The Return of Street Vendors: Wuhan’s Post-Pandemic Revival 地摊的回归:一座城市疫情后的重生

By Wei Baipei

魏百佩

NANJING, China — The year 2020 introduced the city of Wuhan to the world in the most tragic way. The COVID-19 epicenter was placed on strict lockdown from the end of January to mid-March. As fears of contracting the deadly virus spread from door to door, stay-at-home restrictions silenced the once-buzzing streets.

2020年,武汉,这座坐落在长江边拥有百万人口的城市,以一个悲剧的发生地而为世界熟知。作为新冠疫情爆发的中心,它和同省周边城市经历了从一月底到三月中旬长达几个月的封锁。对这种致命病毒的恐惧席卷了整座城市。居家隔离政策使原先热闹的大街小巷空无一人。

But while Wuhan’s 10 million residents are still reeling from the pandemic’s effects, the city’s vibrant tempo appears to be restored in the markets as street vendors spring back into action. From the tempting aroma of hot-dry noodles found in breakfast snack carts to attractive bargains offered in tiny stalls, these familiar sights signal the return to normal urban life in Wuhan. At the same time, Wuhan’s street-vending scene breeds new hope in the post-pandemic era – it represents a new business model for small business owners, as well as a more humane form of urban governance.  

尽管在封城令解除半年之后,这座城市仍然承受着疫情的后续影响,武汉在流动摊贩的回归中找到了原来的味道。卖早餐的小推车上热干面飘散着诱人的香气,小货摊上又摆上了各种便宜货,这些都标志着,这座城市在慢慢地从疫情中恢复。同时,这些地摊的背后也孕育着“后疫情时代“新的生机,它不仅代表着适宜小生意人新的商业模式,同时也体现了更具有人情味的城市治理理念。

A crowded night market in Wuhan signals the gradual return to normalcy. 武汉一处热闹的夜市,人们的生活逐渐恢复正常。

Source/来源: Weibo 微博 

In Wuhan’s Qiaokou District, a parking lot has been transformed into a popular street barbecue joint. 在武汉市硚口区,一个停车场被改造成了一家热闹的烧烤摊。Source/来源: Wei Baipei 魏百佩

Walk along the downtown district of any big Chinese city and you will find street stalls occupying the spaces between tall buildings. Working under bright neon lights, the vendors shrouded in silhouettes provide the necessary fuel for residents caught in their daily hustle.   White-collar workers and students grab warm pancakes for breakfast while hurrying to the subway station. Night markets draw bargain-seekers and curious customers to their various commodities. 

在每一座中国的城市的市区,你都会发现流动摊贩;它们填满了高楼大厦的空隙。这些小商贩在霓虹灯下的剪影是城市的必需品。行色匆匆的白领或学生会在地铁站边的小摊上买一个烧饼当早饭。居民能够在夜市上寻找物美价廉的各色商品。

These carts and stalls constitute the smallest building blocks of China’s economy. Street-vending has long been an attractive source of livelihood for rural migrants seeking a better life in the city, due to low start-up costs and the large consumer base found in larger cities. However, prior to the pandemic, tense relations between street vendors and chengguan (municipal officers tasked with enforcing local rules) constrained the growth of the street vendor economy to some degree. City governments tended to perceive street-vending to be incompatible with the image of urban modernity that they strove to portray. Substantively, authorities that subscribed to modernist perspectives on urban governance advocated the strict division of cities into different functional areas, as well as the prohibition of all activities violating public space regulations. Consequently, mobile street stalls were regarded as challenges to urban management.

这一个个小推车或是小棚子构成中国经济的最微小单元。低廉的启动资金和由城市人口带来的源源不断的客源给摊主带来丰厚的利润。很多摊主都来自外地。长期以来,地摊经济支撑了很多农村家庭在城市里寻找更好的生活的梦想。但是,地摊摊主和城市管理部门间的剑拔弩张也由来已久,一定程度上阻碍了地摊经济的发展。城市管理者认为,地摊和他们构想中的现代城市无法共存。政府认同的是现代主义的城市治理观,即现代城市被划分成了不同的功能区,任何违反既定城市规划所确立的公共城市公共空间使用管制的行为都是违法的,理应被禁止或取缔。所以,流动摊贩就构成了对城市管理的挑战。

Almost five years ago, major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou had taken to banning and dissolving street markets, which led to frequent clashes between vendors and authorities. As cities gradually lifted bans on street-vending in recent years, municipal authorities moved to regulate when and where vendors may operate. For example, several local authorities, including Wuhan’s city government, would regularly sponsor vendors who could not afford to rent or purchase a stall location in the designated street markets. In doing so, authorities sought to prevent unauthorized street-vending. 

大约五年前,在一些中国的大城市,比如广州,采取的是一种简单的整治措施,比如直接禁止流动摊贩,这种政策引起和小贩间的频繁冲突。这一政策也因此逐渐被弃用。近几年,城管们正努力将流动摊贩转移至某个划定的地方,也会确定固定的经营时段。有时,一些地方政府,比如武汉,会定期资助一些买不起一个固定的摊位或不能支付摊位租金的小商人,以此来确保流动摊贩不在“非法”区域经营。

The urgency of economic rehabilitation after the lockdown prompted city governments to relax controls over the street vendor economy. This policy trend was reinforced by Premier Li Keqiang’s remarks during the press conference of the Third Plenary Session of the 13th National People’s Congress. Li spoke highly of the street vendor economy’s job creating potential, and cited statistics implying that 36,000 stalls would generate 10,000 jobs. Hours after the event, “street vendor economy” became a buzzword on Chinese social media. New changes were quietly added to official documents issued by all levels of the administration. On June 1st, 2020, the Civilization Office of the Central Communist Party Committee, which oversees urban management nationwide, excluded street markets and mobile vendors from its evaluation criteria for the “Civilized City” award. The award recognizes exemplary urban management and, by extension, a Chinese city’s competitive edge. Thus, with the change in award criteria, the state agency effectively called on local governments to display greater flexibility and tolerance towards street-vending. 

对于经济复苏的迫切需求使很多严格的规定趋于松弛。在十三届全国人大三次会议记者会上,中国总理李克强高度赞扬了地摊经济在创造工作机会方面的作用。他引用的数据表明,3.6万个摊位能创造10万个工作岗位。在他发表这番言论的几小时之后,“地摊经济“就成为了社交网络热词。新的政策变化随之在各级政府的公开文件中出现。中央文明办,是一个负责统筹全国城市管理的部门在6月1日颁布新规定称,地摊和流动商贩将不会作为今年”文明城市“的评选标准。”文明城市“是一个会颁给拥有最佳城市建设的奖项,代表着一座中国城市的竞争力。这样一个变动表明,整个社会将会对地摊采取更灵活,也更加宽容的态度。

Closer to home, street vendors of Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province are already benefiting from new policies on street vendor management. Hubei launched a seamless, online process for stall license applications that can be completed within 15 minutes. At the  city level, Wuhan’s neighboring cities of Xianning and Jinmen enlarged operating spaces for street markets. Jinmen even created another 15 such markets in the past year. These reforms support farmers hoping to sell their produce in urban districts.  

湖北省内部也推出了很多针对地摊管理的新政策。如果你是湖北省的居民,你可以在线上申请流动摊位的经营许可证。你只需要填一张表格以及上传你的身份证的照片即可。整个过程不超过15分钟。邻近武汉的城市,比如咸宁荆门都扩大了允许地摊经营的场地和范围。这些城市特别地增加一些菜市场的数量,帮助农民能将他们自产自销的农产品卖给城市顾客。

Meanwhile, space-scarce Wuhan is carving out more room for street vendors through the creative use of urban areas. As Hubei’s provincial capital and its most populated city, Wuhan overcame acute space constraints by utilizing pockets of empty space within major commercial streets. One such example involves the famous Chu He Han Street, which experiences considerable human traffic every day. Although fancy, upscale stores already occupy both sides of the street, pedestrian avenues were broad enough to accommodate new stalls. Hence, the city introduced little tent pavilions that form maze-like routes along the avenues. In this way, authorities ensure that Wuhan’s street vendor economy continues to thrive amongst the crevices of the bustling city.

而武汉,作为湖北省人口数量最大的城市却有着特殊的情况。像这样的一座巨型城市几乎不可能给地摊腾出新的空间。于是,武汉采取了一种更有创意的方式,那就是运用原有商业街上的富余空间。比如,楚河汉街是武汉本地一条知名商业步行街,每日都拥有着相当可观的顾客流。步行街的两边已经被各种精品店所占据。但好在,这条商业街的人行步道足够宽敞,能够容得下新的小商贩。于是,人们就用别具特色的小亭子在宽敞的街道上搭建了像迷宫一样的地摊市集。这样,在大城市的缝隙间,地摊经济再次得以发展。

Tiny stalls along Chu He Han Street Market’s broad pedestrian avenue. 楚河汉街市集上,小小的商贩在宽敞的商业步行街的步道上组成了迷宫。

Source/来源: Wei Baipei 魏百佩

Broadening the street vendor economy’s space for growth brings hope to small business owners whose livelihoods were ravaged by the pandemic. As a low-cost business model, street-vending is better suited to help both existing vendors and small business owners tide through their economic predicament. The story of Ms. Chen illustrates this. Currently a street vendor working in Chu He Han Street, Ms. Chen shared that she once operated a shop in a large mall, where she sold screen protectors for mobile phones. However, a 25-percent rent hike imposed after the pandemic compelled her to move out and apply for a street stall instead. Although most stalls only open for business in the evenings, Ms. Chen’s stall  operates from eight in the morning so as to “welcome the first group of tourists and bid the last ones goodbye.” She noted that it remains a tough year for most small business-owners like herself, but street-vending’s lower overheads have alleviated some of her financial woes. Indeed, the need to cut costs and maximize customer outreach are driving small entrepreneurs like Ms. Chen to increasingly recognize street-vending as a viable alternative way of doing business. 

地摊经济有了更广的发展空间,这给了那些生活被疫情打击的小生意人以希望。作为一种低成本的商业模式,地摊经济能够更好地帮助小型商贩更好地度过目前的经济困境。陈女士的经历就体现了这一特点。陈女士是一名楚河汉街市集的摊主。她在接受采访时称,在疫情之前,她在一家大型超市里拥有一家卖手机屏保护膜的小店。但在疫情之后,店租涨了25%,迫使她去别处寻找机会。很幸运的是,她在楚河汉街的地摊市集拥有了一席之地。陈女士说,大多数的摊位在晚上七点才开张。“但我总是在早上八点就开门营业了,我能看到第一批来楚河汉街的游客以及最后一个离开步行街的人。“尽管她承认今年对于很多像她一样的小摊摊主来说是很艰难的一年,但是,地摊更低的成本给了她喘息的机会。以启动成本低,顾客量大为特征的地摊经济使很多像陈女士一样的摊主认识到,这也许是一种新的商业机会。

The shift to street-vending is further supported by new marketing innovations. Across from Ms. Chen’s stall, a booth owned by an art student features a special QR code unique to participating vendors in the “Vendor Hunter Alliance.” Similar to Tencent’s Meituan-Dianping ratings application, the Vendor Hunter mobile application enables customers to rate and discover street stalls in the area. In other words, vendors can now harness the application’s algorithm-driven platform to promote their business – a publicity channel previously exclusive to traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

商业模式的革新也推动着地摊经济的变革。在陈女士的对面,是一个艺术学院学生的摊位。他的摊位上却在常见的线上支付二维码的旁边贴着一个特别的二维码。扫码后,他的顾客会发现,他是”地摊猎人联盟“的一员。“地摊猎人”是一款类似腾讯“美团点评”的大众点评类APP,顾客可以评价自己逛过的地摊,也可以搜索自己身边的“网红地摊”。这样,地摊摊主也可以像实体店那样,运用算法来推广自己和自己的产品。

A street vendor along Chu He Han Jie Night Market. Similar to Ms. Chen, this woman sells handicrafts and decorative items at her stall. 楚河汉街的夜市上,一名和陈女士一样的摊主,正在后疫情时代经营她的地摊小生意。Source/来源: Wei Baipei 魏百佩

Therefore, a thriving street-vending scene not only reflects a recuperating local economy, but also a city’s unique culture and dynamism. Wuhan’s street markets, for one, have witnessed remarkable resilience and savvy entrepreneurship amidst tough times. In the post-pandemic era, it is precisely these tiny, unassuming stalls that harbor new possibilities for Wuhan’s economic recovery, as well as new ways of governing cities.

地摊经济的发展不仅仅代表着一个繁荣市场,它还代表着别具特色和活力的城市文化和城市精神。武汉的地摊市集体现了在逆境中生存的顽强精神和抓住一切机会发展的非凡机会。武汉这座城市和它的流动摊贩一起重生。在后疫情时代,这些小摊小贩无疑给经济恢复提供了新的可能,也为城市治理提出了新的路径。

Wei Baipei is reporting from Wuhan, Hubei.

魏百佩在湖北省武汉市报道。

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