My first friend is the soymilk seller. She spots me as an outsider immediately when we meet on the busy market.
Soymilk is sold alongside a very special, doughy fried bread. The vendor invites me to sit behind her stall and tells me about how she misses her school friends back in Hubei. She laments about missing the innocence of school, of uncomplicated friends and foes and contrasts it with her professional relationship with other competitive stallholders.
Time is money and people queue up for soymilk whilst we chat. She asks me to help out and jokingly introduces me as her soymilk intern to her regular customers. I’m told off for not putting enough sugar in her fresh soya pulp.
My friend tells me about her childhood growing up with her parents constantly away on business. At the age of 21, she’s already left home to join her parents in the new culinary venture. Her father is strict about professional food hygiene and her mother teaches her about being streetwise. Her husband is in charge of making their famous bread.
She got married a 2 years ago. Her mother-in-law looks after her 9-month-old daughter. The stall opens from 06:00-23:00, which means that she has to wake up at 03:00 and sleep at 00:00. Lunch time is a precious time for a nap. In the last couple of my visits, she is forced to close shop early to feed in order to home-medicate her sick baby.
The soymilk girl takes lunch on another street, to deter jealousy from her competitive neighbours. Out of everyone’s earshot, she tells me about local gossip and vendor’s quarrels. It seems to be a dog-eat-dog world, and most vendors are nomads that travel to follow where their business goes. She reflects on seeing her fellow stallholders coming and going.
“You know that when they leave, you’ll never meet them again. It makes me quite sad thinking about them, despite our differences. Someday when business gets bad, we’ll leave too. This place and its people will feel just like a dream.”
We sit for a hotpot that’s called a “hot, spicy boil” with complete strangers. I get pushed into trying pig blood tofu, which looks exactly as it sounds but tastes rather tender. The chef complained about his customers in his local Hubei dialect, only to be understood by my friend. Most of the holders are couples and daily grumbles are a part of the parcel.
We walk past her friend selling barbecued meats. She grabs us two chicken skewers and exchanges the latest local market news with the owner. No interaction occurs without the soymilk business in mind. Literally her daily bread.
Time to be back on her stall, her mother’s looking after the shifts like clockwork. Our rush is interrupted by someone cycling a baby in a basket. Business hats melt away as girls start cooing. A baby boom’s coming to town.