Hot dogs.. and so much more

China does sell hot dogs! There are some local stores that feature them, and even some traveling hot dog carts just like you’d see in New York. Well, almost like New York. They gather in the high traffic areas of town, which is pretty much everywhere.

The most ubiquitous hot dog carts in town in fact do not sell hot dogs. These mobile wagons are run by local fix-it workers offering services of many kinds, from tinkerers to bike repairmen, locksmiths, even one making hard candies in the most fantastic shapes imaginable.

The bike repairmen are the most numerous cart business in town. Every single street corner seems to have one at the ready for a broken chain, flat tire, or rusted axle. All of the bikes in town (some number in the millions) are old, weather-worn rusty hunks of metal. The idea is to own the worst-looking bike possible, so the thieves will not steal it. ‘They have all the keys to the locks anyway,’ my students have told me.

Today, however, I did not need bike repairs. My favorite windbreaker has had a broken zipper for the longest time, but I have insisted on wearing it anyway. Walking down a side alley to get home after class, I passed another hot dog cart worker, this one streaming with pieces of cloth, ribbon, thread, and presided over by a jolly looking woman at a portable sewing machine. There was even a bundle of new zippers strung across a bar that normally would have been a station for condiments.

Showing her my zipper I asked, “Can you fix this?” “Sure,” she said. “How much?” This was where I got skeptical. Being a foreigner, I have many times been given the standard 1000% markup on prices, leaving me in the position of bargaining hard or simply walking away.

“Only 3 yuan.” Wow- this sounded perfectly fair. Less than 50 cents for a new zipper, repair cost included! I agreed, and out came a jar filled with spare zipper clasps. She found one my size, and with a pair of pliers and a few minutes of wiggling, my windbreaker was rehabilitated! I gave her the three coins, thanked her, and went on my way.

Only in China, I was thinking to myself, do you follow a blind instinct leading you down an alley, thereupon finding the exact sort of cheap, reliable labor you’re in need of.

I will keep an eye out for the next hot dog cart when need arises. If only they had a remedy for not being able to read Chinese characters!


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March 2009
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