Dali, Yunan is one of my favourite places in China. It’s one of the more authentic old town in China that hasn’t been done up too much to attract the tourists’ money, ala Lijiang. Old decadent buildings mingled with the new squeezed in between the imposing Cangshan (Grey Mountain) and the ethereal Erhai Lake.
Wandering down Renmin road, I couldn’t help but noticed the amount of street vendors. All of them were young people, fresh out of university. They sat by the side of the road, or steps of shop fronts, and lay out their merchandises on a piece of cloth that they lay on the street in front of them. They sold all kinds of stuffs; handicrafts, postcards, knickknacks they brought online, etc.
All of them have similar stories: they dreamed about travel and a life on the road; so most took the opportunity to travel when they finished their studies. And Tibet seemed to be the ultimate destination. They would sell handmade crafts or goods bought online to earn money, and their mode of transport would be hitch-hiking. They were the ‘beat’ generation of China. And many of them quoted “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac as if it’s their bible.
I befriended many of them, and some nights I would sit with them on the street, chatting and watching the coming and going of the people. It’s not about making money but being in the moment. I’ve lived through this in Colombia so I understood what they were going through.
I was curious about their life stories and what prompted them to do what they do; because it takes a lot of courage to be a glitch in society in Asia, more so in China. So I decided to have a more personal chat with one of them.
Q: What’s your name and how old are you?
H: My name is Zhong Ding Hui, but people call me Hui-zai. I’m 27 years old.
Q: Which part of China are you from?
H: I’m originally from Meizhou, in the Guangdong province. Then I went to university in Shenzhen.
Q: How big is your family?
H: Like most families in China, my family is quite big: there are my father, my mother, my elder brother and 2 younger sisters. My grandmother and my brother’s 2 children also live under the same roof.
Q: When did you leave home?
H: As soon as we finished university, a friend and I went to the train station in Guangzhou and bought a ticket to Kunming. From Kunming we traveled slowly and hitch-hiked all the way to Tibet. (ed: going to Tibet is an unofficial rite of passage that Chinese youth dream about) After Tibet we went to Chengdu and many other places in the Southwest of China. When I had my first taste of traveling, I couldn’t stop.
Q: When did you first realize that you have wanderlust?
H: When I was small I always dreamed about going out and see the world. I wanted to see many things; different things and different ways of life.
Q: Where did you go after that?
H: I went to South central China and then I headed straight to Beijing to find work. In Beijing I got a job working for a security company. It turned out to be the worst experience of my life thus far.
Q: What happened?
H: Some guys approached me, as I was walking down the main shopping street of Beijing, saying that they were from a security company and were looking to hire people. After much persuasion I decided to take up the job. But I soon found out that they lied to me; the work wasn’t what they promised me. And the living conditions were very bad; they only fed us cold food and buns, and that was in winter. But I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave because all my belongings, including my documents, were with them for safe keeping. All I had was the uniform I was wearing. I was afraid and disappointed. After 1 month working there I told them I wanted to quit. They called me into the office and beat me up. I was so beaten up that it took me 1 week before I could walk normally. Then they took me to Tianjin and forced me to work at a construction site there. I tried very hard to find ways to get out. After 1 week, I finally managed to steal back my identity card and bank card, and I finally escaped.
Q: Where did you go?
H: I took the subway to Tianjin centre. But I only had enough money to buy a train ticket to Shandong. From there I contacted a friend who helped me to buy the train ticket to go back home.
Q: When you got home did you tell your family about it?
H: No, I didn’t. When I left home, they told me that I was on my own and they wouldn’t help me financially anymore. So I didn’t see the point in telling them.
Q: How did you end up in Dali?
H: I passed by Dali when I was on my way to Tibet. I felt that it is one of a few old towns in China that has a very distinctive character. So I decided to come back.
Q: How did you end up working as a street vendor?
H: When I arrived I made friends with some of the young people in the hostel. They told me how they earn a living, and I was intrigued. I bought some goods from them and started to join them in the street. We would find a spot along Renmin road and lay a piece of cloth of the floor and displayed our goods on it.
Q: What did you sell?
H: I started with pendants and ornaments made from Nepalese yak bones. Then I also bought other stuffs, like t-shirts, to sell.
Q: How long did you do that for and what was the experience like for you?
H: I did it for 3 months. It was a new and extraordinary experience of my life. I had no experience in doing business prior to this so it was all new to me. The experience taught me many things: it taught me to put down my pride as I interacted with tourists and potential buyers; it taught me to have a different kind of mentality – letting nature takes its course: if the customer liked what they saw they would buy, I didn’t have to beg and bargain the price just to make a sale. Being a street vendor isn’t about making money, it’s a way to experience life.
Q: What are the good and bad of being a street vendor?
H: The best thing about it was that it let me experience life differently and it helped me to understand different kind of people. At the same time, it also helped me to meet many people and make many friends. The bad thing is that this kind of life has the tendency to make you lazy. And if you are the kind of person that has no objective in life, it will make you feel lost and lose hope for the future.
Q: How much did you make daily?
H: Actually I didn’t make a lot of money. I made enough to survive day in and day out. On a good day, I could earn RMB100-200 (USD16-32). On a bad day I didn’t make any money.
Q: Any unforgettable experience?
H: When I was a street vendor I met a beautiful girl that I had feelings for. At that time we used to set up our ‘stall’ next to each other. On days that we weren’t in the same spot, she would look for me after she was done. Our feelings for each other grew stronger day by day. We didn’t talk about it but we could feel it. After some time she said that she wanted to continue her travel, and then return home. On Chinese Valentine’s Day (the 7th day of the 7th lunar month) I drew a picture of a rose and gave it to her and I told her how I felt about her. Unfortunately, her mind was made up on leaving. Few days after that she left. That night I cried like I had never cried before. I blamed myself for being so useless. She’s gone and I have to move on. Now, whenever I walked pass the places we had been together I would have the nostalgic feeling of those summer days. This is the most unforgettable experience I have had in Dali.
Q: What happened after that?
H: After she left, I also stopped being a street vendor. I found a job working in a bakery. It was by chance that I got this job. But slowly I began to like it, and without realizing it, I’ve worked for almost a year now. This is the longest job I’ve held.
Q: Since you like your job, do you think you’ll continue to stay in Dali?
H: No. After completing 1 year on this job I’ll quit and go back to Shenzhen. When I came to Dali, I came looking to have fun and relaxing time, and to look for a direction for my life. I’ve been in Dali for almost a year now and I’m beginning to get bored. And I’m afraid I’ll become complacent and lazy. When I walk down Renmin road and see the young people sitting about leisurely, I tell myself that “I’ve done that, I’ve had that experience,” but I can’t continue doing that. I like Dali, I like working here. But I’m still young and I still need to challenge myself.
Q: What’s your dream?
H: My dream is to open a pastry shop. At the moment I’m working hard to make this dream come true.
The story of Hui-zai resonates with me in many levels. We both have done things out of our comfort zones in order to fulfill our dreams. Dream is the force the push us forward, make us do unbelievable things; things we don’t think we could do; things that challenges our physical and mental strength. What is your dream? Are you achieving it?