Travel Writing Awards Entry

Like most cities in China, an enormous statue of Chairman Mao presides over the main square of Zhongwei. Mao’s gaze carries across the square, down a side street that has evaded the dedicated efforts of street-sweepers, to the smoking, sizzling centre of Zhongwei: the night market.

The potholed tarmac is crowded with hawkers. Their raucous enticements compete with the shrill commands of bicycle bells. Pop songs blare from low doorways festooned with cheap fashions and well-dressed girls seeking a bargain. Further down from the fashions are the stalls of fruit and belts, an incongruous but eye-catching landmark.

Behind these stalls and through a gateway is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and concrete walkways bridging overhead. Stalls cram under grubby tarpaulins stained with charcoal smoke and cooking fat.

Woks sizzle, steam rises, and vendors’ reddened faces glow in the half-light. Diners hunch over bowls of noodles, chopsticks aloft between bowl and mouth. Everyone sits on low benches as if honouring their chef.

A young woman at her Tsing Tao beer stall entertains a bevy of young admirers against a backdrop of green bottles. She smiles coyly and fluffs her perm. Handing us beers, she turns her attention back to the boys.

The uneven market paving is greasy and we take slippery side steps to avoid the oncoming motos that are half-ridden, half-walked through the narrow aisles. Most have plastic bags hanging from their handles: tonight’s takeaway.

Turning the first corner we spot Our Lady. With her red cheeks and toothy laughs she’s as much of a reason to stop at her stall as her ‘beef burgers’. Calling out to her husband who shyly opens our bottles of beer, Our Lady reaches into the cupboard below her stove and produces handfuls of raw meat. Wielding cleaver and bowl, then wok and spoon, Our Lady’s fare is chilli-infused fast food.

Like the other vendors she protects her skin with long sleeves, but her hands betray her efforts. Nearby an old woman washes dirty dishes while her younger companion jokes with their diners. Another crouches to stoke a charcoal stove, summoning a passerby with a wave and a laugh.

These hardworking women are as much the quintessential Chinese woman as their diminutive soft skinned sisters who expertly negotiate the slippery pavers in high heels.

Metallic scraping signals our meal is ready. Our Lady scrapes chilli beef into pita breads and proudly presents them to us. Roasting mouthfuls washed down with lukewarm lager: culinary heaven.

For second course we delve further into the market and Zhongwei’s own Gang of Four accosts us. A quartet of energetic children bound around, knocking into people and shrieking, “Hello! Hello!” They belong to The Dumpling Woman and her neighbouring vendor.

The Dumpling Woman is unusually tall and oversees proceedings with stern looks and staccato commands, no dumpling-like twinkles from her. Her worn hands swiftly fold and place the white crescents side by side in a large metal steamer. She closes the lid with a heavy clunk and a fierce glare to ward off impatient diners.

Over our second course, between interjections from chirping children, my friends talk about a new internet café that has opened near Mao’s square. Zhongwei is abuzz: it has more than one hundred terminals and is open 24 hours a day.

A few hundred metres from where we sit amidst fiery woks, chilli vapours and flickering charcoal stoves, groups of Chinese teenagers sit in a darkened room. Cigarette smoke curls from their fingers and luminous reflections light their faces. Will this modern attraction draw people away from their traditional meeting places: Mao’s square, the shopping street, the night market?

Perhaps, but I doubt modernity will have an outright victory. As much as we need entertainment, a shared smile and a joke across steaming bowls of food are much more satisfying.