CHONGQING • After shouldering loads up and down steep hills here for 35 years, Mr Niu Dancheng knows the exact number of stairs to the Yangtze River docks where he often finds work as a porter. There are 128 to Dock 8 at Chaotianmen port, he said, which he had just descended with 40kg of roasted duck for a cruise ship.
Mr Niu, 62, may belong to the last generation of itinerant porters, known as "bang-bang", who have become a symbol of the south-western city of Chongqing where the Jialing River flows into the mighty Yangtze. The streets here once teemed with a "bang-bang army", as residents call the porters. Now they are disappearing.
"The next generation will never carry one of these," Mr Niu said, tapping his sturdy bamboo shoulder pole or bangzi, whose name inspired the popular nickname for the porters.
The decline of the porters is the story of social and population shifts reshaping China's economy. The economy is slowing, but the flow of rural migrants seeking work in cities is also slowing, and those migrants are ageing. Younger, better-educated migrants often reject such poorly paid, harsh work, and modern transportation has cut demand for the backbreaking job of hauling loads up and down Chongqing's hills.
"It's tough being a bang-bang now," said 50-year-old Mr Hu Zuhua, who has worked as a porter for a decade. "Sometimes you don't even make enough to pay for meals. The couriers are taking all our business."
This is the job you take when there is no other. Now the youngsters go out to become security guards or couriers or construction workers, anything but a bang-bang.
MR TAN WANCHENG, a porter, on the hard lives of people like him.
Film-maker He Changlin, who recorded the world of the porters in a documentary and book called The Last Bang-bang, estimated that their numbers have shrunk from as many as 300,000 in the 1990s to no more than 10,000 in urban Chongqing today. Most are in their 50s or older. "It's a business steadily being made obsolete by a combination of economic development and the laws of nature," Mr He said. "As the Chinese economy rapidly develops and forms of transportation diversify, they no longer have a role to play."
Chongqing, a sprawling industrial metropolis, grew from trade up and down the Yangtze River, and long relied on brute human strength to haul loads.
Demand for the porters took off in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping's market reforms gave urban Chinese residents more spending power and let farmers enter cities to find work, unleashing a wave of migrants desperate for jobs. Villagers from the steep hill country around Chongqing found a living using their stamina to carry loads in the city.
Porters popped up in many cities, but it was only in Chongqing and other nearby towns that they grew so numerous that they became part of the fabric of daily life.
But many porters said the sentimental images belied their hard lives. "This is the job you take when there is no other," said Mr Tan Wancheng, a 51-year-old porter.
He shares a dormitory with 20 or more other men, and often subsists on rice and pumpkin porridge, he said. "Now the youngsters go out to become security guards or couriers or construction workers, anything but a bang-bang," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES