51 Tan, or 51 street stalls, is an ongoing documentation project by one of the participants of the 51 Personae project, as part of the 11th Shanghai Biennale 2016–2017. The author’s drawings and sketches outline her observations of these stalls, scattered around Shanghai, from the perspective of a customer or a passer-by, noting details of their set-up, rationale of their design, materials used, spatial strategies and even conversations overheard – and form a subtle and human record.
It is hard to find a word in English that encompasses all the meanings of tān (摊). Words like vendor, stall (owner), peddler or hawker are either too static or too transient for the title to describe these street-smart mobile retail outlets or service providers that thrive outside of the official and regulated dimension of our cities but are inherently part of a city’s make-up.
In the fall and winter 2016, when the author was working on 51 Tan, the number of street vendors on Shanghai’s streets were declining quickly because of new urban administration policies and their powerful enforcement. The unexpected change made it much harder to collect content and she stopped at 39. When the book was first published in 2019, many of the stalls featured can no longer be found, for street hawkers, whose business depends on the fleeting trust of people on the move, are also the easiest and most visible targets in campaigns to tidy up the cityscape.
In 2021, the author made some revisions and fished out two “leftovers” from her original research and added them with four new stalls she noted since the pandemic, giving the 2021 edition of 51 Tan a more hopeful outlook towards the future.
Comments from the book’s makers
For us who enjoy the life offered by our streets, we are the participants of the scenes in 51 Tan. We are not outsiders unrelated to their appearance or disappearance. From a certain perspective, street vendors are both pioneers and syndromes of the city.
— Chen Yun, editor
As the ultimate masters of survival, street vendors are great teachers of life. They live with daily unpredictability in a way that few can comprehend, grappling with the vicissitudes of demand, market, weather, while constantly negotiating the liminal space between what is legitimate and forbidden. They can adapt, move location, shut shop and pivot, all at the drop of a hat.
— Animesh Narain, translator
Be it a slowly moving wicker chair stall with goods stacked up on the tricycle like a mountain, a pancake cooking cart using every inch of space to create a mini kitchen, or the hawking songs etched into our childhood memories … the imagination and creativity of them stems from the volatility of the street vendors’ destiny. Despite that, they still try to get hold of some branches in the cruelty of urban jungle and expect to build longer relations with some places and some people.
– Mira Ying, designer
Notes on design
Inspired by how efficiently and practically the street vendors set up their stalls, the book’s design is also simple and multi-functional in its use of material and layout. The folding design has been used by art books and magazines simply as a style mimicking how people tend to fold newspapers or magazines by half. But here it serves a real purpose – a Chinese reader may read the whole book without unfolding it, while the fluent and narrative English translation is set on the inner half of the pages with its paragraphs correspondent to the drawing’s positions.
51 personae, Otter Publishing, The Type
Animesh Narrain, Chen Yun, Gigi Chang