A few hours before the sun goes down, Yaojia Road on the outskirts of Nanjing becomes a confluence of beeping vehicles. Buses, trucks, and cars push their way through traffic as best they can so that, at 5 p.m. on the dot, vendors can unload restaurant canopies, cooking facilities, meats, and vegetables from their vehicles, forming broken lines of smoke and sticks. Behind the hot coals and warm bottles of beer, there is a tale of petty gangsters, violence, and local power grabs—a masculine opera of honor and hope.
I spent 11 months studying the curious cultural complexities of this market of migrants. They come from villages, townships, and hinterland provinces as far as Sichuan and Shanxi, all to make an odd home in Nanjing. Having moved since writing, the Yaohuamen market is still a melting pot of migrants constantly on the move; still, names herein have been changed to keep certain parties anonymous and the market has been renovated since writing.
My own journey began, not entirely unusually, as an academic pursuit, but research began in earnest when Mr. Han gave me a job in his kitchen. Born in a poor mountainous region in Sichuan, Han learned cooking in Beijing when he was a teenager. He quit his last job (or was fired) in Beijing, he says, for throwing burning charcoal at one of his customers. He cooks 50 to 60 barbecue fish dishes a night and has no rival. Naturally, Han was suspicious of my credentials, doubtful that anyone would want to study such “insignificant” people. Thus began my internship, paid in free meals and information.
But research is not built on anecdotes (though the story of the migrant communities there certainly should be), so other methods were employed: surveys, family trees, maps, and work histories, as well as accepting jobs in other kitchens and stalls.
The internet and foreign media abound with tales of the quaint quality of the street markets—the smells, the tastes, and the colorful characters. But all these novelties fail to mention that a community is being built, one that seemingly relies on the optimism and urbanization of the early 2000s, creating a strange, insular microculture.
The notorious chengguan, the police charged with urban management, are none too happy with the existence of the Yaohuamen market, but the levies, stall transfer fees, gift cigarettes, and red envelopes keep the market churning—that and the affordable fare it serves. Blue collar workers, migrant factory workers, relocated farmers, truck drivers, and sojourning business people are loyal customers here, along with the occasional prostitute or hooligan. It is here, in this chaotic hodgepodge that we find our society, or shehui (社会), a disorderly yet highly vibrant fate of many Chinese migrants. In this underclass world, an outlaw-esque “rivers and lakes” mentality (江湖 jiānghú) reigns supreme.
Rule by Rowdy Ghosts
“You never know if these beer caps are tainted with blood,” Brother Dragon told me as I helped him distribute bottled beer to local restaurants. Beer bottles make an excellent cudgel in the drunken hours of the night markets, and Brother Dragon is no stranger to that sort of violence.
One of the most curious and perhaps most interesting facets of the Yaohuamen market, and many migrant markets like it, are the “living rowdy ghosts (活闹鬼 huónàoguǐ),” a local term for hooligans and street strongmen who are essential to the micro-society of the market. In Chinese, “ghost” can mean a spectral being, but it can also refer to unfilial children; rowdy ghosts often begin as delinquents, the family’s black sheep, and they grow to be a painful but integral part of the market society. If a market has a reputation for intoxication, gang violence, vandalism, racketeering, and extortion, you’ll be sure to find a few rowdy ghosts running about.
One stall, called Vision Barbecue, was run by a young couple full of naiveté who didn’t see the effects of theses hooligans coming—least of all from their landlord. He took loans from the young couple, demanded absurd sums of money, and had his family and friends eat there for free. The landlord’s nephew, it turned out, was a rowdy ghost, an inveterate gambler and hoodlum who threatened the couple openly in public. Even with the mediation of a regulatory agency, the couple was forced to close the stand. It was a crash course in the rule by rowdy ghosts in the Yaohuamen market.
A more shrewd vendor, Brother Fei, took the initiative to invite several local “big households” (大户 dàhù) to his stand for a dinner as soon as he started his business; at the banquet, he asked these new neighbors to “take care” of his business. According to Brother Fei, hosting a banquet is a routine for him whenever he starts a business in a new place, a great way to connect with local heavies and get insider information about reliable leasers. This type of initiation is often referred as “worshiping ghosts” (拜鬼 bài guǐ); “worshipping bodhisattvas” (拜菩萨 bài púsà), on the other hand, refers to building similar connections with local officials or policemen. Few in the market can afford to do the latter, so most rely on the neighborhood ghosts.
“Dark Was The Night Market” is a story from our newest issue, “Taobao Town”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store