“My principle is humour. And funny. And cheap.”

 

Just under the bridge at Brick Lane, before Grimsby Street, is a location that’s seen countless changes – warehouses opening, closing, opening again, traders coming, traders going. Change is the one constant for market traders – something that councils don’t always like, for they prefer things to be regular, licensed, and reliable. Anyone who’s visited Brick Lane even occasionally will have seen the texture of the place in constant flux – rough edges and people smoothed away, nice predictable food stalls moving in. But Fang Liu, who runs a wonderful, eccentric pitch under the bridge, is one of the people who makes this location irresistible. No rain or snow can dim his enthusiasm; his love of eccentric items, his appreciation of the people who pass through this place, exemplifies what makes market traders a special, vital breed.

When did you start running a market pitch?
I think last June or July. Firstly we started with the illegal [pitch], and I find customers like my stuff once I started so I keep finding [more] things. Then I met a friend, and we agreed to sell together and to apply for licence. The only reason we got a licence is ‘cos we got lots of items and we can’t run away when the council come, there are too many things to carry way. And also there’s no space in my room to put the stock, and so my girlfriend finally says, Get a licence. And over the last weeks we opened a shop in Camden, too.

You have a very unusual look to your stock, kind of Teletubbies meets the sci-fi Apocalypse, how would you describe it?
Just for fun, that’s what I tell my customers. Some people say, How could you choose these things, who will buy gas masks or a collection like this? And I say it’s just for fun, it reflects my interests. And I’m finding people who share the same interest as me.

How did you actually come to run a pitch in the first place? What were you doing before?
I’m from Beijing, I’ve never done this before I came here around one year and a half ago for studying for a Masters degree… it was in Sept 2008, Design Management for the Fashion Industry. I found it hard to find a job, I used to work for Uniqlo but it is really tough and I don’t like that… and now I started my own business I really enjoy it.

You’re on the busy bit at the bottom of Brick Lane, no shelter for you or your stock, how do you manage when it’s cold and wet?
That’s it… because my things are all second hand and dirty and messy anyway, so I just put them on the floor no matter if it’s raining or snowing, fine. I believe after a few days they will dry and customers will still like them. I’m the only guy who doesn’t cover the stuff when the rain is coming, I just let them go.

You’re out on the street, with a lot of traders close by, is there a lot of cameraderie on this part of Brick Lane?
It’s friendly, yes, the traders close to me, they have become very good friends. On the right hand side is the camera guy, we find stock and often buy things for each other. And we have got nicknames for each other – I call him Technology and he calls me Mr Confusion.

Why do your Teletubbies wear gasmasks?
I don’t know. I just find it randomly. I used to put the gas-masks on some Teletubbies.. the Teletubbies are 50p, so I thought why not put one on.. then a guy [did] buy the whole set, Teletubbies and the gasmasks, it was so funny.

Your style fits your stall, how did it evolve?
Oh, I just like collecting, going around to buy cheap things. In China we don’t have second hand markets, so when I came here it was interesting. I like funny things, interesting things from pop culture, and military stuff – it’s classic, and functional. But I’m not a military seller or trader. My principle is humour. And funny. And cheap.

Do you have to be slightly mad or eccentric to be a market trader?
Exactly. ‘Cos I got more and more stuff, I can’t stop buying things. My girlfriend thinks I’m sick in a way, she always stops me buying things but I still go out of control. But all the things are cheap that I buy.

How has your life changed since you’ve been here?
My girlfriend [first] dragged me to Brick Lane at the beginning. I’d got some things from China, and my girlfriend said, Let’s try to sell some things. I said, “No, I don’t want to.” Because I’m very shy. The first time I went to Brick Lane, I just walk around and never ask the price, I couldn’t bear to talk to anyone. Personally I have [had] a huge change.

So the market has changed your life?
Exactly, it has changed my life. And i have a lot of friends who come back. For example, this guy called Michael, he’s 70 years old and also he [had] a stroke, he can’t hardly speak, he can’t use his right hand. Also he’s living out of London but he’s keeping coming every week for me by train. Sometime I give him something for a present. He’s like my grandpa, listening and talking. He comes and stays here 20 or 30 minutes. I bring something for him, and he brings food for me. Also he shows his pictures from his family and his story. Very lovely. Very lovely, moving stories.

Fang Liu is on Brick Lane, near the Overground line, most Sundays.

 

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