Man on the Street: Urban Shepherd

By Adam Robbins, April 19, 2018

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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.

The green face of the Starbucks mermaid smiles temptingly along a stretch of Shenzhen’s northern Longhua District. But cross the street to an almost-hidden alley beside a Muslim restaurant (also in iconic green) to a path through an urban village settled on sandy foothills. Before you’ve finished sipping your coffee, civilization has fallen away and you’re face to face with dozens, even hundreds, of majestically horned rams.

Mr. Ma, a Muslim of the Hui minority, rents this little stretch of forest with his extended family, caring for the land (erosion is a problem) and maintaining a herd of sheep for the slaughter.


“Whoever likes to eat sheep, we sell to them,” he explains. They accept orders by WeChat (ID ‘13538278651’) and serve many regulars. “Restaurants, individuals, stores as well.” Sometimes customers walk away with sheep in tow, but often the Ma family butchers the animals on-site (a stray head stares up blankly to prove the point) and they always follow the halal practices required by Islamic law. 

Though China’s roughly 23 million practitioners of Islam are concentrated in the northwest, adherents can be found throughout the country. Shenzhen, new city of immigrants, is home to many families like Mr. Ma’s. “We wanted to find a better life and more opportunity,” he relates. And they’ve found it here, where each animal fetches RMB2,000 for the family. 

Like the sheep, the family hails from Qinghai Province. “Our ancestral home is mountainous, poor and underdeveloped,” he reports matter-of-factly. “There was no door to education.” His own putonghua was quite poor when the family moved, but 15 years in Shenzhen fixed that. 

Now the whole family is here, occupying a small lot with four white tents adorned in beautiful patterns of black, red and yellow. A canopy covers the kitchen area; a few shacks provide shelter for the home and animal tending. A plump chicken wanders by, pecking the dirt, as a small boy stares quietly. Ma’s wife in black lace head scarf adds dates to a cup of tea. Ma’s brother eats roasted seeds, lamenting the plight of Pakistan. Here in this wooded glen, that trouble seems a world away. 


This little spot of forest, Ma tells us, is owned by the neighboring factory but it’s a nationally protected resource. So when redevelopment consumes the rest of the neighborhood, reshaping the old village into towering apartments, the family and the sheep will remain, balancing a new world of steel and silicon with the organics of the old. 

READ MORE: In the Minority – Huis Facing Mecca from Beijing


Monthly income: RMB60,000 for a family of 10
Days per week: 7 (on call)
Hours per day: “If people are buying, we work; if not, we relax”

To read more Man on the Street click here.

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