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As you walk the streets of Chengdu, the center of southwest China’s Sichuan Province, at dusk, you will encounter a pandemic of smells. In one corner, an elderly woman tosses freshly fried potatoes with green onions, garlic, salt, and sugar for a row of hungry customers. Across the street, a man is handing out individual servings of cold noodles dipped in black vinegar and a dash of chilli oil. In a booth between two clothing stores, a middle-aged couple fries guokui, a crispy meat-filled pancake with fermented vegetables and a pinch of Sichuan peppercorn. Down the street, the next generation of street vendors are selling young people third wave coffee in mugs with sparkling logos.
Street food has a long history in Chengdu, a city where the weather never gets too cold, and the locals – known for their leisurely lifestyle and excellent cuisine – are used to spending time outdoors, drinking tea, mahjong to play and relax in the open air. Anita Shiwen Lai, founder of the gastronomic travel company Chengdu Food Tours, points out that almost all of the most famous Chengdu foods were born of the street: Dandan Mian (noodles in a hot sauce), Tang You Guo Zi (a chewy rice ball glazed) with Sugar and sesame), Dan Hong Gao (a pancake) and Chuan Chuan (a kind of hot pot with ingredients that are served on sticks) are just a few of them.
“Street food has always been an essential and irreplaceable part of the food culture here,” says Lai.
But the scene that is taking place on the streets of Chengdu today is a step backwards in many ways. While street food does indeed have a long line in Chengdu, that thread of city life was almost broken when the Chinese government began declaring street stalls in the 2000s „Backwards” and „uncivilized” To push them off the streets as brilliant large-scale planning and development changed the face of the city. Those who dared to stay lived in constant fear of the chengguan (city patrols) and had to be ready to pack and run at the first sight of the authorities.
When the novel coronavirus hit China last January, some feared it would be the final blow to Chengdu street food. Strict barriers under which citizens could not leave their art complexes meant that street food establishments had no way of staying afloat. The sellers – often migrant workers from the rural provinces – returned to their home villages never to return.
When the COVID lockdowns were lifted in May, the Chengdu government did something surprising. In a dramatic reversal in government policy over the past two decades, the local government began actively encouraging small vendors to set up their own stalls on the city streets. The hope was that the move would kick off the stalled economy and act as a stopping measure to ease unemployment and increase spending. It worked: politics created a new stream of income for more than 100,000 people overnight and was so successful that Prime Minister Li Keqiang finally adopted a policy for all of China.
What followed that summer was the open season for Chengdu street food. The experienced salespeople returned with thousands of young and old entrepreneurs. Some, less prepared for the workload, only set up their ditan (street stall) for one night before abandoning it; others have managed to stick with it. During the day it was suddenly common to see the sidewalks with stools placed there by vendors who had „claimed” their place hours before the evening service. By dusk, popular pedestrian streets near Chunxi Lu, Jianshe Road, and Yulin were crowded with brightly lit stalls and full of tempting smells and dishes so varied that it would be impossible to try them all in a month.
„It’s amazing to see the road economy deteriorate and the government actually get the street vendors back on the streets,” said Lai of Chengdu Food Tours. Now that small food companies have been relieved of the choice between expensive rents for brick-and-mortar retail or constant persecution by the city council, they can, Lai says, pass on culinary traditions again.
„It allows the aromas of the street to be preserved,” says Lai. „This enables Chengdu to return to its roots and character.”
Wang Xue, 43, sells bobo chicken – a classic dish of cold-flavored chicken giblets on a skewer – from her stand on Jianshe Street near Sichuan University. Wang says before the coronavirus hit China, she planned to sell her bobo chicken spice mix online. However, when she heard about the new street food company, she decided to open a booth so customers could try their spices in person. Nowadays the stand functions as both a restaurant and an advertising medium for your online business.
“While I am selling bo-bo chicken for people to eat, I can also sell the bo-bo-ji spices so people can take home and prepare a meal that is simple but authentic tastes good, ”says Xue.
But not all street food you can find today is classic Chengdu. Newer vendors branch out and offer famous dishes from the regional cuisine across the country. Not far from Wang Xue’s stand, Xiao Li sells Yunnan-style snacks, a province southwest of Sichuan known for its mild climate and bright, fresh cuisine similar to that of its Southeast Asian neighbors Laos and Vietnam. On a typical day, Xiao Li sells spring rolls, fried tofu, and Yunnan rice noodles.
Xiao Li, who worked in the hotel industry prior to COVID, said her street stall was a way to stay busy and make a living, despite recently finding work in a hotel again and believing she no longer has Yunnan snacks will sell for a long time. Even so, Li says her brief foray into running her own grocery store gave her a strong sense of achievement.
Right next to those traditional street food snacks, it is now common to see tangy outfits that satisfy young Chinese tastes for coffee and cocktails. These companies value design, branding, and a sense of community. A popular new coffee booth is encouraging artists to leave stickers of their logo and information – the owners, in turn, stick the sticker on takeaway coffee mugs, a boon to those artists hoping to reach a wider audience, and a free piece of Greek design for the business.
In Yulin, an old part of Chengdu popular with young people and food seekers, the second wave street stall phenomenon is in its otheosis. At the center of it all is Uncle Lan, a steadfast exponent of Chengdu’s underground arts and nightlife scene, who can be found on the Cocktail Bus, its mobile street bar, most evenings. Uncle Lan pours colorful cocktails like The Sleepwalker and Angry Teen, as well as mojitos and gin and tonics for groups of guests who sit on stools while they drink and chat.
Lan, whose previous business activities included pop-up art exhibitions, a rave bus and an underground night market, said he decided to open his mobile bar to stay afloat after an art exhibition failed due to the pandemic. Since then he has been passionate about the street stall as a medium for cultural dissemination and community building. He noticed that people of all backgrounds who came to his mobile bar to drink also had conversations with each other.
„Everyone can come together at the street stall,” says Lan. „People break normal social barriers.” This is the reason why Onkel Lan differs from street bars that offer take-away cocktails. He refuses – he prefers to have his customers hang out on the bus so they can watch him at work and interact with other drinkers. “There is a lot of room to expand Chengdu culture,” he reflects.
As he pours an angry teenage boy – a mix of vodka, ginger beer, lime juice, and Sichuan peppercorn – Uncle Lan remembers the 1990s, the height of Chengdu’s street stall economy, when he ran one of his booths selling ice cream jelly as a teenager – a time that he had almost forgotten before that summer. „They used to call me the street king,” he says. „And I think I’ll go back to that now.”
Lauren Teixeira is a writer who formerly lived in Chengdu; She now lives in Washington, DC.
MIa Zhang is a photographer from Chengdu.