Street vending in China’s cities is territorial. You meet the same people in the same spots in the same districts, not always downtown. Every vendor has a nose for crowds. Some sell specialty items, like handicrafts or wire bicycle models.
I have always regarded footpath vendors as hardy, calculating and agile people who lend extra colour to well-frequented shopping areas. The window displays of shops, restaurants and opticians are professional. So too are the outdoor stall displays of fruit and vegetable sellers, fish vendors and purveyors of potted plants – they are colourful, pricemarked and, yes, aesthetic, but in an institutional way. The footpath ‘casual traders’ compete with institutional capitalists using less money and more ingenuity.
I have seen China police officers sweeping a cluster of pavement traders away on certain occasions, probably under orders ‘from above’. It might be during the run-up to a holiday period. It might be a symbolical assertion of police vigilance against the street sale of electronic goods which have, let us say, fallen off the back of a lorry – the popular electrical stores with their high overheads don’t welcome that kind of competition. In a busy street near the main Bayi Square of downtown Nanchang I saw sudden alertness and movement by half a dozen pavement vendors of phones, radios, computer tablets and acessories. A pair of uniformed police further up the street had been spotted questioning somebody about his displayed goods and lack of official permit. Near my vantage point individuals quickly wrapped their wares in cloth bundles and skedaddled. On the following weekend, in dry weather, the pavement vendors were back at their usual pitches, no police to be seen.
Along an unpaved side street near the north entrance to my Changchun university there used to be a dozen or more casual traders. From daybreak, vegetables, fruit, and fish brought in from the countryside were displayed on barrows, car boots, makeshift sheltered stalls, and on the ground. This morning market was authorised by the city council while a nearby shopping mall with residential apartments was under construction.
Knicknacks, children’s toys and second-hand clothing vendors had their pitches too. Before Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) sellers of decorations and fireworks were prominently busy. A bloke playing a chanting sequence on a battery-powered amplifier displayed a ‘fortune chart’ and sold Buddhist ‘good luck’ charms and pictures. Older people stopped and bought, while younger people passed by in agnostic disdain. I once picked up for twenty yuan a second-hand leather briefcase and carried in it books, lesson notes and CD audio material for English classes around the campus. I brought it back to Ireland as carry-on luggage, and nowadays bring my research files to local heritage committee meetings. I bought winter gloves and pullovers too. Sometimes I bought household things like bowls and peeling knives. With regularity I bought fish, fruit and vegetables knowing that they were fresh. Such intimate commerce helped me to relate to the local community. I think stallholders liked to see the occasional foreigner around their suburban area.
During the Spring Festival some city streets are designated as pedestrian by city councils and vendors of fruit baskets, potted chrysanthemums, greetings cards and handcrafts are granted permits to sell from standardised stalls along the street centres. Bunting and temporary festive displays are carefully set up. Police patrol the bustling streets every day.
In Beijing is a designated street space in the antique shop district where antiques and pseudo-antiques of varying price and taste are set out on the ground every weekend. It was near my hotel and I browsed without buying, but took a photograph I cherish.