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The troubles with good taste

STREET stalls are part of Shanghai's culture and the treats are enjoyed by just about everyone in the city. But it's not all about price and taste as Tan Xian discovers.

A few hundred meters from the Shanghai World Expo site, Xin Jun is sweaty from cooking and selling at his stall on Changli Road, one of Pudong's biggest shopping streets.

His mother is beside him, busy collecting money. Fried noodles and ba bao zhou (eight-treasure porridge) are the most popular.

Business is usually good and it is the main source of income for this Shanghai family of four.

"For us, the monthly income of a few thousand yuan is enough," says mother Zhao Di, as she hands over change to customers. "More importantly, we feel secure and stable."

Stable indeed. They no longer need to play "cat and mouse" with the urban management officers whose responsibility is to crack down on unlicensed street hawkers.

Since February last year when the Sishun Trading Co took over the management of the Changli Road street hawkers in an answer to Zhoujiadu Subdistrict's call to balance the street stall economy and build a "clean image" of the area for the World Expo 2010, 32 street vendors - there used to be more than 800 hawkers - have been enjoying legal street business and paying 600 yuan (US$88) each month to run their stalls.

The 32 vendors were selected for cleanliness and experience in street trading. Each signed an agreement and has to obey the regulations, according to Huang Linping, director of the Sishun Trading Co. "If they break the rules, they will be dismissed."

The new practice has made Changli Road Shanghai's first legalized street for vendors.

"So far, business is ok, if not better - although we have to pay the monthly 600 yuan that covers the rental and management fees," says Xin.

He says he felt extremely lucky when he was told that his family was selected from hundreds of others. "We are very happy to become 'legal' hawkers even though we have to obey many strict regulations," he adds.

"We feel happy to be a bridge between the government and ordinary people," says Gu Baoyue, chief of the Zhoujiadu Subdistrict's urban planning section who is in the charge of the project.

Many hawkers say the company helps negotiate with the government and deals with disputes between customers and traders.

Shanghai has about 100,000 street vendors, some in permanent places, others mobile. Often though the mess and poor standards of hygiene challenge Shanghai's healthy image.

Take Changli Road for example.

A year ago, traffic was terrible there as more than 800 street hawkers occupied pedestrian and vehicle lanes to sell pirate DVDs, cheap goods and snacks. The Zhoujiadu Subdistrict tried the traditional methods of clearing the traders off the streets, but the effect never lasted.

Now, after the launch of the new policy, the street looks bright and neat; crime has fallen at least 60 percent with fewer brawls and thefts, according to the neighborhood police station; and there is one-third less trash to deal with every day, says the sanitation department of the subdistrict.

Many Shanghainese are upset when their enthusiasm for rubbing shoulders with the crowds around the street stalls clashes with the reality of rising crime rates and poor hygiene.

"It is part of our life and part of Chinese culture. It's just in our blood," says Helen Xia, a 26-year-old office lady. "But I have to admit that it's also a dilemma."

The demolition of the east part of Wujiang Road, one of Shanghai's most famous food street, is approaching.

"Heartbreaking! Shanghai is fashionable enough and does not lack high-end streets," says Apple Wu, 28, an office worker whose office is near the food street. "But Wujiang Road is unique. Once it's gone, it can never come back."

Last August, the west part of Wujiang Road was turned into a pedestrian mall with shops and restaurants.

"I don't think it is wise to drive away and 'clean up' all the street vendors. Their very existence shows there is a demand for them," says Hua Min, a professor in economy at Fudan University, who specializes in research on the street vendor economy.

True. And for some street vendors, profit is not the only thing involved - self-discipline is also crucial. For them, they have to ensure a sustainable business.

Chen Qiang and his wife, from a Hui minority village in Henan Province, sell BBQ on Zhenning Road, one of Shanghai's upmarket residential areas.

Two years ago they were "brought" to Shanghai by Chen's friend who had quite a good BBQ business. "Now the whole street belongs to us," jokes Chen, saying that all the BBQ vendors in the area come from his village.

Since the street does not allow hawkers, Chen's business usually starts after 10pm when the urban management officers go home.

Although they are the so-called "guerillas of the street" - a reference to those hawkers who shift from place to place and pay little attention to hygiene and the environment - the "Henan gang" has its own rules.

"Every stand must be beside a garbage bin and the vendors have to clear up all the rubbish and oil from the pavement," Chen says.

"No one checks on me doing this, but this is a good way to sweep away any evidence that we've been here," he says. "Our principle is not to make trouble for the officers."

If they keep the street clean and do not cause problems, officers might be "nice" to them.

"It is a kind of grassroots feeling," says Leo Liu, 39, who drives a Cadillac and lives in one of the city's upmarket areas. But from time to time he goes to street hawkers for a vermicelli beef soup, especially in winter.

"It reminds me of my not-so-rich but warm childhood," he adds.

Yes, it's nostalgia. And to keep these sweet memories, Professor Hua suggests the government open training courses for hawkers to raise their awareness on the environment and teach them the basics of business.

He says Shanghai's unemployment rate will probably go down if the government opens up the hawker economy properly.

"Hawkers should be guided and encouraged in the right way," Hua says.

Lessons from Singapore

Singapore regards hawker culture as one of the country's unique features and allocates a large amount of money for vender management. It is the only country in the world where every hawker has to have a license.

Street food is the main business for vendors in Singapore and they provide cheap food that has kept living costs low for local residents.

In the 1960s, Singapore also suffered vendor management difficulties which brought security problems and made the city look unattractive. The country decided to register the more than 180,000 vendors in 1968.

In the 1970s, Singapore established the first vendor center and gave licenses. By 1986 there had been 141 centers and vendors who once shifted from place to place were given permanent sites.

The government sets strict regulations - cooks are not allowed to smoke while cooking and plastic bags are not allowed to be used to wrap hot food.

Government departments evaluate stalls and grade them every year - vendors who fall into the lower grades will be given special attention.

In 2001, Singapore launched a Hawker Center Upgrading Program which cost S$420 million (US$272 million).


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