Fruit sellers’ ingenuity at full play in daily chengguan skirmishes

By Bill Siggins Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-19 21:13:01

My sixth-floor balcony in deep suburban Beijing is the perfect perch to watch a cat and mouse game at times both funny and feeble. 

I sit there contemplating how I am going to quit smoking tomorrow, and so have spent many hours overlooking the commerce conducted by a dozen or more migrant, mobile fruit vendors who cater to the middle class residents in four gated communities that occupy each corner of the intersection.

My favorite fruit guy is Xiao Zhao, whose jerry-rigged little grey van stands out in the crowd. The other vendors sell from the back of motorized flatbed tricycles, but my guy opens the back hatch and slides out a built-in table.

He has it set up on rolling casters, so with one hand he can roll out his neatly arranged display of noggin-sized melons and then snap down a pair of spring-loaded collapsible legs that hold up the far end. He's also built racks inside the van to hold his remaining inventory.  

His ingenious contraption, which shows off his good imagination and carpentry skills, is actually an escape mechanism.

The unlicensed vendors are the mice while the cats are the notorious chengguan, a word that is formally translated as "urban management officers." In the West, we would call them municipal bylaw officers, like the dogcatcher. These guys aren't supposed to have a lot of power but many do possess a notorious, nasty streak.

The micro-merchants are constantly on the lookout for a white chengguan pickup truck.

As soon as their prowling white truck, with flashing, rooftop emergency lights, is spotted, the vendors erupt in a well-rehearsed fire drill. 

The side gate goes up, the umbrella comes down, a tarp is flung over the produce, and they scatter in all directions.

My guy simply picks up the far end of his display, kicks in the legs, and rolls his stock back into his van.  He's gone in a second, and usually just moves 100 meters down the road.

By the time the chengguan get to the corner, there's hardly a straggler for them to bark at over their vehicle's PA system, and no need for them to even bother tumbling out of their truck.

It's all a charade. As soon as the white truck is out of sight, the swarm of vendors return to resumes right where they left off. I've never seen nor heard of any of the vendors having their produce and vehicle taken, which the chengguan have a right to do.

Surely the chengguan's efforts are only designed to keep the vendors on their toes and prevent them for setting up permanent fruit stands.

All of the vendors are waidiren, or Beijing outsiders, and they come from the remote countryside where opportunities to earn cash are few. Most are rough, a little uncouth and bored silly. They are also honest, friendly and humorous.

My guy is from Henan Province, and both he and his wife sell fruit on opposite corners of the intersection. 

He tells me that just about every other morning he gets up at 4 am, and heads to the wholesale market where he stocks up on 500 kilograms of his specialty fruit. 

He makes 0.3 yuan, or about 20 cents, per 500 grams of watermelon. On a good day, when he and his wife sell out their stock, they can earn about 300 yuan ($47).

Zhao tells me he came to Beijing a decade ago and first worked in construction, but prefers the freedom of being his own boss. I'm not sure how my man, his wife and two young kids weathered Beijing's winter. He told me last week he went home to Henan Province for Spring Festival. But there's not much to do at home so he's back for another season of selling fruit.

I could tell by his ruddy complexion and raspy voice he had enjoyed his freedom the night before imbibing in more than a few ganbei (dry cups).

I wonder what ingenious contraptions he has set up in his 300 yuan-a-month abode that is home to the four of them. I wish he'd invite over sometime. Maybe I'll extend the invitation first.

The author is a copy editor with the Global Times.

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus