Welcome to another edition of “I Love My Neighborhood”, where I ask expats from across the globe to share the joys of local life they’ve found in their corner of the world.
If you’re just joining in now, check out the other cities that have been covered so far here.
I’m pretty excited about today’s guest post. Not only is it about one of my favorite cities, but it’s also by one of my favorite bloggers — MaryAnne of A Totally Impractical Guide to Shanghai. She’s also the lady who brings mops to life (often with heart-breaking stories — oh the emotional cruelty!) in Awesome Mops of China, and tackles cooking Western food in East with Wok With Me, Baby. Seriously, if you haven’t followed her yet, you should. And I’m not just saying that because she lives in Shanghai.
MaryAnne: Why I Love the (Former) French Concession
I live in what is loosely termed the Former French Concession in Shanghai. Don’t make the mistake that a UK pizza joint made when they opened down the street from us, advertising on leaflets that they were in the French Concession. They were hit with a 10,000 RMB fine and a stern warning from officials who made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Shanghai was in no way governed by foreigners anymore.
The area is, however, overrun with foreigners. Given that Shanghai has about 20 million people and that foreigners make up only 200,000 of them (and most don’t even live in this neighbourhood anyway), the proportion of foreigners to locals is still skewed wildly in favour of the Shanghainese.
In my neighbourhood, you get a bit of both worlds, slightly overlapped in the best Venn Diagram way possible. For those days when you really haven’t got the energy to really live in China, you can dabble in other options. It’s a soft, gentle landing for anyone fresh off the slow boat, as well as a calm retreat from the rest of the city for those who live and work in Shanghai. Here are some reasons why.
Living La Vida Laowai
I live right around the corner from the newly restored Yongkang lu, a tiny side street full of low rise little buildings that has been suddenly repopulated by both Europeans and locals. There are posh patisseries, a boucherie, a pizzeria, a few fancy wine bars whose patrons spill out onto the streets in the evenings and an imported beer shop that also delivers by scooter, in case you need a Belgian Trippel Petrus at 11pm but are too lazy to go out. If you choose to frequent these delightful little shops and cafes, you might be mistaken in thinking you weren’t in fact still in China. That is, until you walk a block in any direction and find yourself knee deep in duck entrails and flopping fish and live crabs.
Everything and Everyone is Out
My street doubles as a wet market. Not an official one, though, as cops in red arm bands are always patrolling the street, shouting at someone who may have set their cabbage too far out onto the road or who didn’t have a permit to sell live crabs at that location. This doesn’t stop the vendors from selling, however. It merely delays them until the cop has passed.
On my street, within just one block you can buy all sorts of very fresh veggies veggies, live fish, live chickens, live doves (for eating, not for checking for dry land for Noah’s ark to land), pickles and assorted fermented things in clay jars, two street barbers with their chairs on the sidewalk, two tailors with their ancient Singers also out on the sidewalk, bags of live crabs, bundles of home made noodles (still soft and ready to cook), slabs of pork, steam trays filled with buns and much more.
Along with the goods and services are the people. There are old ladies, barely 5 feet tall, sitting and knitting. There are men playing cards around a folding table, surrounded by onlookers. There are toddlers lurking amongst their parents’ tubs full of live fish, and stray cats hoping for scraps. In the afternoon, you’ll find great numbers of people passed out for a quick siesta, draped over butchers’ counters or their scooters or on portable folding chairs.
Unlike many other cities in China, Shanghai is a bit lacking when it comes to street food. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, no, but rather that the city officials have been so keen to clean up the rougher edges and to demolish what they consider to be hindrances to prosperous modernity that there’s often no room for street stalls or food streets. In many areas, food carts aren’t even legal, and you know a cop is near when the person who was dishing up your fried dumplings suddenly has packed up their portable stove and run off to hide around the corner.
My neighbourhood, however, is rich with street food. Most of it is bready and fried and very good. You can find jian bing (savoury crepes filled with minced pickles, cilantro, hoisin saes and deep fried wonton wrappers), deep fried grated radish cakes, deep fried green onion cakes, fried pork dumplings garnished with scallions, grilled curry buns filled with spiced finely minced cabbage, toast-like square rice cakes (crispy on the outside, chewy and moist inside) and all sorts of steamed buns stuffed with pork or greens or greens and tofu. If you need bread to go with dinner, you can grab a few triangular slabs of spongy, chewy, scallion-filled flat breads for just a few kuai. If you need dinner itself, you can buy endless skewers of grilled meats and vegetables. If that isn’t enough, starting around 6pm, there are mini portable kitchens set up on several street corners (including outside our flat) with people stir frying piles of vegetables, meats, noodles and rice in huge woks, served in styrofoam bowls tied up in a plastic take away bag, knotted at the top.
The human scale
Shanghai is famous for being big and shiny, sleek and modern. It likes its skyscrapers and drag-race elevated freeways. Much of the city is overwhelming and exhausting, spread out over an unfathomably large area, with cars and faceless tall buildings everywhere. My neighbourhood is smaller, quieter, lined with leafy trees. Most of the shops are very small and locally owned, focusing on a specific product, like lightbulbs or pickles or leather goods. The buildings are often old and elegant, dating back to the concession era and earlier. There are gardens, sometimes with a few cats and chickens hiding in the grass. Many people live in the alleys and lanes, in lane houses built back in the 1930s, which wind away from the street into an impenetrable maze accessible only through one entrance gate. There is laundry strung up across the narrow space between the homes, and there are often outdoor sinks where you’ll find tiny old women bent over washing vegetables for dinner. Their kitchens are usually near the front door so you can see what they are cooking as they generally leave the doors and windows open for ventilation. In this neighbourhood, most people walk everywhere and if they don’t walk, they ride their bikes. There is very little room for parking and very little need for a car anyway. If you need to go further afield, there are buses, taxis and a half dozen metro stations within walking distance.
People Who Need People
In a big city, it’s really easy to feel isolated. When I lived in Pudong, on the other side of the city, when I first arrived, I often felt lonely. It had been built on a larger scale, with wider roads, fewer people and fewer shops. In my neighbourhood now, I see familiar faces every day. The man who sells the little spring onion buns in the morning knows I will buy two of those and not the grated potato ones. The guys at the beer shop know me by name. The lady who makes the jian bing savoury crepes knows I like a smear of hot sauce on mine. For the three years we have lived in this area, I’ve watched the identical twin boys up the road grow from infants to toddlers, playing amongst their parents’ pyramids of green vegetables and plastic tubs full of flopping fish. Because everyone walks here, I often see friends and acquaintances sitting in the cafes or buying veggies or cycling past. There is a comforting familiarity about living in a neighbourhood built on such a human scale.
All photos courtesy of the author.