Monday, March 24, 2008

The stickmen of Chongqing

There’s nowhere quite like Chongqing throughout the People’s Republic. Ringed by mountains and rivers, the first time visitor will always be amazed to note the complete absence of bicycles. The burning sensation in your calf muscles as you walk the city’s steep streets explains this two-wheeled phenomenon. Not of course that there aren’t two wheel contraptions – nowhere on Earth produces more motorcycles than Chongqing, the world’s largest municipality. As well as this size moniker (it has roughly the same landmass as Austria!) the 11-year-old municipality is also famous for its spicy food – the home of lip numbing hot pot – and the ubiquitous stickmen, themselves a product of geography.
Up until the 1960s these wiry men, armed with their roped trusty bamboo sticks, were the principal means with which cargoes from the Yangtze were carried up the vertiginous river banks to the city.
Nowadays the port is more automated, but that does not mean there is little work. On the contrary, as the citizens get richer, their shopping bags become heavier and more numerous. This being one of the four so called furnaces of China makes the prospect of strolling home laden with heavy bags a sweaty and unattractive prospect. Cue the stickmen. Outside many a department store or supermarket these sinewy men hover waiting for business. There are an estimated 10,000 of them and they charge anywhere from 3 yuan to 20 depending on the distance, steepness, steps and weight of their job.
I caught up with a gaggle of them to see how their lives are progressing. All of them appear to have mobiles and pretty regular clients who phone them up in advance of a planned trip to the shops.
There are a couple of other cities with a noticeable if not as large stickmen contigent – Wuhan and Yichang, both also on the Yangtze.
Typically they work 12 hour shifts – 7am to 7pm – and tend to stick to specific areas. The savvy ones have moved to more upmarket areas where redevelopment has brought the joy of elevators over the dreaded staircase. The richest stickman I met, Zhang Guang Heng, 40, hung around the Hilton Hotel and paid the management 100 RMB a month for a license to operate. Zhang manages to make around 30,000 RMB a year and is the envy of all stickmen.
Typically, these green freight transport providers make 1,300 yuan a month. By comparison, the Chongqing average wage, according to the latest mayor’s figures is 2,700 yuan.
As this city develops the future of the stickmen looks likely to snap.

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