The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - TEXT AND PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY CHEN LIANG (陈亮)

Beer is quaffed, threats are made, bot­tles are bro­ken, and lives are built and ru­ined at Nan­jing's Yao­hua­men mar­ket. Liang Chen spent 11 months study­ing this night mar­ket, un­pack­ing its “rivers and lakes” cul­ture and the pres­sures on its com­mu­nity of mi­grants.

Afew hours be­fore the sun goes down, Yao­jia Road on the out­skirts of Nan­jing be­comes a con­flu­ence of beep­ing ve­hi­cles. Buses, trucks, and cars push their way through traf­fic as best they can so that, at 5 p.m. on the dot, ven­dors can un­load restau­rant canopies, cook­ing fa­cil­i­ties, meats, and veg­eta­bles from their ve­hi­cles, form­ing bro­ken lines of smoke and sticks. Be­hind the hot coals and warm bot­tles of beer, there is a tale of petty gang­sters, vi­o­lence, and lo­cal power grabs—a mas­cu­line opera of honor and hope.

I spent 11 months study­ing the cu­ri­ous cul­tural com­plex­i­ties of this mar­ket of mi­grants. They come from vil­lages, town­ships, and hin­ter­land prov­inces as far as Sichuan and Shanxi, all to make an odd home in Nan­jing. Hav­ing moved since writ­ing, the Yao­hua­men mar­ket is still a melt­ing pot of mi­grants con­stantly on the move; still, names herein have been changed to keep cer­tain par­ties anony­mous and the mar­ket has been ren­o­vated since writ­ing.

My own jour­ney be­gan, not en­tirely un­usu­ally, as an aca­demic pur­suit, but re­search be­gan in earnest when Mr. Han gave me a job in his kitchen. Born in a poor moun­tain­ous re­gion in Sichuan, Han learned cook­ing in Bei­jing when he was a teenager. He quit his last job (or was fired) in Bei­jing, he says, for throw­ing burn­ing char­coal at one of his cus­tomers. He cooks 50 to 60 bar­be­cue fish dishes a night and has no ri­val. Nat­u­rally, Han was sus­pi­cious of my cre­den­tials, doubt­ful that any­one would want to study such “in­signif­i­cant” peo­ple. Thus be­gan my in­tern­ship, paid in free meals and in­for­ma­tion.

But re­search is not built on anec­dotes (though the story of the mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties there cer­tainly should be), so other meth­ods were em­ployed: sur­veys, fam­ily trees, maps, and work his­to­ries, as well as ac­cept­ing jobs in other kitchens and stalls.

The in­ter­net and for­eign me­dia abound with tales of the quaint qual­ity of the street mar­kets—the smells, the tastes, and the col­or­ful char­ac­ters. But all th­ese nov­el­ties fail to men­tion that a com­mu­nity is be­ing built, one that seem­ingly re­lies on the op­ti­mism and ur­ban­iza­tion of the early 2000s, creat­ing a strange, in­su­lar mi­cro­cul­ture.

The no­to­ri­ous cheng­guan, the po­lice charged with ur­ban man­age­ment, are none too happy with the ex­is­tence of the Yao­hua­men mar­ket, but the levies, stall trans­fer fees, gift cig­a­rettes, and red en­velopes keep the mar­ket churn­ing—that and the af­ford­able fare it serves. Blue col­lar work­ers, mi­grant fac­tory work­ers, re­lo­cated farm­ers, truck driv­ers, and so­journ­ing busi­ness peo­ple are loyal cus­tomers here, along with the oc­ca­sional pros­ti­tute or hooli­gan. It is here, in this chaotic hodge­podge that we find our so­ci­ety, or she­hui (社会), a dis­or­derly yet highly vi­brant fate of many Chi­nese mi­grants. In this un­der­class world, an out­law-es­que “rivers and lakes” men­tal­ity (江湖 ji`ngh%) reigns supreme.


“You never know if th­ese beer caps are tainted with blood,” Brother Dragon told me as I helped him dis­trib­ute bot­tled beer to lo­cal restau­rants. Beer bot­tles make an ex­cel­lent cud­gel in the drunken hours of the night mar­kets, and Brother Dragon is no stranger to that sort of vi­o­lence.

One of the most cu­ri­ous and per­haps most in­ter­est­ing facets of

the Yao­hua­men mar­ket, and many mi­grant mar­kets like it, are the “liv­ing rowdy ghosts (活闹鬼 hu5n3ogu@),” a lo­cal term for hooli­gans and street strong­men who are es­sen­tial to the mi­cro-so­ci­ety of the mar­ket. In Chi­nese, “ghost” can mean a spec­tral be­ing, but it can also refer to un­fil­ial chil­dren; rowdy ghosts of­ten be­gin as delin­quents, the fam­ily’s black sheep, and they grow to be a painful but in­te­gral part of the mar­ket so­ci­ety. If a mar­ket has a rep­u­ta­tion for in­tox­i­ca­tion, gang vi­o­lence, van­dal­ism, rack­e­teer­ing, and ex­tor­tion, you’ll be sure to find a few rowdy ghosts run­ning about.

One stall, called Vi­sion Bar­be­cue, was run by a young cou­ple full of naiveté who didn’t see the ef­fects of the­ses hooli­gans com­ing—least of all from their land­lord. He took loans from the young cou­ple, de­manded ab­surd sums of money, and had his fam­ily and friends eat there for free. The land­lord’s nephew, it turned out, was a rowdy ghost, an in­vet­er­ate gam­bler and hood­lum who threat­ened the cou­ple openly in public. Even with the me­di­a­tion of a reg­u­la­tory agency, the cou­ple was forced to close the stand. It was a crash course in the rule by rowdy ghosts in the Yao­hua­men mar­ket.

A more shrewd ven­dor, Brother Fei, took the ini­tia­tive to in­vite sev­eral lo­cal “big house­holds” (大户 d3h&) to his stand for a din­ner as soon as he started his busi­ness; at the ban­quet, he asked th­ese new neigh­bors to “take care” of his busi­ness. Ac­cord­ing to Brother Fei, host­ing a ban­quet is a rou­tine for him when­ever he starts a busi­ness in a new place, a great way to con­nect with lo­cal heav­ies and get in­sider in­for­ma­tion about re­li­able leasers. This type of ini­ti­a­tion is of­ten re­ferred as “wor­ship­ing ghosts” (拜鬼b3i gu@); “wor­ship­ping bod­hisattvas” (拜菩萨 b3i p%s3), on the other hand, refers to build­ing sim­i­lar con­nec­tions with lo­cal of­fi­cials or po­lice­men. Few in the mar­ket can af­ford to do the lat­ter, so most rely on the neigh­bor­hood ghosts.

Ven­dors need to keep a level head and play the in­tim­i­da­tion game if they want to keep their stalls. Old Wang, a veteran out­door restau­rant boss, takes the ini­tia­tive by find­ing the rowdy ghosts first; they of­ten ap­proach his stall for free meals. Old Wang is an old hand, so he knows that get­ting a free meal is a test for the head of the gang, meant for the “lit­tle broth­ers” to see. So, af­ter light­ing his cig­a­rettes and invit­ing him to pa­tron­ize the restau­rant in the fu­ture, Wang treats the gang’s leader to a meal. If the rowdy ghost goes away feel­ing re­spected, he and his fol­low­ers will be less ag­gres­sive and will prob­a­bly pay for their next meal. The “lit­tle broth­ers” though, Old Wang points out, can’t be con­trolled. They are al­ways look­ing to show how big and bad they can be.

Though it might seem like some­thing men­tioned in a guide­book as be­ing quaint or full of life, the night mar­ket life can be bru­tal. It’s a world where men call each other “brother,” a world where meat, beer, and wine are shared and where fight­ing is a fore­gone con­clu­sion, a minia­ture Val­halla with bar­be­cue fish. This toxic testos­terone rules the mar­ket’s pol­i­tics at ev­ery level. But de­spite th­ese har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and seem­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing lo­cal pol­i­tics, the mar­ket is also a place of hope. Young peo­ple come from the coun­try­side and from fac­to­ries and farms, all look­ing for a bet­ter life in this mar­ket.


In con­flict, peo­ple have a rav­ing need to val­i­date their au­then­tic­ity and man­li­ness with sol­dierly sen­ti­ment. The fight­ing is the po­lar ex­treme of this brotherly au­then­tic­ity. Beer bot­tles are a weapon, yes, but they are also the mea­sure by which the ef­fects of con­flict are ame­lio­rated. Go­ing drink­for-drink means solidarity and peace are re­stored. It’s not just the bosses; stall own­ers and cus­tomers alike call each other “brother” as if to sum­mon the warmth of the fam­i­lies they left be­hind.

The mar­ket mi­grants come from all over China, in their own way a sym­bol of the chang­ing eco­nomic land­scape in China. Many are con­stantly on the move. Young peo­ple in their 20s or 30s head for the big cities to be­come en­trepreneurs, fol­low­ing a dif­fer­ent path from the el­der gen­er­a­tion. While their en­roll­ment into ur­ban fac­to­ries is fa­cil­i­tated by the state, much like their el­der gen­er­a­tion, the mar­ket is a new fron­tier.

“Do you know how many cities I’ve lived in since leav­ing home at the age of 15?” Liu from Shan­dong asked me. “Six.” He’s been a farm hand, fac­tory worker, mut­ton soup ven­dor, sales­man, and much more. The no­mads of China’s mi­grant class can find so­lace and com­mu­nity in the strange night mar­kets where food, bravado, and money are lan­guages ev­ery­one can un­der­stand.

Skilled grad­u­ates from vo­ca­tional schools en­joy high em­ploy­a­bil­ity, but

many young ven­dors traded jobs in the Eco­nomic Development Zone for the night mar­ket. Jobs in fac­to­ries leave work­ers want­ing, pri­mar­ily be­cause the chances of get­ting pro­moted are slim and the work­ing hours are long and mo­not­o­nous. Many ven­dors say they couldn’t last “three days” in such an en­vi­ron­ment.

The young­sters are driven to the mar­kets, where the hours are more amenable, the work more var­ied, and the com­mu­nity much more ami­able— but there are also more risks. The cre­ation of the night mar­ket might be con­tex­tu­al­ized in the con­cept of con­tem­po­rary ur­ban trans­for­ma­tion, of meet­ing the de­mands of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of ur­ban res­i­dents and mi­grant work­ers al­ways on the move.

Pass­ing them on the street, mi­grant ven­dors are not, as one first sus­pects, the pow­er­less and marginal­ized of so­ci­ety, all equally un­der the yoke of en­trepreneur­ship in the mar­ket econ­omy. This is sim­ply un­true. The pol­i­tics of the mi­grant street mar­kets are ev­ery bit as cut­throat as any cor­po­rate board room.

Study­ing the odd and per­haps ar­cane cul­tural im­pli­ca­tions of a night mar­ket shows both what mi­grants do for a city and what the city does to the mi­grants. The peo­ple found on that dark Yao­hua­men mar­ket are in­dica­tive of a na­tion on the up, on the move, and out for ev­ery­thing they can get. And they’re just get­ting started. - EDITED BY TYLER RONEY

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