These words, written in black Chinese characters on a rusting white sign hung at each gate into my new community — a traditional Long Tang — read more like a dare than a warning. The one guard station, at the southern gate, stood empty more than half the time. The other two gates never locked, even though each one had a rusty red loop that could have easily held a lock of some kind — but it never did. Nothing about the setup suggested security, or even the attempt to stop solicitors. It might as well been a prison with all of its doors open, with a sign hanging at the door that said “no escaping.”
John and I escaped here, to Luwan District, after post-midnight garbage runs disturbed our sleep night after night. The nighttime here lay as dark and still as the streets, with their garage-door-like storefronts shuttered tight, the only sound a stray taxi here or a drunkard hobbling there. It was the night we hoped for, after a wrenching departure from our old apartment. “It’s very quiet here,” the real estate agent assured John with nodding confidence. For once, the agent was right.
But he forgot to tell John about one thing — the days and, especially, the daytime peddlers, crooning their wares as they bicycled in and out of the lanes of our community.
“Recycle refrigerators! Microwaves! TVs! Range hoods!”
“Bamboo poles! Bamboo poles!”
“Watermelon! Sweet watermelon!”
We didn’t expect the new soundtrack to our lives in China to include the sing-song shouting of peddlers.
I once saw a documentary about the dying art of peddlers and hawkers in China, focusing on the tofu man who frequented old hutong neighborhoods in Beijing. He marched through the neighborhood, wailing his wares in an almost operatic voice, as if he were Lucciano Pavorotti’s Chinese, tofu-selling cousin. According to the documentary, peddlers traditionally timed their work to that early afternoon citywide hush, when everyone indulges in a post-lunch nap. I have to wonder if having that captive audience is worth alienating some rudely awakened customers?
Yet, this is how peddlers did it then, and still do it in my neighborhood.
Though I’m away during the midday nap on the weekdays, I hear their voices echo through the lanes every weekend, and climb up into my apartment, through the windows. If John and I are snuggling in bed on a weekend afternoon, and I hear them, I might even feel self-conscious, caught without my clothes on, and somehow pause to let them pass first.
Still, they are nothing compared to the late-night ruckus of garbage collection. peddlers might disturb your nap, and perhaps you are grumpy for a few minutes, rub your eyes, and perhaps are even grateful for their reminder — maybe you would have been late for work, or class, or a meeting. But post-midnight garbage disturbs deep sleep, the most precious and sacred rest of your day. And the disturbance lived with John and each morning, clouding our days in an exhausted petulance that required obscene amounts of caffeine to overcome.
Besides, without these solicitors, where else could I buy bamboo poles?
Have you ever heard or experienced peddlers in China, or in other countries?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.