The Chuan Lady: Fulfilling 268’s Midnight Cravings

Over the course of this semester, most people at NYU Shanghai have tried, or at least heard of, the famous street barbecue stands opposite FamilyMart, and beside the 268 dorms. Every night, the street food stands provide the hungry souls of NYU Shanghai with a fine selection of meats and vegetables on skewers, or “串”, as they are collectively called in Chinese. To some students, the presence of the street barbecue stands has transcended into a symbol of warmth and support. As Kadallah Burrowes, a fellow student at NYU Shanghai notes, “knowing my buddy Chuan Guy is going to be there has gotten me through countless late night study sessions and nights on the town.”

However, selling street food is the opposite of an easy job in China. Most street food vendors are migrant workers who might not be able to receive the same level of social security services provided by the local government. In addition, street food vendors are under constant threat of the Chengguan (城管), a parapolice force that is responsible for maintaining urban sanitary. Recent years have seen cases of violent clashes involving Chengguans and street vendors in various parts of China, which has fuelled the ongoing debate of the legalization of street food.

To satisfy the NYU Shanghai community’s curiosity regarding the beloved street food vendors, we set out to interview the Ms. Yao, aka, the Chuan lady:

The NYU Shanghai population knows you as “chuan” lady, but could you introduce yourself and your family?

Yao: I come from Shandong province with my husband. We settled in Shanghai about 20 years ago. My husband is an excavator operator and works at various construction sites. At first I stayed at home to look after our children. Now that my older child has gone back to Shandong to take the Gaokao (高考) (the national university entrance exam), I have some time to start a barbecue stand and earn some extra money. I still have a younger daughter who lives with us in Shanghai.

How long have you been operating this particular street barbecue stand? Have you always stayed at this particular location?

Yao: I’ve stayed at this spot for about 5 years. I started my business right here, and I haven’t considered moving elsewhere. The business is good here. And I seldom go to other places in the city either.

As a street food vendor, what does your daily schedule look like?

Yao: Every day I sleep at around 4 am in the morning, and I have to get up at around 7 a.m. to go to the wet market and buy ingredients. Then, most of my day is spent making the skewers or “串”. I sleep for a short time at noon, and I come to set up my barbecue stand every night.

Have you noticed a considerable influx of your customers since last August?

Yao: Yes. I know you guys are from NYU Shanghai. Many international students often come by here for a midnight snack.

In your experience, do international students display a different dietary habit or different interests than that of your Chinese customers?

Yao: Not that much. Usually, international students do have a preference for vegetables. And in terms of meat, they prefer beef and chicken.

Recently, have you had interactions with the Chengguan (城管)? Have they posed a threat to your business operations?

Yao: Not really. I start to operate after the Chengguans (police) go off duty. So under normal circumstances we would not encounter each other.

Have you had problems with the Chengguan previously?

Yao: I did encounter Chengguan many times in the past. In some cases, they would confiscate my barbecue stand and all my skewers, and would cause me considerable losses. Purchase cost set aside, it takes me a lot of time every day to actually make the skewers.

Do you believe that the Chengguan are preventing street food vendors from making a living?

Yao: They are just doing their job … so far I have managed to avoid them. I don’t think their presence would disturb my business. I simply learn to cope with them.

This article was conducted in Chinese and translated to English. It was written with the help of Amanda Yang.

This article was written by Richard Lewei Huang. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit:Richard Lewei Huang

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