‘Stickman’ army battles for living

By Shascha Matusak, South China Morning Post, Tuesday 20 March 2001

Hong Ho has had another bad day. Although he wanders the streets of Chongqing in Sichuan province with his occupation slung across his shoulder for all to see, he is hardly noticed and no one calls out to him.

Mr Hong is a stickman, one of the countless shabbily dressed men in and around the municipality looking for a way to make extra money. The stickmen—or bang-bang in the local dialect—are easily distinguished by their bamboo poles with which they carry anything they can, for whomever they can, for a couple of yuan a trip.

On a very good day, bang-bang can make as much as 50 yuan (about HK$47); on a bad day, just seven yuan or less. Mr Hong is originally from He Cuan, a middle-sized town within the Chongqing municipality. Like most bang-bang, he has a plot of farmland in his hometown to which he returns during busy seasons, especially harvest time.

He has not been back in more than six months. He passes the day walking the streets and smoking cigarettes, waiting for someone to yell bang-bang, signalling a chance to make some money.

Chongqing is a city of hills. Most neighbourhoods are divided into lower and upper halves of a ridge; the city proper has an average difference in altitude of 50 metres. Temperatures can easily reach 40 degrees Celsius in the summer. These features helped make Chongqing the birthplace of stickmen and the city in which they are most likely to be found. Literally hundreds of bang-bang can be seen walking the streets, sitting on benches or chatting in pairs. They are such an integral part of society that they are featured in a popular drinking game and were once the theme of a local comedy show.

The municipal Government commissioned a study: An Investigation of the Mountain City's Stickman Army in 1999. Three hundred questionnaires were handed out asking about monthly income, living costs, living arrangements and thoughts on city life.

Rooms rented out to bang-bang can be divided into several categories ranging from bamboo shacks unable to keep out the rain to abandoned rooms on the outskirts of town, according to the study. Almost 60 per cent of the bang-bang make do with one or two square metres of living space.

By late afternoon, Xiao Gaoming, Jiang Tianming and Xiao Chunbo have been walking the streets of Beibei, a northern suburb of Chongqing, since 6am and have nothing to show for it. They are all from Guang An and are quick to point out their town is the birthplace of the late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. When night comes, they will rent a room for one or two yuan.

The men from Guang An estimate their average daily income at between seven yuan and 10 yuan. The study's lowest estimate for monthly living costs, including lodging, meals, cigarettes and transportation, is 260 yuan. With a smattering of busy days, the bang-bang can realistically earn between 80 and 100 yuan a week.

To a Sichuan peasant, whose monthly income is no more than 500 yuan, this is reason enough to leave the fields for a few months. Many of the men have been working in the city for several years.

Being a bang-bang also provides job security, of sorts. Bang-bang do not have bosses, they work when they can, and there is always something to carry. The only limitation is their physical strength. There are also bang-bang nicknamed amphibious, who possess a skill such as carpentry or bricklaying and can work at a construction site until that job ends, then roam the streets until another job pops up.

In the west of China, unemployment is high and wages are low. Liao Fangcuan makes 25 yuan a day hammering away at concrete for eight hours. When that job is done, he goes to the post office and searches the notice board for another job. Mr Hong, on the other hand, can return to Beibei after working on the farm and be a bang-bang.

Last year, President Jiang Zemin formally announced the Government's aim to develop the western region. The Go West campaign has turned the western provinces into extended construction sites. But despite constant construction and a vast supply of able-bodied men, the western region lags the east in almost every aspect of development.

Industry in the west is primarily agriculture and resource based. For decades, the west has supplied China with cheap raw materials. Many of the businesses are inefficient state-owned enterprises. For example, in Chongqing, 69 per cent of the economy is state owned and 72 per cent of enterprises are loss generating. Sichuan is actively seeking foreign investment in the city's infrastructure and hi-tech industries.

The 10th Five-Year Plan for Chongqing's economic development emphasises the establishment of hi-tech industry and the restructuring of existing industries. At a recent meeting for foreign businessmen and women in Chongqing, Mayor Bao Xuding detailed plans to make the Chongqing market easily accessible to foreign businesses, including a northern industrial sector with favourable tax policies. The city recently abolished thousands of local trade regulations and fees in order to encourage further foreign investment.

But the mayor's plans are as far removed from the stickmen as Sichuan is from Beijing, where the ideas originated. Only 52.5 per cent of the population in the west has completed the nine years of compulsory education, compared with more than 97 per cent in the east and 89 per cent in the central regions, according a research paper produced by the Natural Science Department of Southwest Normal University.

Xiao Gaoming, Jiang Tianming and Xiao Chunbo are among the 47.5 per cent who have not completed the full period of education. Of the 300 bang-bang surveyed in the government study, only six had completed the full nine years. Most are barely literate and speak a thick Sichuan dialect.

The municipal Government sees labour as a main resource and hopes to incorporate stickmen into the emerging economy by reforming education.

The current Five-Year Plan calls for an increase in higher-education enrolments to 15 per cent from 12 per cent along with an increase in professional and skills-based schools for middle-aged people. Ten are to be opened within the next five years. Primary-school students will receive added government support so as to create a new generation of skilled workers for the New Economy.

But in the meantime, the stickmen will continue to ply their trade.