Editor’s Note: When we started Ethnography Matters, we envisioned it to be a place where ethnographers could share updates from their fieldsites. Last month, An Xiao Mina shared her fieldnotes, Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes. This month, Zach Hyman @SqInchAnthro shares his fieldnotes from his fieldsite in China.
Zach is based in Chongqing, China on a year long ethnographic dive into creative practices of vehicular design among resource-constrained users. After four months in the field, Zach shares with Ethnography Matters his first field update.
His observations on low-tech vehicles are incredibly relevant for the current global shifts in automative production. China is now the largest car market. But many Western companies are discovering that simply transferring a car designed for Western users does not appeal to Asian users. Point in case GM’s Cadillac, a car built for American consumers fails to connect to Chinese consumers. It’s no surprise to an audience of ethnographers that cultural values inform design decisions, but companies like GM are having to learn the hard way.
A deep understanding of workers’ current vehicle practices reveals new opportunities to develop vehicles that challenge the current domination of resource-intensive cars. One entrepreneur, Joel Jackson, created Mobius One in Kenya with local welders to overcome transport challenges. The result? A $6,000 low-tech car made for Africa. Like Joel, Zach’s research contributes to a growing group of designers and entrepreneurs who will create a new class of vehicles.
Check out past posts from guest bloggers.
I am presently based out of Chongqing, China, conducting research for a Fulbright grant on resource-constrained creativity surrounding mobility across China. So far, my work has me riding along with, living with, and working alongside urban and peri-urban vehicle users. I have been conducting ethnographic “deep dives” to better understand vehicles’ role in today’s (and tomorrow’s) China. To that end, I will be spending this year documenting and reflecting upon the patterns and practices of mobile creativity.
This is the first of many opportunities to share with a wider audience glimpses into some of the aspects I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for my research. Enjoy this initial serving, stay tuned for future updates here on Ethnography Matters, and point yourself towards squareinchanthro.com for more of what you see below. Here’s more information more about the technique I’m practicing of using Instagram to write live fieldnotes similar to the ones below.
I_ UN/REACHABLE: In a talk at 2011’s Poptech Conference, Jan Chipchase identified the practice in Seoul of vehicle owners displaying their cellphone number on their vehicle so they may be notified if it must be moved. A similar practice can be found amongst 3-wheeled vehicle-owning fruit vendors who frequent Chongqing’s crowded wholesale fruit market – though this one has a slight twist.
The solution adapted here is somewhat more “flexible”, in that sometimes it is in the best interest of fruit vendors to temporarily drop off the radar, such as during a surprise patrol by the local sidewalk police. The potential consequences for being unavailable to move your vehicle when a sidewalk patroller pays an unexpected visit, forcing you to move your vehicle (interrupting your business day/cash flow) are often less serious than the potential consequences for being unreachable when your vehicle is the only thing standing in the way between a behind-schedule 10-wheeler overloaded with cabbage and their assigned unloading spot. Thus, the easily removable sign adopted by these vehicle-based vendors is ideal for when the “benefits of unreachability” transform into the “consequences of being out of reach”. For every context, drivers must consider the cost/benefit of being in touch.
II_ ADVERTISING: Many three-wheeled vehicle owners rely upon their rides for an aspect of their business – whether that be logistics, displaying their goods, advertising, or a combination of all three. For example, one owner uses his three wheeled-vehicle for his window shop to transport orders of uncut glass and deliver finished windows to customers. To give passersby a better idea of how his windows look and function he decided to install a set of fully-functional, miniature windows in the rear of his three-wheeler, effectively turning his vehicle into a passive advertisement wherever he happens to park it.
As far as goods display, while one of my favorites continues to be the owner who installed a pair of full-sized rotisserie chicken roasters on the back of his three-wheeled vehicle, I am most impressed with the mobile vendors in Chongqing who convert the rear bed of their vehicle into portable fishponds and sell live fish out of the back as they drive around the city – an interesting manifestation of the perceived importance of “freshness” in this context, and the strong connection between “fresh” and “alive”.
III_ 3WV + BBJ: One way Chongqing stands out from most other major Chinese cities is geographically – the city’s notorious hills lead to the near non-existence of cyclists and, as a friend here says, “forces one to navigate in three dimensions”. The bang bang jun (棒棒军lit. “stick soldiers”) make their living using a length of bamboo with an attached rope to carry everything from groceries to refrigerators up and down the city’s steep streets for families and businesses alike. In conjunction with 3-wheeled vehicles, prized for their ability to enter narrow alleys where conventional delivery trucks wouldn’t fit, stick soldiers form a formidable duo for local logistics. Oftentimes, one can spy a stick soldier’s trademark bamboo shoulder-pole resting upon the pile of whatever goods fill the rear bed of a 3-wheeled vehicle.
IV_ SECURITY: Besides the conventional ignition/key setup (which can be circumvented without much difficulty), there is little in the way of standard anti-theft measures for three-wheeled vehicles. This perceived lack of security has lead to some interesting workarounds by owners and modifiers seeking additional security. One modifier claims to have invented his own means of immobilizing the vehicle in the form of two simple welds: by fusing a metal ring to the vehicle’s driveshaft, and attaching at a nearby point on the vehicle’s frame, the owner can lock the driveshaft in place. The mechanism’s relatively invisible position on the vehicle’s underside also makes it markedly challenging for a would-be thief to hotwire the vehicle and depart unnoticed.
A three-wheel vehicle based food vendor discovered another approach; driving an electric three-wheeler with a relatively small cargo bed, every item in her inventory must be used to its maximum potential and many pieces of her kit serve multiple purposes. This versatility also includes the vehicle’s lock: While accompanying her on a trip to the market to purchase ingredients, I noticed she used a length of chain connected to a padlock to secure her vehicle’s front wheel. When I asked her about it, she claimed not to trust the electric vehicle’s built-in security system. Around that same time, she was thinking of various ways she could modify her vehicle to create additional space for displaying goods so that she could sell a new dish without investing in a new space-creating modification.
When I visited her selling spot several days later, she showed off the clever repurposing that another vendor with a similar vehicle had recommended: by looping the lock around the vehicle’s frame, threading it through a gap in the side cargo gate, and adjusting the length of the chain so that it holds the side cargo door open and parallel to the ground, she created a flat surface upon which she could both cook and display her new dish. This particular vendor had several other notable modifications (and challenges) due to her belief that if she didn’t prepare her dishes onsite and in front of customers that they would be unwilling to purchase from her, serving as another example of the importance of “freshness” to customers in this context, and the service design implications for those who would hope to serve them.
V_ LAMB LOGISTICS: Because even cultural icons need wheels.