By Wei Baipei
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wei Baipei is reporting from Wuhan, Hubei.