A massive, battered pot steams on the corner, emitting mouth-watering smells, a group of young people sit beside it on a makeshift table, enjoying a freshly-cooked breakfast, a gaggle of retired men and women sit on sagging easy chairs across the road, with time on their hands. I am out in the early light of a Shanghai morning.
Woven through the interstices of the horizon-wide high-rises of that extraordinary and untried experiment in collective human living known as Shanghai one finds its streets. Never before in human history have so many people – 19 million or so – lived together before. Only Beijing eclipses Shanghai in sheer population, with its 23 million, but that is a recent development, the result of the government’s efforts to give Beijing as much economic clout as its rival.
But I am less interested in the freeways, the commercial high-rises springing up overnight, the biggest port in the world, the massive museums or even the old French concession. Far more fascinating are the streets, or rather the few streets close to my apartment. For hours I stroll slowly along, sitting at times on a makeshift stool to enjoy some freshly steamed bread or a dish of tofu.
As soon as I step out of my apartment I am greeted by chorus of birds, their songs still new to me. Have they gathered in the trees thereabouts, a collective morning ritual to greet the street’s many occupants? No, for I see first one bird, then two, then a score or more in simple bamboo cages, with elaborate and tiny porcelain cups for water and food, a perch and twigs and carved trinkets inside. The brown, black and yellow birds with strong beaks sing in a way that ensures their individual voices are not lost in the chorus. And the cages hang from a tree branch, a hook on a wall, a gate or a lamp post. Their carers flock together beneath the cages, sharing a smoke and a chat that begins a relaxed day. For they are all old men, retired and pursuing a modern version of an ancient Chinese passion, a passion for those who have achieved the respectful age of retirement.
A few steps further on, I pass by the gate to their apartment complex. The uniformed guard at the gatehouse – which you find at the entrance to every such block – barely notices me as I pass. An old woman emerges with her husband, both walking in a way that says they have all the time in the world – with a short, slow step of the aged. Is it not strange that time seems to slow down and approach eternity the closer one draws nigh to death? She is dressed in a way reminiscent not only of the Maoist era but also more traditional Chinese clothing (the two have a curious linkage). So also is another woman, who calls out to the man stretched out in an ancient chair that seems to have been there since before the revolution.
He wears the characteristic light blue uniform, with its yellow stripe down the side, of the ubiquitous street cleaners. He gathers the detritus of the street into a stained metal trolley, which propped up with a broom made of tree branches and leaves, a pincer and a rag. His responsibility is restricted to the couple of streets along which I walk – a phenomenon repeated across Chinese cities and towns. No wonder the streets are so clean. But now he rests, snoozing a little before the long, measured day.
On the next corner is an equally ubiquitous phenomenon: the bicycle repair stand. Nothing fancy here; no bright new parts in a vast shop. Instead, on the footpath is a small on-street cupboard, containing a few ancient tools, a couple of pumps, tyres and tubes that have obviously been used more than once. Should one have a flat tyre, an odd clunk or a squeak or a missing part, then this is the place to pull up. The woman here examines your bicycle on the street corner, tinkers here, patches there and pumps away in order to get you on the road again. No wonder the average Chinese person knows little about bicycle maintenance, for all you need do is walk a few paces to find such a repair stand. Or if you have any other piece of simple machinery that needs repair, she may do that for you as well. For most stands gather spare parts of all manner of machines, simply stacking them on the footpath, should anyone require the services of the corner handy-woman.
Across the intersection, I walk into the midst of the food zone. The sheer richness of this block makes the ‘food courts’ of Western shopping malls seem like anaemic copies. On a simple gas flame a woman boils a pot of dumplings, serving a Chinese ‘queue’ steaming fresh morsels from her pot. Behind the shelf looking out onto the street she stands in her ‘shop’ – a hole-in-the-wall that makes a train toilet seem like a mansion. I step over a stream of curiously coloured liquid that emanates from her alcove. Next to her a man in another spacious abode throws flat pancake-like batter onto a hotplate and crisps them into the delicious breakfast bread for hungry students. Out on the footpath a woman stirs a massively battered pot, regularly pulling out a concoction of noodles, cabbage, rice and pork, served into bowls with ample soup for those who sit nearby on some makeshift stools and a table.
And on they go almost without number, with endless varieties of rice noodle, wheat noodle, dumpling, steamed buns, the griddle-cooked flat cakes, stinky tofu, unidentifiable meats on skewers … food prepared on the spot for a people in which eating orders the day. Rarely do I find a person walking along the street, munching from food in hand or sipping from a paper coffee-cup. Chinese people give food and its eating much more respect, for you always sit down to eat, even on the street. So important are meals that the times of the day have a specific term that turns around meal time: before breakfast; after breakfast; before lunch; after lunch; before dinner; after dinner. And any self-respecting work-place has two hours set aside for lunch, from 11.30 to 1.30.
Competing with the myriad smells of freshly cooked and mouth-watering breakfast food are those of the market. Emitted through an entrance way in between these street and alcove cooks, the market smells speak of fresh and unfrozen fish, crustaceans, eel, and all manner of creatures of the sea that I have never smelt or seen before. Subtler are the smells that come from the orange, red and yellow vegetables scattered about, as well as the collection of greenery that is a mass of grass and stalks and leaves – edible I imagine.
I stop by the tiny fruit and vegetable shop, across the street from its twin. A child plays on the step, his grandmother inside. With the sun-darkened face of peasants and workers who spend all day outdoors, she smiles at my ‘nihau’ and points to my regular items – bananas, fresh oranges, some Chinese green vegetables (I call them all bok choi) and the massive yellow citrus in a net the name of which I cannot remember. As usual I give her too much money and as usual she hands me back a pile of notes and coins, some of which are plastic toy coins mixed in with the real stuff. ‘Sise’, I say as I leave and she smiles.
Today at the other end of the street stands a man in worn clothes and some mesh bags at his feet. At a distance I can see that they move, curiously. Closer by I suddenly realise that he has brought live snakes to sell for whatever soup or noodle dish one might want to make with freshly-killed serpent. I pass on that one. Beyond the snake-seller, a fish leaps out of a plastic bucket outside a ‘restaurant’ (defined by the fact that one may sit at a couple of tables indoors). Desperate to make a break, it soon realises that air is not quite its preferred medium, flapping about on the footpath until a woman deftly grabs it and drops it back into the bucket.
Around the corner, I meander past the street peddlers with their massive carts pulled by those solid, single-gear tricycles. A rack of clothes may have been temporarily installed, or a range of boots and shoes strung out along the side of the road. Women gather around to touch, test and haggle. A cart full of second hand books displays anything from Barack Obama’s biography to a Chinese mathematics textbook. Another is full of notebooks with hand-crafted covers, while next to it is a trolley full of chestnuts and a hotplate for roasting them. Atop a pile of sweet potatoes is a man who looks very much like his produce, and beside him is a cart overflowing with wallets and bags, or perhaps umbrellas and raincoats. At night they string up a single light globe above their wares so that the street looks like the stars have come down to earth. And around the stars are cigarette vendors in their cubby holes, mobile phone shops that sell credit and phone covers but not phones, and places where you can obtain the necessary items for a kitchen, such as woks, bowls, lidded teacups and chop-sticks.
All the while people weave in and out at a leisurely and human pace; beaten up bicycles weave in and out, often with passengers perched precariously on the rack or crossbar; motor scooters of all makes and ages – some kept together by masking tape – skim in and out of the crowd; cars blast their horns for a way through even though it is against the law to thump the horns so; a bus edges ever so slowly through the throng, which gradually makes way for it.
Eventually I find my favoured spot on the corner, with a view down both streets. I buy a bowl of tofu, vegetables and noodles, sit down on a stool and dig in with my chopsticks. Again I ponder: how is it that some people, some cultures are able to make the street their home in such a way? Why do they not retreat into the privacy of their homes, lock the doors and close the curtains? Why is the street not left to be a locus of transport, of getting from one private space to another? Why do they prefer to mix and mingle, meander at a pace that encourages one to stop and talk, to sit and while away the time among friends in the constant interaction of people? Is it merely a cultural and social history that makes it normal to do so? Or is it one of the myriad results of an emphasis on a communal life in which even the streets of Shanghai become common space?