Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shanghai Social Diary

You can still observe traditional daily life on the streets in Shanghai.
by Jeanne Lawrence

SHANGHAI—In Shanghai, one of the world’s most exciting cities, what I find most intriguing is the contrast between old and new.

Today, old traditional Shanghai neighborhoods are being torn down and replaced by modern buildings. Though some call it progress, others bemoan this destruction of Shanghai’s special character.

China has experienced the greatest construction boom in the history of man. If you want to see the Shanghai from the past, you’d better hurry up and visit before it disappears.
My home in Shanghai is Lakeville Regency (2006), a gated upscale complex in the center of town, in the Luwan district.
The complex of apartment units, from 8 to 23 stories, is build around a courtyard so it’s quiet. We have a large clubhouse with a spa, a huge swimming pool, a fitness room, a sauna, a steam, a locker room, mini-golf and a children’s playroom.
The location is wonderful, because from my living room window I can see a stunning view of modern Shanghai and its high-rise buildings.
From my bedroom window, on the opposite side of the apartment, I have a very different panorama: old Shanghai, with its low buildings and its narrow streets filled with shops, food, and people going through all the dramas of daily life.
Very conveniently, I can just walk across the street to Xintiandi, a popular re-development project containing a two-square-block area reserved for pedestrians.
Filled with restaurants, nightclubs, movies, and boutiques, Xiantiandi is a popular meeting place for people from around the world.
Even Starbucks has found its way to Xiantiandi.
Though many of the buildings in my neighborhood are old and dilapidated, some are interesting and charming. The likelihood is that in a few years, this neighborhood, like many others, will be torn down.
More modern office buildings, apartment, malls, and global-brand boutiques will be built, hastening Shanghai’s transformation to just another modern international city.
I most enjoy exploring Shanghai on bike or foot. Invariably, I discover something new to to see, to learn, to drink or taste. This day I visited the local neighborhood market, where locals shop daily for ingredients for a meal or two.

I was the only Westerner in sight, but no one paid me any attention. I’ve snapped photo after photo (I now have over 100,000) documenting a slice of everyday life in Shanghai.
I decided to bike ride around my neighborhood to see what I could find of traditional daily life.
I started before 6:30 a.m. in order to beat the automobile street traffic, which has increased exponentially these last few years.
Much to my surprise, many locals were already heading to work.
In an older area like this one, most people still ride bikes—the best mode of transportation, really.
Some people were returning home from very early shopping trips to the grocery.
Though it was early, the streets were already filling with people.
This dog did not want to get an early morning start!
I got off my bike and walked through a small pedestrian market street, already packed at 7 a.m.
I stopped at small “hole in the wall” stands to grab a bite to eat. Pan-fried dumplings, and baked buns and pastries, make a delicious breakfast.
Fresh tea leaves of all varieties are stored in airtight containers.
The fruits and vegetables in these stalls are extremely fresh.
Vendors sell live fish and crabs that they’ll gut and scale while you wait. Now, that’s fresh!
In this butcher shop, they cut meats to order. Some people still wear comfortable pajama-style clothing, although the government began a campaign to discourage that before the 2008 Beijing Olympics began.
Here’s an efficient and fun way to deliver food to the market.
As you can see, you don’t always need huge garbage trucks.
When I noticed people climbing up a set of stairs off the street, I followed them and ended up in a farmer’s market, which they call a “wet market” (cai shi chang).
I think it’s called a wet market because the produce is often sprayed and washed with water, so the floors are perpetually wet. Produce is sold in a unit of measure called a jin. Prices are labeled, and you need to pay in small change.
The vegetables are brought in daily from small local farms, where the crops are fresh, tasty and maybe organic.
Though locals find the food at the wet markets less expensive and fresher, foreigners—especially if they don’t speak Mandarin— often find it easier to shop in supermarkets.
After the food market, I discovered E-Mart. There you can find everything from rice steamers to teapots, bicycles and scooters to children’s apparel to sports gear—and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.