Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Sidewalk capitalists abound in China

We were 16 American youth hostelers cycling in Communist China, only the second group of foreigners permitted to bicycle there after the bloody revolution of 1949. A bike mishap required that I be examined, so the next morning one of our interpreters walked with a Chinese man and me to a hospital. After an examination, some white tablets and a lengthy report in Chinese characters, our interpreter paid the 35-cent doctor bill. She wrote the address of our hotel on the tag of my purse so I could stay downtown and wander as I pleased. Thus began the most unique experiences of my life! A foreigner should not have been permitted this kind of freedom.

Women laughed with us as a fellow selling raw sugar-cane stalks taught me to chew the sweet out at one corner of my mouth and let the fibrous part drop to the street from the other corner. Hungry chickens raced up right there on Canton’s sidewalk and ate the fiber. Onlookers laughed with us.

A woman saw me preparing to photograph a hundred flies which were feasting on her messy meat-chopping block. She cussed me out and shooed the flies away as I lifted my camera. The flies were gone, but I photographed the meat block and the lady — and quickly left.

About 50 people came in off the street when I was trying to buy acupuncture needles. I tried pantomime, but I’m not good at that. A fellow in the crowd coached the pharmacist, and he offered the wrong things. An elderly woman looked over my shoulder and pronounced each letter as I wrote in big block letters, but she didn’t know the word "acupuncture." Finally, I sketched a hand and arm with a needle sticking in it and pantomimed "ouch!" A man understood it immediately and told the seller, who turned and pulled out the drawer of acupuncture needles without moving out of his tracks! The crowd clapped and cheered, a rare emotion for these people.

Workers are not charged for selling goods or services on the sidewalks. A man was selling dried, smoked fish about eight inches long. A man and boy were selling sticks for kindling fires in small bundles. Several people offered onions, potatoes and other dry vegetables from their tiny home gardens.

I "chatted" with a woman who repaired old umbrellas putting in new stays, mending torn covers, etc. She was all smiles as we each spoke our own language. A crowd gathered. People walk the streets a lot, lacking other entertainment. When I asked permission to take her picture, she shook her head "no," still smiling. People watching urged me to take the photo anyway. She kept refusing and smiling, and I snapped the shutter. It was another happy encounter.

I visited with a man and his wife repairing bicycles and selling old patched tubes and worn tires. She sat on a low wooden stool, and he squatted as he worked with very few tools. They both wore wrist watches.

I had previously watched "capitalists" making extra money at night, their only light being what spilled out from store fronts. At 9 p.m. shops let down their flexible, rolled-up front walls; suddenly everyone was gone and we were in total darkness except for a dim bulb at street intersections. We picked our way back to the hotel in strange, dark China. It’s now 18 years since I bicycled there. I sometimes read about China’s increasing capitalism and remember the friends I met on the street — and that butcher-block woman — in another world.

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