Walk the streets of Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, at dusk and you’ll encounter a pandemonium of smells. On one corner, an older woman tosses just-fried potatoes with scallions, garlic, salt, and sugar for a line of hungry customers; across the street, a man portions out single servings of cold noodles slicked in black vinegar and a dash of chile oil. In a booth wedged between two clothing shops, a middle-aged couple fries up guokui, a crispy meat-filled pancake topped with fermented vegetables and a sprinkling of Sichuan peppercorn. Down the street a bit, the next generation of street vendors hawks third-wave coffee to young people in cups with splashy logos.
Street food has a long history in Chengdu, a city where the weather never gets too cold, and the locals — known for their leisurely lifestyle and supreme cooking — are used to spending time out of doors, drinking tea, playing mahjong, and relaxing in the open air. Anita Shiwen Lai, founder of the gastronomic travel company Chengdu Food Tours, points out that almost all of the most iconic Chengdu foods were born from the street: dandan mian (noodles in spicy sauce), tang you guo zi (a chewy rice balls glazed with sugar and sesame seeds), dan hong gao (an egg cake), and chuan chuan (a style of hot pot with ingredients served on sticks) are just a few.
“Street food has always been an essential and irreplaceable part of the food culture here,” says Lai.
But the scene taking place on the streets of Chengdu today is, in many ways, a throwback. While street food in Chengdu does indeed have a long lineage, this thread of city life was nearly broken when, starting in the 2000s, the Chinese government began declaring street stalls “backward” and “uncivilized,” pushing them off the streets as shiny large-scale planning and development changed the face of the city. Those that dared to stay lived in perpetual fear of the chengguan (municipal patrols) and had to be ready to pack up and run at first sight of the authorities.
When the novel coronavirus hit China last January, some worried it would be the finishing blow for Chengdu street food. Stringent lockdowns, under which citizens were unable to leave their apartment complexes, meant that street food operations had no way to stay afloat. The vendors — often migrant workers from the rural provinces — would go back to their home villages, never to return.
But when the COVID lockdowns lifted in May, the Chengdu government did something surprising. In a dramatic reversal of the state policy over the past two decades, the local government started actively encouraging small vendors to set up their own stalls on the streets of the city. The hope was that the move would be a jumpstart to the stalled economy, serving as a stopgap measure to alleviate unemployment and boost spending. It worked: The policy created a new stream of income for more than 100,000 people overnight, and was such a success that Premier Li Keqiang eventually enacted policy for all of China.
What followed that summer was open season for Chengdu street food. The veteran vendors returned, alongside thousands of first-time entrepreneurs both young and old. Some, who were less prepared for the amount of work involved, set out their ditan (street stall) for only one night before calling it quits; others managed to stick with it. During the daytime, it was suddenly common to see the sidewalks dotted with stools placed there by vendors who had “claimed” their spot hours before evening service. Come nightfall, popular pedestrian areas near Chunxi Lu, Jianshe Road, and Yulin were jammed with brightly lit stalls and awash in enticing smells and dishes so varied it would be impossible to try them all in a month.
“It is amazing to see the street stall economy happening and the government actually encouraging street vendors back on the streets again,” says Lai of Chengdu Food Tours. Moreover, now that small food businesses are freed from the Catch-22 of choosing between expensive rent for a brick-and-mortar or constant persecution by the municipal authorities, they can, Lai says, get back to the work of passing on culinary tradition.
“It enables the flavors of the street to be preserved,” Lai says. “This allows Chengdu to go back to its roots and character.”
Wang Xue, 43, sells bobo chicken — a classic dish of cold spicy chicken offal on skewers — from her stall on Jianshe road, near Sichuan University. Wang says that before the coronavirus hit China, she had been planning to start selling her bobo chicken spice mixture online. But when she heard about the new street food economy, she decided to open up a stall so that customers could try her seasonings in person. These days, the stall functions as both a restaurant and a vehicle of promotion for her online business.
“While I’m selling bo bo chicken for people to eat, I can also sell the bo bo ji seasonings for people to take home and prepare a meal that is simple but tastes authentic,” says Xue.
But not all of the street food you’ll find today is classic Chengdu; newer vendors are branching out and offering famous dishes from regional cuisines all over the country. Not far from Wang Xue’s stall, Xiao Li sells snacks in the style of Yunnan, a province southwest of Sichuan known for its mild climate and bright, fresh cuisine that resembles that of its southeast Asian neighbors, Laos and Vietnam. On a typical day, Xiao Li sells spring rolls, fried tofu, and Yunnan rice noodles.
Xiao Li, who worked in the hotel business before COVID, says her street stall has been a way to keep busy and earn a living, though she recently found work at a hotel again and thinks she won’t be selling Yunnan snacks for much longer. Still, Li says her brief foray into running her own food business has left her with a strong sense of achievement.
Right alongside these conventional street food snacks, it is now common to see splashy outfits catering to young Chinese tastes for coffee and cocktails. These businesses tend to emphasize design, branding, and a sense of community. One popular new coffee stall encourages artists to leave behind stickers with their logo and information — the proprietors will in turn adhere the sticker to takeaway coffee cups, a boon to the artists hoping to reach a wider audience and a free bit of graphic design for the shop.
In Yulin, an old Chengdu neighborhood popular with young people and food seekers, the second-wave street stall phenomenon is at its apotheosis. At the center of it all is Uncle Lan, a stalwart of the Chengdu underground art and nightlife scene who can be found most nights at the Cocktail Bus, his mobile street bar. Uncle Lan pours colorful cocktails like the Sleepwalker and the Raging Teenager, as well as mojitos and gin and tonics, for clusters of patrons who sit on stools while they drink and chat.
Lan, whose previous business ventures have included pop-up art exhibitions, a rave bus, and an underground night market, says that he decided to start his mobile bar to stay afloat after an art exhibition fell through due to the pandemic. But he’s since grown passionate about the street stall as a medium for cultural dissemination and community building. He noticed that people of all backgrounds who came to his mobile bar to drink would also strike up conversations with one another.
“At the street stall, anyone can come together,” Lan says. “People break through normal social barriers.” For this reason, Uncle Lan differs from street bars that offer takeaway cocktails. He refuses — preferring that his customers come hang out at the bus so they can watch him as he works and interact with fellow drinkers. “There is a lot of space to expand Chengdu culture,” he reflects.
As he pours a Raging Teenager — a mix of vodka, ginger beer, lime juice, and Sichuan peppercorn — Uncle Lan remembers the 1990s, the pinnacle of the street stall economy in Chengdu, when, as a teenager, he ran a stall of his own selling iced jelly — a period he’d all but forgotten prior to this summer. “They used to call me the street stall king,” he says. “And I think I’m going back to that now.”
Lauren Teixeira is a writer formerly based in Chengdu; she now lives in Washington, DC.
MIa Zhang is a photographer based in Chengdu.