China resident Rebecca Catching describes a city where life is played out on the streets
Although much has been written about Shanghai chic – its aspirational skyscrapers, molecular gastronomy, Philippe Starck-designed interiors and luxury boutiques lining the Bund – the city is really more at home when it’s sitting out in the street in its pyjamas, chewing on a plate of duck tongues, swigging a bottle of Qingdao and shouting crass jokes to its friends. Take a wander down Yunnan Lu and you’ll find people gathered around miniature tables, mowing through piles of crayfish; or head to the old city on Xuegong Jie where crowds of people crouch at miniature plastic tables, shrouded in smoke from the Dongbei barbeque so thick that you could part it with your hands. Shanghai has a strong tradition of paidang, or eating out on the street, and it’s common to see shopkeepers set up their fold-out card table on the pavement where they’ll spoon pieces of golden-fried yellow fish and warty-looking bitter melon into the mouths of restless youngsters.
The streets are also home to armies of itinerant food vendors: from the Science and Technology Museum, where fleets of Uighur minorities drive bicycle carts laden with mountains of apricot and walnut nougat, to the Jiangsu Lu Bridge, where phalanxes of sweet potato sellers wheel mobile barrel carts, trailing wafts of caramelised pumpkin behind them. It’s a city that attracts starry-eyed migrants from the Yangtze River Delta and beyond, a stepping stone for those on the make. Anyone with a bit of entrepreneurial zeal and access to some tourist tat is free to bring a tarpaulin and try their luck on the street (free, that is, until the police come and the whole makeshift souvenir store is hastily tossed into a carry-all). Along the waterfront promenade of the Bund you can buy illuminated wheelie skates; flashing crystal replicas of the pearl tower are for sale outside boutiques such as Armani and Zegna.
Walk down towards People’s Square and you might see a cricket vendor, his bicycle laden with tiny bamboo latticed baskets, surrounded by a deafening cloud of chirping, like a biblical plague on wheels. In a city so cramped, where communal living is common, the pavement becomes an extension of the home. People take advantage of the cool evening air to lie outside on slatted bamboo beds; old women hunch over basins cleaning bok choi; men stand in buckets taking a bath in the street, their red briefs bright against the grey, Stalinist architecture. There’s a wonderfully carnivalesque atmosphere created by Shanghai’s street life; it even comes with such sights as men wheeling carts of overstuffed giant teddybears, Chinese opera performers and troupes of grey-haired grannies in tracksuits doing choreographed dances with swords. It’s a perfect example of what urbanist Jane Jacobs calls the ‘sidewalk ballet’ – the pungent mix of food, commerce and human interaction that is the defining element of any truly vibrant city.