instead of getting influenced by the westernization.
Sweet Love Road is the most romantic road in Shanghai. While walking down the street, you can not only enjoy the shadow brought by plane-tree, but also enjoy 28 poems about love on the wall along the way. Lu Xun and his wife always walked down this road after dinner, which explains the romantic name of this street.
We explored this area three times in total. We still remember the first time Guillermo said to us when we were walking down Shanyin Road: “Dude this should be how Shanghai look like, I feel like I am completely emerged.” Yes, this area is using its breakfast vendors who make their own french style old house as restaurant, its road full of plane-trees and foreign-style old houses that reiterate that you’re indeed in Shanghai. No matter how westernized Shanghai becomes as a result of globalization, this neighborhood is a constant reminder of the interesting history Shanghai has for people to discover.
Shanghai Ghetto Area (Neighborhood Area)
HongKou area is not only full of legendary men of letters and social activists, but is also famous for Shanghai Ghetto; formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees. It was an area of approximately one square mile in the Hongkew district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai (the southern Hongkou and southwestern Yangpu districts of modern Shanghai). The area included the community around the Ohel Moshe Synagogue but about 23,000 of the city’s Jewish refugees were restricted or relocated to the area from 1943 to 1944 by the Proclamation Concerning Restriction of Residence and Business of Stateless Refugees. It was one of the poorest and most crowded area of the city.
As you get off the Dalian Road subway station, on the left side of road you will notice the western style united villas while on the right side the modern mansions. After walking for five minutes, you will notice the most typical jewish architecture that indicates that the jewish people ran all the way to shanghai to escape the massacre, start afresha and make a living. That architecture is Jewish Refugee Museum, which is also called Ohel Moshe Synagogue.
The Ohel Moshe congregation was established by Russian Jewish immigrants in Shanghai in 1907.This Ashkenazi congregation was named after Moshe Greenberg, a member of the Russian Jewish community, and was first established in a rented space. Different from the petit bourgeois sentiment in French concession, in Jewish refugee museum ,what you can feel is a sense of vicissitudes. Shanghai is not only a place with beautiful appearance and decent happiness, it is also a place full of serious history and a huge amount of it are life and death stories.
Day and Night Contrast
This area is extremely lively during the daytime and early evening because not only there are a lot of office workers walking to and from HongKou football field every day, but also the old people (especially local Shanghainese people) love to go out and do some physical exercise in Lu Xun memorial park in the early morning and after dinner. But during the late night, this area is a kind of wind down because this area doesn’t have some entertainment facilities, such as bars and clubs, so while comparing to daytime and early evening, the nights are usually very quiet in this old shanghainese area. The food, on an average, costs around 10-15 RMB around this neighborhood. The spring onion pancake cost 2-5 RMB on an average.
Whereas the neighboring area is relatively more quieter and serious. One of the reason why this area is sometimes lively is because of the tourists who visit jewish refugee museum. Day time and night time does not have a significant difference in this area but for the street food vendor who we interviewed (the spring onion pancake owner), daytime means a prosperous business, while the night time means more happiness and relaxation being with the family in addition to the preparation for next day’s food. The food, on an average, costs around 20 RMB around this neighborhood.
(The owner of this cozy Hong Kong Food joint is a local hong kong vendor’s owner. But the girls who are working in the shop are from Su Zhou. Ironically they have never been to Hong Kong. )
North Sichuan Road in the Morning
One of the street food vendors we interviewed was from Suzhou and made Spring Onion Pancakes. He told me Spring Onion pancake was originated from Suzhou and his ancestor brought this food to Shanghai in order to have better business opportunities. Therefore, the old Shanghainese have a special, emotional bond with this food. Spring onion pancake has already become an inevitable part of the Shanghainese food culture. We have previously heard about this place for a while since the owners of this street food stall is popularly known to have the ultimate secret of making spring onion pancake in all of Shanghai. So far, no imitators has reached his level of expertise yet. After requesting the secret for several times, they told us that the secret ingridient of their delicious spring onion pancake is their homemade onion oil as they keep it traditional and original, and do not let greed overpower their judgement. They said that tall they need int heir life is happiness and stability, which we believe they had already achieved. They said another key factor to making any piece of spring onion pancake is having true passion and cooking with all love and dedication, because if you cook it with true heat, people who are eating it can taste that love and devotion in their food.
Interaction with a Street Food Vendor in Early Evening
One of the most interesting moments while exploring this neighborhood was when we met a street food vendor on the Shanyin Road. When we first saw the place we were skeptical about the food quality and hygiene considering all the dishes, including the ones with meat in it, were kept out in the open without any covering. We started having a casual conversation with the owner of the street food stall, who was shy in the beginning but was super excited to talk to us later when we told her about this class. She told us about how their stall has been in business for the last 15 years and people from all walks of life come to her stall all through the day. We were most surprised when she told us that the majestic house behind the stall was actually owned by her family. While the whole setup looked sketchy in the beginning, we were amazed to see a typical, old French Concession style house with high ceiling and dining room that acted as a small, functional restaurant. She explained us the whole setup where they people could experience both the street food experience if they sit and eat outside, and also have a decent dining experience while eating homemade food inside their authentic shanghainese house while having a remarkable Shanghainese experience. The lady was very kind and let us explore her house. We saw the kitchen inside and everything surpassed our expectations. Later, after a short conversation, she told us about her son who is currently studying in Beijing, the hometown of one of our team members, Amy’s. The lady also told us how she was extremely proud of her child and more proud that their income as a street food vendor supported the entire family’s expenses. In addition, she also told us that she enjoyed working everyday for the last 15 years, does not feel threatened by the new restaurant that have recently opened up in the neighborhood, and does not plan on stop working anytime soon.
(This is the video of a small interaction with the lady who let us explore her house)
Neighborhood map of East China Normal University
In the hearts of almost every member of the New York University Shanghai Class of 2017 lies the East China Normal University campus. More so than the campus, the surrounding streets provide the backdrop for the Class of 2017’s first year in university. Walking through the streets again for the first time in over a semester, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia for the creepy side gate and the nighttime noodle lady across from KFC; but, as I was walking, I couldn’t help but be moved by the incredible change the area has undergone.
While the noodle lady was still there, the rest of her cohort seemed to be missing. I took solace in the fact that for the most part, that particular crossroad was still reminiscent of the former “side gate street food.” The seafood stalls and chao mian family still operated just outside of KFC’s doors, picking up customers the closed KFC failed to serve.
(Noodle Family from Anhui Province)
One of these dutiful cooks is from Anhui province and has been serving street food in that location for 10 years. She works the stand with her husband and her son, who has grown up watching her cook for the swarm of Chinese and international people studying at ECNU during the day and stuffing their faces at night. Despite her regular position, she claims she does not have regular customers. It seems she’s just an end to a means for the often intoxicated passersby. She fades into the shadows after the customers have satisfied their hunger.
Further down the street, on the corner of Jinshajiang and Zaoyang road, the changes are even more evident. Last year, Ellen’s Bar relocated to a small, rather inconspicuous location down Zaoyang road. While the bar isn’t obvious from the corner, after taking a few steps in the right direction the bar becomes hard to miss.
Its raucous, thumping music can be heard from the adjacent building. Although street food existed on the corner before the bar relocated, the options have since quadrupled.
(Street food scene near Ellen’s “Cafe”)
In addition to the halal kebab guy and miscellaneous noodle lady number 3, there was another halal kebab guy, an ordinary skewer guy, and another noodle lady. Most surprising of all, there was a brand-new Family Mart. According, this street food was much better than anything we sampled in Pudong, and I had to agree. The food was actually better than it was even last year. I also found it interesting that these street food stalls appeared around the bar. I also noticed that street food has a habit of congregating near bars (to service the post-booze crowd) and 24-hour convenience stores (most probably to service night walkers and students pulling all-nighters). Although this area changed for the better, just around the corner, on 枣阳路，tremendous change and a property battle between small shops and ECNU left the back gate desolate. Cici, who went to the back gate and interview the one remaining skewer guy, provided the details.
Previously, the back gate of ECNU used to be just as lively as the street food stalls outside of the side gate currently are, but the government plans to turn the street into a host for stationary shops (as if Shanghai doesn’t already have enough, and as if Fuzhou Lu isn’t filled to the brim with stationary and art shops).
(Zaoyang road now)
Apparently, the government wants to remove the street food because it isn’t “decent.” The stationary shops would be a much more respectable option, and their proximity to the university would guarantee business for the shops. In 2013 the local government decided to run for the title of “Nation’s Most Hygienic City.” In order to do so, they began driving the street vendors away and setting up literal and figurative barriers (such as the gate beside the sidewalk in the picture above) to effectively squeeze out the vendors. Whenever the 城管(Chengguan, “city managers”) see the street vendors, they pack their stuff and give them heavy fines.
ECNU noticed these changes and extended the opening hours of the front gate (on North Zhongshan Road). It also diversified the food options in the new cafeteria and extended the opening hours. Previously, the cafeteria closed at 6PM, now it closes at 11PM. The school seems to be attempting to comfort the students for the closing of the back gate.
At this point, the back gate has been so far phased out of the lives of the university students that the skewer guy does not open until night falls, and he does business until 3 AM (he closes shop considerably earlier than his side gate counterparts, who don’t pack up until 4 or 5 in the morning). Only a few students comes to eat and hang out with each other. The students call this street “黑暗科理街” which translates to “black style food” meaning something similar to the effect of “black market food.” While that carries negative connotations and might even imply a certain danger in the quality of the food, the phrase simply means street food is not accepted as mainstream fair (a view corroborated by the government)
It’s as if the street workers are worth less than the refuse their stalls leave behind.
The government can deal with the pollution because it is easily cleaned up, low-waged migrant workers go through the streets in the still-dark hours of the morning sweeping up the countless skewer sticks, styrofoam boxes, and discarded tissues left by the drunk, hungry gastronomes the night before. The stalls, however, are much harder to clean up. Cleaning up the street food means not only forcing the vendors the uproot and attempt to find another place to make a living, but also forcing the population to change its dietary habits.
According to the government, just as the garbage is bad for the physical environment, the street vendors are bad for the social environment. They encourage congregation, and though this congregation does not usually have political leaning, there’s always the potential for politics to enter the picture, especially considering the controversial nature of the street food lifestyle. In this post,we bid farewell to the back gate of ECNU, because by this time next year, barring a miracle, it will have disappeared completely. The side gate, however, still seems to be going strong and we wish it the best for the future.
A Brief Description
Apologies in advance for the wordiness of this post. You see, I had initially planned to make this blog post picture heavy, with very few words. However, I later learnt that there are many stories which pictures cannot tell, and many memories which would be wasted if left untold. Therefore, I decided to write these stories down, and document these memories through words. Only then, would I be able to truly ‘capture’ the story of street food in this area in all its glory.
Since I first visited this Xiao Qu (Yuan Zhu Xiao Qu/ 源竹小区) with my family friend, who will feature in the majority of my post later on, I have returned every morning to get breakfast here. There is something very home-y about having breakfast in a xiao qu, or loosely translated: a small community. There is also something very special about coming to a stall and having the vendor know exactly what you want, without having to say a word. Perhaps it is because this is the China I had always envisioned, or perhaps it is because I am currently suffering from acute home-sickness. Either way, I feel myself drawn towards this area every morning, to the point where I would go out of my way to buy food and then come back to the dorms.
My daily visits to this street food area has allowed me to make many observations and encounters. I have personally been kicked out by the Cheng guan, watched vendors turn what was once a bustling outdoor restaurant (seats, tables and all) into just objects on the back of a tricycle, listened to conversations and met many new people.
I have noticed that the location of vendors seems to mimic the interrelationships between them. After walking through the gate from the xiao qu, you will see the street vendors on the left or the right side of the pavement. The street vendors on the left all belong to one Shanxi family. They sell a variety of different foods from bean curd to soymilk to various different pancakes to Shen jian bao to Zhongzi and more. On the other side, you have a variety of different vendors who sell many of the same things as the Shanxi family. You have vendors from Shanghai, Shandong and Jiangsu. These vendors all seem to know each other, and would buy off each other to improve their own food. For example, the Jiangsu vendor makes Youtiao which the Shandong JianBing lady would buy to put in her jianbing. I often see them helping each other out or chatting with one another. However, I never see any interaction between vendors on the right side of the pavement and the Shanxi vendors. There seems to be some cold, hostile, passive-aggressive competition between the two sides. In the image below, we can see this divide. From this particular view (opposite the main gate), the Shanxi vendors are located on the right side of the image, whereas the other vendors are all on the left.
In terms of price, most items cost between 1-4 yuan. I have yet to encounter anything above 4yuan. For breakfast, I usually get a soymilk and jianbing for breakfast, which comes to a total of 5 kuai. Sometimes I have bean curd and Youtiao, which costs me a total of 4kuai. Everything is also very clean here. My jianbing lady refuses to touch money and lets us handle the cash ourselves. She also cleans the hotplates frequently. The vendors all start preparing to leave at around 9:50am. Anyone who is not out before 10:30am gets fined and warned by the Cheng guan.
Unfortunately as I have learned, this place only has streetfood in the morning. I have stumbled here at night a few times and have never been lucky. After 10:30am, this place goes back to simply being a residential living area where you need to be a resident to enter.
Basic Map relative to NYU Shanghai:
The following three posts are told by an 80 year old women, Mrs Chen, who has lived in Shanghai her whole life and grown up in this area from when it first started:
The story of Street food in this part of Pudong
“The story of the street food in this area has to start with the story of life in this part of Pudong. In the early 90s, after Deng’s reforms, many people took housing ballots and were moved from Puxi to Pudong. Back then, the equivalent of one tiny bedroom in Puxi, was the same as one large apartment in Pudong. Living in Pudong was very inconvenient. There were no roads，just man-made dirt tracks. The area around NYU Shanghai today was all farmland. There were no houses either. We were the first ones here to move into the first set of houses in the early/mid 90s. To get here from Puxi, we had to take a ferry; there were no tunnels or bridges at that time. Many people who moved here were forced to quit their jobs. Restaurant and shop owners refused to open up here, so the people living in this area had to come up with ways to make this inconvenient, unlivable place livable.
That was when people started opening up stalls on the roads, all around the roads, to sell things like meat, seafood, vegetables, nuts, grains and fruit. The streetfood you are thinking about did not come until a bit later, but this all led up to it. As everything expanded, and Pudong started modernising, stalls were slowly moved out of the main roads and inside the ‘xiao qu’ area. Today, you can still see remnants of what that it must have been like back then. However, actual vegetable and meat markets have opened up in the xiao qu since then, so many grocers just sell there now. That way they will not get in trouble by the Chengguan.
In terms of street food, the street food here grew from the original grocery vendors. As Shanghai started getting more migrants, they brought with them, into this part of Pudong, streetfood. Prior to the early 2000s, it was very difficult for migrants to move to Shanghai, due to strict Hukou rules. The street food area in this 小区 you see today only started around 2002/3. Back then, streetfood would be available all throughout the day. Now, vendors are only allowed to sell streetfood in the mornings before 10:30am. This is because the locals here need it for breakfast – you tiaos, dou hua, dou jiang – it is very convenient. The street vendors are not allowed here after 10:30am as it causes a disturbance for those living here. The Cheng guan come promptly at 10:30am every day to make sure everyone is gone. Then, they close up the gates to this xiao qu, and only those who live there with a card can enter.”
A modern-history of Streetfood in Shanghai
“I think there is a huge misconception that people like us grew up with the street food you see today, or that the sort of street food you see today has been a part of China for a long time. Actually, the street food you see today is very recent and new.
I have lived in the heart of Puxi Shanghai for many years of my life, and I was here from the beginning days of Pudong. Street food was nonexistent and illegal before Deng’s reforms and during Mao’s reign, (which made up most of my early years) because no individual could own their own business.
When I was younger, the food was provided by the government. Even farmers had to sell to the government, who would then distribute the food accordingly. However, the memory I do have of what one can describe as street food, is that it was very cheap and people never stayed in one spot selling it. I remember I used to be able to get one large riceball, one soy curd, two fried oil stick and one big xiaolong bao for 10 cents. I remember this so distinctly because my mother used to only give me 10 cents every morning to buy food. I would fill myself up in the morning and save whatever I didn’t eat to snack on throughout the day before having lunch and dinner at home.
That all disappeared when Mao took position. People could not have private enterprises. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did people start being able to own their own small businesses again. The street food you see today started appearing. It was very different when ‘streetfood returned’, it was done primarily by migrants. The hukou restrictions were much stricter back then, so we had few people doing it.
The migrants also brought a lot of new types of street food into the area-such as the many different types of pancakes you find from Shaanxi, Shandong, Anhui. There were new flavours, a lot more spices (Shanghai cuisine is traditionally quite light in taste). Slowly, as the hukou restrictions loosened, and more and more migrants heard about coming in search of a better life through street food in Shanghai, there was an increase in street food vendors. ”
The Family of Shanxi Vendors
“The Shanxi vendors have been here from the very beginning. They have expanded their stall by a lot. It used to just be a single couple making bean curd. Now they have their brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles here as well, and make a variety of things such as fried dough, Shanxi pancakes and buns. I go to them because I have been going to them since they started. I feel loyal.
I come here every morning to eat bean curd. They are very familiar with me, so they would ask about my home and I would ask about theirs. Every time I buy something, they would give me extra because they know me. I know that they have a 12 year old son at home with their parents. They want the son to go to school and get a good job. I think that is the same for many migrant street workers.
They mostly come here with no education themselves. I sometimes feel like they come from a very pure and innocent background. I don’t think many of them know that a university degree is not enough to get a good job today. Many of them work extremely hard to send their child to university. Many become disappointed when they realise the reality, which is that their children will likely continue to do what they are doing, are enter an area of work similar to this.
Regardless, their lives here are still so much better than if they were living at home. They make a lot more money and the work is less tough. Today, Chinese farmers make close to nothing back home due to competition to keep prices low. Also, farmers depend on the sky. If the weather is forgiving, they will do well. If not, they will not even grow enough to feed themselves. At least here, they do not have that problem. They will make money every day regardless of weather. Even when it rains, people come.”
The following is an interview I held with one of the Shanxi Street vendors. The woman who pioneered Streetfood in this area.
My Interview with one of the Shanxi Street vendors
“We work from 3 in the morning, 7 days a week, but we are not tired. We think our lives here are so much better than if we were to stay at home. We are grateful. At home, we would work longer hours, with much less pay, doing much harder work. Here, we stand and make food- it is easy. As a farmer, we had to bend up and down, move here and there, carry things twice our body-weight.
Straight when we could, we moved the rest of my family, my brothers and sisters, to Shanghai to work in the street food industry. They see me as their saviour. The money we make here will sometimes be 5 times more than what we make at home. We use that money to buy property and send our children to school. We hope that our children can have all they need to obtain a good education, to go to university and then find a good job. That is the only way to break out of this farmer’s cycle. It is a never-ending cycle otherwise. Though we work in the city, we are still farmers. That is something we can’t change, but we hope our children can.
With the property, it is there as a back-up plan, in case our children do not succeed like we wish. If they don’t succeed, at least they have their own house and can get married. Without a house, without a degree and job, our children will have no future. We worry about this everyday. Especially for our sons. My son is 12 years old. I have worked here for 12 years. I made this decision to come to Shanghai after my child was born. I knew I needed to help him. ”