China’s long history of street food is at risk, as governments try to clean up cities

Shanghai-based journalist Siyuan Meng was buying some noodles when the lady selling them abruptly took off. 

“I was at a street vendor, after I ordered the food, a few minutes later the lady handing over the food told me, ‘Hey, be fast, they’re coming’ … and soon she was escaping away.”

The vendor had heard that local enforcement officers, known as Chengguan, had been spotted nearby. 

It’s a familiar scene in many of China’s urban centres. 

Many of China’s street food vendors have found themselves in a “cat and mouse” game with local authorities. 

“It’s pretty intense — because, technically, street food is banned in Shanghai,” Ms Meng said. 

A night time photo of a street food vendor, their arms hold a dish and food is in front of them.
Tough regulations and fines have seen many street food vendors unable to operate. (Supplied)

Strict regulations are making it harder for vendors to operate. They risk being shut down, fined or having their wares confiscated. 

China’s rapid modernisation has left the nation’s street vendors fighting for survival in some parts, as authorities look to clean up city streets. 

“There used to be many more street vendors in Shanghai or in China … I really don’t want street vendors to disappear entirely,” Ms Meng says. 

‘My kind of junk food’ 

Shanghai food blogger Rachel Gouk says street food is a quintessential part of life for many in China. 

The variety of food you can find on China’s streets is staggering, with each city and region home to its own favourites. 

A man bites down on a skewer of fried scorpions.
Writer and creator of Gourmet Lazy, Brendan Wan, shares his own tales of street food for ABC’s China Tonight. (Supplied)

“One that’s quite popular here are these, like, steamed sandwiches, steamed buns, and then you put shredded or minced meat with spices inside,” Ms Gouk said. 

Other common favourites include Chinese pancakes known as Jianbing, dumplings and noodles — while more exotic foods such as donkey burgers and scorpions can also be found. 

Vendors also operate at all hours of the day, catering in particular to shift workers and late-night revellers in Shanghai. 

“I remember when I first moved to Shanghai in 2011, I saw a lot [of vendors] late at night outside clubs. These carts were massive and had every kind of skewer on the planet.”

“It looked like mystery meat, but I ate it anyway,” Ms Gouk said. 

However, getting your mystery meat fix is becoming harder and harder, particularly in cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai. 

‘In order for a city to modernise, it has to clean up the streets’ 

University of Macau associate professor of sociology Jianhua Xu is a researcher into street vending in the city of Guangzhou. 

He is also a former policeman. 

“The government tends to think there are lots of problems associated with hygiene, and the blocking of traffic, and also, sometimes, people complain about disorder in the street,” he said.

“It’s also related to the government’s perception about what a modern city is.” 

A man stands in a police officer's uniform, smiling at the camera.
Former police officer, now associate professor, Jianhua Xu has been researching street vending in Guangzhou.  (Supplied)

That is a view echoed by NYU Shanghai’s professor of global media, Anna Greenspan. 

Professor Greenspan helped run a project called Moveable Feasts that mapped Shanghai’s street food, and its decline. 

“[In Shanghai] there’s beautiful cocktail bars and beautiful restaurants, but I also just like to squat on the street and eat a bowl of noodles … and that is getting harder and harder,” Professor Greenspan said.

China’s ‘most-hated people’ 

On the front line of China’s campaign to clean up the streets are the notorious Chengguan. 

Dr Xu says “they’re not the police per se, they belong to the city government”.

They have a reputation for using excessive force to remove vendors. Videos online show violent confrontations between Chengguan and vendors all across the country.

Still from movie 'City Dream', showing chengguan clashing with street vendors outside
Films like City Dream are looking at the clashes between street vendors and the Chengguan. (Supplied: Sage Culture Media/City Dream)

A 2012 Human Rights Watch report looked at Chinese media between July 2010 and March 2012, and found 150 reports of abuse allegedly by Chengguan across that time.

However, according to Dr Xu, that characterisation can be misleading. 

Dr Xu conceded they had a tough job. 

“They are sandwiched between the local government and the vendors,” he said.

“Both the Chengguan and the street vendors come from a similar background, they come from the poor population.”

‘A really good way to earn a living’ 

While street food is a cheap and convenient option for millions of everyday Chinese, for vendors, it is also a livelihood.

Professor Greenspan said street vending was crucial in providing employment. 

“China has been going through the fastest and most intense process of urbanisation in history … and, for those [who] don’t have a lot of resources, selling on the street is a really good way to earn a living.”

Back on the streets in Shanghai, Ms Meng spoke to the ABC’s China Tonight program while at her local vendor. 

“I usually come here once or twice a month, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, after having a few drinks with my friends at the bar nearby. It’s like the perfect comfort food,” she said. 

Ms Meng has come to know this vendor quite well, and says he’s run his business for seven years. 

“He is actually from a small city, nearby Shanghai … he and his wife moved here, around 2014,” she says. 

It’s common for street vendors to move from regional areas to China’s cities to try to make a better living. 

But it’s not easy. 

A photo taken at night of an unidentified street food vendor serving a customer.
Many street food vendors leave families behind in regional areas to earn a living in larger Chinese cities. (Supplied)

Ms Meng’s local vendor, who asked not to be identified, said he rarely saw his children, who live in his hometown in Anhui province. 

He and his wife might sell 30 to 60 bowls of noodles a night — for around $2 each. They operate from 9:00pm to 2:00am every day. 

Ms Meng says he has been sprung by the Chengguan around twice a month. 

“The penalties might include a fine of a few hundred RMB, or he might have his whole cart confiscated,” she said. 

A COVID-led revival?

When the pandemic hit last year, China’s economy, like much of the world’s, started to lag. 

In a bid to kickstart the economy, some authorities in China relaxed rules around street vending. 

In addition, Premier Li Keqiang gave a rare nod to the nation’s street vendors, describing them as “the lifeblood of China”. 

The comment set off a wave of online support for street vendors: The hashtag “this year roadside booths will not be included in the city assessment” was clicked 120 million times. 

Some netizens even posted photos of their favourite superheroes working as street food vendors to show their support. 

A photo of noodles being cooked in a wok-style pot.
There is still some hope that a push to boost the Chinese economy post-pandemic will see a revival in street food businesses. (Supplied)

One polling centre in Guangzhou found 70 per cent of people want regulations around street vending wound back. 

However, the revival may have been short lived. 

“My speculation is that I think this will not last long — it’s only temporary, because there’s no systematic change in attitude about what is a modern city,” Dr Xu said. 

Professor Greenspan said the loss of street food would be “tragic”. 

“Street markets, in general, are what makes a street or a neighbourhood lively, right, and so gives the city its culture.”

China Tonight airs Monday 9:30pm on ABC, or via ABC iview

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