In Chengdu (pop. 20 million), my apartment building’s complex is nestled in the bustling part of a famous Chinese university. The school’s west gate is merely a 2-minute walk down a narrow alleyway from my apartment, making this a prime area businesses would most like to set up shop. Well patronized groceries, tea and coffee houses, Western and Chinese restaurants, small hotels, not to mention a 24-hour McDonalds and KFC, all cater to Sichuan University’s 50,000 student population. The college kids come out in droves through the west gate, especially on weekends, where sidewalks are lined with itinerant sellers who spread out their goods on canvas sheets or set up small tables to attract the young crowds.
Every evening, I set aside time to walk along the streets with my Chihuahua-mix pooch, Xiao Hua (Little Flower). Our favorite trekking day is Friday evening. After a full week of classes, students such as myself relax by cruising the sidewalk displays of knickknacks. And with the Chinese New Year upon us, business is booming as thousands crowd the streets looking for bargain buys.
Sparkly hair ornaments, funky stick pins and jewelry, sports shirts and socks, sturdy cups and saucers, discount phone cards and stacks of pirated DVDs can be found at every turn on our roadside stroll. With a little bit of bargaining, a customer can get earrings for a dollar, mugs for 50 cents, three pairs of Adidas or Nike socks for $1.25 and the going rate for the newest pirated DVD movies, which is 50 to 60 cents each.
One of our favorite street visits is a place I call Pet Corner. University girls coo at adorable puppies placed in wire bins atop collapsible cages. The girls link their arms in those of their boyfriends. With well-practiced pouting and coaxing, their sweethearts might buy them their choice of pooch for $17 to $100 dollars.
Most of the puppies end up dying within a month as they usually are infected with diseases from the puppy mills they came from. Proper care and vaccination of pets is still a new concept in China. Only 3 percent of all animals owned receive the necessary inoculations for canine or feline diseases. Pet sellers could educate the public but not those selling on the roadside. They are out to make a quick buck and will say nothing to discourage the public from taking home a pet, especially a sick one.
Five years ago, Little Flower was a pity-save from such Chinese dog sellers so I am well aware of their tactics. In fact, the last time I ventured by Pet Corner, one seller offered me 50 yuan ($6) for my dog. He thought he could get quite a few cute puppies out of her and make a tidy profit. Needless to say, I passed up that offer.
The joke would have been on him if he’d bought her. My happy little Chihuahua female has been spayed.
While walking the sidewalks, Little Flower is either begging goodies off of those passing by or, nose to the ground, searching out juicy morsels dropped by the students. Everyone is likely to be munching down snacks, sold by the rows of night venders. The venders are usually those in the neighborhood hoping to cash in on the crowds by offering up homemade snacks. For 25 to 50 cents, customers can fill up on rice noodles sprinkled with condiments, salty “five spices” hard-boiled eggs, the infamous Sichuan sao kao (grilled kabobs of beef and vegetables covered in spicy red pepper granules), or sticky, glutinous rice balls rolled in sesame seeds and ground peanuts.
The dou gao sellers are the most interesting and easiest to spot. On a pole, they shoulder two tall wooden buckets and negotiate the crowds. From time to time, they stop to sell one of Sichuan’s infamous comfort foods, dou gao. From one bucket, they scoop into a small plastic bowl the dou gao, a soft, soupy tofu. From the other bucket, they offer up an array of condiments. Soy sauce, sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, chopped
spring onion and ground red peppers are always the favorites. I’ve noticed an expert dou gao seller knows just how much of each to place atop the tofu he’s selling. He or she always gets the best business.
With the winter upon us and temperatures dropping to an unusually cold thirties for this area, the venders have changed from summer to cold weather foods. There’s nothing like buying a small bag of fresh chestnuts, roasted and tossed in hot coals, to warm your soul. I always feel I’ve walked straight into a Dicken’s novel whenever I purchase my 4 yuan (50 cents) worth of chestnuts from a roadside seller. On the more Asian side of winter street fare are grilled octopus tentacles and mini-squids, fried egg cups with dried meat shavings, oily glutinous rice balls sautéed in a sugary glaze, and crispy fried chicken heads (or feet) skewered on sharp wooden sticks.
Some students tell me after an evening of glorious gorging on such streetside delicacies (not all too sanitary, I might add), their stomachs are in pretty bad shape. Food poisoning is not uncommon. Although warnings against eating such foods are posted on campus notice boards, roadside buildings and even in the newspapers, the temptation is just too great to pass up when confronted with hometown favorites.
Every so often, police conduct raids on these popular city weekend hang-outs. Venders without licenses are always on the look-out. When the police arrive, the illegal entrepreneurs scatter in a chaotic dash, grabbing up their goods or speedily wheeling away their carts before the authorities can nab them. Yet it’s only a temporary closing-up-of-shop. The non-licensed sellers will be back again the next day, as will the students.
Others who benefit from Sichuan University’s west gate street markets are those in transportation services. Coming to and from the college is quite cheap. For 20 cents to 40 cents, city buses are still the main mode of transportation for students wanting to make an uptown run to the department stores. For a starting rate of 75 cents, taxis can get people across town for a few dollars, although the traffic is fairly heavy Friday to Sunday evenings. The best bet is to take one of the many pedicabs that are always in abundance. In my area, both men and women pedalists line up to invite customers into their covered, cushion-seated rickshaws. With seating for two (three with a child), the pedicab drivers will cycle patrons wherever they desire. Bargaining for this kind of transportation is required. Before taking one, it’s best to consult a local who knows the true cost of where you’re going.
Now that our Spring semester has begun, the young people are out spending their money as always. My neighborhood streets are filled with our familiar venders, sellers, and pedicab drivers from last semester. So far, from the business transactions I’m seeing every evening, this is going to be a very prosperous 2008 for those on the sidewalks of Chengdu. Of course, the sellers aren’t the only ones with all the luck. Little Flower and I benefit as well. For me, it’s back to great bargain shopping now that school has started. For the dog, it’s back to tasty street nibbles.
Yes, I think I can honestly say for those who choose to patron our neighborhood streets in China, you certainly won’t be bored.