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Xinjiang Famous: Talking with Ali, the City’s Best-Known Lamb Skewer Guy

Sixteen years of life behind the grill cart.
Jun 29, 2020 | 09:01 Mon
Shanghai Famous: A SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city making the scene. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.
My name is Ali. I run the Xinjiang Ali lamb skewer cart near the Nanpu Bridge. Actually, that's not my name. My real name is Abliz. But you can't take a picture of me — I don't want to draw too much attention.

I do everything. I cut the lamb and make the skewers in the morning, I do the grilling at night, I sweep up after all the customers when they finish after 2am — I do it all. My sister, sister-in-law and uncle help me out. Our kids play out here while we work.

I came to Shanghai in 2004 from Kashgar. I was 20 years old. The standard of living in Kashgar back then wasn’t very good. I was a farmer — raspberries, cotton and corn. When I first arrived, I was working with a skewer guy in Pudong, making 200-300rmb a month. I worked for him for about two years. What could I do about the wage? That’s how they paid, like it was back in my hometown. In 2004, teachers, in Kashgar were making 400-500rmb a month and they were college graduates. My 300rmb was quite good already. College students were earning 400rmb, we were earning 300rmb — it was good.

My father was a lamb delivery guy, working in Shanghai. He convinced me to come here. I was planning to go to Beijing but he said the big cities could be quite chaotic and he wanted me to be near him, so I came here. I didn’t speak any Mandarin back then. I could count to five and that was it. I had to learn it from scratch. For two years, I couldn't say anything. But there's no other way, if you want to be here.

After I was here for a couple years, I met this other Xinjiang guy who was selling skewers at this spot near the fabric market. But business wasn’t good. He asked me to check the place out. After I took a look I thought maybe I could do some business here. There was the fabric market, and a lot of foot traffic. A lot of westerners too. I figured people who had clothes made at the market would be wealthy. That was the thought. So I took over the stall.

I paid the guy 8,000rmb to take over his spot on the street. It was like a transfer fee. It’s not nice to just set up a competing stall if there’s already another stall from a hometown person. The money was basically just to give him some face. That was 13 years ago. I haven’t moved locations since then.

Business has been better in the last couple of years. I sell 30-35 kilograms of skewers every night and my lamb skewers are 10rmb each. The kidneys and ribs are more. That’s about 5,000rmb a night. A little more than that. But recently, westerners stopped coming. It's like they all just disappeared. I don't know why.

There's no secret to making great lamb skewers. I'm just better at picking out good lamb. Also, I don't use as much seasoning. Other places put a lot of seasoning, it might taste good but only because it's strongly flavored. If they don't season it so heavily, their lamb won't taste good.

I use lamb from Inner Mongolia. Lamb from Xinjiang is even better. But shipping costs too much. This lamb from Inner Mongolia is quite good as well. I don't use as much seasoning.

I called Dianping to ask them to take my listing down for a while. When business is too good, the city inspectors will show up the next day. It’s not good to become a wanghong when you’re in my position. When people used to call me from my number on Dianping I would tell them I’m closed for a while. I don’t want them to come. I've already got more than 600 customers on my WeChat. Some have been visiting for more than a decade. I've got a lot of old customers.

I only open in the evenings now. 8pm. I used to started during the afternoon. There would be a long line on weekends. But now it’s better in the evenings, after the street cleaners are off work. Otherwise, their bosses will come around and check. I've become really popular in the last two years. But if someone drops a skewer or a tissue on the ground, it doesn’t look good. So, I sweep up everything when I finish at night. Broom and a garbage bag. You can’t find an empty cigarette box or a tissue on the ground when I’m done.

By then it’s 3am. I take a shower and get settled and then it’s 4am. I message my suppliers and tell them how much lamb I need and then I go to sleep for five hours. I wake up at 9am and the lamb is already there. I prep the lamb, make the skewers and then go back to sleep for a while. Every day is the same. I’m out here rain or shine. I make more money in summer. In winter, people go to sleep early. They come here, eat and go home. But in summer, they stay out, have a beer, eat some skewers… it’s better.

This business isn’t easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. And if it wasn’t me, another person wouldn’t be allowed to open. I’ve been here so long I’m friends with the people who enforce the regulations. They know me, I know them. We’ve had arguments, we’ve had trouble but now we are friends.

There used to be so much more street food. This street had like 40 stalls, people selling all kinds of things. There were so many people, even cars couldn't get through. But that was about five years ago.

This push towards designating street stalls in certain places won’t help me very much. I don’t qualify. In order to get a spot, you already have to have a restaurant license, so that’s not for me. I went to talk to a friend who is trying to get into the Huangpu stall area, near the Temple of the City, but I’m out of luck. I had a restaurant for a little while but there were some license issues and I had to close. No choice. A thin slip of paper came and like that, I lost 800,000rmb.

It’s too much work anyway. If the day comes that I can’t continue with the stall, I guess I’ll have to think about it again.