Man on the Street is a regular series where we talk to someone doing an everyday job, in order to gain insight into the lives of normal Chinese people.
He goes by his street name, Chen Bo, and at 78 presents a slight figure with thin legs and veiny hands that count money seven days a week. Chen has been doing the same job for seven decades: selling Chaozhou-style fruit snacks. The last 18 years he’s been vending them in Shenzhen, where he can be found nightly in Nanshan District.
Our search for Chen takes many hours, though almost everyone we speak to seems to know him by name. One person says he has left Shenzhen already. One says he will arrive at Shahe Street around 4pm. We finally find him at 9pm.
He is holding a fresh mango and peeling it carefully. He notices us and stands up, asking, “What do you want?”
We explain, but he doesn’t want to talk; he’s something of a local celebrity and has already done a number of newspaper and television interviews in the past.
“It’s useless,” Chen remarks, but eventually explains why he persists in selling his snacks day after day.
Chen is a practitioner of the dying Chaozhou tradition of pickling fruit. To the uninitiated the snacks taste a bit sour, but enough people buy them in Shenzhen to keep Chen busy.
“I’m not earning money, but at least my customers love the food I make,” Chen says, standing behind his cart, which is one of dozens on the road.
A customer stops and talks to us. “I’m from Chaozhou. Chen Bo’s fruits really bring back memories of old times.”
And that is the key to Chen. Not making money, or even the specific product he is selling. It’s about preserving part of his heritage. “These are memories of the Chaozhou people,” he says.
Chen has kept prices low, ranging from RMB3-9 for each stick of pickled fruit. Chen also sells preserved plums in plastic boxes. A box costs RMB25, with a small bag of plums costing RMB5. We order some.
“I know it’s time to get back to my hometown to enjoy the rest of my life, so I will leave Shenzhen soon,” Chen says, before we thank him and begin walking away.
Looking back, the light above Chen’s cart is almost lost in the night, but the frail figure is still there, waiting for customers to buy pieces of a dying tradition.
THE DIRTY DETAILS
Monthly salary: RMB2,000-3,000
Days per week: 7
Hours per day: 6
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