In a street crowded with nearly 2,000 sidewalk entrepreneurs, Yui Jiao Er has proven her worth as a businesswoman. She runs a modest stall on a thoroughfare in the central Chinese city of Wuhan known as Han Zhen Ji (The Street of Little Things). It is an appropriate name for an alley where private entrepreneurs sell the small but indispensable household goods that the city’s residents cannot find in larger state-run stores and markets. Yui, 40, has earned a small fortune— by Chinese standards—as a private vendor under the liberal economic reforms introduced in 1981 by China’s pragmatic leader, Deng Xiaoping.
Her career began four years ago when she accidentally broke the glass liner of her thermos bottle, a ubiquitous item used for storing boiled drinking water. She found the liners impossible to replace in Wuhan but learned that she could import them from another province, where they were plentiful. Although she had never been in business before, she ordered 33 dozen and took them to the Street of Little Things to sell. Recalled Yui: “The liners sold out in two or three days. I was surprised.”
Yui’s experience is similar to those of other entrepreneurs on the V-h -km street. Their workplace is a road that curves down through the bustling city of Wuhan, 900 km west of Shanghai, on the Yangtse River. The city is known for its industrial base and its role as a distribution centre for the rapidly developing nation. Like other Chinese cities, the nation’s fifth most populous urban area has witnessed an economic revolution under Deng.
Part of Deng’s program of introducing market forces to an economy stifled by socialist central planning has involved allowing private enterprise on a small scale. Ordinary Chinese have responded by inundating the once-dead street with private stalls in which they have opened businesses. Yui, for one, was enthusiastic about the changes sweeping a nation where 10 years ago private merchants were outlawed. Said Yui: “I own two television sets, a refrigerator, a washing machine, and two tape recorders—expensive tape recorders—and a camera. I have an open mind and I don’t feel guilty. ”
Still, vendors like Yui say they are aware of the jealousies of less business-minded neighbors and the political embarrassment of growing too wealthy too quickly. As a result, the
new merchants try not to flaunt their newfound affluence. Yui insisted that her earnings are minimal compared to merchants in the industrial nations in the West. And she added that it is still impossible to attain a Western standard of living. She declared: “Compared with workers and cadres in our country, I am 100 times richer.” The struggle for existence on the Street of Little Things has mirrored the difficulties and changes of modern China. After the Communist revolution in 1949, then-leader Mao Tse-tung allowed the street to open only as a cooperative market. But the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and 1970s, when extreme leftists took control of the Peking government, closed the street. It took Deng’s ascendancy in the late 1970s to bring the small vendors back. Three years ago there were 249 businesses on the street. Now, there are 1,878 registered with Wuhan’s business administration bureau. The majority of businesses are privately run. Zhen Chong Mei, director of the bureau, said that when private stalls began to boom in the early 1980s local officials launched an investigation into the political acceptability of the free market. But with Deng’s growing influence, they have begun to accept the development, and the program has
spread throughout the country.
The liveliness of the street reflects the bouyant mood in China. Homemade stalls clogging both sides of the street display black vinyl handbags. Shocking pink sweat pants—worn for warmth underneath trousers, not for fashion—sell for the equivalent of a dollar. Merchants shout their sales pitches to customers searching for bargains. One of Yui’s competitors, 66year-old Shen Huai-jin, presides over a table laden with combs, plastic toy guns, whistles, zippers and safety pins decorated with sequins. Like most of
the pedlars, he was unemployed during the Cultural Revolution. Since July, 1984, when he came to the Street of Little Things, his monthly income has been approximately $85 to $130. Shen is becoming rich. Said Shen: “Rich is having enough money to live.”
In contrast to the busy street, Wuhan’s state-run department stores resemble lifeless mausoleums on the Wuhan skyline. They offer simple Chinese-made clothing, often in drab colors and old-fashioned styles. There is little variety in the housewares or hardware departments, while small gift
items are rarely in stock. Inside the gloomy and cavernous trading halls customers peer at merchandise obscured behind scratched and stained glass display cases. The indifference of the store clerks is in contrast to the eager hawkers in private markets that often ring China’s huge state stores.
Apart from providing vendors with lucrative incomes, Chinese officials say that markets such as the Street of Little Things are providing a valuable service to the nation. According to Lo Tsang Hong, a Wuhan University journalism lecturer who has studied the economy of the street, the merchants act as “middlemen connecting the city, the big factories and the countryside.” Many of the street’s customers travel from rural areas, where even the simplest consumer goods are in short supply. They ride bicycles laden with as many as 30 chickens for sale to Wuhan’s farmers’ markets, then ride home again with valuable manufactured items. Some of them offer the goods for resale in remote areas. Declared Lo: “A couple of years ago it was impossible to have this kind of prosperity.”
As Deng’s political power base continues to spread into every local administration, the future of his program of change appears assured. And while merchants such as Yui are aware that China’s modern history has been scarred by wild and erratic political shifts, they say that they remain enthusiastic about their future. Yui has even invested in new lines of merchandise. Recently, she purchased substandard hairnets from a government export department that wanted to get rid of them. Said Yui: “I bought the rejects, sold them at home and made a success.”
The occupants of the Street of Little Things even have their own hero—45year-old Zhien Jiu Suan. Known as the “pockmarked blind man,” he is, for many, a symbol of Chinese patience and ingenuity. Zhien lost his sight to smallpox as a child but became a successful businessman selling sewing supplies and fishing tackle. When private business was outlawed under Mao, Zhien carried on clandestinely, employing a band of blind workers to shuttle goods back and forth between Wuhan and the countryside. Although he was imprisoned for 18 months for his illegal commerce during the Cultural Revolution, he has returned to the street in triumph. Now, he sells balloons and bolts of fabric. Wuhan University’s Lo appeared to reflect official Chinese policy when he described Zhien recently: “He is great, really broad-minded. And noble.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.