This is Life in Shantou - Their New Year Wish is Paying Off Debt

A special series of articles about ordinary people living in Swatow, written by students from Shantou University (STU) Cheung Kong School of Journalism

by Cai Siqi Serinna (蔡思颀)


No storefront, but only a handcart, two gas cylinders, eight wooden tables and some plastic chairs. That’s all  they have to earn a living.

The owner of all these “treasures” is an old couple, 60-year-old Chen Shilong, and his 56-year-old wife Zheng Zhu. They sell rice noodles at a road intersection, opposite the Zhongshan Park in Jinping District in Shantou.

Zheng was talking while Chen was busy working.

The couple came to Shantou with their children 20 years ago from the countryside of Jieyang.

They own only one transportation tool-a tricycle. All the tables and chairs are carried from their house every morning and moved back in the afternoon. Chen has to ride three round trips because the tricycle is too small to carry all of them at the same time.

They worked from 5:30 am, buying fresh ingredients from markets, and went home late in the afternoon.

“Too tired,” Zheng sighed while busy cleaning. “We are old. We will be exhausted to death if we keep working till the evening.”

Just then, a dustman came to sweep the street. Zheng immediately moved all the tables and chairs to let him clean away the rubbish.

A bowl of rice noodles was sold for three to five Yuan. They could only earn about thirty Yuan by working hard for almost 11 hours a day.

According to Zheng, a man comes once a month to charge management fee-more than 200 Yuan per month.

“Maybe he is from the municipal administration, or maybe he is not. I don’t know. All I know is that we have to give him the money,” she said.

The couple knows their business is illegal. But “no one cares in normal times,” and she thought that the money could be a kind of “protection fee”. But when officials came to inspect, they would be driven away for a couple of days or even weeks.

While Zheng was busy talking and working, her husband Chen Shilong took no rest as well. He kept cooking and cleaning, and was unwilling to say a word.

At about 2:30 pm, Chen rode his tricycle towards the market. Zheng said he was going to buy some rice.

Half an hour later, Chen came back with three bags of rice. He seemed upset and kept talking to himself in Chaoshan dialect, “It costs me 55 Yuan, how can I do business with rice being so expensive? This society squeezes me dry…”

The old couple sold noodles to an old customer

Zheng kept washing without answering Chen. She filled a plastic basin with water and then put all the dirty dishes and bowls in it. After using a piece of cloth to wash them in muddy water, she piled the dishes up on the ground. The water with oil and leftovers was poured on the sidewalk. The dishes didn’t go under fresh water again but were directly used for serving food.

Both their son and daughter have graduated from colleges. Their 26-year-old son is working in an electronics factory, and the daughter is teaching in a primary school after graduation last year.

To pay for their education and buy a secondhand apartment, the family had owed tens of thousands Yuan to their relatives. Paying off the debt was Zheng’s biggest wish.

“My son earns a little, my daughter earns a little, and we earn some. Little by little, we surely will pay the money back some day,” Zheng said so as she collected the dirty dishes.

Porridge with some preserved vegetable was their routine meals. They seldom had eggs to eat, and meat was a luxury for them.

“We have the same meal for almost 365 days a year. We get used to it,” Zheng said carrying a bowl of porridge.

They don’t have any entertainment, except for chatting with other vendors to make their work less boring.

New Year was coming. When talking about her New Year wish, Zheng said, “I have no expectation for a superb supper. All I want is to pay off all the debts with diligent work.”


Article reproduced by kind permission of Shantou University (STU) Cheung Kong School of Journalism.


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Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Lee T Hong says...

    I can cry. Heart breaking. Such hard work for so little and still extorted. May their lives turn around this year.

    February 05, 2019

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