Jan 16, 2009

The peddlers and the jakes

In these weeks leading up to the lunar new year, I see lots of Tibetan peddlers coming out of the woodwork in Beijing. They spread out little blankets on the ground on crowded pedestrian overpasses and on busy sidewalks. They've all got exactly the same junk, but yet they chose to set up shop right next to each other. In business, I believe that's referred to as sales cannibalization. It's like the Lewis Black routine where he talks about the Starbucks opening right across from another Starbucks. I should tell these peddlers need to divide and conquer.

The street vendors all have pretty much the same selection: red and blue beaded necklaces (supposedly coral, but probably plastic), silver jewelry, bronze Buddha statues, German Shepherd pelts painted orange and black to look like snow leopard skins, and bowls of caterpillar fungus. Maybe they're trying to earn enough money for a train ticket home in time for the Tibetan New Year. Or maybe I just work in an area with a recent influx of Tibetan peddlers.

This morning as I came out of the subway station near my office, I discovered a minor tussle in progress. There were eight Tibetan peddlers and one uniformed beat cop (城管), armed with just a billy club. It looked like the cop was forcing the peddlers to disperse. If I learned one thing traveling in Tibet, it was to not mess with the large, rabid local dogs, and more importantly, don't scuffle with the local dudes, since they tended to carry Bowie knives under their coats.

The peddlers and the cop all looked rather worked up, so I made sure to keep a safe distance as I circled past them. I was certain I was going to see a cop get beat down by a group of Tibetan guys. But, as always seems to happen in China, a small crowd started to gather around, the tensions suddenly diffused, they all packed up their shit, and moved on to another location down the block.

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