Archive for January, 2010


They always look so innocent

“Look at my flying dragon!”


Plastic connected loudly with glass. My knees buckled and my heart literally fell to the floor. My camera lens was just attacked by a cheap plasticsaurus.

Wide-eyed at what he had done, he leaned in and stuck his index finger, which was previously exploring his nostril, most liberally I might add, right on my lens. All I could hear in my head was a long and protracted, “Nooooooo!!”

6-year old Xiaorao (or as I jokingly misinterpret his name as “Small detour” (小绕) – same pronunciation, different meaning) then laughed madly and ran away, disappearing into whatever evil lair I now firmly believe he belonged to.

His grandfather, who had only moments ago, so kindly showed me around the longtang, looked worryingly at my camera as I gingerly inspected the lens for scratches.

Then in the most serious manner, he said, “If you like, there is a shifu* round the corner who fixes watches. Maybe he can take a look.”

* Shifu (師父) is a respectful and common form of address, nowadays in China, for persons engaged in skilled trades, such as drivers, cooks, plumbers, artistes etc.

December 2009


The Last Squawk

When I was growing up in Singapore, chickens were also sold live and you would get to pick them out right from their cages. A vivid memory I had was a butcher dragging a particularly persistent chicken out from its cage, its wings in mad flap, as if to say, Damn if I’m dying today.

But it was no match for the brute strength of the butcher. I watched him throw the still-flailing chicken into a huge barrel of water, dropped back the heavy lid and for the next minute, you could hear the fluttering, splashing and squawking.

Oh, the squawking.

In a Chinese market like the one in Hongkou, the budget determines how free your chickens roam. Sweatshop chickens are shoved into cages so cramped, there is no choice but to tuck into a ball and wait for death. Meanwhile, beast-like hens and cocks perch and preen on top of those cages, watching vacantly at the passing crowds. After being fondled and subsequently weighed, death struck quickly.

Slitting the throat has proved the most effective way to kill a chicken. And thus, right on the street where bird flu would propagate and fester, I watched the woman bleed out the bird into a dirty bucket. As the chicken heaved its last breaths, the lady began to ruthlessly de-feather it.

There was no sound left, only a post-mortem spasm.

But oh, the squawking. You could still hear it in your head.

January 2010


Path of personal ambition

All through school, the smartest kid in class who scored top marks was never the most well-off or had multiple private tutors on hand. It was the quiet and confident child who looked like he or she had a few more experiences about life than you, and studied well regardless of the environment.

I recall a boy I knew in grade school who studied on top of a sewing machine because he lacked a study desk. His father had passed on, leaving him and his mother to struggle on a single income and a modest scholarship. Yet he never talked about the lack of pocket money or that he had to travel an hour each way on public transportation to get to school.

This boy in the picture reminded me of him. While studying, he spoke with his father seated to the left (hidden from view) and had a quiet and assuming voice. They discussed ways to fix up the small room they lived in, which happened to also serve as a tailor shop. And if you didn’t look, you’d assume that two adults were having a conversation.

August 2009


Collateral damage of the feline kind

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …so long as I get somewhere.

The Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

~ Alice in Wonderland

One of the many cats that you find roaming in demolished sites all over Shanghai. Many are stray, products of rampant feline copulation between both house and strays.

October 2009


Watch where you cross

He had a hard look, the kind that resented people on sight which was only sharpened by his menacing tattoo.

He appeared as if he had the world on his shoulders and carried fatigue like any other hot and bothered day-worker, with the heavy eyebags to prove it.

I was in his way, standing in the middle of the road taking a photo. Bracing myself for a barking, the corner of my lips lifted for a brief moment in apology.

Then, his eyes dropped to the floor, and he heaved just a little harder on his pedals.

No longer was he the muscular and tattooed day-worker, but just a tired man on his way to another delivery.

September 2009


Maneuvering through traffic

For a two-way street, Hongkou market is a smorgasbord of traffic. It is impossible to stand still in any part of the street without a car, bicycle or people bumping into you. Always look left and right before taking that next step.

You could be idly having a conversation with a friend on the street, and suddenly a big van would be beeping its way into the crowd, its side mirrors brushing against the back of your head.

The roast sweet potato seller would have to maneuver his entire operation to make way, losing bits of wood used to fire up his portable oven. He inevitably interrupts a father and son on a scooter coming in his direction, who then repeatedly blares his horn in the midst of a crowd to signal his presence.

Yet nobody was unfazed or angry for this was how one would move through a market. It was like a domino effect of human and vehicular contact, which would shift in the opposite direction in a few moments.

The noise, people and blur of activity blend into a symphony if you stand there along enough, that is if it was even possible.

December 2009


Her home. A long history.

She left most affairs to her son whom she lived with. She slept on the first floor which was neat and well kept while he slept in the attic that had a single bed and an alarming amount of junk. Next to the son’s bed was a giant biscuit box which served as an ashtray.

Her bedroom was the main room of the house where I imagined people gathered when visiting. It was warm and welcoming. [Another view here.]

Like many enduring “nail houses”, mother and son wanted to ensure they got every penny they deserved from the government for relocating. The son was well-tuned to the exact value of his house.  His mind raced  like a human calculator as he broke down the intricacies of longtang real estate. Don’t you be calling them victims. They know their rights and the value of their property.

They were destined for Baoshan in northern Shanghai, an industrial town known as home to the state conglomerate Bao Steel. It seemed many newly relocated residents from the metropolis have moved out there.

I asked the elder lady if she was sad to move. She smiled and said thoughtfully, “Such is life. Why be sad? I hear at our new house, we get our own bathroom and there are nice facilities.”

She then pursed her lips and concluded, “Besides, we’re surrounded by rubble. Winter is coming. It’s cold without the neighboring houses.”

November 2009

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January 2010