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China’s Cities Have Spent Years Getting Rid of Street Food. Now They Want it Back

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Growing up in Shanghai, Carol Zheng remembers her favorite street food vendors were everywhere on her lane. She used to regularly buy maltose, fried fish fillets and lamb skewers with her pocket money. Starting around 20 years ago however, these small mobile food carts — like many similar operations in China’s major cities — gradually began vanishing from sight in accordance with local regulations. 

But thanks to a new policy that aims to loosen regulations on street vendors, Zheng hopes her favorite childhood street foods will come back again — and she’s not alone. The news that China may be bringing back street food stalls and other road-side sellers has been warmly received across the country.

The policy comes at a time when unemployment is at a 20-year high after the Covid-19 outbreak. Having run a successful Airbnb rental before the pandemic – something that is currently on hold — Zheng says, “If the policy opens up, maybe I should consider having a street stand by myself as well to earn some cash.”

A Long-Awaited Move

According to the announcement released from China’s Central Civilization Committee office on May 27, roadside booths, street markets, and mobile vendors — which covers most street food vendors — will not be considered as part of the “national civilized city assessment” for 2020. 

For the unfamiliar, a “national civilized city” is considered to be the highest honor a city can get in China, indicating an overall high quality of city life and public service. Factors such as the percentage of public green space, pollution levels and general cleanliness of the city can affect the ranking. Starting in 2005 and held every three years, the assessments will reach their sixth round in 2020. Taking street vendors off the list of criteria appears intended to send a strong welcoming signal that vendors who were once made to vacate the streets will be invited back.

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The announcement comes not long after the city of Chengdu in China’s western Sichuan province implemented a new policy in early March to allow new street vending sites, as long as they are situated at approved locations and meet safety requirements. Through May 22, around 2,234 roadside business areas and 17,891 vending spots have emerged in the city, contributing to over 100,000 jobs, according to official statistics.

While many street food “stalls” previously consisted of makeshift carts that could be towed away on the back of a motorbike at the sight of the authorities, the new booths in Chengdu have been given carpeted areas and two license plates as part of increased regulatory oversight.

Premier Li Keqiang recently praised the city’s approach and has called the “stall economy” the “spirit of the country” as part of indications that a policy reversal was in the works. Recently, other cities such as Hangzhou and Xi’an have followed in Chengdu’s footsteps in green-lighting this sector of the gig economy. 

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Generally speaking, Chinese city governments have taken a conservative approach to street vendors in recent years and where such operations were previously widely-tolerated, today many urban areas have strict bans, citing concerns ranging from road safety to hygiene. There have been repeated calls for the legalization of street vendors even as they have been cleared from major cities’ streets, but there has not been a nationwide policy.

The announcement from China’s Central Civilization Committee office still does not mean that there is an official, enforceable policy just yet. Instead this is being read as more of a recommendation. Some of those to pioneer the move have done so by rezoning streets or neighborhoods populated by illegal street vendors and reopening them again, bringing the vendors more closely under their jurisdiction, but this also appears to be at the cities’ discretion. 

Ultimately it appears it will depend on individual cities to decide on whether — and to what extent — street stalls are welcomed back.

Shanghai, for instance, seems largely indifferent at present. When RADII reached out to Shanghai Urban Management and Law Enforcement Bureau (which oversees street vendors) on June 1 regarding the latest local street vending policy, a representative replied, “We have not received anything yet. The current policy is still no vendors are allowed.”

However, two days later on June 3, the bureau’s official website released a statement unveiling a plan to permit “speciality stores” to have sidewalk seating. Even though it only applies to the otherwise undefined category of “speciality stores” (likely meaning cafes and bars according to bureau staff), it is a sign of further easing of vending restrictions locally.

Nevertheless, many are hopeful for a broader national policy change.

Voices from the Frying Pan

The hashtag “This year roadside booths will not be included in the city assessment” has attracted over 120 million views to date on Chinese social platform Weibo. Positive sentiment around the move has also produced some pretty fantastic memes.

street food heroes iron man china

Image: Weibo

Comments have flooded into relevant posts; one highly upvoted comment says, “I always root for mobile vendors as they add dynamism to a city. But I think necessary intervention is needed if they threaten safe pedestrian access. Also food safety and hygiene are important too.”

According to a recent survey, 70% of people support the softening of bans on street vendors, while most believe it will accelerate new job opportunities locally. At the same time, 75% of respondents agreed that stands should fall within clearly defined boundaries for a better city environment.

Mr Shi and Ms Yang (not their real names) have been running a stir fried noodle stand in Shanghai’s Jing’an district for over 10 years now. “We’ve kind of played cat-and-mouse with chengguan [Chinese urban management officers] throughout the years. Whenever chengguan come, we will be asked to leave and pay a fine. What we will often do is circulate around and return later. If you do not see us here, we are probably at the next block,” says Yang.

Originally from Anhui province, the couple is among the millions of migrant workers in China’s most populous city.

When we spoke, Shi and Yang had not heard about the policy shift, but they seemed to have mixed feelings about it. “It would be great if the local government could open up the policy, then we can stop worrying about being kicked out. But it won’t be that easy to execute, especially when it comes to the different stakeholders such as restaurant owners, neighboring residents, the food safety and inspection department, police — and chengguan.”

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Having begun operating only two weeks ago after months on hiatus due to Covid-19, the couple admits that they are already struggling financially. “We could feel the squeeze amid the pandemic, as sales went down nearly half compared to last year,” says Shi.

Shi and Yang are not alone. In a group for Shanghai street vendors on messaging platform WeChat, heated discussions take place daily as people try to find the best locations for their booths, ideally with a good amount of foot traffic and away from the watchful eyes of chengguan. Some of them say they have lost their jobs recently, while others are simply looking for a side business to earn more.

If Shanghai ends up taking a similar approach to Chengdu and Hangzhou, street vendors like Shi and Yang and members of that WeChat group would be able to relax somewhat — at least for the time being. A video recently went viral of a chenguan in the city of Ruichang, in southeast China’s Jiangxi province, making personal calls to vendors asking them to come back. 

The New Gig Economy

The conversation around street vendors arrives against the backdrop of economic downturn and a high unemployment rate. According to official statistics, the unemployment rate in April was 6% in China, slightly higher from the 5.9% recorded in March.

Workers in certain industries are disproportionally affected — service and manufacturing industries, for example, are among the hardest hit. As a result, servers, chefs, and helpers — as well as workers at factories that are heavily dependent on exports — are being laid off in droves.

While many have turned to gigs such as delivery driving as they search for work, the possibility of looser regulations could open up street food vending as a way to make extra money.

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Street vending offers an incentive when it comes to consumption as well. Among other things, Covid-19 resulted in a decline in domestic economic activity, which government bodies both on the national and city level have been trying to jumpstart with coupons and relaxed regulations.

The “stall economy” could help with this. With cheap, accessible vendors allowed to operate in more places, the hope is that people are more likely to open up their wallets, and in turn, catalyze the local economy.

A Global Trend

The struggle to balance the demand for street food with health and public safety concerns is ongoing in cities around the world. In January 2019, the city of Los Angeles fully legalized street food vendors, which (under non-pandemic circumstances) often provide people with sidewalk tacos, hot dogs and fresh-cut fruit bowls after a baseball game or night out. The move was considered by many an official acknowledgement of street foods’ integral role in Southern California food culture. More requirements for vendors were added in the process, however, such as background checks, health permits and liability insurance.

It is unclear at present how permanent this policy will be in China, and like similar policies, bringing street food vendors back can be seen as a double edged sword. Food safety, traffic hazards and noise are among some of the concerns shared by netizens and policymakers alike. Yet economic benefits notwithstanding, street food adds vividness and vitality to Chinese cities whose skylines are becoming mostly skyscrapers and lookalike shopping malls.

Striking a balance between these risks and benefits requires a deliberate policy plan — one that will be interesting to see materialize in the months to come.

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.