In an act of pure curiosity, sometimes I picked a random subway line in Shanghai’s tangled and massive subway system and rode it until, at a random moment, I got off.
I got off to explore, to take pictures, to find new street foods, or new neighbourhoods. These trips, mini-adventures accomplished in just one morning or afternoon, kept my wanderlust at bay on days when I was feeling restless and always taught me something new about Shanghai, and more often than not, about myself.
I never knew exactly where I was going or at what precise moment to get off the subway – most often the urge to alight was triggered by a large sweaty man next to me invading too much of my personal space, a pang of hunger, or a stretch of boredom. Occasionally, on less brave days, I felt the anxiety of being too far from familiar territory as the train hurtled further and further away from the parts of Shanghai I knew, and I got off out of fear, but that didn’t happen often. Shanghai is a safe city, one of the safest in the world, even for a lone wandering woman.
The uniformity of the underground stations rarely held a clue as to what might be found above ground, so with my camera, my appetite, and an active curiosity, I would set out to see what the streets held.
One day I took Line 10, the mauve line, northwards. I planned to head out towards the end of the line but as I rumbled past Laoximen (Old West Gate), then North Sichuan Road, my eye was caught by an upcoming stop: Youdian Xincun – Post and Telecommunications New Village. The name intrigued me, and I got off.
As I rose up out of the subway I was met by a broad seam of ramshackle and tumble-down old houses, dark and dirty, compressed together tightly and surrounded on all sides by the rising towers of new apartments and offices, like a seam of coal running through a meadow. Between the houses were dark alleys just two shoulders wide, and overhead lines of washing connected one building with another. It was gritty and grim.
As I stood there with my camera, in two minds about whether to go back into the safety of the subway or just plunge right in, a tiny woman with bowed legs approached me.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, openly curious and pointing to my camera.
“I like taking photos on the streets” I said.
“Aren’t you afraid?” she asked, waving her hand to indicate the alleys behind her. “You’re all alone.”
“No, of course not” I lied. But I kept my wits about me as I wandered.
The village, an island of old houses that have somehow escaped demolition in the face of Shanghai’s relentless progress, sits alongside a wide canal. In the early 1950s China expanded and modernised its telecommunications network on a massive scale, and suddenly there were thousands of new workers needing a place to live. The village is all that remains of the large housing estate built by Shanghai Post and Telecommunications in 1953 to house them, a vestige of a time when you lived with the people you worked with, and had little choice about it.
Now there’s only a tiny community remaining, but the ‘village’ acts as a village should – there is a sense of community visible even to an outsider, a thriving fresh food street market in the midst of the warren of lane ways, and a vibrant street life with elderly people out walking, pigeon fanciers preparing their birds for their daily flight, and food being prepared on the street. I remember it as being a lively and enjoyable afternoon as I wandered and explored without coming to any harm.
And yet…when I look at these photos now they seem filled with a sense of loneliness and loss. Or is that just how I see it today? What do you think?