When my father kicked me out, one of Chongqing’s “bangbang” porters took me in
1 / 8
Just as I started junior high school, my father used all his savings to lease two storefronts in a newly-opened building materials market in Chongqing. The store specialized in aluminum ceiling panels, and other ceiling materials. He told me, “This store is the lifeblood of our family—your school tuition and all our basic needs depend on it. If we don’t manage it well, we’ll have to go back to our home village and work the fields.”
The two retail spaces totaled 200 square meters. They were originally connected, but my father split the space using several sliding partitions. We used the front as a showroom and the back as a warehouse. Once a customer had chosen a ceiling, my father would open the partition, drag out the 6-meter-long stock material, unpack it, and cut it to the customer’s specifications.
My father and stepmother ran the business on their own. When business was good, it got busy enough to make my head spin—it was common to have seven or eight groups of customers at a time. We lost many willing customers because there was nobody to greet them.
I helped out at the store every day after school and on weekends. But most of the time I could only play a supporting role: When it came to the planks and panels, the gratings and moldings, I was at a loss as soon as customers asked about the material, colors, or thickness.
Whenever this happened, my father and stepmother would stare at me blankly. Only after the customer left would they tell me the specs for the relevant ceiling or grating sample, rattling them off without caring if I understood.
The truth is that my heart wasn’t in it at all. I had just started at a new school. I had to deal with new teachers and classmates; I had lots of homework to do. My father didn’t seem able to grasp this. Every day when school got out, he’d have me rush over to the shop. I could only do my homework after we closed in the evening.
I once brought it up to him: “I have words and passages to memorize—I want to go straight home after school.” My stepmother just looked at me and laughed. My father also laughed for a while, finally saying, “You can come to the shop and do your work when it’s empty. If you don’t finish, you can do the rest when you get home.”
But in reality, I had to help my stepmother cook when we got home. After we ate and I cleaned up, only then was the time truly my own.
2 / 8
One Friday, when I went to the store after school, a 10-meter-long truck was parked outside. My father and a bangbang were unloading aluminum ceiling planks into the warehouse. I peered into the back of the truck and saw that there were still about 20 pieces left.
Bangbang is a Chongqing word for a porter. In the past, many travelers with luggage couldn’t handle our mountainous terrain, and some laborers from other regions saw a business opportunity in this. These porters got themselves carrying poles (biandan) or thick bamboo sticks (zhubang), and would tie all manner of bags to the poles. Once they had helped visitors carry their bags to their destination, they received payment. Because these laborers roamed all the alleys and streets of Chongqing, and because they carried zhubang wrapped in turquoise nylon string on their backs while they were waiting for work, they came to be known as bangbang.
Over time, bangbang became the general term for manual laborers in Chongqing. In the building materials market, many store owners would yell “I need two bangbang!” out the door when they needed help. But the people who came to work didn’t necessarily carry a pole with them.
My father told me, “This shipment is from Guangdong province, stop gawking and help carry it in.”
Then he turned to the bangbang, who was wiping sweat from his face with his hand, saying, “Bangbang, why don’t you take a break and drink some water.” Once the words left his mouth, he seemed to reconsider that form of address. So he handed over a bottle of mineral water and asked, “What’s your name?”
The bangbang took the water and set it aside. “People call me Old Tang.” He climbed back into the truck compartment.
I put down my backpack and rushed over to help him. He waved me off: “Get out of here, kid, what if I crush you?”
My father had always been strict with me. He had already told me to help, so if I didn’t, there were bound to be consequences. I ignored Tang and picked up an aluminum plank: “Even though this is 6 meters long, it’s not that heavy. We can each carry a plank at a time.”
He laughed, “You’re stronger than you look!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, I felt a rush of inexplicable affection—my father had never praised me like that before.
When we were finished, I sat down on a chair to rest. My stepmother handed Tang some cash before he even had a chance to wash his hands. He smiled and said “thank you” as he accepted the worn 10-yuan note. Because of the dust on his hands, he used only the thumb and index finger of his left hand to pinch the bill. He brushed his right hand off against his pants. When the hand seemed clean enough, he took the note and put it in his bag. He used the same method to clean his left hand and grabbed his mineral water: he was ready to go.
Before he left, he smiled and told my father and stepmother, “I’m leaving now, thanks boss, thanks ma’am. If you have work in the future, remember to give me a shout.”
My eyes were fixed on the unopened bottle of mineral water in his hand—he had sweated so much, wasn’t he thirsty?
After that, I frequently saw Tang around the market. He recognized me as well; whenever we got to talking, he’d say, “When your family’s store needs a bangbang, remember to come find me.”
The more we saw each other, the more I liked Tang. He was genuine and down-to-earth, and spoke at a moderate pace. From his smattering of white hairs, I guessed that he was around 50 years old. His skin was deeply tanned and starting to wrinkle, but he had the healthy glow of a lifelong laborer. Despite a slight hunch, he moved efficiently. Like the majority of bangbang workers, he smoked cheap Lanshan City cigarettes, but he didn’t reek of them.
The building materials market was huge and the laborers numerous; there was no shortage of competition. Whenever a store needed help, the boss only needed to stand outside the door and yell “Bangbang!” in any direction for seven or eight of them to come running up. Usually, the first two or three to arrive would snag the job. Some of the later arrivals would curse, while others seemed indifferent, their half-smoked Lanshan Citys still dangling from their mouths.
Tang generally wasn’t among the first two or three to show up. He didn’t seem willing to fight for work—when he missed out, he’d just fold his arms and joke, “Well, it looks like I’ve lost out again.” Then he’d wander off.
3 / 8
One weekend, as I was heading to the market’s public bathroom, I passed a store selling drywall boards. A few bangbang were sitting outside playing dou dizhu [a card game that translates to “fighting the landlords”], but Tang sat off to one side, watching with interest. I called to him, asking, “Why aren’t you playing?”
Before he could speak, one of the players butted in. “He’s stingy, too afraid to lose money.”
Tang gave him a light tap. “Nonsense, I just don’t like playing.”
Another bangbang chimed in, “He’s got three kids to send to school and he’s the only provider, how can he afford to?”
I didn’t say anything. I watched Tang as he continued to look on, and felt a pang in my heart. Then came a wave of altruism—I wanted to help him.
After that, whenever we needed a hand, I’d go find Tang. If a truck was coming in with a shipment, I would confirm the time with my father or stepmother in advance. Then I’d bike through the market until I found him, and tell him when to show up. But when we were in urgent need of help, my father wouldn’t wait for me to go find him, taking someone from nearby instead. When this happened, I would feel like I’d failed him. I would feel sad, and even blame myself.
Tang seemed to understand my intentions. When I went looking for him, he rarely turned me down, and would always show up at the store on time. He was an attentive worker, and unlike other bangbang, he didn’t grumble or raise the price if he carried a few items more than we’d agreed upon.
As time went on, Tang and I got to know each other. When we bumped into each other in the market, we’d chat for a while. I told him that I wasn’t doing well in English or math, and I kept flunking my exams. I didn’t fit in with any of the cliques, so I was lonely at school. I also told him that I didn’t have a great relationship with my father and stepmother, and that my father was extremely strict with me, controlling almost all my time outside of school. The only thing I was allowed to do was help at the store; I often couldn’t even finish my homework. Tang had become my only confidant.
When I spilled my heart to him, Tang would just listen quietly. Occasionally he’d say, “Your dad probably wants you to learn the workings of the business, so you can take over from him someday.” This wasn’t the answer I wanted—though I wasn’t looking for answers, just someone who would listen to me.
Tang wasn’t a big talker. He’d only discuss his own life if I asked him. Over the course of a few conversations, I pieced together a rough outline of his story.
He had spent the previous decade or so working labor jobs in Guangdong province. His eldest child was now in college, and the second-oldest was about to take the gaokao [college entrance exam]. In order to take care of his family and ease the farming burden for his wife, he found work in a city close to his hometown. When it was harvest season, he could go back and help harvest the rice. He told me, “When I first came to Chongqing to be a bangbang, I had to hang back and wait until the others got to know me, before they’d accept me competing with them for work.”
Tang’s three children were all daughters. His family thought that girls should go to work when they were old enough to, but Tang wanted them to get an education instead. “As long as they can study—whether it’s a bachelor’s, a master’s, or a doctorate—I’ll pay their way.”
One night, my father took me out to eat. We ran into Tang at Sanxia Square. He was sitting on a stone bench outside a restaurant, dipping his head to light up a cigarette. He had a stick on his back. I asked him why he hadn’t gone home yet, so late in the evening. He said, “After the shops in the market close, I look for work on the streets until 9 or 10 p.m. I’d just be sitting around at home anyway.”
I wanted to keep chatting, but my father was already hurrying me along.
In my second year of junior high, I didn’t see Tang for about three months. When I asked other bangbang, they told me that Tang was helping carry some things one night when, because there were no streetlights, he lost his footing and tumbled down more than 20 steps. He broke his right leg in the fall, and instead of taking responsibility, the person who hired him ran off. Tang thought the hospital in Chongqing was too expensive, so he went to the county hospital near his hometown. After the surgery, he stayed there to recuperate.
I asked whether Tang would be coming back. The bangbang said, “His family relies on his income, if he doesn’t come back what are they going to eat?”
More than two months later, I finally ran into Tang. He was unloading drywall boards with a few other laborers. I looked closely at his leg. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong—he was just as nimble as before.
After they finished working, I walked up to Tang, who was wiping away his sweat. “Tang, it’s been a while.”
He looked up, and a smile spread across his face. “It has, how’ve you been?”
I said I was doing pretty well, then asked how his leg was. He lifted his right leg, shook it, and even jumped up and down a few times. “It’s nothing, I can work again.”
4 / 8
One Saturday, a customer spent the whole afternoon chatting with my father before finally deciding on a ceiling. My father and I hurriedly cut and packaged the material. The customer then asked, given the size of his order, could we send someone with him in the truck to help unload when they got to their destination?
My father gave me a look: “Go with them, and take the bus back.”
Looking at the six or seven boxes and four or five 1-by-2-meter drywall sheets in the truck, I knew I wasn’t up to the task.
The client also didn’t think much of this, and sighed. “How could you make such a small child do this kind of work? Just help me call a bangbang; I’ll cover their payment.”
My dad laughed, “Alright then.” He turned and told me to find a bangbang. “Make sure you explain the job properly to him.”
I found Tang. After I finished explaining, he looked at his watch. “Alright, the market is closing soon anyway. I’ll do it.”
After Tang negotiated a price with the client and got the location of the neighborhood, he leaped into the back of the truck. My father clapped me on the shoulder and said, “You go too.”
Tang rushed to say, “I can handle it.” But my father had already decided. “Let him go and get some experience. You don’t have to split your fee, I’ll just give him two kuai for the bus fare.”
I climbed into the compartment and sat opposite Tang. As the truck left the market, he said, “You can just carry those boxes. Leave the drywall to me, it’s too big for you.”
After driving for more than an hour, the little truck arrived at a recently-built property. There were no streetlights yet, and the whole apartment complex was pitch-black.
The customer turned on his phone flashlight. Under his direction, we unloaded the truck. After all the boxes and bags were upstairs, the only thing left was the drywall. Just as he’d promised, Tang wouldn’t let me help. I gave one a try, but I couldn’t lift it at all. With my height and arm span, there was no way I could carry a sheet on my back either.
Sure enough, Old Tang was an old hand. He deftly pulled a sheet of drywall from the truck, then turned and put it on his back, hands hooked on either side of the board. Bent over like this, he started walking toward the elevator.
I followed on his heels, fearing that he might bump into something. Who knew what would happen if he fell carrying such a big board? Fortunately, with his years of experience, he navigated the door, flower beds, and walls without incident. It was only when he was boarding the elevator that he ran into some trouble—the freight elevator was closed, and the regular elevator was too short. He couldn’t find the proper angle at first, and the board got stuck in the door.
I was dripping with sweat from the anxiety, but I could only look on. Tang was also sweating, but he didn’t seem flustered at all.
After who knows how long, he finally got the drywall into the elevator. I breathed a sigh of relief. “That looked tough!”
Tang smiled. “I often run into this kind of situation. Drywall is unwieldy but light; you can shift it this way and that until it goes in the elevator. Wooden boards are harder to handle; they’re heavy and stiff. It takes forever to fit them into a small elevator , and if you’re not careful you might poke a hole in your hand.” As he spoke, he extended his hand toward me. There was a scab the size of a broad bean on his thumb. “I got this the last time I helped someone carry wooden boards, but it’s better now.”
I looked at the scab, and then I looked at the rest of his hand. It was strong, coarse, and coated in dust and black grime. His palms and fingers were deeply creased, cracked in some places, and covered in thick calluses.
The elevator dinged its arrival, and Tang skillfully pulled the board out. Now that we had experience, the rest of the boards went up smoothly, but it still took us half an hour to finish going up and down, up and down.
5 / 8
When everything was upstairs and it was time to get paid, the customer said, “I know we agreed on 30, but since you went to so much trouble and it’s so late, I’ll give you 50. Use it to buy a bottle of water, you really earned it.”
Tang thanked him, turning down the offer. “A deal is a deal, it wouldn’t be right to change the price after the fact.”
The customer looked at Tang, and then looked at me. “Why don’t you take it then, kid? You look pretty tired.”
I almost reached my hand out to take the money. I was already hungry, and 20 yuan could buy a meal of twice-cooked pork and two bowls of rice. But Tang’s words were still ringing in my ears, so I waved him off. “You and my old man already made a deal. I’m just here to help, so I can’t accept any payment.”
After we walked out of the apartment complex, Tang pulled out 15 yuan and handed it to me: “Here, this is your half.”
I was shocked, and tried to push his hand away. “What are you doing? It’s your money, how could I take it?”
He insisted, shoving the money into my hand. “Without your help, I figure I would’ve had to work another half an hour. Let it go, just take it.” His grip was strong, and I couldn’t break free. Nor did I want to reject his wishes, so I finally relented.
As we walked down the road, my stomach growled. Tang asked, “You hungry? Come on, let’s get something to eat.”
We went into a little restaurant by the side of the road. Tang ordered a 3-yuan bowl of red soup noodles, and I got twice-cooked pork over rice for 8 yuan. The noodle portion was small, and Tang finished it in four or five mouthfuls. “Is that bowl of noodles enough for you?” I asked.
He took a sip of water and said, “I’ll get a couple of steamed buns later. There’s a steamed bun shop near where I live. They’re 50 cents apiece, and two of them do me for a meal. Wash those down with water and I’m good and full.”
I knew why he was so frugal, so I didn’t say anything more.
As I shoveled the food into my mouth, Tang watched me from across the table. He pulled out a Lanshan City and lit it. “If I had as much money as your old man, I’dbring my three girls to the city to study,” he sighed abruptly. “In our little backwater village, the teachers are really sub-par.”
I wanted to tell him that a city education wasn’t all that great either, but the cigarette in his hand caught my eye. I asked, “Why don’t you use your cigarette money to eat instead?”
He turned dead serious. “Do you know how much it costs for a pack of these cigarettes? Two yuan gets you a pack of 20. I smoke two or three a day, so a pack lasts me a week. I smoke just four packs a month. I’m not addicted, it’s just to relieve the boredom. When I get off work, there’s never anyone to talk to—if I don’t smoke, I’ll suffocate.”
I raised my head, still chewing. “I’ll talk to you.”
Tang laughed. “You sure can talk .”
6 / 8
The next time I worked with Tang was a year later, during my summer vacation.
I had just taken my high school entrance exams, and I was having a lot of conflict with my father on account of my stepmother. One day, after he cursed me out over my mediocre grades, he told me to go out and find my own job and my own place to stay. I said, “Then you’ll have to give me some money, or I’ll be out on the streets.”
My father glared daggers, making as if to strike me. “You’re just asking for a beating, aren’t you?”
I had no choice but to leave home with just 30 yuan I’d made from selling empty drink bottles. After spending a night in an internet cafe, I knew this wasn’t a long-term plan—I needed to find someone to take me in for a while. The first person who came to mind was Tang. So I waited outside the building materials market for the after-work rush, and managed to catch him there.
Tang asked me what was going on. After stammering for a few moments, I managed to explain my situation, and said that I hoped he could take me in temporarily. I thumped my chest and promised, “As soon as I find a way out, I’ll leave at once.”
After I finished talking, he asked, “Is your old man serious? He’s not joking?”
I responded with conviction that, yes, he was serious.
He said, “Alright then, you can live with me temporarily. But the living conditions are rough, so don’t you turn your nose up.”
I nodded vigorously: “I wouldn’t dream of it!”
After half an hour on the bus, we got off and Tang walked me toward a dark alley. About 100 meters in, I saw a clump of makeshift shacks. There were only four or five households in this small shantytown. Since it was surrounded by other buildings, if you didn’t walk in you never would’ve noticed it. It was clear that these were illegally-built residences.
Tang opened the door, which you could stick half an arm into even when it was locked. The first thing I saw was a concrete squat toilet. Beside it was a small table with an induction cooker on it. This was the bathroom and kitchen, though the space was only a meter wide. Just a step further in was another door, this one tightly locked. Once Tang opened it up, I saw a large bed and a small bedside table piled with dishes and condiments. Just these few items took up the whole room—it was hard to even turn around.
Tang had me sit on the bed and cool off with the fan. He took off his shirt and went to make some noodles. A few minutes later, he brought out two bowls of plain noodles. He poured some soy sauce and Laoganma chili sauce into his bowl, and I followed suit.
We barely spoke as we ate and took our own showers. After bathing, we each took one end of the bed. Only then did he open up a little.
He said, “You’re still so young—you ought to go back after a few days here. Your old man wouldn’t keep you from your education.”
I listened silently, unsure of how to respond.
I awoke from the heat in the middle of the night, my body dripping with sweat. I noticed that Tang had unplugged the fan, presumably to save electricity. I didn’t feel like going back to sleep, so I lay awake the rest of the night. At the crack of dawn, I washed up and hit the pavement, looking for work.
I wandered the whole day and asked over 20 restaurants, but none of them wanted me—they all said I was too young.
7 / 8
After I got back that night, Tang comforted me. “It’s okay, looking for work is difficult. Try again tomorrow, things will work out.”
I was discouraged. “I might as well go be a bangbang with you.”
He shook his head. “Bangbang make their living off of strength, it’s not for you.”
I stuck my chin out. “I’ve got plenty of strength!”
Tang laughed for a while. “Alright then, we’ll try it out tomorrow.”
We didn’t even have to wait for the next day. Just as Tang was about to make some noodles, he got a phone call. Someone had ordered a second-hand refrigerator that needed to be delivered. There was no elevator because the customer was in an older neighborhood, and the unit was on the sixth floor. The shop assistant didn’t want to carry it up, so they had to find someone else.
Tang got dressed and told me to go with him. After negotiating a price with the second-hand appliance shop, we boarded a cargo van. In the back of the van, I tested my weight against the fridge. It must’ve been around 150 kilograms. Tang said, “I don’t think you’ll be able to carry it. I’ll do the lifting, and you can just support it from behind.”
When we got to the building, the driver opened the back of the van and handed Tang a cloth strap. Tang smoothed the strap out and wrapped it around the refrigerator, securing the four corners. He hefted it onto his back and started walking toward the building entrance. I followed behind him, supporting the back of the fridge to make sure it didn’t hit any walls or railings when we turned.
His strength was impressive: He went up three flights in a row without losing his breath. As he got ready to go up the fourth flight, his breathing suddenly quickened. Under the dim corridor lights, I saw that his face was flushed and his forehead covered in sweat. He was gritting his teeth, trying to push through. I thought he was tired and begged him to rest a bit before continuing. But he murmured, “I’m not tired, my leg has gone numb.”
Only then did I remember that he had broken his right leg—perhaps the injury was still affecting him.
Tang put down the refrigerator and rested for a while, but when he squatted to pick it back up, he found that he had no strength in his right leg. He tried several more times, with the same result. Tang stared off into space, sweat beading up again on the forehead he’d just wiped dry. He kept saying, “I’m finished, my leg’s useless now.” I sobered right up, but I didn’t know what to do. I weakly tried to comfort him: “You’re in great shape—rest a while before you try again, it won’t be as serious as you’re saying.”
Tang ignored me, massaging his leg. After a few minutes, he tried to lift the refrigerator again. But as before, his leg simply wouldn’t do as it was told.
I walked over and looped the strap over myself. I lifted with all my strength, but the refrigerator wouldn’t budge. I gritted my teeth and tried again, squeaking from the exertion, veins popping on my neck. The refrigerator wobbled slightly before planting itself back down, still as a mountain.
After a few minutes, Tang stood up and tried to lift the refrigerator again. He finally managed it after a few tries, but he struggled more than on the previous three flights. When he got to the fourth floor, he rested for three minutes; at the fifth, he rested for five. On the last flight, he stopped in the middle. I stood behind him and held the refrigerator up with all my might, fearing that if he couldn’t keep his footing it would tip down the stairs and take us with it.
Fortunately, Tang was able to summon his willpower and get up that last flight.
After bringing the refrigerator into the unit, we sat on the stairs for 10 minutes or so before slowly making our way down. It was clear that Tang had reinjured his leg; he walked with a limp. He wouldn’t speak or let me help him. I didn’t know what to say, and an awkward silence fell over us. He gave me half of the 50 yuan he earned and told me to get something to eat—he wouldn’t be able to cook that night. I said don’t worry, I’ll cook for you.
When we got back, Tang sat next to the bed massaging his leg as I prepared the noodles. After we ate, he told me, “I think I’ll have to rest for a few days. You should leave tomorrow, this isn’t a suitable place for you. You should keep studying, get an education—that’ll open a whole different life for you. You’re a smart kid, you’ll figure it out.”
My mind was roiling, but I couldn’t get any words out. I buried my head in my hands, thinking that if his leg really was useless now, how would he go on? Who would keep his daughters in school? I was also thinking, if Tang wouldn’t let me stay any longer, where could I go?
Tang handed me his cellphone—an ancient Nokia—and told me to call my parents. I considered calling my father, but I wasn’t willing to concede defeat to him. So I called my mother, and gave her a rundown of what had happened. She cursed my father up and down, then sighed. “You’re still too young, you can’t stop going to school. I’ll buy you a ticket, you can come live with me for now.”
The next day, Tang made me a meal of twice-cooked pork as a farewell treat. I was choked up with gratitude and anxiety, but I didn’t know how to express my care for him. He didn’t speak either, just kept his head down and ate.
After our meal, he took me to catch a bus to the train station. I got lucky—the bus arrived just moments after I got to the stop. As I boarded the bus, I turned to wave goodbye. Tang waved back and called out, “Remember to study hard!”
I suddenly wanted to cry, but I forced the tears back down.
8 / 8
In the almost 10 years since, I’ve bounced from hardship to hardship due to family and school—I couldn’t spare much time for the past. Though I often thought of Tang, I had no way to get in touch with him or learn how he was doing. I could only send him my silent blessings and wish him well.
When I returned to Chongqing the year before last, I went back to the building materials market to see if I might run into him. To my surprise, the once-bustling market had been mostly demolished. There was broken glass and bricks everywhere. Only a few storefronts remained, and the people inside were busy moving their stock into trucks to haul away.
I asked them what had happened, and they said that the market was being moved to near Chongqing’s College Town to make way for the light rail.
Shantytowns like the one that Tang lived in had long since been torn down and replaced with newer, nicer housing—steep rent increases had come with them. But with the city’s rapid transformation, the amount of money that bangbang can make has also dwindled.
I had previously learned that, with a shrinking market, the places in Chongqing that now have the greatest need for day labor are shopping centers and material markets. But retailers usually worked with their own group of bangbang; those who lost their jobs elsewhere had a hard time getting a cut. On top of that, new tools were further eroding their business.
As time goes on, the bangbang will gradually disappear. Very few of the next generation will choose to follow in their steps, living off strength alone.
I think I may never see Old Tang again.
Written by Cheng Shaliu (程沙柳)