In Chinese, mei banfa means “there is nothing that can be done”. This phrase comes out in response to queries like, “Is there any possible way to buy a train ticket now?” or “Does your accounting error really mean my apartment will be without electricity for the entire weekend?” These concerns are trifling, however, compared to those whose machines drive the street trade. Engine overheating in a traffic jam? Hack a radiator together to cool it. Or weld a water tank to the roof to pipe water in. Something, it appears, can always be done.
I learned the breadth of possibilities in Chengdu. After an afternoon working in a factory assembling electric vehicles, still in a grease-coated, undersized factory uniform, I set out down the town’s singular street in search of food. Parked on a corner, I spied a full-sized rotisserie cooker spinning lazily, bathed in a dim yellow glow from the adjacent street light. the apparatus sat mounted on the back of a three-wheeled vehicle, a radiant beacon of food under neon light. “Hey foreigner!” shouted the owner, Wei Fang, not expecting me to speak Chinese. “try some duck!” 22 yuan (USd 3.50) later—after explaining my research between spicy mouthfuls—he agreed to an interview as he closed up shop.
During daylight hours, he powers his rotisserie (and a small portable radio) from the adjacent mobile phone store, for which he pays 460 yuan (USd 75) a month. Once the phone shop closes around 7 p.m., he switches to a car battery run through an inverter. Natural gas heats his rotisserie, with the canister set on the curb, protected by the vehicle’s front wheel. His cook shack was originally designed as a cart, but he retrofitted it by setting it upon a pair of logs and using bicycle tires and plastic bags to cushion the punishment of the city’s potholed roads. Overall, a rugged cooking machine.
After poring over the vehicle’s specs, we turned to motivation. “Why did I modify my vehicle in this way?!” he asked, gesturing to his vehicle with one hand, brandishing a fried duck with the other. “I have to make a living, right? So mei banfa!” He paused for a beat, then, breaking into a grin, added: “I’ve always wanted to make it big, though—ever since I was 10, all I wanted was to buy a BMW or a Mercedes.”
Lacking access to fully functional equipment, his hacks to pushable food dispensers were the only way. Yet if ingenuity alone fulfilled goals, this vendor would surely already boast a stable full of German auto imports.
Before departing for the suburbs, I met another graduate of the Mei Banfa School of engineering. Liu Minfeng’s rig is a pedal-powered cargo tricycle from which he sells “Brazilian barbecue”: pork carved from a rotisserie, mixed with lettuce and scallion, topped with a dash of chili powder and stuffed neatly into a pita—all for six yuan (less than USd 1).
As with the duck vendor, mounting a rotisserie on to his cargo tricycle was not without its difficulties. “When I bought the cooker three years ago, I had to remove that part so I could turn it by hand,” he said, pointing to one side. “Electricity would be more convenient, but there’s no room for a battery, so mei banfa.” He only sells Brazilian barbecue in winter when the weather calls for hot food. In summer, he removes the entire rotisserie cooker, throws his tools in the back of a stripped-down version of the same trike, and cycles across Chengdu advertising his services as an all-around repairman.
He explained how the neighborhood’s astronomical rents made getting his own space a far-off dream, his analysis revealing the depth of his familiarity with all of his costs. “Each barbecue pita,” he explained, “uses two mao (USD 0.03) of natural gas.”
A shrill ringtone interrupts our conversation. He answers his phone, speaking in clipped monosyllables, scanning the street. It’s his wife, calling to share news of more pedestrians—slang amongst fellow mobile vendors for both potential customers and greater risk of chengguan. Chengguan is the municipal force tasked with “ensuring a beautiful city”. Until recently, they were infamous across China for their ruthlessness against informal vendors. though rumored to have eased, they won’t hesitate to impound a vendor’s cart, vehicle, or inventory if the mood strikes to enforce rather than disperse.
I moved with him down the street to join his wife and fellow wary vendors. among them, an elderly man with a modified rice cooker on the back of his tricycle, filled with hard-boiled eggs marinating in warm tea. another’s electric bicycle sat covered with multiple split soda bottles and hollow bamboo segments, each bursting with bright blossoms for sale.
After several brisk minutes of sales, however, the vendors frantically began to pack their wares. across the street, a white truck with municipal insignia emblazoned on its doors rolled to a stop, its roof-mounted loudspeakers blaring orders to disperse.
“Time to move again?” I ask. “Mei banfa,” he replied, with a knowing grin.