Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Elena & Costica, Alexandru neighbourhood, Iaşi

During Communist times, Elena and Costica worked in a textile factory. Elena did the bookkeeping and Costica supervised the machinery. Post-1989, the textile market dropped off and the factory restructured. At this point, they started their own business and have been going for about 15 years.

Elena has strong opinions about respecting her customers. She provides good quality, branded products, within their sell-by dates, at reasonable prices to residents of the Minerva Esplanada in the Alexandru neighbourhood of Iaşi. Elena buys her goods from local wholesale centres called Siraj and Metro, which operate a card-based membership scheme similar to the UK’s Makro. She’s got a lock-up nearby to store what doesn’t fit in the kiosk. Many customers are elderly and can’t get to the larger supermarkets so need to shop locally.

The kiosk sells a little bit of everything – daily items such as cigarettes, soft drinks, toiletries as well as items you might perhaps run out of, like cornflour (an ingredient for mămăliga, one of Romania’s staple foods – a delicious mix of corn meal, often served with sheep’s cheese and sour cream), oil, rice, coffee, nappies, hosiery, batteries and make-up. If a customer asks Elena to get something particular, for example men’s vests, she will do her best to buy it for them.

Elena has strong relationships with her customers. A few are ex-colleagues or family friends. Many she has known for years, such as 17-year old Cătalină who she saw as a baby, used to sell sweets to as a child, and now sells hair dye to as a teenager. Many customers buy from her daily, such as Constantin who buys a pack of Monte Carlo cigarettes each day. Others, such as 5-year old Matei just pop in to see the dog and maybe get his Mum to buy a pack of puffed corn.

Elena and Costica share the workload, taking turns to sit in their chilly kiosk at street level or to warm up in their cosy flat, five storeys above. They intend to open over Christmas and the New Year. As their only son is working in the UK, and will visit them at Easter, they’ll capitalise on the festive season and stay open while surrounding shops are closed. 

We met Elena on our first day in Iasi, created a photo album of her and her customers, and had dinner with her and her friends on our last night.

Maria & Ion Ocâ's dairy, Iaşi

Maria’s grandparents lived in this house, before she and her husband Ion took over the smallholding, in a countryside village about 15 minutes drive from Iaşi.

Maria has delivered handmade cheese, cream and occasionally milk to nine customers’ homes in the Tataraşi, every 10 days or so, for the past 40 years. Some of the older people died and now she delivers to their descendants. She delivered these products throughout the communist era, outside the state’s rationing system of the 1980s: a small-scale, subsistence ‘black market’.

Maria learnt to make cheese from her grandmother, who also used to make butter. “She’d put the butter on a plate and make it round like a haystack and then take the spoon and make all sorts of patterns. People bought it by the 100gms. Both my mother and my grandmother used to go market. And I used to go with them to the market. Now I sell at the market. I sell whatever we have, beans, corn, in summer we sell vegetables from the garden. In the market, customers look at the way we look, how clean our hands are, how clean our apron is, what the basket looks like, how white the cheesecloth is. They look and then they choose whom to buy from.”

Some years Maria sells wine, but this year she’s putting it aside as her son is getting married this coming summer. They sell homemade plum brandy. They have various fowl, goats, sheep, cows, horses, honeybees and a dappled, snorting pig, which is being fattened up for Christmas.

We were talking in Maria’s back room of her house, when she flung open the doors of a cupboard to reveal her cheese-to-be. Each day she milks the cows and stores the milk in these earthenware jars. The jars were made by Roma pottery makers, who used to come around and sell at the door, but they don’t come anymore, so when Maria breaks a pot, she can’t replace it.

“If both shelves are full of pots, then I know I have enough for all of my customers. It takes about a week or ten days to fill up both shelves. The cream rises to the top. And then it has to sit and curdle because you can’t put fresh milk into cheese. The milk curdles and you separate that out and make the cheese with it. You warm it up on the stove and you put it in cheesecloth and leave it to strain, leave it dripping until it is dense.”

Titi's Kiosk, Copou, Iaşi

For the last ten years, Titi (short for Constantin) has framed the world, his customers and his commerce through the window of his kiosk on the busy Carol I Blvd, surrounded by the university buildings of the Copou neighbourhood of Iaşi. Watching taxi drivers jostle for parking spaces and streams of students flood by, he sells newspapers, magazines, stationery, tissues and other convenience items.

Some university professors have been customers for many years. They have Titi’s mobile number and might ring, even quite late at night if they’ve just seen a book or magazine ad on the telly, to ask him to keep a particular publication aside for them the next morning, which Titi stows away on the shelf below the counter or the shelf above the window.

The outside of the kiosk is covered in a scaly skin of magazines, with the semi-dark interior lit by artificial light. An electric heater keeps Titi and his wife Elena warm in the bitter cold of winter, when temperatures can drop too -15 C. On chilly days, the window is opened only when customers approach. Elena opens the kiosk at 6am every morning. Titi takes over at about 10.30 and works through to around 9 at night, earlier at weekends or during the college holidays. Last year, they took their first break in nine years, a month-long road trip around the mountains of Romania with their son and his fiancée.

As most kiosks in Iaşi have now been consolidated into companies, sometimes Titi himself wonders how he’s managed to stay independent. Mainly due to his active lobbying of City Hall, he’s been successful in renewing the 6-month lease of his 3m x 1.5m pavement pitch. City Hall has decreed that all kiosks must conform to a standard design so in March 2009, Titi and Elena’s existing kiosk will be transported to his back garden and used to store tools. In its place, they’ll install a new double-glazed design, which they have commissioned to conform to planning regulations.

Titi’s previous career was as an electrical engineer on the railways. After restructuring, he was offered early retirement aged 50.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Supermarkets, Iaşi

Every week or two, most people in Iaşi will find the latest Supermarket catalogue stuffed in to their post box, whether they want one or not. On a 7-14 day cycle, the big retailers publish these free magazines to advertise their latest prices and promotion, like the 2+1 free offer on the cover of Carrefour’s mid-Nov edition. The frequency of the publication reflects the big retailers strategy to shape consumer behaviour: they are trying to educate people to visit the supermarkets more often, because the frequent user will always buy more monthly.

Several people related how much they enjoy researching prices. It’s a process similar to that employed by the back-office staff at Carrefour, who monitor the sector from a large magazine wall rack filled with competitors catalogues. People look through their catalogues comparing merchandise and prices, then share the information with friends and neighbours, before choosing to buy the cheaper one. Although sometimes, and this is corroborated by TV and newspaper reports, when they get to the cashier to pay they discover that the price is higher than that advertised. 

Since Supermarkets arrived in 2003, the big retailers have used these catalogues, loyalty card schemes, allied to media advertising, to help establish a firm grip on the market that not long ago was dominated by small neighbourhood shops and markets.

If we are to believe some local research (, more than 67% of consumers get more than 50% of their day-to-day goods from big retailers. Of these, Carrefour has 28% market share, other big retailers (Kaufland, Billa, G’Market, Metro, Selgros) have 38% of the total market, the small neighbourhood shops have 33% and another 3% come from the traditional markets. Since this research was conducted, the 2nd Carrefour in Pacaurari has opened, probably eating a little more into the 36% share controlled by the small shops and markets.

Markets, Iaşi

We happened upon Constantin Gherasim one Sunday morning at the neighbourhood market in Alexandru, one of several municipal open markets. A Romanian Orthodox Byzantine Chant, from the towers of a newly built local church, drifted over the marketplace as he told us about his choice of purchase and why he shops there. He’d bought potatoes at 1RON per kg (about 25p) and impressed upon us his preference for the Romanian cartofi that filled his bag. He believes them to be ‘healthier, more natural’ than those imported from countries abroad, like Turkey. 

“I really know about potatoes,” he declared. We learnt that he managed their production when he worked as an economist and accountant at the large Sarca Farm, outside of the city. “Our soil is not so polluted, we don’t use too many chemical fertilizers,” he says. "I know everything that goes into the process and what should come out … it’s not quantity of produce that counts, but quality.”

Alexandru Market, like it’s counterparts elsewhere in the city - Nicolina, Tatarasi, and Halle Central - has existed since the communist-era. These are Iaşi’s traditional marketplaces based on a local agricultural economy, and currently offering low-cost seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and dairy products, fish, and other local produce.

We sampled herbs and mushrooms handpicked from the forest, fields or roadside; raw and freshly pickled vegetables from 50 litre barrels; sheep cheese, cow cheese, milk, meat, honey and nuts; a majority of which came direct from the producer.

A cheese farmer, like Samica Gangal here at Halle Centrale, would perhaps make 1,200kg of cheese every summer at her countryside farm before selling it in Iaşi for 18 RON per kg.

The growth of Iaşi’s Fast Moving Consumer Goods sector (Supermarkets) has impacted the marketplaces’ popularity over the last couple of years. Despite this, many people we spoke with echoed Constantin’s loyality to the markets, preferring the natural produce, which basically translates as organic.

Constantin also thinks people ought to buy from there to encourage local production. “Why import when we have perfectly good or better products of our own”. To this end, he intends to start an organic honey farm and sell his produce at the market.

He was amongst the 60-70 customers we interviewed at the municipal markets (plus a similar number at supermarkets) to develop a publication called Cumpărături Alese, or Hand-Picked. It’s a (supermarket style) brochure comparing the motivation behind people’s choice at the markets and the supermarkets.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Customer Care, Iaşi

Stop and think of a shop you care about? In some research conducted in different neighbourhoods, we invited passers-by to consider this question. Over four days, on the streets of Alexandru, Copou, Pacurai and Tataraşi, we asked people to tell us about a shop that they care about, and talk about the reasons why they felt a ‘bond’. Bonds, we thought, are often made in particular circumstances – a shop may have helped them through hard times, or fits conveniently into their daily routine, or represents something culturally significant they feel needs supporting in the city's changing economic environment.

Through this research, we wanted to better understand how locals felt about the city’s evolving shopping landscape, and potentially find a lead to a shop (or context) that we could develop a project with.

“I care for Carrefour/Kaufland/Billa …”, was (un)surprisingly, a popular initial response.

Supermarkets are a recent phenomenon in Iaşi, which perhaps offers some explanation for people’s enthusiasm. Billa was the first to arrive 5 years ago, followed by three Kaufland stores, one G-Market, and two Carrefour’s – including the new development pictured here in Pacauri, on the periphery of the city.

Lower prices, convenience and better quality were often cited as reasons why people care for Carrefour and their competitors over more local stores. “I don’t trust local shops so much, because of the quality of the products. The big stores are better,” explained Constantin, a retired factory worker.

Below the surface of this initial response we heard talk suggesting a deeper truth. Our friend Alexandru told us that even if it has been some time since 1989 revolution, people are still affected by it. He said there is a kind of euphoria when you have a choice. “In communist times there was just one type of yoghurt, one type of bread, one type of butter. But now we can choose whatever we like. Consuming things is a calming activity for people. We like it.”

People really value the idea of consumerism, and the power of consumerism is all too evident from the myriad of choice on the supermarket shelves. “You can find everything… now we have access to all kinds of products”, echoed Constantin. For some, just having access is enough: “I even enjoy going to Carrefour, even when I don’t buy things”, a woman in Tataraşi told us.

We met a construction engineer called Carmen who lives in the quiet suburb of Copou. She doesn’t necessarily agree with the shopping culture promoted by the supermarkets. Despite using them from time-to-time when pushed for time, she thinks places like Carrefour and Kaufland, “sell people products they don’t need”.

When she does have the time though, one place she really loves to go is the clothes shop, BSB. It’s on the second floor of the recently-renovated Moldova Mall, a former socialist Supermagazin in the city centre. “They have the type of clothes I prefer - modern, with my favourite colours.” She visits maybe once a month, not to buy, but to browse and rummage for inspiration. “I don’t have a lot of money so I make my own clothes. I go to see the trends.”

Lucica Popovici also lives in Copou. She prefers to get her milk, eggs, cheese and wine from the Moirei family house – pictured above. She’s been buying from her neighbours for 20 years. “I have my people,” she told us. “They keep cows and chickens at the back of their house, so everything is fresh compared to buying them in a store. I can also buy on credit”. The table in the gateway at the front of the house functions as the counter. We’re told this kind of domestic economy is limited to the minority garden suburbs, with around 80% of Iaşian’s living in urban apartment blocks. It established itself as a way of supplementing food tokens and cash in communist times, and as such remains popular with older generations, but less so with younger. Lucica says she’s also part of an informal network where people from nearby villages come and sell their produce door-to-door, and is a big fan of Alexandru Market.

Lucian is a university graduate whose life wouldn’t be the same without the bike shop near the train station. He goes there to buy equipment and get his bike serviced and repaired by their mechanic, who he now counts as a friend. Like him, the staff are fanatics, and they organise cycling tours through Iaşi’s hills.

Sinziana Moldoveanu declares her care for homeware specialists Bamboo:

Radu Vâscu particularly likes Zara at Julius Mall, a large, new and relatively up-market development near the university campus, because ‘it combines pleasure and utility’.

"Julius Mall is something beautiful. It’s more beautiful than other shops”, we were told by Ionut, a little later in the day. He likes Versace (on the 1st floor), but Armani is his favourite. “When I come back from work abroad that’s where I go… It doesn’t matter that the prices are high, the quality is the best!”

Two people spoke of their own shops. Eugen set up his secondhand clothes shop in the Galata neighbourhood 6 months ago, and he cares about it because it is ‘for his children’. Elena has run a kiosk for 15 years on the Alexandru Esplanada. She buys good quality produce from Cash & Carrys – Selgros, Metro, Siraj – and from supermarkets, which is then bought by local people, including those who are old or infirm and unable to travel to the supermarkets. In that sense she cares about the suppliers, but also cares about all those she serves.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Kiosks, Iaşi

Small, compact, and a dominant feature of Iasi’s current shopping landscape, Kiosks began to appear post-Ceaucescu, mostly as individual enterprises. Now there are hundreds on the streets throughout the city – selling everything from newspapers, tobacco, and fruit & veg to a variety of what some consider to be ‘low quality merchandise’. Usually, there is one person seated inside amongst the merchandise, though it’s really tough to get to see who it is you are actually buying from. We heard ownership has been consolidated, with some people owning several units city wide, with the proprietor driving round to pick up the daily takings from the hired help. Many want to see these Kiosks rationalised or removed.

The small serving hatch has a lockable window to help keep out the cold, whilst minimising buyer /seller eye contact. The design seems to be consistent throughout the Kiosk phenomena’s brief history. Apparently this Kiosk dates from the late 1990s…

this one from the early 2000s…

and this from the mid-1990s

Maternity Hospital 'Magazin', Iaşi

Across the street from the 1960s block that houses our small two-room city centre apartment is Iasi’s central maternity hospital. Alex, our friend, is one of the many thousands whose life has begun across the way, with additions to this city’s growing 400,000+ population arriving everyday.

From our kitchen window, we see the main entrance through which passes a steady flow of admissions and departures with new born, and a small shop, or ‘magazin’.

A shop! Right before our very eyes and over our morning coffee, an impromptu community of patients, visitors and staff queue to buy their preferred brand of cigarette, soft drink, or snack.

A sub-group of this hospital community that are particularly eye-catching are the mothers and mothers to be, wrapped up against the winter chill in brightly coloured dressing gowns that are in stark contrast to the milky morning light.

There’s fluorescent green, followed by peach …

then pink…

blue …

peach again ...

a green and red concoction ...

and scarlet ...

Friday, 30 May 2008

Pork Stalls, #13, Shipai Village market, Guangzhou

Lin Ye Te and Su Gu Zhen are pork butchers in Shipai, an ‘urban’ village swallowed up by Guangzhou’s expansion 20 years ago. Many residents are transient, low-income workers from other parts of China who rent apartments from original villagers who now live in nicer parts of the city. At Y550 (£40) per month for a small one-bedroom flat, rents are not cheap.

We’d heard talk about how the price of pork is a big issue for people, especially for those on low incomes like in Shipai. We were told that pork is an important staple resource with pricing under daily government control. Leaving the price open to the market could lead to sharp inflation and make pork more expensive in remote parts of China, where people are often on low incomes. Despite this regulation, the price has rocketed, doubling in the last year, in part due to an outbreak of disease and a subsequent cull, and rising oil prices upping transportation costs. The prices are not as high today as they have been, but are still higher than before the disease struck.

The butchers helped us start a process documenting people up and down the pork supply chain, and ask about the impact the price rise has had on their daily lives. They themselves work most hours of the day and are paying to put their son through University. They introduced us to their customers and suppliers.

Lin Ye Te took us on his nightly visit to ‘The New Pigs Wholesale Market’ on the edge of the city. He bought two live pigs at Y10 per half kilo from a wholesaler who brought the pigs down from Hunan province; one weighing 135, the other 115 kilos; before going home for a few hours sleep. A private food company collects the pigs, delivers them to a government abattoir where they are killed, health tested, cut it in half and stamped (or not) as fit for human consumption. The butcher pays Y80 per pig for this service. The private food company then delivers the pig halves by van to the village gates.

The butchers employ a man with a motorbike to collect the pig carcasses from the gates and transport it through the narrow walkways of the village to their stall in the central market. Lin Ye Te cuts up the carcass into different parts of the animal and throws the meat onto the stall. Su Gu Zhen and their employees cut the meat further into smaller portions and cuts, to sell to customers. General pork cuts are sold for Y14 for half a kilo. Choice cuts, like the heart, are sold for Y28 per half kilo. From wholesale to cooking pot takes less than 8 hours.

Slow Shop, Guangzhou

Slow Shop, tucked away on the 5th floor of a Mall by Martyrs Park metro station, is an enterprise run by designer/photographer, Ya Ya Qiu. Friends introduced us to Slow because it represents two things relatively new in contemporary China, an independent brand with an entrepreneurial spirit; ‘Take your time, it’s your life’ reads the maxim on her business card.

Ya Ya divides her time everyday between the shop, designing at home, and visiting local factories discussing production. Selling clothes, accessories, soft furnishings, home wares, gifts etc… roughly 80% of the products in the shop are her design and made locally, with the remainder produced by other young local designers.

One of the things she wants to bring to the public is an appreciation of Chinese characters, by putting them on clothing – rather than English-language slogans and brands – and for the characters to be seen as modern, desirable and up to date. She’s also making and exhibiting sustainable shopping bags to cut down on plastic. Her business started 3 years ago and she’s soon to open a new branch in Beijing

Guan Han Ji & Xiao Wang Qi, NanTing village

Guan and Xiao have run their grocery in a backstreet of the village for 25 years now. They live in the rooms behind the shop, but used to live in a house in a neighbouring village until that village was one of the many demolished in 2004 to make way for the construction of eight new university campuses known as Guangzhou's ‘University City’.

Completed within 8 months, University City brought an influx of jobs and money to NanTing. Many new shops and restaurants opened on the outer edges of the village to cater for the huge new student population. Not many students take a walk down Guan and Xiao’s street though, so commerce there has stagnated. Now, the scales are rusty and the shelves are relatively bare; packets of noodles, cigarettes, alcohol, soft drinks, household products are sold to their friends and neighbours. The odd bottle of quality spirits gathers dust. Xiao says before University City, they opened all day every day and had a busy pool hall on the 1st floor. Now she opens up 8am to midday and 5pm to 11pm. Afternoons are spent weeding a local farmer’s fields because she can earn more money that way. Similarly, Guan delivers gas cylinders throughout the village.

They host card games most evenings in front of their shop. Xiao told us they no longer pay for a license to trade and nobody cares to ask, so they carry on regardless. Despite the new prosperity in the village, many locals, like Guan and Xiao, resent the fact they lost their homes without adequate compensation. There is still a refugee camp close by that continues the protest and attempts to prevent the planned destruction of a temple. A friend of ours says that NanTing is threatened too, with plans to build a huge shopping centre on the land.

International Traders, Guangzhou

Guangzhou is known in the import/export trade as an end selling point. Traders from all over the world come to buy wholesale products produced all over China, which eventually find their way to places like Guangzhou’s Yide International Exquisite Toy and Stationery Square, where we met Craig and Clem Eady. This father and son team run a wholesale business in Brisbane, established for 35 years and supplying about 150 clients back in Queensland, Australia. They are here for toys, army surplus, hardware and knives. “If you can find that factory somewhere in China or even in the back streets here, you can buy exceptionally well, but all the way down to Guangzhou, it will get dearer. And here, at the endpoint, it’s the dearest.”

We interviewed Craig, Clem and dozens of other traders from the five continents on video, asking about their relationship with Guangzhou, the sellers, and other traders they may encounter. Traders come because they believe this city has the cheapest products available in the world. On this 2-3 week visit Craig and Clem will spend around A$100,000 (650,000RMB). They visit 3 times a year and have been coming here for 8 years. Before Guangzhou, they used to buy in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

They tend to use the same sellers each year – regular customers should get a better price - until the seller does the wrong thing; like supply the wrong goods/quality, change the price, or leave goods behind so they miss the ship and have to be sent by plane instead (400 times dearer than ship). Clem says they will still pop in when there in town but and say “hello” – one of the few Chinese words that they know, other phrases being “too high”, “too low”, “how much”, “how many” – but won’t buy from them again.

They say a lot of the Chinese they deal with speak some English, plus they have help from interpreters and guides. But even when they’re doing business with the sellers that don’t speak a word, they can find a way to understand, such as negotiating price through the use of calculators.

Even though the community of traders is fragmented in time and place (and at times secretive), there are odd occasions when the network connects to exchange tips. Craig and Clem have only ever met one other Australian, but do bump into Americans - who usually get the better prices because they buy the largest amounts - and often put them on to things. Germans too! Because they are not competitors, it’s no skin off their nose. Craig remembers having a quick chat with a Middle Eastern guy at an airport baggage collection. Next minute the guy was on his laptop and getting him the address of a factory somewhere in China, which he said, has very good products at a very good price.

Wang Lin, Clothing Manufacturer & Wholesaler, Guangzhou

Here is Wang Lin, general manager of Anna V (Anna Victoria) clothing, in his central Guangzhou office, showing off his pick of this seasons collection made in his factory outside of the city. His office is on the 6th floor of a huge building hosting hundreds clothing wholesalers, attracting buyers from all over China and the world.

It’s a family business, set up by his relatives in Taiwan. We met his wife, who was asleep at her desk when we walked in. His children help out at the factory when they are not in school. He made us tea, and we sat and chatted about his business; how it isn’t as good as it was and his strong sense of business ethics.

Anna V is their own Womenswear brand, with a new collection for each season – four times a year. They don’t have a designer; they just work things out for themselves. They don’t do fakes/rip-offs and they do pay taxes. His business operates almost entirely with returning, loyal customers. Sometimes his good customers, such as one Japanese man, drop in for tea three times a week when they are in town. Other clients come from Italy, USA, Iran, Iraq and Spain to name a few. The company also has a website and accepts orders direct to the factory through that.

They used to have a retail unit downstairs, but that became too expensive so now they only operate from this upstairs office. Wang Lin used to be able to manufacture and sell 1,000 units of each design in his seasonal collections, but now he says he can only sell 200 of each. He says he doesn’t make much money, as he has to pay his workers first. He employs 200 people at his factory.

He believes in doing business honestly and taking a long-term view. Trust, friendship and responsibility are the backbone of a business he wants to run like a family, and his family are happy. Rather than the short-term manufacture of fakes, which he believes is a non-sustainable business, he wants to build something lasting, to pass on to his children.

Wholesale Porters, Guangzhou

Q011 is one of a 65 strong team of porters serving the massive clothing wholesale marketplace, Zhanxi Plaza; one of dozens of wholesale zones in Guangzhou trading clothes, fabrics, electronics, shoes, gifts, toys, clocks, watches, etc, each of which has its own dedicated team. These men – mostly migrant workers from outside Guangzhou – are a vital link in the despatch of goods throughout China and worldwide. They wanted us to take photographs of them, then we asked them if we could arrange to take a photograph of all of them all together and interview them about where they came from. After permission from their manager, they agreed to gather at 8.30 one morning. When we arrived, we were unceremoniously ignored. Apparently the porters had been instructed by their manager ‘not to talk to the foreigners’ for fear of participating in something that could end up illustrating a derogatory story about China, on the front page of a western newspaper. With the Olympics coming up, we were too hot to handle.

Secondhand clothes sellers, NanTing village

Tradition, we were told, dictates that secondhand clothes are not worn in China, because people like everything to be ‘new’ and not tainted with the lives of others – same is true of furniture apparently (unless it’s a valued antique).

Hu Xiang Qian (second from right) and some fellow recent graduates from the nearby Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, have gone against the grain and set up business flogging ‘dead mans stuff’ so they can earn money to develop their art careers independently without relying on selling their work through China’s rampant art market.

Painted with Italian tricolor because Qian loves an Italian girl, and situated on the village’s tight main street amongst many other new, trendy, student-orientated shops, the shop opened for business on the first weekend of our stay. They sell t-shirts (for 20-30Yuan, £1.50-£2), shirts, hats and jeans - imported from Thailand and bought in bulk - mostly good quality, quirky stuff, with an ‘almost new’ feel. They helped us by hosting an installation of a photo project on the outside wall of their shop.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Camelôs, Rua 25 de março, São Paulo

Pictured here (left to right) are Dener, his father-in-law and wife Simone. They’ve been selling replica designer t-shirts, retail and wholesale, from this regular pitch for 5 years. They are amongst the thousands of ‘camelôs’ (informal traders) working around Rua 25 de março; an extraordinary daily commercial battleground where thousands of Paulistas and visitors to São Paulo come for a bargain.

The father-in-law is not looking at the camera because he’s heard the call ‘o rapa’ and seen the oncoming Metropolitan Police. Background left, fellow traders who’ve also heard the call, begin to scoop up their stock into large bags. Seconds later, Dener quickly gathers all their stuff into their big denim bag (on the right), slings it over his shoulder and walks off.

This situation plays itself out every 10-15 minutes. The “o rapa” is called by the Camelôs to warn their fellow traders of the threat posed by police patrolling the street. A pair or a group of police take a slow walk down the street, prompting every Camelôs and their stock to disappear from view. A few minutes later, when the Police themselves have disappeared, traders return to their pitch. As our friend Tulio describes it, its like Moses parting the sea. Except, the police are not quite so benevolent. If the Camelôs are not quick enough, they risk their stock and equipment being confiscated (and appropriated by various government departments we are told), and ultimately, arrest.

Trading on the street begins about 3-4am, 6 days a week. We learnt from a man selling belts that Camelôs can sell in relative peace from 6-8am, without police interruption. Otherwise, the city’s policy is to use a consistent show of force to control and, it seems, eventually eradicate informal trade on this street. Everyday ends with a big 'o rapa' at around 4pm, when a flood of police and city trading officials prompts a mass exodus. The 'big one' started at the moment we where taking this photograph, so we were not able to get a picture with everyone’s full attention.

Dener and his family love what they do. He says they love the excitement, the community, the people, and the trade. They respect that the police have a job to do; even though they’ve had their stuff confiscated more times than they can remember. But they make a good living, R$100 profit most days. Earning more than when he was a civil servant in a youth prison, or when he worked on the armoured van cash deliveries/collections.

With their help we arranged some short, in-situ performances and photo/video shoots with their customers, and those of fellow traders up and down the street.

Not everyone seemed as comfortable with the police pressure, especially those who had lived in São Paulo for only a few weeks. Their eyes nervously flicking up and down the street to best see when the Horrapa is coming; a little like Simone's father.

Benjamin Abrahão, Higienópolis, São Paulo

Raquel, (seen far left in this family portrait from some years ago) helps run the family business started by her grandfather Benjamin in the 1940s. He would bake bread, then sell it door-to-door. Then he got a stall, then a padaria (eat-in bakery) called Barcelona, the first of three they now own and run.

20 years ago, he and his wife designed and built Benjamin Abrahão’s o mundo de Pão (world of bread), in the heart of Higienópolis, which now employs 60 people on various shifts over 24hrs.

Benjamin died recently, leaving the family to preside over the production and sale of fine breads, pastries, cakes, chocolates, juices, etc. They’ve diversified, adding a new padaria in the Jardims, three outlets at three of the city's Universities, and a catering service for parties and events.

Our friend Marcia explained that life in the city would be impossible without neighbourhood padarias. She singled out Abrahão’s as the padaria, an example that others aspire too, with its iconic reputation built on quality and innovation. When padarias were starting off, all they offered was Pão Frances (French bread rolls), a breakfast staple sold by the kilo. Abrahão offered different types of bread and it was good, meaning lots of satisfied, returning customers.

Raquel says her grandfather travelled the world to learn the recipes and teach. Though she, her sister, mother and aunt, who all work in the business do not bake. He thought women would gossip in the kitchen and not work. His two grandsons, who were taught the trade, continue to introduce new ranges and one now works on a TV cookery programme. 

One morning at Higienópolis, we timed photo shoots for the different customer communities; the maids at 6.30, the businessmen at 7.30, then the students and those with time to use the valet parking and a leisurely morning coffee.

Padaria Comunitaria de Itapevi, São Paulo

This is Juraci, the manager of a Padaria Comunitaria (community bakery) in Itapevi, a town in São Paulo's periphery. She lives a short walk away and has worked here for 15 years, starting at 4am and baking all morning, six days a week. With a mix of trainees, voluntary and paid staff, they bake and sell 3,000 Pão Frances each day, selling at R$2.30 a kilo (about £0.70, a third of the cost in central São Paulo). They also make cakes, pastries, and carrot bread, all sold at less than market prices, as are the wedding or birthday cakes that can be made to order.

We arranged to document during their busiest time of the day, between 8-9am, with people on their way home from the night shift, on their way to their day job, or just buying bread for the day.

The Padaria is run as an non-profit organisation with the support of Secrtariat of Social Promotion and the municipal city hall. All the ingredients - sugar, flour etc. are paid for and delivered by the local government. It’s also run as a training centre where volunteers and local teenagers learn how to bake. One of the bakers/teachers says the pay isn't too good but she enjoys teaching and likes the people, so she stays working there.

We learnt that for the Padaria (and others) there’s an inextricable connection between employment and who you vote for. This year there is a local election for a new mayor and councillors. If the current opposition win, some current staff will be made redundant to be replaced by the supporters of the winner. Juracy along with Julio, the padaria’s long-standing security guard, are civil servants so their jobs are safe.

On one of our journeys to Itapevi, our friend Felipe said someone had said to him “why are you taking them there? It’s not São Paulo”. We spoke of the likelihood of these friends proudly stating São Paulo is the 3rd biggest city in the world with 22 million people. These 22 million include those in satellites like Itapevi, which make up the periphery.

Angelo Flores, Box 12, Mercado das Flores, São Paulo

With over 22 Box stalls, the Mercado Das Flores stretches for some 300 metres outside the Cemeterio do Araca, in the Clinicas district of the city. Being on a busy roadside, it also provides an aromatic treat for a passenger or driver with their window open.

This is Sueli and Marco Aurelio. She's been working there for 20 years and he for 40. Like a number of stall holders, they are open 24 hours a day, sell both cut and potted flowers and buy stock from the large Ceasa flower market on the outskirts of the city. However, they are the only sellers who do business over the internet. Early mornings they snatch some sleep on a small mattress under the display.

We spent Friday evenings with them and the other sellers, asking customers for the story behind their purchase. For Sueli and Marco, business is not as busy as it used to be, as flowers are now more expensive. They have different customers at different times of the week. Most people pull up their car and buy flowers for special occasions, house decoration, or if it is late in the evening/early morning, for a party or apology flowers for their loved ones. Now, we were told, hardly anyone visits their family graves in the cemetery behind the stalls. Young people don’t do it. We did watch an older woman buy some yellow chrysanthemums; apparently, along with white chrysanths, the flowers of choice for graves.

Rose at Box 22 revealed that a few families do buy flowers for graves every Sunday morning, and have done for years. Also, if it is Mothers' Day, a birthday, Dia dos Finados (the Day of the Dead) then they will come on that day too. So that week, they'd come twice. But mostly, it’s passing traffic, buying for gifts and celebrations.

Floricultura Cardeal, São Paulo

We spent two Sunday mornings with Antonio, who along with his sister Lucia, runs a pair of neighbouring flower shops close to the entrance of Cemeterio São Paulo, in the Pinheiros district of the city.

Antonio is Portuguese, came to Brazil as a young man and married here. He looks unbelievably good for 76, a fact he ascribes to hard work, faith and not abusing himself with alcohol and women. He starts work early enough in the morning to see night clubbers returning home; he bemoans the sight of young women/men drunk and out of control.

He handed Rebecca a simple printed prayer dedicated to a girl called Izildinha, ‘my kind little sister’. In a basic translation the prayer asks; for full devotion to the Father and the son; that the father and the son cover Izildinha with blessings and diminish the sufferings of all those that invoke Gods name; for repayment with good faith, and belief in the Father, the son and Izildinha; for a stripping of vanity, pride, envy and a forgiveness of evil and a dedication to love those closest; for happiness in the home; that honest work lead to life’s necessities; and that the bread earned be enough to feed those more needy.

The atmosphere on these Sunday mornings was far more contemplative than Clinicas. Away from the main road, not many customers. Some of those that we met were weekly visitors to family graves. We asked them the same question about the story behind their purchase.

Primo Mercado & Construction Materials, São Remo, São Paulo

Here stands Diva (short for Divanete). She and her husband Primo run a popular Mercado and construction materials shop in the centre of São Remo. An estimated 3,000 people live in this hillside favela established over 30 years ago, and many people buy from their shop. They sell everything you need to run a household, plus confectionary and stationery. Next door they sell the essentials for building or extending a house, concrete, cement, bricks etc.

They were introduced to us as linchpins in the community by a community worker called Thelma. She shops there and works on a local education programme. Primo was recently President of the town council, following his activism after a tragic mudslide in the favela. During our time at Primo's, Diva took as many photographs of us as we did of her.

Alice, Avon Consultant, São Remo, São Paulo

Alice sells Avon from the front room of her home where she lives with three generations of her family. She’s built her customer base from the community - everybody knows she’s the woman to go to for make-up. She no longer has to visit her client’s homes, they come to her and order from the catalogue. She doesn’t have the products in stock and puts in monthly orders to her regional supplier. She also has a sideline in small fashion items such as flip flops.

What interested us about Alice was her very local expression of a global brand. We photographed her clients outside her home, one of whom, her neighbour, Nilda, held a beautiful little dog called Totti,  like the Italian footballer but pronounced Tor_che. It is one of the many pedigree ‘toy’ dogs owned in São Remo and interesting to see that show dogs are not the exclusive preserve of more affluent communities.

MTN Paint Shop, Rua 24 de Maio, São Paulo

Diego runs a specialist paint shop for graffiti writers. Graffiti is an established form in the city, with a number of specialised galleries, and sanctioned or illegal projects on view. Diego even has a competitor! He gets around 50 customers a week, and sells a full spectrum of colours and different gauged nozzles for different spray patterns, narrow for tight line work, wider for fill. One customer involved in our photo shoot wore a nozzle on a lace around his neck.

The paint is imported from Spain. They pay an import tax and that makes the cost of a can quite expensive (R$13/£3.50). Sometimes Diego is asked to pay a bribe. He refuses and occasionally his products are impounded. When this happens, Diego absorbs the cost and doesn't pass it onto his customers. His competitor sells cheaper German paint but charges much more for the nozzles.

At present, the shop is situated on the 4th floor of rundown Galeria Presidenta; one of many splendid Galerias in downtown Sao Paulo. Soon the shop will move to a more upmarket area, the Jardims. On the one hand, Diego thinks it will be good for his customers from the streets, favellas and periphery to have the experience of going to and feeling at home in the Jardims. On the other, he reckons what he calls ‘Playboy Writers’, who currently feel too intimidated to go to 24 de Maio, will buy more if he's in the Jardims. There'll also be social space for activities and some kind of display/exchange of ideas.

Train Vendors, CPTM train network, São Paulo

Informal train vendors find themselves in a complicated situation at the moment. These are poor people who need to sell, but to do so they have to meet the challenge of the black-clothed security guards, which people call the “urubus” (an urubu is a kind of vulture).

The vendors appear on the trains, between stations, selling water, snacks, sweets, pens and other items small enough to carry en masse, and that passengers will want buy. The guards watch over every platform of every station and ride the trains, trying to inhibit the vendor's work. This everyday cat and mouse behaviour has gone on for some years, but now the train company (CPTM) are in the middle of a crackdown, allied to the cleansing and modernisation of their service, which seems to include getting rid of the vendors. Occasionally, armed police search suspected vendors (anyone who looks relatively poor and is carrying a bag) at the city's main station interchanges, and there is talk of undercover officers on the trains.

One passenger said the crackdown had lasted about a year. Before then, the vendors were quite well organised with each operating on certain tracks and so on. But now it's chaos and they are selling wherever and whenever they can. Another passenger said the vendors were so poor they would aspire to being a Camelhoe on Rua 25 de marco.

Their situation makes them hard to track down and work with in any depth. When we did, with help from our friend Felipe (pictured in the red T-shirt), it was difficult to gain their trust in the time they had between stops (suspecting we were undercover police). One seller we managed to speak to was Robinson, who had been working the train for three years to support his family. He works 6-7 hours a day, 6 days a week and buys stock from Bras market. That day, he was selling 10 pieces of bubblegum for R$1, despite having most of his stock taken by the police earlier on. Robinson calls himself and other train vendors 'Marreteiros'.  

We also shot some video of others at work (with their permission) and caught a few snapshots.

Daslu, São Paulo

Daslu is a super posh designer boutique come department store, now situated in Vila Olimpia. It's reputedly the most exclusive shopping experience in South America, but it has also attracted much unwanted controversy recently.  Firstly, due to to the construction of its opulent new home right next to Coliseu, one of the city's many favelas, and secondly an investigation of its importation procedures and tax payments.

We asked to work with Daslu for another reason. They are renowned for the service they offer their customers including complimentary champagne, personal maids (the Dasluettes), and a helipad, 'So you don't have to been seen by anyone on the street'. They said no, but we went there anyway and took many of photos of the helipad (including those of this video), where we would have wanted to photograph their customers. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Seringueira tree, Vila Madelena, São Paulo

In a collaboration with a local artist Tulio, we arranged to convene a small group of friends who buy marijuana from the same contact. 

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Lucinha's, Salvador

Lucinha runs a 'quitanda' called "O Bar de Dona Lucia" in the Ribeira district of Salvador. A quitanda is a shop that has been set up in the front room of a house; it also means a small grocery shop. She sells mangos, salad leaves, spring onions, but mainly sells beer alongside home-flavoured cachaca and ginger/tamarind spirits. Customers can drink at the bar or at four plastic tables out on the pavement/street.

Lucinha doesn't have a licence to sell alcohol. The licences are expensive. Occasionally, the inspectors come by and she says it is not possible to pay for a licence (she makes profit of approx R$10 (or £3) from each crate of beer she sells). She visits the police station, explains her situation and they turn a blind eye. The mangos are almost entirely profit as she buys them either from street vendors who visit her shop or she goes to the market.

She started the shop with a couple of bottles of Cachaca and a carton of cigarettes from her father-in-law. Now, twenty years on, with the support of the business, the house has grown room by room and now stands two stories high. More importantly, it supports her, her husband, her two daughters and her son's ex-wife and three children, all of whom live with her in the house.

Rosalvo, Mar Grande, Ilha da Itaparica

Rosalvo (pronounced HosARvo) is a farmer who grows and then sells fruit and vegetables door-to-door from the back of his donkey named Medalha. He is a "vendedor ambulante", literally a mobile, walking shop. Seven days a week he leaves his smallholding at around 7am with Medalha laden with coconuts, aipims, cashew fruits, roasted cashew nuts, lemons and bananas (the produce varies with the seasons), for a one hour ride to reach his first cliente (customer) in Mar Grande.

We met Rosalvo through our interpreter, Wilma, who is also one of his clientes. Her gardener's mother lives near Rosalvo's mother so Wilma was able to cycle up to the mother's house and leave a note asking for Rosalvo to visit her house to discuss the project with us. 
We arranged to joined him for a four hours one Saturday morning to photograph his clientes, walking his regular route, winding through the dusty roads on the outskirts of the town to the beach front houses and the town centre. During this time he took about R$60 (17 UK pounds). Our day with Rosalvo was extremely hot, and whilst we and Medalha drank a few litres of water, Rosalvo drank none. When we mentioned this later, someone said some Brazilian men are made of leather.

Even later, Luis at Sacatar recounted a childhood memory of a similar enterprise in his aunt's home town, Vitoria da Conquista, Bahia. Using donkeys' ability to be trained to remember a route, the farmer's donkey, straddled with two churns of freshly drawn milk would walk the route on its own, stopping at pre-arranged places where clientes would take what they needed and honour the farmer and pay in person at the end of each month.

Casa Preto Velho, Salvador

The suitably named Casa Preto Velho in Salvador's notorious market Feira de Sao Joaquim, specialises in religious articles for various faiths practiced in and around Bahia, including Catholicism, Umbanda and Candomble. 'Casa' in this case means shop, whilst the meaning of "Preto Velho" is much much spiritual. According to our friend Sabrina, "Pretos Velhos are Umbanda spirits of former slaves who managed to live to a ripe old age (unlike most) and represent wisdom, benevolence, faith and humility. Umbanda is a uniquely Brazilian religion that combines African divinities (orixás), Spiritism, a variety of Afro-Brazilian and European spirits and Amerindian Caboclos". Similarly Candomble is a popular Afro-Brazilian religion, and is worshipped by millions of Brazilians with Bahia being its hot-bed.

Statuettes (like the Preto Velho and Preta Velha pictured above) are part of one of the largest selections of ceremonial regalia in the city, so it's a really important and busy place. The store is packed to the rafters with statuettes of all sizes of all the 'spirits of devotion' as well as clothing, crockery, candles, beading, incense, herbs, statuettes, drums, DVDs and literature. In the build-up to photographing the store's customers, we were speaking with a Candomble family, when something rarely seen and powerful happened. A daughter in the family was temporarily possessed by her spirit of devotion. 

LITORAL Mercado, Ilha da Itaparica

This is Fabio and his father Guido. Guido owns and runs a grocery store called LITORAL Mercado in Itaparica Town. He set up the shop with and for his family. Because of the low income on the island - the average minimum wage being R$400 per month (£120) - the shop has to sell a little bit of everything at decent prices to keep itself going. They will also order items not usually available, especially for non-locals who might be missing something from their home town. One customer doesn't like the bread so Guido gets different bread delivered by motorbike from the other side of the island. The store has been open since Carnaval 2007 and is one of a growing number of independent shops in a town where few existed five years ago. They offer credit for people they know - which is a typical system on the island - but need to manage it carefully so cash flow doesn't put their business at risk. Guido worked for many years as a manager of a supermarket in nearby Bom Despacho, as well as a waiter at the local marina. Fabio said his father dreamed of opening up his own enterprise, so saved money until he was able to do so. With LITORAL he has generated relatively secure jobs for his family (children and siblings), which would have been hard to find elsewhere.