By Bob Benbow
The collection of buildings on the banks of Suzhou Creek is something of a dying breed in Shanghai. Ramshackle would be a generous description. They lean against each other at haphazard angles; the blocks are broken up by tiny alleyways that people walk along, dodging the ubiquitous bicycles and motorcycles that careen past. This is old China, the people living in close proximity to each other, the laundry poles that hang outside the windows nearly reaching the opposite walls as people shout to each other from their windowsills.
Areas in various advanced states of development surround the neighborhood, high-rise apartments face it from the other side of the creek, while condos and new residential plots hem it in from all sides. In the distance, the bulk of Cloud 9 mall looms, home to luxury stores and a soon to open five-star hotel. It garishly lights the night sky with its outline in blue neon that is visible from across the city. Guangfuxi Lu is the name of the road that runs along this creek, providing the spine of the neighborhood, although admittedly the name is a matter of guesswork and relying on the word of the local people, because there are no road signs.
The street is a melody of color and noise at the best of times, but particularly so at night when the neighborhood people come out to set up their stands, buy dinner and groceries, and socialize in a riot of sound and florescent lighting.
Fan Xue Liang’s work day usually begins early in the morning, when he goes to the market to pick his chickens for the day. By about five PM he finishes plucking and cleaning his selections, and ambles out to set up his stand on the north side of Guangfuxi Lu, facing the river. He likes to get a head start on his competition, and knows that any edge he can make for himself in the cutthroat business of Sichuan Chicken could mean the difference between turning a profit and losing his little stand. “I saw him buy a dead chicken one morning,” he whispers conspiratorially, gesturing towards the man selling a similar dish about ten feet to his right. “That man doesn’t care about the quality of the chicken he serves! That’s how he sells for cheaper than me.” He shakes his head sadly, quietly outraged at the thought of the lack of standards in his trade.
Fan’s story is hardly a unique one in modern Shanghai. He comes from a small town named Jinhua in the province of Zhejiang. He moved with his son to Shanghai in 1997 to help run his uncle’s restaurant, which served specialty dishes from Zhejiang, and which he hoped to someday be able to call his own. “I’m a cook,” he says, running his fingers through his thinning hair.
He moves deftly as he prepares another customer’s order. First the chicken comes out of the steamer in a woven leaf packet, which is then peeled off. Then he takes out his well worn but sharp carving knife, making quick incisions in the chicken before dunking it into the deep fryer. Once cooked, the chicken is removed and Fan carves it quickly and confidently, stacking the parts in a carrier and topping it with hot pepper. He is a charming older man of about 55, quick to smile and with the appearance of someone who does so often. Fan is wearing a faded plaid collared shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to allow him freedom of movement. Over it is a stained apron that looks as though it has seen better days. During the winter, he wears a long white lab coat that lends him an air of professionalism reinforced by his talents with a carving knife and the rubber gloves he changes regularly. “The coat keeps me warm, too,” he says. “And it keeps me from ruining my clothes.” The limited variety of his wardrobe would suggest this sort of concern is important to him.
“Business is hard,” he muses. “I do alright here.” But Fan is anything less than pragmatic about the neighborhood he works in. Surrounded by development, its days would most certainly appear to be numbered. “I think you give it five years, and this place will be gone,” he says with a look at the buildings towering around him. “Maybe less.” Indeed, with the pace of development in Shanghai as it currently is, Fan’s guess of five years seems almost too optimistic to be true. Apartment buildings seem to spring up almost over night and, when they do, the old residents are mostly thrown out with a minor fee for their troubles and maybe an apartment somewhere far out of town.
Fan’s tale of hard work and struggle is not the only one in this metropolis, nor is it particularly extraordinary. Shanghai has an enormous floating population of migrants who have moved here in an effort to improve their lots in life. For the most part, they find themselves working menial jobs or running small snack shops or stores in an effort to make ends meet thousands of miles from home. It may not be much, but any improvement in earning ability can make a huge difference in living standards. Fan cleans up his stand when it comes time to go home around 9:30 PM. He folds and stacks his signs, locking them through their legs to a street post. He turns around and casts his eyes on the luxury apartments across the creek. “Yes, I like this city,” Fan says, leaning against his small worktable. “It’s exciting and there is a lot to do here.” But when asked if he ever thinks about Zhejiang Province he smiles wanly. “Of course I do. It’s home.”