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Unique Curbside Culture
Business as usual takes place on the streets
By Aaron Vessup | NO. 14 APRIL 7, 2016


Volunteers offer free outdoor haircuts to locals in Chongqing in March (XINHUA)

Street culture has a long and rich history in China. In Beijing, common sights include newspaper and magazine stands, or musicians playing guitars or strange-looking antique instruments.

A wide assortment of transactions happen on these curbsides, including the purchases of colorful balloon arrangements, fruit, tea and snacks. In some provinces it is still customary to see middle-aged residents with stools and shoe-shine kits in hand--keeping a sharp eye out for leather-soled footwear to shine--not to mention intervening neighborhood police patrols.

While the capital city has launched policies to marshal such workers to ply their trades inside, its curbs still play host to countless souls making ends meet by hawking food, domestic utensils or esoteric potpourri along streets and narrow alleys, also known as hutongs.

China's streets have long been the foundation for commerce. Purveyors include rural farmers with donkey carts, parking or loitering along curbs selling vegetable produce, potted plants, toys for children or just straight-up bric-a-brac.

Even after several years living here, the most unusual sellers still catch my attention. They are the ones with mobile knife sharpeners, patiently rubbing a whetstone or grinding wheels against dull meat cleavers, the most essential kitchen tool in all Chinese homes.

Then there are the mobile barbers, who have parked bicycles toting baskets holding an assortment of scissors, shaving razors, combs and battery-charged hair clippers. A large mirror typically hangs near the stool upon which a male or female customer sits draped in a white cloth. The result is a curious open-air natural hair salon, where passers-by may stop for a chat or to point out a mistake.

The experiences, sights and smells here are very different from those of my childhood. Years ago in America, my voice was barely above a whisper as I dared to call out, "Lemonade! Fresh cool lemonade for sale!"

As kids, my brother and I sat on the curb in our quiet neighborhood in the suburbs outside Los Angeles, California. Few cars passed our street, and fewer still slowed or even turned the corner to pass where we positioned a small cardboard box with a thin plywood strip to form a "stand." It was there that we tried to peddle our lemonade.

We scrawled the words, "lemonade: 10 cents a glass," with colorful crayons on notebook paper. It was the embodiment of our wistful dream for attracting droves of customers, and the sign shifted frequently at the slightest breeze. It is doubtful that many even noticed us, two determined kids posing as salesmen.

Sadly, our business venture would last only for one day. Little did we know about market forces, cost-benefit analyses or even direct sales etiquette. We just wanted to earn some spending money, and our dear mother had indulged us just this once, providing us with the necessities. We thought we would carry our dreams profitably, but discovered that the cost of basic materials put a huge dent in what could have been a slight profit.

Little did we know that the real masters of curbside vending can make sizeable profits, turning their mobile businesses into profit-making machines since they have little upfront costs and no overhead to speak of.

The sightings of curbside businesses in the United States--or even in Beijing--sharply contrast, however, with scenes from western China. In the landscape of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, simply put, things are more rural.

For example, the blood-letting of animals along the curbside is as common as are rows of hairy decapitated sheep heads. Pedestrians can watch these animal skulls be torched, and then see them blacken and smolder, producing an outer layer of dark sooty ash. The now warm, creamy brains inside these hairless skulls fetch affordable prices for their exotic delicacy. Steamed brain is said to be the most nutritious cooking method, fetching 50 yuan ($7.5) per serving. Sheep brain that is fried costs just 15 yuan ($2.3) per serving.

Hot dog and pretzel stands are perhaps more common scenes in the United States. In fact, there is only one curious curbside activity in America that I have seen, beyond groups entertaining tourists on metropolitan streets such as musicians and hip-hop dance artists. In Harlem, New York, groups of women wearing colorful African robes may be seen weaving hair braids called "cornrows" into the hair of customers. Such sights may even momentarily stop traffic.

But whether it is in Harlem, Beijing or Xinjiang, these curbside scenes definitely surpass my childhood lemonade stand business adventure in creativity, persistence and traffic-stopping ability. For sure, curbside adventures in China always promise to be surprising and entertaining in the very least.

The author is an American living in Beijing

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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