Sell, Run, Repeat: My Life as an Illegal Street Peddler
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2016-06-16 04:11:06

I moved to Shanghai with my 6-month-old daughter in 2001 to join my husband who was already there working in a bookshop. We had traveled from Suzhou, our hometown in eastern China’s Anhui province — not to be confused with the more famous Suzhou near Shanghai.

Having a baby was expensive, and money was tight since we only had my husband’s salary to rely on. To support my family, I decided to sell some of the bookshop owner’s stock at a stall outside Shanghai’s Fudan University for a small commission. Once I had earned enough from this, I began buying and selling my own stock.

This went on for several years, but when book sales started slowing down in 2010, I supplemented my income by selling socks and hair ornaments as well. Unfortunately, with the rise of online shopping, sales of these also began to slow down. Last October I finally switched to selling street food after learning online how to make popular Chinese snacks.

I have had dealings with the chengguan — the city management officials — for as long as I have been peddling. When I first began selling books at the university, I would shoulder my supplies and make a mad dash for the nearby teaching block the moment I spotted them approaching.

In terms of a normal job, based on my age and qualifications, all I could get hired for would be washing dishes in a restaurant. The salary would be lower than I currently make and I would lose the freedom I enjoy as a peddler.

If caught, they would confiscate my goods or fine me. It could be as little as 200 yuan (about $30), or as much as 500 yuan — the exact amount depended on the mood of the individual chengguan.

One incident has haunted me for years — the time I was caught outside Tongji University. It was actually my first time selling there, but I had only set up shop for a short time before several chengguan appeared.

I high-tailed it out of there, desperately pedaling my book-laden cart, but they managed to catch up with me. They demanded I hand over my cart as well as all of my books.

In tears, I fell to my knees and pleaded with them. “I’m begging you, I have a 6-month-old daughter at home.” This was the only time in my life that I had ever knelt down before anyone except my parents.

“Your child has nothing to do with us!” one of them snapped without even looking me in the eye. Then he confiscated my pedal cart and the books I had been selling for the bookshop. Stranded, I had to walk home on foot.

To this day, I have never told my family about the time I got down on my knees and begged. It still upsets me a lot to think about it.

Before the internet age it was not uncommon for the officials to resort to violence when “enforcing the law.” But with social media came the potential to make conflicts go viral. This made the government look bad, and the chengguan had to start going about their duties in a more civilized manner.

Of course, not all management officials are evil. Once, when my sister-in-law was peddling near Fudan with her 7-year-old son, an off-duty chengguan approached and pushed 20 yuan into my nephew’s hand. He then looked my sister-in-law in the eye and told her that he had a child the same age.

There used to be another one I knew who — when his superiors weren’t around — would quietly ask us to leave without any penalty. He would say, “You aren’t the only ones in Shanghai doing business. We are all struggling to support our families.”

This chengguan got sick last year, and my fellow peddlers and I called to ask how he was doing. I knew that at the end of the day, the chengguan had families to support too. The way they do their job largely depends on the individual. 

Selling street food is much harder than selling socks. I have to wake up at 7 a.m. every morning to take my son to school. Then I go shopping for fresh produce and prepare the food, being ready to set up shop by 11 a.m.

Unlike selling socks or books — where you can sit down when serving customers — with street food everything has to be cooked and sold fresh to order, meaning I’m on my feet for the 12 hours I’m in business. I normally don’t get to sleep before 1 a.m.

The only time I get off each year is the couple days I go home for Chinese New Year. Occasionally I consider taking a weekend, but then I think of the money I would miss out on for each day off, and how sitting around at home would just make me feel anxious anyway.

I have considered giving up peddling altogether and using what I have saved over the years to rent a shop and live a calmer lifestyle. But retail space in Shanghai is shockingly expensive. If business turned sour, I could potentially burn through a lifetime of savings in an instant.

When you’re approaching 40, it’s better to settle than gamble on a better future. The reality is that my parents have medical bills, and there are all sorts of costs associated with putting my two children through school. I would never run a shop unless I was over 90 percent sure that I could make it work.

In terms of a normal job, based on my age and qualifications, all I could get hired for would be washing dishes in a restaurant. The salary would be lower than what I currently make, and I would lose the freedom I enjoy as a peddler.

My daughter has returned to our hometown to study for the gaokao — China’s college entrance exam. She is unable to sit the exam in Shanghai since her household registration papers still tie her to our home in Anhui. Having to take the exam in a much poorer province means she will face a tougher time getting into a good school.

I have remained in Shanghai with my son so that he can experience the big-city life. Since he also probably won’t be able to take the gaokao in Shanghai, we will most likely return to our home in Anhui after he finishes fifth grade. We have already bought a house in our home county, and we also own some farmland.

If we move back, maybe I can finally open a shop. We won’t make quite the amount we do now, but we will also spend a lot less.

(As told to Sixth Tone’s Cheng Tonghui.)

(Header image: A woman peddles panda hats during a New Year’s celebration on a street in Shanghai, Jan. 2015. IC)