A young man recalls his family business in a small town in northwestern China, and the mother who was the backbone of the venture
I hail from Gansu, a province of millions of people known as the “Northwestern bottom of the GDP barrel.” Gansu is a lonely industrial hub lined with dry mines, burdened by a harsh climate perennially thwarting agricultural productivity, and China’s worst industrial pollution index. The province’s last glimpse of prosperity in history traces back to the Hexi Corridor on the Silk Roads, amid the chime of the camels’ bells and the reveille for the troops stationed at the frontier.
My hometown, Jicheng, is a microcosm of the province. Thirteen years ago, my mother set up a street stall there and joined the local ranks of hawkers, peddlers, and street vendors—whose hustle and bustle colors the pages of our national literature, yet whose identity goes far beyond that role. Spend a couple minutes daily observing these folks, and soon enough you’ll realize that their very existence sheds light upon the lives of ordinary people all over China.
Gansu’s street stall economy and culture aligns with the history of the province; it’s a somewhat sad story of tenacity. Gansu food lacks the spice of Sichuan and Chongqing, just as much as its scenery falls short of the unique gentleness and beauty of places such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong. In over 10 years of helping my mother run her street stall, I’ve been privy to the most dynamic side of the county’s economy, and I’ve also witnessed the gloom that ensues after nightfall.
Life looked a lot different for my family before 2019.
In our home county, vendors line the streets and blur the boundaries between sidewalks and roads. Come Lunar New Year, the traffic comes to a halt as the streets teem with activity. Cars on top of cars, throngs of people, crowded stalls. It was messy and loud, with the combined din of the hawkers and their loudspeakers. Pickpockets abounded, both male and female.
Our family’s small stall is located on Xiguan Street, the main artery of our town and a sought-after place for business. Holding fort such a competitive space was no easy feat. Rules applied and you’d be wise to follow them if you know what’s best for you. Traffic was heavy with cars and horses going in all directions—and they all passed in front of Mom’s stall. Officers came to enforce order, beggars came to beg, and everyone and their dog was sure to be around. My mom was afraid of nobody. “Everyone’s a potential customer.”
Another street branched out on the north side of the main road, leading to an old market. The street doubles as an open-air food court with plenty of offerings. Cold noodles are garnished with bean sprouts and shredded radish; fried yams, still dripping oil from the large iron pan, are tossed in a bamboo strainer before being served with soft tofu curd. Passersby vie daily for the tiers of steamy, fluffy buns stuffed with Chinese chives and fatty pork mince, or else indulge in oily, spicy buckwheat noodles, shredded chicken wontons, and oily pancakes. By daybreak, these delectable smells already fill the street.
Our family started running our stall in 2007. Originally, we only sold soy products from our own tofu shop, as well as freshly made rice cakes and hand-rolled noodles made by my aunt. “Snatching a stall” was a crucial step in setting up your business, and our family had to hustle to secure a spot in this busy street. Setting up shop usually easy, but come Spring Festival season, you had to compete with people who didn’t make much money in the city all year and came home to try their luck here before the holidays.
Hawkers set up their stalls as early as 5 in the morning and dismantled them at night, just like nomads with their tents. Mom got ahead of stall-snatchers by waking up at 4 in order to pack up the goods and cook breakfast for the family. If I slept in until 6, she would wake me up without fail and make me deliver everything to the stall. Winters are harsh in the Northwest; my fingers were too frozen to pick up the supplies, let alone rub the plastic bag open. I had to place my hands over the small fire of the briquette stove to warm them up. My fingers would finally thaw some, but I would feel this odd itching instead. It wasn’t until I’d joined the army that I realized you can’t expose your hands to heat directly after they are frozen. Rather, you have to run cold water over them or rub them with a little snow to prevent frostbite or gangrene.
During our early morning rush, there would always be some dispute with other stalls. With the holidays just around the corner, all the vendors were eager to sell as much as possible. The more stuff your neighbor placed on their stall, the more space they took up, and trouble always ensued.
Our business wasn’t exactly thriving at the beginning. Our competitors and the all- too-frequent pickpocketing activity didn’t help. Once, my mother and I went to our usual spot to set up shop early in the morning, only to find it was already occupied. The stall-snatchers yelled at two or three men clad in patent leather jackets, with cigarettes dangling from their lips. They made a big show of pretending that they were being generous by letting us pass. I was only a third-grader at that time, much too shy and cowardly to express the mix of anger and fear I felt as I pushed the cart in. The men, surely thinking of me as nothing more than a kid, spat thick phlegm on the ground. “Go back to your place, country bumpkins. There’s no place for you in town!”
It was just about then that Mom rushed over, yelling and ready to tussle—she thought the men were beating me. I was so frightened that I hurried forward to help, except I was small and weak, so I could only phone my dad. Fortunately, a passerby helped alert the police. In the end, the quarrel cooled down, and both stalls were forced to cramp in the spot together.
You could compare my mom to Third Sister Hu, the fictional character in Water Margin. She’s always been well aware that you must be ruthless in the streets; weaklings are an easy target for bullies. My father has always lacked her courage. He will often pull her away and try to dissuade her from making a ruckus. The truth is, we often saw ourselves in similar disputes over the next 10 years or so, though most of them ended in nothing. Eventually, my mom would reluctantly back down.
This continued until I was in high school, when another family disappeared from the market shortly after a dispute with us, leaving their spot vacant. Later, regular customers informed my mom that the woman developed a sudden case of facial paralysis after cursing at her in the quarrel. I have a superstitious streak, so once again I urged my mom to stop getting into conflicts.
Later, I bumped into a man from that family myself. He wore a little felt hat and pedaled on his tricycle, selling his wares on the side of the road. Rumor had it that he, too, was seriously ill. I walked past with my head down, pretending I hadn’t seen him.
Jicheng had neither industry nor any agriculture to speak of. Our trademark crops are limited to chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, and apples. We rush out of town in flocks to find work elsewhere, and trains back home would spit us out in droves every Lunar New Year.
In 2010, our family expanded operations to hot pot and barbecue ingredients along with the usual soy products. We sold all sorts of seafood meatballs and products—think crab sticks and patties, shrimp and fish rolls, sweet osmanthus sausage—as well as sets of hot pot ingredients, seasonings, and a variety of seasonal vegetables. In the winter, we also offered pork skin jelly and ham sausages. Our summer offerings featured vermicelli we supplied to snack bars and barbecue stalls in the surrounding villages and towns. As my mom aptly put it, we dealt in anything that would make us money.
We fashioned our small stall from a detachable mobile tent attached to a tricycle for extra space and features. And so, our upgraded stall could now stay open from 7 in the morning to 9 in the evening, or even later if business was good.
I’d grown up as a shadow to my mother in the street stalls, but I never grew fond of this line of business. Setting up a stall is hard work, and nobody’s born with a love of hardship. My childhood’s cartoons had drilled into me that “there’s no greater glory than labor,” and yet when the time came for me to join the ranks, I found no glory at all. As a result, I suffered a lot.
My mother is different from me in that sense. She set up shop to make a living, and so a day without working meant a day without any income. However, she didn’t have any of the bitterness and hatred that seize manual laborers all too often. If anything, there’s this sense of peace. My mother didn’t get much education, and when it comes to her Buddhist faith, she’s really just going through the motions, too. The mysteries of Buddhist scriptures are lost on her, and in her worldview, the wooden fish that monks use to beat time when chanting scriptures pale in comparison to real carps.
My mother laughs, bickers, and swears a lot. In fact, she laughs even when she quarrels, and she has a reputation for whipping out witty retorts, almost as though she was singing. When she’s settling accounts with a customer, she’ll sigh, “Plenty of money in the bank, just none for you or me.” If someone complains that she’s weighing a jin of tofu on the short side, she’ll be sure to answer back, “It’s just tofu, it’s not going to make you rich or poor.” When the guy from the local administration yelled at her for placing her parasol too far ahead of her stall, almost all the way into the road, she took her sweet time to shift it, singing, “Ah! On the eighth day of the eighth month, the county magistrate’s wife wants to open her umbrella, but come the second day of the second month, she dares not face the rain.”
It was my mother’s strong, yet tender nature that made our stall quickly stand out from the rest, earning us many regular customers. Where other vendors tried to cheat you with the scales, my mom never did, nor did she ever sneak day-old leftovers into a customer’s order. She stands by the solid principle of trust, so she’s always refused to profit by skimping on costs.
Once, one of our regular customers came to my mom from the fruit stall, insisting that she weigh a bag of bananas she’d just bought elsewhere. My mother was too embarrassed to say no, and indeed the woman had been charged 6 mao extra for her bananas. Though my mom tried to calm the woman down, the minute she left our stall she made a beeline to the fruit shop, ready to give hell. To make things worse, the woman manning the fruit stall had quite the loud mouth herself—soon enough they were screaming at each other. Mom and I both bowed our heads awkwardly, and once again I criticized her, “Mom, why did you help her check the weight? Now they’re flaying each other over nothing, and just who do you think they’ll talk crap about?” My mother didn’t reply. Later, she cut a slice of tofu and brought it to the woman at the fruit stall. Though the sound of fighting gradually subsided, when my mom’s was bleak when she came back.
All that noise, and three women now on bad terms, all over 6 mao. I sighed: “Talk about money being a source of trouble!” My mother frowned and replied casually, “Do you think it’s money that makes people evil? They were evil to begin with if they’re willing to cheat people out of 6 mao. Greed is like salt; looks pure and tastes foul.”
At 170 centimeters, my mom is tall, yet also quite plump. With her red apron on all year long, sitting on her chair, she’s the spitting image of the bodhisattva Maitreya. She never forgets to pack a broom with her in the cart, so that she can sweep up the floor before setting up shop. It may be just a small spot by the side of the road, but my mom tidies it as thoroughly as if it were her own bedroom. In the eyes of our regular clientele, my mother is like Wang Xifeng from Dream of the Red Chamber—waking up bright and early in the morning to gather her wares; you “hear her voice before seeing the person.”
Indeed, my mom’s smile was enough to bring a steady flow of customers to our shop. It’s almost as though they don’t really come to buy anything, but rather to chat her up and hear her laugh. This came to me as a big surprise when I was in high school.
My mom conducts business her own way. You won’t find her in a rush to sell anything to whoever comes by. On the contrary, she’ll keep herself busy and let her customers pick and choose at their own pace, and she’ll only make a point of speaking up if they actually ask her. Say that a customer comes over for hot pot ingredients—my mom will ask whether they’ve got any children at home. Can they handle spiciness? Do they have any dietary restrictions? My mom will explain the difference between butter and vegetable cooking oil and then, with a broad idea of her customer’s needs in mind, she’ll peddle a few packs of the hot pot fixings we often use at home ourselves.
Still, my mom will never deliberately try to palm you off with expensive stuff. She will glance at her customer and assess their spending power just by the clothes they wear. “First, check their hair. Then, take a look at their shoes.” These are her two markers of wealth, as she believes poor people are too busy eking out a living to pay much attention to either. And yet, all customers are alike to her, whether they come dressed to the nines or in rags. If you hanker after petty gains and prove yourself to be dishonest, customers will see through you—that’s the way my mom understood business. You never get to fool the same client twice.
My mother is so good at what she does, sometimes she’ll bring out exactly what the customer was looking for before they can open their mouth, let alone find it themselves. Her skills will then be met with admiration:“Boy, what a gift you’ve got!”
I’ve always felt that my mom carries her own good luck charm. Some of the deals she’s made are things others can’t or won’t do. Growing up, I learned how to manage the family’s tofu shop and stall while my friends were out having fun with marbles. When it comes to sales experience, I think I can hold my own against any supermarket clerk.
Not everyone is cut out to run a street stall—it’s quite a specialized skill. Plenty of people have asked my mother, “What’s the secret to making money?” Every time without fail, she’ll laugh and reply in this loud, hearty voice, “What’s the secret, you ask? Look at my hands and you’ll find out right away.”
My own hands have changed a great deal from the soft palms of my student days to the calluses and scars of my time in the army, and I still can’t help but feel ashamed when I look at my mother’s hands. She was actually born in 1975, so she’s not even that old, but her hands began to age prematurely when I was still in junior high, the way that the rubber of an engine’s rotating belt becomes rough and tears up after one turn too many. My father can always count on a scolding from grandma whenever he pops in for a visit, just on account of my mother’s hands and the stark contrast with his own.
My mother grew up with three other siblings in the rigidly patriarchal society of her time in Gansu. She only got to attend the local village’s elementary school for a month before she was forced to drop out in order to earn money for the family. By the time she was 13 years old, my mother had amassed quite the reputation as a hawker, frequently climbing two mountains to sell her eggs, needles and thread, vegetables, and other items in the neighboring villages. Where other peddlers struggled to sell out before the end of the day, my mom always finished her business early and went right back home to work in the fields.
Two years later, my mom hopped the rails and rode a southbound train to Wuhan to seek work.
After my parents got married, they had rented a place in town. My mom was hired in a local wool factory, while my dad worked as a long-distance bus driver. Though they were comfortably off, theirs bliss was sadly short-lived. Soon after, Dad was involved in a traffic accident that got him into debt. By then, Mom was already pregnant with me, and she had to quit her job in the wool factory. The family’s situation only worsened after my birth. In a rush to pay off their debt as soon as possible, my parents borrowed money from anyone willing to grant them a loan and rented a small snack shop serving liangpi (cold rice noodles), tea eggs, and soft bean curd.
Fast forward some five or six years, I was in elementary school and already enlisted to help my mom collect dishes, wash cucumbers, sweep the floor, and greet customers. As a little kid, I thought it was all a game. Mom taught me to pull on the hem of passersby’s clothes to trick them into coming to the snack shop with my cuteness. Who could resist an adorable little boy inviting you to sit down and eat a bowl of liangpi?
Later, my father started a tofu-selling business, persuading my mom to close the snack shop. By working in the same place, they could shave some money off their utility bill. Faced with the pressure of my father’s debt, though, my mother ended up leaving the shop and starting her life as a hawker.
Initially, she got some mileage on her old-fashioned tricycle, selling tofu in the local streets and alleys. Business wasn’t exactly thriving—it’s not like people will eat bean curd for every meal. Drawing on this experience, my mom felt that we needed to expand our offerings, so she threw in a few additional items, such as bean jelly with seasonings. Whenever customers asked for something that she didn’t have, she’d write it down and think of ways to get it sourced. Step by step, she piled goods onto her tricycle until it was overflowing. Dad was very handy, so he took upgraded the vehicle with iron sheets to raise the floor and added an additional cargo hold. In short, the cart was now a mobile food store.
Once business took off, my mom thought about finding a regular space. She asked someone for help and eventually exchanged two packs of cigarettes for a small stall space on Xiguan Street. It was far from being a prime spot, but my mother was satisfied. It was all about the people rather than the location, she said. She believed in making a name for yourself based on your hard work.
Once, we had to deal with a customer who’d lost some money and placed the blame on my mom for shortchanging him. The man was in his 40s and dressed in the clothes of a hard laborer; he rode an old Jialing motorcycle. The way he saw it, the whole thing had to be my mom’s fault. “How dare you be so dishonest, auntie? I had only so much cash in my pocket, and once I got home I realized some of it was missing.”
My mother was not one to blush easily, and she replied sarcastically, “So you lost cash and came to me looking for it. Are you also going to come looking for your wife if you can’t find her at night? You paid me with a 100 yuan banknote and I gave you 25 yuan and 5 mao in change, right?”
My mom’s eyes grew sharper as she raised her voice, checking the man’s tab one item at a time.
“Eight yuan for the potato balls, plus 4 yuan for the bean curd, then it’s 16 yuan for the seafood balls, 18 yuan for that pack of chicken wings...a total of 75 yuan and 5 mao, am I right?”
“Seems like I actually gifted you an extra yuan. But here you are, coming to my shop to ask for more. Whatever I sell on a day, you best believe I keep my accounts in order. If the money’s rightfully mine, I’ll earn it from morning to night without a break. But you won’t see me reaching for a damn coin on the floor if it doesn’t have my name on it!”
My mother grew more and more daring with each word, until the man froze right where he was standing. Eventually, he took the bystanders’ advice to look elsewhere for his money, and got on his motorcycle with his tail between his legs.
The next day, the man came back to our stall to report that he’d found his money. As it turned out, his young son had stolen the cash to buy himself some snacks. Now, the man was a return customer. At checkout, my mom asked him to check the bill twice, but he waved his hand and replied, “You are one capable, trustworthy lady. The bill is whatever you say it is.”
Prior to the arrival of mobile payment, counterfeit banknotes were the bane of street stalls. For a small business making 2.5 yuan out of a jin of tofu, or 9 mao out of a jin of soybeans, getting a fake banknote was tantamount to wasting a whole day’s work. My sister, my mother and I trained ourselves to spot fake banknotes—we held them against the light and looked for all the signs and watermarks. My mom was the most skilled of us, as she only needed to pinch the side of the note with two fingers and rub it to find out whether it was legit. Whenever she came by a fake note, she had a series of strategies: she would either push it back without a word, or say that she had run out of change, or even just sneer at the customer. I was more vulnerable in this kind of situation. They’d see I was a kid, try to put one over on me, then blend into the crowd and vanish into thin air.
At the end of the year, my mother and I set up our stall as usual on Xiguan Street. My sister, a high school student at the time, hadn’t been let out on holiday just yet, and the Tibetan lady employed at my dad’s tofu shop was busy. My mom had to go help my dad there and left me in charge all on my own at the stall. Cue in a lady wearing a red down jacket and a woolen hat, picking and choosing goods as soon as she approached our stall. I immediately was suspicious, but there were other customers, so I had to keep an eye on her secretly while I worked. She handed over a 50 yuan note, and I while I made change, she immediately switched it with a fake note—100 yuan this time. It was an old method, but I fell for it.
When my mom came back, she immediately spotted the fake banknote. At home, my dad scolded me; he said I was easy to fool because I was a bumbling idiot. Clearly, he continued, I was neither a good student nor suited for business—I should just drop out from school altogether and join him at the tofu shop. I hated hearing him talk to me like that, yet I felt helpless. I was 13 or 14 at the time, often the target of school bullies, too cowardly to speak up. Then I came home to help with the family business. I sat in that booth every day, hoping that this lifestyle would finally come to an end by the end of the year.
Often, I asked my mom stupidly, “Just when can we stop doing this for a living?” She replied that I was a fool; just how would we make a living without the stall? At the time, I didn’t know that we were actually coasting on my mother’s years of hard work and hustle. The vendors around us glanced at us with envy; our family’s business on Xiguan Street continued to prosper.
In 2020, I came home from the army on a visit, and I met someone from my hometown sitting across from me on the train. After exchanging a few words in the local dialect, I realized that this elderly man, who looked close to 60, had worked in our county for 16 years. He asked about my family, and when I told him I was the kid of the tofu hawker at Xiguan Street, he let out a surprised laugh and shared with me stories of my mother’s childhood, selling goods at the gates of their army base.
Indeed, my mother had spent her childhood with goods strapped to her back to sell at the entrance of an army base in the mountains, right beside my grandmother’s house. The old man recalled the surprise of his fellow soldiers and himself felt daily when they saw this tiny, impish girl, sweeping the ground every morning.
The old man recalled my mother would always show up with a basket of eggs for sale, which was far from enough to feed them all at the base. Moreover, soldiers were required to write a note prior to any purchase. But quickly, my mom picked up on the reality of the situation and came up with an offer of “sewing services” free of charge along with her egg-selling venture. Back then, soldiers’ intense training and poor living environment meant their clothes were always in tatters, so my mom took their rags and placed them in her egg basket to take them home with her. She was good at needlework; her perfect stitches soon won the soldiers over and she was able to carry on with her egg business at the gate of the base.
The old man smiled: “Your mother is a kindhearted, conscientious woman. She still recognizes me after so many years, since I used to buy her products, and I saw her giving away things more than once when she was supposed to be selling. How is your mother doing these days?”
“Her health is just so-so... She complains of back pain.”
The old man shook his head: “All her ailments likely come from exhaustion. You see, your mother has suffered a great deal throughout her life. Fortunately, you and your sister are there to show her filial respect. After suffering comes happiness, that’s for sure.”
However, the man’s words made me feel ashamed as I was forced to recall some hurtful things I’d said to my mother in the past. As a young kid, I was naughty and never up for hard work. Though my dad would usually try and beat me into obedience, my mother never failed to intercede. She saw that I really wasn’t cut out for their line of trade. So, she urged me to study hard and stand out, so that I could eventually work in an office rather than a street stall. I’d been well aware, ever since my childhood, that manning a street stall was seen as an undesirable line of work. Here’s the thing, though–it’s people who attach social status to jobs. Work is work.
That day, as the old man praised my mother, all I could think of was my deep-rooted contempt for our family’s street stall. Suddenly, it occurred to me that my mother was very similar to Luo Yuzhu, from the soap opera Feather Flies to the Sky—a tragic yet tough character of a sensitive nature, with decisive skills for business and a great burden that should not have rested on her shoulders. The little impish girl that my mother once was had been put through the fire and come out as a fierce woman.
Aggressive, but down-to-earth; a businesswoman through and through, yet loyal and with a soft spot for the disadvantaged: Yes, our patrons liked my mother very much.
My mother stood out among her fellow hawkers, some of whom were all smiles to her face, only to aggressively try and steal clientele away from our shop once her back was turned. My mother didn’t care. She always said, “Business is all about the human touch. Only when your heart’s in the right place will business flourish.” She let it all slide off her back and ended up always gaining plenty of regular customers and new friends.
In fact, many of our usual patrons came to the shop for business just as much as they did to just listen to my mom talk. More often than not, they were also looking forward to confiding in her. She supplied both people’s kitchens and hearts at the same time.
She was also often busy with other responsibilities besides the stall. Purchasing and delivering goods became my mother’s top priority. Our family does wholesale in addition to retail, and we had to learn the timetable for the rural shuttle bus services to pick up our stuff and transport it to the barbecue stalls in the surrounding villages and towns.
When I was home, the task of making deliveries always fell on me. I actually quite like the job. In summertime, I will drive my three-wheeled electric scooter across the silent street from the East Ring Road, breaking through the wind, moving forward relentlessly across the county town to the other end of the village. In the evenings, the honking of the bus always marked the end of a day’s journey.
Street stalls trace back to the Song dynasty, and have flourished in China ever since. This line of trade is still alive and thriving today.
No rent, no utility bills, no walls, no security—a vegetable basket and a plastic sheet are all you need to get a business up and running, and that’s exactly how our family started before we gained enough popularity to afford extras like a parasol, a tricycle, and a transportable fridge. We’ve expanded our empire inch by inch by the dusty main road, staving off our rivals just as much as we put up with all sorts of inclement weather, from harsh winters to scorching summers, wind, rain, thunder, and even lightning.
Urban management officers were the least of our worries. Our main concern came from the neighboring stalls.
Our family pioneered in the trade of hot pot and barbecue ingredients on Xiguan Street. Business boomed after 2010, when people found themselves with quite a bit of extra money in their purses. Soon enough, we were the target of our competitors’ envy. The stall opposite ours secretly managed to get a hold of our supplier and promptly started to sell hot pot meatballs, chicken tenders, chops, and bone joints wholesale, too. However, this copycat didn’t really impact our business much. We were still just as busy as usual.
Still, my sister and I were angry. This amused our mother: “Since when do we hold a monopoly on hot pot ingredients? As if you couldn’t find any of that at any supermarket or other stalls in the county.”
She told us, “Kids, you can tackle any business as long as you remain honest and self-aware. Lack those qualities and you’ll be going nowhere. Your old mother here is a top hawker, you see? Sure, I didn’t go to school, but I carry on with my business the same way I go about life.”
Later, we had several customers come to us saying that so-and-so across the street had been rude to them, that they’d fooled them with fake scales or sold them short of whatever. My mom would make to impart some of her wisdom and weigh an extra little something for the wronged customer who was now sure to greet us with a smile and come back for business.
The next day, however, my mother was confronted by the woman from the opposing stall, who said my mother was blocking her business and scraped the produce she kept on the ground when she rode her tricycle past the other day. The woman wanted compensation from my mom.
“And just how much will that set me back?” my mother asked. The woman gave her the side-eye. “Thirty yuan.”
“Virtuous people make their money honestly. Don’t you fear retribution for your ways?” My mother cursed and threw 20 yuan on the ground. “Take this and go buy yourself something for that rotten conscience of yours.”
Boy, was that woman stubborn. She jumped up from her stool and blocked my mom’s way with her body as she shouted, “You must be blind, driving that lousy cart of yours without paying attention to the road. There you are, talking big all the time while driving yourself straight into my vegetable basket. You gotta be blind or flushed your eyes down the toilet if you don’t see the mess you leave behind!”
Well, you don’t get to mess with my mom and have her turn the other cheek too. She started yelling at the other woman’ face at full volume, brandishing her apron. “Listen to this potty-mouthed wench, now! The Qin dynasty began with Qin Shihuang plotting the Great Wall over 88,000 miles, and here you are struggling to fit your damn vegetable basket on the road! Some damn rotten produce you got there. Did the whole thing grow legs and run the wrong way, or are you maybe losing your damn mind?”
In such a crowded, narrow space, there was no way to calm the abuse these women were hurling at each other. Customers from all stalls dropped their grocery lists, eager to gather around and enjoy the show. Some of our regular, most familiar patrons did step forward to hold my mom back, and some aunties instructed me to drive away the offending cart, pronto.
I then approached the two women, joining the crowd of onlookers to make it to my mom’s side and tear her away from the fury of her rival. I was blushing something fierce, filled with shame over this regrettable scene, so I tried my best to appease my mom and even placed the blame on her. Unfortunately, my words only seemed to offend her, and she even said I was a spineless weakling. Indeed, I was nothing like my older sister; she took after our mom, and wouldn’t have blinked to fight anyone who dared to wrong her. For a long while after this incident, my cowardice weighed heavily on my conscience.
Aunt Liu, a pancake seller, ran her business next to ours. She had two sons who were still bachelors and three girls who were all married already. When business was good, we would make change for one another and help each other in other ways. When I was young, I used to believe that anyone who was good once would just stay that way.
One time, Aunt Liu came to ask my mom to watch over her booth that day, as she had to run some errands. However, she happened to come back at the one moment where my mom was tending to her own stall instead. She lost no time scolding my mom, dubbing her a “thankless wretch.”
My mother knew she was in the wrong, so she could only smile remorsefully. Meanwhile, I was actually pretty annoyed. There was only so much my mother could do, and it’s not like she hadn’t helped Aunt Liu plenty in the past. However, one less pancake sold was all it took for Aunt Liu to go off, practically foaming at the mouth with ugly words.
Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile; that’s how the saying goes. After this incident, Aunt Liu never missed a chance to find fault and raise hell to my mom. “You took up too much space to set up shop today, you practically invaded my spot.” Even the height of our umbrella bothered her, as she felt that we’d placed it too low and hid her booth from view.
Circle your opponent and wait for the best opportunity to strike—these words summarized my mother’s entire strategy in life. To her, the whole drama with Aunt Liu was nothing but a matter of patience. My mother, who could argue and bicker with the best, was also a peacemaker when she felt the occasion required it. In this tiny, fraught universe of street stalls, she turned to all her natural skills to handle every curveball life threw at her. We’ve survived a great deal of ups and downs over the years, but the truth is we wouldn’t have made it past the first day without my mom.
At least, our ever-booming business made up for the bumps along the way. At our peak, our stall’s activity even blocked half of the street.
On Lunar New Year’s Eve, people in our hometown will usually set out to buy their holiday goods. In the heart of our county, the main town is a plain surrounded by mountains and is home to over 200,000 permanent residents. Folks will hop on the shuttle bus into town, and holiday foodstuffs are at the very top of their grocery list. The endless stream of customers in front of our tiny stall at this time of the year showed that my mom’s goodwill toward her customers never did go unnoticed.
During the holidays, my dad’s tofu shop operated from 5 in the morning to midnight while my mom opened the stall every day. Our infamous tricycle truly never caught a break, and I was the designated driver, racing the crowded streets and alleys to pick up and deliver goods as fast as possible. My dad upgraded the vehicle with two batteries under the base, but even this was nowhere near enough to ensure I’d have enough juice for the day.
When the Tibetan auntie we’d hired went home for the holidays herself, my sister and I had to step up. We ran the tofu shop in two shifts, and my mom enlisted the help of two more aunties. Looters were always lurking in the crowded streets, and my mom ended up bringing our grandfather from the countryside to keep an eye on things. Thus, our family tackled the holiday rush together as though we were entering battle. I will never forget the piles of cardboard boxes next to our stall when we finally closed shop at night.
As a result of this, our family rarely got to enjoy the New Year. We spent New Year’s Eve busy selling all day, and only staggered home by 6 or 7 in the evening. By that time, my mom would insist on fixing our holiday dinner, and then we all crashed in our beds, catching up on sleep all the next day. Well, everyone but my mother. She didn’t have a moment to rest, not once in the entire year. While my sister, my dad, and myself slugged around, my mom spent New Year’s Day sweeping the yard, catching up on laundry, stewing whatever produce was left from last year on the kitchen stove, and kindling the fire in the living room. Year after year, she would poke the fire until the chimney belched smoke, coughing up tiny particles of ash.
Gradually, we got to replace old components in our family’s stall, upgrading it here and there with all sorts of perks. Most importantly, our once mobile shop was now “fixed” in a permanent location.
My mother bought two square tents that she then asked a few relatives to assemble and fix over our usual space. To us, placing the blue tarpaulins felt tantamount to building a home. Just like that, our days of standing beneath a square of sky cut out by electric wires, come rain or come shine, were brought to a close. When my mom conveyed the news to my grandpa over the phone, he proclaimed, “A roof over the heads of men, and a nest for the chicks; no hardship will strike now.”
However, the tent also came with small print attached—now we had to watch over it at night. We were targets for those idle gangsters that roamed the streets of our county town at night and allegedly broke into all the businesses. Though one could hardly argue that our stall contained any valuables, my mom was worried and wanted to stay there overnight.
She had planned it all. “A raincloth surrounding the booth and I’ll have a good night of sleep in the cart, just as if I was spending the night at home.”
I scoffed. Trading her warm bed for the streets would just be the final straw for her tired, sickly body. She was already running on the doctor’s prescriptions all year round. At this rate, sooner or later her health would truly give out.
Long story short, my dad and I were appointed as night guards. My dad kept watch the first two nights, spreading a raincloth over the tricycle and then two mattresses inside. When it was my turn, he reminded me not to take off my socks when I went to sleep. Though the back of the tricycle could be folded down to use as a footrest, I was way too tall, so I had to keep my legs curled to avoid dangling them.
I wasn’t too scared the first time I slept on the street. I opened the flaps of the tent, backed the tricycle into it, and lay myself down on the makeshift bed. However, the streets at night were nowhere near as quiet as I’d imagined. For starters, the barking of wild dogs in the distance was pretty disturbing, and the sporadic sound of walking outside the tarpaulin along with the occasional motorbike speeding past wasn’t lulling me into sleep either. Eventually, though, I managed to bury my head in the covers and fall asleep in an exhausted doze.
You also had to deal with the drunkards and homeless folks smashing empty bottles and urinating beside the stall from time to time. One night, a rustling sound woke me up. I listened for a while and turned on the flashlight only when I was convinced that I had encountered a thief. I could see a hand coming in through the opening, but it retracted immediately when I let out a scream. Our shop’s goods were toppled all over the ground, proving that someone had tried to break in. I was too afraid to go back to sleep, so I sat on the tricycle with a flashlight all night until dawn.
But it wasn’t all that bad. Some nights, I would hide in the tarpaulin and listen to passersby—the sound of couples fighting and making up fired up the imagination. I would try to conjure their faces from the sound of their voices. A gentle, pleasant voice was sure to belong to a handsome person, and it was only fair that vulgarities matched with an ugly face. I spent many sleepless nights like this.
Sometimes, I would also steal my mom’s old phone to indulge in popular web novels such as the Grave Robbers’ Chronicles. I don’t know how many books I read on those nights alfresco. If anything, they were great training for my army days. At night watch, I reminded myself that no matter how hard army life was, at least I wasn’t alone now. Even in this desolate wilderness, many others accompanied me in my sleep.
In my second year in the army, I got a phone call from my sister. She told me that the local government had proceeded to remodel the streets of our county town, effectively banning all mobile and semi-fixed stalls. My mother, always guided by her lucky star, spotted a brick-and-mortar shop for sale on Xiguan Street and gritted her teeth to borrow the necessary funds.
And so, our family bid farewell to the stall that had supported us for over a decade. From now on, we would run our business in a shop, where we had running water and electricity. We finally got to part with leakages, rain, and the constant fights with fellow hawkers. We had truly acquired the proverbial roof our grandpa had alluded to over the phone.
I was giddy with this news, almost to a daze. The cursed street stall that had seen my coming of age and brought countless hardships to our family was now behind us. My foolish question from my childhood days—”Just when can we stop doing this for a living?”—had finally been answered, and my father shared my relief. Neither of us were as hardworking as my mother. Where she was able to extract a certain sweetness from the hard times, we only tasted bitterness.
Once the stall was gone, my mother had no regrets. “For 13 years, I worked day and night, always ahead of the rest. Your father and I were the laughingstock of so many people who scoffed at our tiny stall. Doing business was difficult, and life was even harder. But, in the end, our efforts were not in vain. Your old mother may not have an education, but I created this all from scratch, didn’t I? I put you and your sister through college and kept us all under a roof just by riding my tricycle, did I not?”
As she spoke, my mom sat on a stool and looked at her hands, picking at the hardened skin on her palms with her fingernails. The round, hard callouses under the base of her fingers were the parasols that she’d shielded us with over the years.
My mom had originally bought the brick-and-mortar store from someone who failed to make the business thrive. But that’s just what my mother achieved once she was in charge. She’s been a strong woman throughout her entire life, pulling herself up from her bootstraps and weathering one storm after another without ever complaining. On the contrary, she’s filled with gratitude for her lot in life.
There was more news waiting for me at home. First, my sister had married her high school classmate, who happened to be the son of the woman running the vegetable stall opposite to ours—yes, the lady who once had that fight with my mom. Now, they had their own family, complete with kids. As for my sister’s new mother-in-law? Well, after a stint of shopkeeping once the government banned all hawker activity, she actually ended up opening a shop under my mother’s name. Old customers trickled in all the time to ask for my family’s stall, so she posted a sign on the telephone pole next to it to “redirect” the traffic to what’s now our mutual family business. My sister and I exchanged knowing smiles every time we passed by her shop’s door. Talk about burying the hatchet.
Aunt Liu didn’t meet quite a happy ending. This much she said herself when she came knocking on my mother’s door. Following the local government’s ban, many hawkers had either sought a livelihood at the farmer’s market or else scrambled for survival on the streets. Aunt Liu’s two sons had dropped out of school long ago to join he large group of migrant workers in town, but they never had much success. The family of five still relied on old Aunt Liu’s pancakes to make a living, and so she wanted to set up her stall again, this time by the entrance of our shop.
Aunt Liu was close to 60 by now, and she still had to care for her ailing, elderly mother. Neither she nor her husband liked the old woman. If anything, they always gave her the stink eye, feeding her scraps and scolding her for being “old and useless.” Aunt Liu’s own face was often bruised and swollen. The older son, who was almost 30 by then, was a particularly bad egg who didn’t hesitate to steal money from the pancake shop. Whenever Aunt Liu caught him red-handed, a nasty fight with plenty of fists and kicks would ensue.
Looking back, my mother was able to go on making a living after the hawking ban. As time quietly went by, her business continued to thrive, and now she got to reap the rewards.
Aunt Liu sure tried to sweet-talk my mom, but to no avail. This time, my mother didn’t “bide her time”: she just refused to have anything to do with them.
Nowadays, when I pass by my hometown’s main street, I gaze at the backdrop of our family’s past life. Here, we had hustled and bustled seemingly without an end in sight, until the times changed and the road was repaved in asphalt and silence. When I reflect on this all, the lyrics from a certain song come to mind: “As I look back, I find that the moon of yesterday has turned overnight into today’s sunshine.”
Written by Shen Wei (慎微)