Zhou Nan Zhong, 54, a short and wiry former farmer wanders through the fluorescent-lit labyrinth of Chongqing’s Choutianmen wholesale market on the edge of China’s longest river, the Yangtze. Slung over his shoulder is a 1.3m bamboo pole. Occasionally Zhou stops at one of the 15,000 or so stores within this vast multi-level crumbling concrete complex to ask, “do you need anything carried?”
While bicycles are still a feature of other Chinese megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the hills of Chongqing are so steep that bicycles are both impractical and rare. Instead, it is the workers’ bamboo pole known as a bang that has iconic status in this sprawling southwestern river harbour city of almost 30 million. Chongqing’s ‘Bang Bang Army’ of mainly male freelance labourers – so called for the bamboo poles by which they are easily identified – are part of an ancient tradition. For more than a thousand years, before modern plumbing, porters carried water from the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers to homes high in the hills above.
The Bang Bang Army gained fame throughout China thanks to a mini-series popular in the mid-1990s titled Bang Bang Army in the Mountain City. Zhou is proud of the Bang Bang Army’s place in Chinese popular culture as well as a fan of the television series, “the first season was better than the second”, he offers.
Today as the city becomes increasingly prosperous with immaculately landscaped pedestrian shopping malls where one is more likely to see a Gucci handbag than a bang bang’s bamboo pole, there is still enough grunt work for the likes of Zhou who earns anything between 1,000-10,000 CNY ($180-1800) per month. The financial outlay to join the bang bang army is minimal, but the work is gruelling. The porters work from sunup to sundown seven days a week. Chongqing’s summer months are particularly cruel with temperatures in the ‘furnace city’ frequently topping 40C.