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Until a few years ago, some of the best food in Beijing would be found tucked away down narrow, dusty alleyways. Lamian makers serving bowls of hand-stretched noodles would operate from the back of makeshift motorcycle stalls in the unlikeliest of places, and yet crowds of hungry diners would somehow find their way there.
However, over the past few years, local authorities have clamped down on Beijing’s street vendors, mainly under the guise of pollution and hygiene concerns. More recently, an ongoing city ‘beautification’ campaign has prompted a renewed drive to rid the city of its sellers to create an “orderly, civilised and beautiful street environment”. But at what cost?
Culture Trip meets two Beijing street vendors who are clinging to their trade, despite the risks.
“Jianbing is quite special,” says Shandong native Luo Guoxiang proudly. “It has a long history.” Legend has it that this dish was invented by a military general, who used the back of his shield as a makeshift pancake pan. Nowadays, jianbing is usually made from a hotplate balanced on top of a giant saucepan fitted with a gas burner.
There’s something ritualistic about watching Luo make jianbing – he spreads mung bean batter onto his revolving hot plate before cracking an egg on top. Sauces are smeared and trimmings are added – pickles, a sausage, a sheet of crispy fried cracker – before being rolled up and slotted into a paper bag.
Each pancake is made in about half a minute, but no matter how quickly Luo makes them, the queue grows. Operating from a street cart in a quiet residential corner of southeast Beijing, Luo sells his pancakes for just ¥7 (£0.80).
Luo and his family have lived in the capital for more than five years, but serving up street food has become a lot harder in recent years. “[The local government’s] policies don’t support [our kind of] entrepreneurship. Instead, they want to showcase Beijing as a ‘world-class’ city,’” he says.
In the Beijing Municipal Master Plan (2016-2035), the government outlined a roadmap to turn the capital into a “world-class harmonious and liveable city”. Soon after, they announced plans to support mass entrepreneurship and innovation – but only to promote “high-quality” development. Street trade isn’t the sort of industry Beijing wants to promote, nor does it fit with its vision of a harmonious and liveable city.
Enforcing these sorts of government initiatives are local law enforcement officers called chengguan, who issue warnings and fines if they catch unlicensed street vendors. Over the years, the chengguan have become known for using excessive force against street vendors, with several high-profile cases of chengguan abuse, including thuggish beatings and illegal detentions. “When they come, I’ve got to go,” Luo notes.
One of his rivals has recently moved into a more legitimate brick-and-mortar location, probably due to chengguan pressures. But Luo remains optimistic about his jianbing stall – nomadic or stationary. “Anywhere is good for me,” he says – so long as it’s in the capital. “I like living in Beijing. What’s not to like?”
Originally a farmer from Henan, Mr Liu has lived in Beijing for decades. Like many other street vendors, he arrived in the capital in the early ’80s, at the beginning of the “reform and opening-up” period, when rural migrant workers moved to Beijing in droves to earn money to send back to their families. As disordered as the city was, it was one full of hope and possibility. Entrepreneurship flourished.
“Back then, Beijing was chaotic and messy… [but] housing communes and education were free,” Liu says with a hint of nostalgia. “Now, life is so tiring. Everything requires money, but it’s hard to make enough.”
After opening a range of shops with varying degrees of success, he now operates a malatang (spicy soup) stand just off Gulou Dongdajie, a historical hutong area near the centre of Beijing. It’s a humble set-up: a table heaving with vegetable and meat skewers, bubbling pots of hot red soup and a selection of vinegar and chilli dipping sauces.
The majority of Liu’s customers live in the area and are repeat visitors. Still, the takings are meagre, due to the increasing difficulties of doing business in Beijing.
“The chengguan come at night. ‘Don’t work here,’ they warn you. And if you don’t stop after three warnings, they’ll serve you a 1,500 yuan fine.” Liu has not yet received a fine, but only because he carefully times his opening hours to avoid them. “I still operate, but later in the night [when the chengguan are less active],” he reveals.
While the capital may never recover from malatang’s departure, Liu has earned his retirement. “I’m thinking of quitting soon,” he says. “I’ll probably go home and play mahjong.”
Yuka Hayashi contributed additional reporting to this article.