Street vendors vibrant part of city life

Updated: 2011-08-02 07:53

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Street vendors vibrant part of city life

The Greenmarket in New York's Union Square is a popular haunt for locals looking to buy fresh produce from small family farms. I posted some photos of the street bazaar on my blog and the comments left by Chinese viewers were very interesting.

Many were amazed to find that outdoor markets still exist in the heart of New York City, and even more amazed that they are allowed to.

"Where are the chengguan?" some quipped.

Chengguan, or urban management officers, refers to the massive army of civilian law enforcement personnel that have mushroomed in Chinese cities over the past decade. Their responsibility includes enforcing local laws and regulations relating to public facilities, environmental pollution, sanitation, street vendors and building demolition.

However, chengguan have become increasingly controversial in recent years due to the many high-profiled cases involving their excessive use of force while carrying out their duties, especially against street vendors. Some incidents have even triggered public unrest.

Just a week ago, chengguan were implicated in the death of a disabled vendor in Anshun of Southwest China's Guizhou province. Even while an investigation was still under way, two top officials from the local chengguan department were removed from their positions.

In New York City, police do make arrests and fine local vendors who operate without a license or on roads that are off limits. Some vendors in the city and their advocacy groups also complain about the harsh penalties for offenders. Still, I have not heard any stories of vendors being attacked or beaten to death by a group of law enforcement officers.

The relationship between vendors and the New York Police Department (NYPD) is much less contentious than that between vendors and chengguan in Chinese cities. There are good reasons for this.

Compared with the NYPD, most chengguan are inadequately trained for law enforcement. Their behavior, as most Chinese citizens see on a daily basis, is often heavy handed and inappropriate.

But another, more important, reason is that chengguan have been given an ill-intended mission.

Many of the cases that have made the headlines in the past few years have centered on vendors pedaling without permits or in restricted areas. The essence of the issue is that the city administrators believe that getting rid of street vendors is the best way to keep their cities clean and tidy. As a result, vendors that have been a familiar part of city life throughout history have suddenly become unwanted and illegal.

When cities adopt such a hostile attitude toward vendors, it is not surprising that the relationship between vendors and chengguan has become tense and combative.

As our cities become less tolerant of vendors, this underprivileged group finds it increasingly hard to make a living.

In New York, vendors can have food and merchandise stands in Times Square and along Fifth Avenue near upscale shops. In Shanghai, you won't see any of them in People's Square or along Nanjing Road or Huaihai Road.

Most New Yorkers consider street vendors part of the city's vibrant life and culture. Many patronize food vendors during breakfast and lunch. Pushcarts selling hotdogs, pretzels and kebabs are a signature scene of the Big Apple. Every weekend, New Yorkers enjoy street fairs and flea markets featuring hundreds of vendors. The police set up road-blocks to ensure the fairs run smoothly.

On Sept 24, sidewalk chefs will compete for the city's 7th Vendy Awards.

In Shanghai, vendor culture that was so much a part of the city's heritage has almost been wiped out. It is hard to find a place selling dabing (baked pancakes) and youtiao (fried dough) in the local neighborhoods these days. As the city takes on a modern look, many Shanghainese are forced to bid farewell to their traditional breakfasts and street vendors.

Unlike New York where vendor advocacy groups are vocal in making their voices heard, vendors in Chinese cities usually don't have their own organizations where they can bargain collectively.

The making of our laws and regulations hardly encourages vendors or their advocacy groups to voice their opinions.

Chengguan need more training to improve their law enforcement skills, but making our cities more vendor friendly would be an even better solution.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail

(China Daily 08/02/2011 page8)