In China the idea that businesses should be confined to specific zones, or even to defined lots never caught on. Chinese cities, at least the ones with some history, have businesses and homes crammed into every nook and cranny. A counter selling quick snacks to starving students pops up in the disused storage room of a lecture hall. A man closes off one of the many entrances to a community by building a shoebox-like structure behind it and starts selling cigarettes and newspapers out of the former gateway. Someone fences off a forgotten corner of a school backlot and charges a few cents per day to students who park their bikes under his and his dog’s watchful eyes.
The tunnel in this picture is my favorite opportunistic business. It’s a side-tunnel that branches off of a pedestrian walkway under a busy street. It’s original purpose was to provide access to underground plumbing infrastructure and indeed, it still serves that purpose, since hanging some paintings doesn’t block it entirely.
These interstitial businesses are one of the only upsides to corruption. Every one of them depends on some minor official’s willingness to engage in petty graft; no official policy I can imagine, however liberal, would allow these little businesses to flourish.
Flourish they do, though, and in every case they provide both a tiny income that’s enough to give one or two people what they need to survive, and a huge convenience to the customers they serve.