Last week the local "head washing" store around the corner from my house was mysteriously transformed. Previously it was a gloomy living room lit by the usual creepy pink lights, staffed by young women in white satin dresses who stared glumly at passers-by. Some of them embroidered while they waited. So much for life in the big city, and now they are gone, replaced by a selection of shoes gleaming under fluorescent lights. Sign of the downturn? Perhaps, but it’s more likely they were pushed out by the Shanghai Expo’s praetorian guard, the City Management Bureau.
The people the City Management Bureau employs are, to my view, the underpaid, underqualified version of the municipal police – the mall security guards of China. Many of them are very young, and all of them surly. The most public part of their job is moving in on street stalls, noodle carts and balloon sellers, and forcing them off the street for a meaninglessly short period of time. One weekend in Zhongshan Park, I observed a group of some eight young toughs strutting around in black camouflage and black riot helmets, pushing around little old ladies selling trinkets without a license. They put the local grilled meat shop out of business – I was literally forced to grab my meat sticks and leave in mid-bite – and now they are turning their sights on bigger fish, namely stores that are not carts but pose other hazards, like "head washing," presumably.
Sometimes they get overambitious. For example, last month I rode by a near-riot incited by City Management. With their customary lack of tact and kick-ass attitude, the young jack-booted thugs had decided to put an enormous fruit market out of business. Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated. Instead of meekly knuckling under, the fruit stand employees – mostly young men themselves – fought back. The scene was darkly comical. City Management came in screaming, but instead of arresting the owner or some other legalism, they decided to begin by arresting the fruit. As hundreds of bystanders watched, the men formed a fire line and began passing fruit from the displays into the back of the paddywagon. Lord knows what they had planned for the watermelons, but as they spread out, the market employees fought back with sugar cane poles that looked like the pikes serfs used to repel cavalry back in medieval Europe. The dialogue was predictably related to invitations to step closer to arc of the pole’s swing and replies explaining what X was going to do to Y with said pole once X got his hands on it. Yes, it was funny. But it was also somebody’s livelihood. And I think I can speak for everyone who lives in China, be they Chinese or foreign, that being able to buy anything grilled on a stick, or a watermelon, any time you want it is a considerable convenience.
Big events bring out the fascist in every city manager. Prior to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, city authorities rounded up the homeless and shipped them out to work-farms in the countryside. I worked in downtown Atlanta at the time, and I recollect wondering if they had been teleported, their disappearance was so rapid and absolute. It was never reported whether any gainfully employed, home-having persons were picked up by accident. I will not compare Shanghai City Management with Atlanta Metro police because I honestly can’t tell which is surlier. But this is China, and the stall vendors are not homeless nor unemployed; they are clearly providing a service that people demand. Denied that business opportunity, what will they do for money?
On the other hand, they don’t pay taxes and, man, do they leave a mess. The leavings from the meat-stick shack would feed an empire of rats, and presumably did. But how much this distinguishes them from other restaurants or fruit stands is anyone’s guess. On the hygiene side, what you see on the meat-stick or fruit rack is what you get, but at least you can sniff it first. Shanghai’s restaurants, on the other hand, all seem to have earned the neutral face for their hygiene rating ( 😐 a.k.a. "Have a Day"), and at one particular dumpling house we were startled to hear rats literally trying to break through a closet door. As for tax, try asking for a discount if you don’t need a receipt to see how effective compliance enforcement is. And as for balloon sellers, there’s no such issue.
But Beijing doesn’t like foreigners thinking Chinese people are so poor as to not be able to afford real stores, even if most foreigners are far more charmed by street carts than neon hot pot joints. Still, it’s a bit odd, because the government has shown no real sign of interest in encouraging foreigners to come to the Expo in significant numbers – much the opposite. But setting the tourists aside, I still hope that when the Expo ends, I will once be able to do my shopping for earmuffs, dragonfruit, noodles, small trees and lamb kebabs all within a block of my door.