Posts Tagged ‘alleys


The street that became a gulf

On a balmy spring day, I had ducked in a narrow corridor to get away from the frantic market activity along the stretch of Anguo Lu (安国路), where the street market bustled with clucking chickens, flopping fish and a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.

I found myself in a compound with squat two-storey apartments. It was a mix of communal housing from the 60s and modest shikumen from the early 30s – non-descript concrete intermingled with old wood.

What struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was. Burgeoning blooms rested in small garden patches that lined a courtyard devoid of clutter and decorated with warm, red windows. What the space lacked in interesting architecture, it made up with a quiet and homey space that was bathed in sunlight.

I struck up conversation with two older men which naturally attracted more people. House-proud, the first gent said he had lived here his whole life, “giving” his apartment to the government after 1949, and reclaiming it in the 1980s.

When I complimented on the state of their residence, they beamed. The second gent pointed out, “We make it a point to be civilized (文明) and clean up after ourselves.” Furrowing his brow, he lowered his voice, “Not like the waidiren (外地人) (or out of state residents) who now dominate the houses across the street. The houses are old and have grown messy and dirty and they don’t take care of it.”

Others in the group nodded. A middle-aged woman lamented as she sorted her vegetables, “When more outsiders started moving into the neighborhood, locals would move out. Or maybe the Shanghainese could afford better housing elsewhere, and start renting their old homes to migrants.” She seemed confused about who to blame, then quickly added, “We renovate and upkeep our houses. Whereas they (outsiders) can be so uncivilized and dirty, destroying our surroundings.”

An old man tottered by and offered his two-cents worth, “Even the Shanghainese living opposite don’t like those outsiders.”

The first man jumped in, “If we can help it, we discourage landlords around here not to rent to outsiders. We prefer local Shanghainese.”

He then summed it up for me, “That street (Anguo Lu) is like a river that separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon/New Territories.” Hong Kong Island is where businesses thrived and living standards are high, compared to New Territories which still has vast tracks of rural land. “We’re all the same city yet different.”

I didn’t respond, only smiled distractedly. I knew a few residents across the street, including a fish monger, a vegetable hawker and a store keeper. Like almost all the street hawkers in the vicinity, nobody was from Shanghai.

When locals refer to out of state residents, or waidiren (外地人), with such distaste, they usually refer to working migrants or labor from poorer neighboring regions. They could have lived here for years and be a permanent blind spot to society. Accustomed to harsh conditions, these migrants take on jobs that locals are less willing to carry out. They tend to be a little rough round the edges given their poorer living conditions. I’ve witnessed rather appalling behavior of construction workers near their living quarters. Enough said.

Of course, there are many wealthier waidiren, like my Wenzhou landlord who owns multiple properties across Shanghai. Or my work colleagues from Zhejiang, Guangzhou and Wuhan, who have called the city home since their university days. They refer themselves to “New Shanghainese” (新上海人). Locals tend to have mixed reactions to them, focusing more on the fact that they no longer feel they owned the city, than how much the city has thrived as a result of local migration.

I recalled a conversation with the fish monger from Jiangxi. In between naps in a plastic tub meant for containing fish, she told me that she felt sorry for many Shanghainese trying to afford property in the city.

“With the money a Shanghainese uses to buy a 90sqm apartment, I can afford a 3-storey house in my home village. At the end of the day, this is not our home and we will all go back. We may even have better lives in our villages.”

It was quite a revelation for me, putting the local vs. waidiren socio dynamic in new light. 

I left the compound after being offered snacks and tea. Whatever the local residents’ opinions, I appreciated warm hospitality and a chatty demeanour.

As I stood in the middle of Anguo Lu, engulfed by bustling crowds, I looked east at the compound where the Shangahinese locals lived, then west-ward where many waidren lived.

There I was, in the cacophonous street that had turned into a gulf, a reminder of the persisting divide that plagues the city.

May 2010


Insert thought bubble here

Sometimes, there is nothing worse than having someone notice you with a camera. Or when you hit a low point in your photography for the day.

There are times when I take my kit out for a spin and position it by my hip to randomly capture anything that passes me. The diversity of the random, bizarre and mundane amuses me. Every once in a while, you chance upon a gem like this.

When I see this, I have a strong urge to draw in a thought bubble and guess what he is thinking.

What to eat for lunch or dinner? Strategizing the next mahjong session? Perhaps a haircut is overdue.

The endless possibilities of a wandering mind.

February 2010

On a separate note, I’ve noticed a huge jump in readership in the past week and wanted to extend a hearty welcome to new readers and thank existing readers for being patient with my slower pace of posting of late. Work and travel has kept me busy, regular programming will resume soon.

Finally, I was interviewed by BBC Vietnam last week about Shanghai’s development and the blog, the video is here. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a radio interview, I clearly did not dress/make up for the occasion.


Retrospect: No longer their city

I received a text message recently I thought note worthy.

It was from this old man in his 60s who was living in Hongkou, a site along Haimen Lu (海门路) I had visited since September 2009. I had documented the process of the longtang’s demise, as its footprint faded from live houses, to a half-demolished mess and finally, unrecognizable flat land.

The old man had wrtten, “New house is nice but far from Shanghai. Life is different. Take care, young miss.”

From the beginning, he was reluctant to share with me where he was moving to although I knew some of his neighbors had scattered to Pudong and Baoshan. He had no interest in a follow up but was pleased with the portrait I had given him.

The photo above was taken in September 2009 in the same neighborhood, of his neighbor, of the midget-like man who lived in a self-built house made of rubble and scrap.

When I asked him if he was going to relocate, he merely said, “Sure. I have to find another space. Any space. At the end of the day, this is not my city.”

September 2009


We are but a shirtless belly away

We flung outselves into Spring’s embrace a few days ago under sun-soaked rays, light breezes and an explosion of blooming flowers.

Other signs make it hard to forget that May is but round the corner.

“Extra security! Speed up the demolition! New roads! Confused cabbies! Visitors from out of town all in the same month. HAVE YOU BOUGHT YOUR TICKETS TO THE EXPO YET?”

Just in case you weren’t aware that the Shanghai Expo is happening. We’re all at the edge of our seats here.

Then, the spring months will pass and before we all know it, summer will be here.

Cue the moans. The hot, the sticky and the smelly.

Cue. The invasion of the shirtless bellies.

You wouldn’t know where to look.

August 2009


Family business


Children are excellent sales people at the market. Adorable ones attract browsing customers, even if you’re just selling garlic and ginger. 

To call this grandmother’s place of merchandise a stall is a bit of a stretch. She had two baskets of produce that registered a few coins per purchase. Yet it seemed like a way to pass the time while caring for her grandchildren. 

The family was from Shandong province, as were their neighbouring vendors. The market street was sometimes clustered according to your province and hometown, common in migratory patterns.

An old security guard stopped by, played with the children for a bit and bought a few pieces of ginger. Barely 3, the older child, after wiping her snot-riddled fingers on her clothes, picked up the produce awkwardly and bagged them while everyone watched her move in painfully-slow motion.

Next to her, the baby boy, wrapped up in a permanent ball of fleece, simply stared into space while concentrating on standing upright, with much futility.

“Good girl!” a few people clapped enthusiastically when the girl sucessfully bagged the produce. She giggled at the attention.

Suddenly, from behind us, someone snapped in jest, “Oei! Little girl, hurry up! I’m in a rush. Two pieces of garlic.”

More about Shanghai’ street markets here and here.

January 2010


Lining up the tiles

He had a smirk on his face that came as quick as it disappeared. A winning hand perhaps?

It was hard to tell with the room thick with cigarette smoke and the clattering sounds of mahjong tiles on wood.

I had ducked into the hallway of a 3-storey house. Standing next to a large wooden red door, I heard low murmurings that gave way to loud yelps of triumph. It was a victory so spectacular that people were yelling back and forth with loud thumps of the table signaling another go at Lady Luck.

I knocked hesitantly, wondering if I was walking into some gang-related activity. A middle-aged man opened the door with a cigarette in his mouth and frowned at me. Behind him, the frenzy behind muffled doors revealed China’s all-time favorite indoor activity: mahjong.

A game of mahjong, poker or anything that involves the thrill of hedging money will draw neighbors and friends round a table like that of a free buffet. A winning hand would inevitable draw chuckles, hoots and backslaps.

But it seemed that the mahjong table had entered the 21st century. The whole contraption was mechanized such that with a touch of a button, the middle section would open up and you could dump your tiles in to be automatically shuffled. Another button would elevate your arranged tiles into 4 lines in front of each player. The entire contraption started at a modest RMB 1,500, ready to light up and boogie at your pleasure.

December 2009


Next door, next to go

If you walked by too quickly, you would have missed her.

A crowd had gathered to watch an ongoing demolition of a row of old houses. Some were residents from nearby neighborhoods; others had simply nothing better to do.

A few children stared, mouths agape with wonderment at the massive excavator at street level, as if waiting for it to unfold into a giant robot.

The old houses, or what was left of them, had survived awkwardly next to the Dalian metro station and were rapidly outnumbered by gleaming luxury condominiums. Mostly abandoned and decaying, the facelift was inevitable.

Adjacent to the commotion, an old woman who looked to be in her 60s if not older was sitting outside her home, staring vacantly at her surroundings. She seemed unperturbed by the noise, or maybe she was just used to living right by the noise and pollution of vehicular traffic.

There was a loneliness about her that was so palpable, made more stark by the sprawling concrete around her where a neighbor’s house once stood.

A thousand questions rang in my head. I’ve never shied away from speaking with people I photograph. But this old woman’s indifference felt so impenetrable, I left her alone. With the constant reminder of her inevitable move, she did not need to recount her loss to yet another stranger.

Taken along Changyang Road (长扬路) by Dalian (大连) Metro Exit 4

March 2010

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