Several weeks ago, I was wandering around the streets of Chengdu. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I noticed a strange feeling from my stomach, one which I had never felt before in my various backpacking excursions around the Middle Kingdom….hunger. It then occurred to me why. I had been exploring Chengdu on foot for the past 5 hours, and not once during that entire time had I come across a single street food vendor. This may not seem strange upfront, but anyone who has spent time in China will likely find this preposterous. Grazing around China, casually consuming stuff like this, this, and this, this, and this is a national pastime in the Middle Kingdom, one enjoyed by Chinese and foreign residents alike. Big city or small town, urban or rural, north or south, street food is ubiquitous in the Middle Kingdom and being anywhere in China without it is, in this author’s opinion, just, well….weird.
I recalled a conversation I had the previous evening with my host in Chengdu, eminent baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus who had stressed to me that “They killed street food in Chengdu.” At the time I didn’t think much of it. Not that I didn’t trust Derek’s expertise, but the very thought of a Chinese city without street food violated all my premonitions of China logic. And especially Chengdu, which is renowned throughout the country for its famous street snacks.
After two full days in town, it was painfully apparent that street food is indeed dead in Chengdu. There are probably a few scattered corners where you can find a 烧烤 (kabob) stand or an occasional 煎饼 (Chinese fried pancake). But for all practical purposes, food in Chengdu is only served inside of restaurants.
Chengdu’s crackdown on streetfood is most likely part of a series of campaigns across China promoting 文明, the idea of being “civilized.” This has been a trope of Chinese local leadership in recent years, and has various manifestations, with mixed results from the public. Earlier this month, Beijing announced it was going to crack down on 烧烤 (outdoor kabobbing) due to its alleged contributions to air pollution. Many Beijingers were appalled, and assumed this was simply a guise, another mis-guided attempt at “civilizing” the population. On the other hand, campaigns to encourage queuing, especially at subway and bus stops, also under the heading of “civilizing” have generally been met with a more positive response.
The promotion and enforcement of these “civilizing” campaigns vary across the country, and fortunately Chengdu appears to be somewhat of an anomaly in its moratorium on street vendors. Still, the thought of a Chinese city without streetfood doesn’t sit well in this author’s my stomach.