The first disappearance I noticed was on Qingnianlu, by Chaoyang Joy City.
That was my nearest subway station at the time, and as a Beijing greenhorn I had just discovered the joys of the jianbing, those savory, spicy crunchy breakfast pancakes. Every morning on my way to work I would buy one from a streetside stall, marveling at how much fresh, filling food you got for a mere six kuai.
Then, one morning, the stall was closed up. I assumed the owner was ill, or taking a day off. After a while, I assumed he must be on holiday. But days became weeks, and weeks became months, and he never returned. Businesses open and close all the time in this city, and there’s nothing strange about a streetfood stall closing down. It did seem odd though that the stall itself was still there, padlocked and neglected.
I took to getting my fix at the other end of my journey, near the beijingkids office by Hujialou station. The woman who worked on this stall found me enormously amusing, with my abominable Mandarin, but she made a mean jianbing. Then, one day, she was gone too.
There had been a big clean up of unlicensed businesses in the area, so it wasn’t unexpected. It was noticeable though that other street food vendors remained. I took my custom to a proper shop which served breakfast through a window onto the street, although their product was inferior. They lasted about another three months, then suddenly vanished.
I was getting desperate. Work took me to the school where my wife used to teach. Close to the school was a little cafe which had always done a roaring trade selling jianbing to the teachers and students. The proprietors took selfies of themselves with all their customers; it was a local institution. I headed there with high hopes that my cravings would be satisfied.
“Méi yǒu jiān bing, lǎo shī.” The woman seemed distressed. I didn’t know whether she was just upset that she couldn’t serve me, or, weirdly, frightened.
What was strangest was that the cafe was still open, serving everything but jianbing. Surely nobody could have objected to the schoolkids going there for lunch? The food was much more healthy than the burgers and fries that other teenagers sneak off to get.
The jianbing is a lowly, unpretentious foodstuff, but it is a unique part of local culture, and its rapid, unexplained disappearance from the streets is a potential tragedy as well as a mystery. Each vendor has their own recipe, and the fresh, hot pancake on a cold morning is a Beijing treat. If this is a health initiative, like the recent cheese ban, then it’s an equally inexplicable one.
We have now moved to Shunyi, and can neither confirm nor deny whether jianbing can be obtained here – if someone’s taking out the vendors, one by one, then we don’t want to help them. But if anybody has any information which might help solve the Mystery of the Missing Jianbing Sellers, then please comment below or email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: We have been advised that the cafe referred to is still offering jianbing in the morning, but no longer makes them at lunchtime; and that this predated and is unconnected to the school’s decision to stop students “ordering in” lunch. This is good news, as their jianbing are excellent. However, other readers are reporting that they too have noticed the disappearances. We will stay on this important story…