Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rings of Fire

Summer's here and the time is right for busting barbecues in the street in Beijing and other civic-minded localities. I was sitting at a very small table on very precarious chairs near a friend's apartment very early Friday morning sharing some cold Tsingtaos and generally solving the world's problems as we watched the late night/early morning bbq crowd ebb and flow around us.

Many neighborhood corners in Beijing and Shenzhen and other cities sprout instant ‘cue stands after dark when enterprising men and women throw some charcoal and wood on metal trays or inside a circle or rectangle of bricks, fire it up and start cooking chicken, corn, meat-you'd-rather-not-ask-about and sundry other edibles for midnight munchies.

As the smoke and smells of smoke and grilling meat drifts from the makeshift pits, men, women and children start squatting or pulling up cinder blocks and munchkin-size stools to eat, drink, gossip, play cards, argue and laugh often until 2 or 3 am.

Scorched sidewalks and trash greet the rising sun, shortly after which the female street cleaners - clad in baggy jumpsuits and some with oversized umbrella-like hats but almost always with some manditory feminine touch like a colorful scrunchie or sequined bow for their tied-up hair - sweep up the debris with brooms often larger than themselves, leaving only the scorch marks.

As Jeff and I watched from the three makeshift stands doing business near us, a large blue city government-looking van pulled up and disgorged three poker faced guys in blue uniforms and wearing what appeared to be oven mittens.

It was the cheng guan (municipal inspectors) or BBQ SWAT team as I like to call them. Many of these unlicensed food sellers and their crafts and jewelry counterparts often pay off scouts to give them advance warning of a coming bust. I’ve seen an entire small bridge or underpass market sweep up its hundreds of wares into large blankets and scatter within 40-seconds only a few minutes before the cheng guan arrive in, but tonight the spotters were MIA.

Silently and quickly crack bbq busters each sprinted to a stand, reached down and jerked the cheap aluminum metal trays of burning coals from under the grills and spilled the glowing embers on the sidewalk. They charged back to the idling van clutching the trays, tossed them inside and - wheels screeching as the driver ground his gears - left as quickly as they had struck.

Mission accomplished. Chalk up three unlicensed bbq stands that wouldn't be threatening Beijing society anymore - or would they?

Except for a profound "holy f*ck" from me and a "did you bloody see that, mate?" from Jeff no one else said a word before, during or after the raid - except for one cook who appeared to be asking someone where he could find a new tray for his coals. The bbq stand owners simply swept the remaining burning coals into individual piles, found new trays (another griller had a stash in a garbage bag, apparently for just such emergencies), shoveled the coals on them and resumed grilling.

Fifteen minutes later the same van pulled up from the opposite direction and the boys in blue repeated their work. As before, the owners stood by, waited until the coals were dumped and the van left, swept up the burning debris, found new trays and kept on smokin'.

Another 20 minutes passed and the mobile bbq prevention squad struck once more with the same results.

Jeff and I were - as the Brits say - gobsmacked and also amused at the charade. Emboldened by Tsingtao courage, we had loudly booed the blue meanies and flipped them off as they ran to their van clutching the illicit trays in their government-issued oven mitts for the third time in 45 minutes, but no one else even seemed to notice or much care.

"I'd hate to see those guys take down a crack house or meth lab," I remarked. Everyone else around us simply continued cooking, eating and gabbing. Just another small nightly ritual drama in which everyone from the BBQ Strike Force to the vendors and customers knew their roles and performed them flawlessly.

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