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Sunday Street Style, Kaili


I love an octogenarian with attitude. I spied her one Sunday in Kaili Old Street, with her hair and specs rather eccentrically arranged. She was embroidering herself a new belt.
Sunday is no day of rest in China. In fact, it’s often the busiest day of the week as families, groups of friends and workers head for the shops on their one and only day off. Kali, in Guizhou Province, is no exception as the Sunday Market gets into full swing, starting in the old part of town and spreading like topsy into the surrounding streets.

Continue reading “Sunday Street Style, Kaili”

Life (Back) on Nanchang Lu

It’s a quarter to six in the morning and from my window I’m watching the street food vendors down on the corner feed their first customers. 
There’s the steamed bun stall, with a row of three bamboo steamer baskets each stacked three or four high, each basket holding thirty buns. The steamer baskets are as wide as the vendor’s arm is long and he reaches across to the handle on the far side of the basket to lift it up off the steamer, sending a cloud of steam billowing into the air above his head. He disappears momentarily from sight then brings back another full basket of freshly risen buns, white and plump, and places it down firmly on the steamer, cutting off the flow of steam. 
Next door, the most popular stall in the row of six shops already has a short queue for the array of fried goods they offer. The fried food stall is always the busiest for breakfast, and clearly locals love a bit of oiliness first thing in the morning. There are deep fried you tiao (oil sticks), squares of pressed rice, deep fried to give them crunch, and an enormous saucepan of hot fresh soy milk.
On the very corner itself is the congee stall with pots full of six simmering varieties of rice porridge. An early morning customer walks past in his pyjamas along all six stalls before deciding on an oil stick and cup of soy milk.

We moved house this week, back to a very quirky old apartment on Nanchang Lu overlooking one of the best street food spots in the city and I couldn’t be happier.
Some of you know that two years ago our stay in our original house on Nanchang Lu came to an unexpected and abrupt end when the landlady increased the rent by 250% in at the end of our lease. Seriously. (She mistakenly thought Shanghai Expo would bring a flood of rich foreigners to Shanghai and she would get wealthy. Instead, we moved out and the house remained empty for the next 14 months. There’s no accounting for how often greed and stupidity go hand in hand.) 
We then spent the next two years in a wonderful old lane house on Huai Hai Zhong Lu and I agonized over whether to change the name of this blog to suit, but somehow ‘Life on Huai Hai Zhong Lu’ didn’t quite sound right, was hard to pronounce for most people and the original title stuck. Which in retrospect, was very lucky indeed as we now find ourselves back on Nanchang Lu for our last year here in China. It’s as though it was meant to be.
In an effort to downsize our lives in preparation for living in a campervan for the last six months of this year, we’ve moved into a smaller old apartment. It’s rather quirky, with an odd layout and a glorious view of a decaying concrete wall from most of the side windows, but one aspect really sold it to us. 
The kitchen is enormous, lit by a wall of enormous arched windows which look directly down on to the street food corner. Every morning this week I’ve risen early and stood at the windows, drinking my morning cup of tea and watching the street come to life below. It’s the most enjoyable part of my day.

Of course, living in an old place on such a busy corner has its disadvantages – the afternoon traffic is gridlocked on the street below and accompanied by orchestral arrangements of horn-honking, bell-ringing and tooting. But I quite like the bustle and noise.
And there are the old house issues. We come off the street into a little alcove at the bottom of the aged stairwell, a space packed with drying washing, bicycles, plastic bottles, unwanted bits of furniture and a motorbike. The wiring in the alcove, supplying the whole building, is interesting to say the least, and we have already formulated our family fire escape plan. Mind you, the building has been there since the 1930s and hasn’t caught fire yet, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too paranoid.

There is space to leave Big Red up on the first floor landing, but she weighs a tonne and when I tried to get her back down the stairs I lost my grip coming down the last four steps and caused something of a chain reaction/avalanche involving a bamboo ladder, the bedhead of an ancient Chinese wedding bed covered with a blanket, a whole pile of washing, a stack of newspapers and another bicycle. Once the dust had settled there was a large hole in the wall, but I can’t be entirely sure it wasn’t already there….
From now on I’m going to shove her into a small space in that already very crowded alcove to avoid further disasters.

Despite all this there are so many wonderful things about being back on Nanchang Lu:
My corner store. He arrives with it every day at six am, and from the bicycle tray a miraculous arrangement of hats, brooms, carpet beaters, toilet plungers and aprons unfolds itself. Nothing is priced over ten yuan ($1.30) and he also sells sewing needles, tape measures, washing up gloves, spare plugs, toilet brushes and plastic bags. Very convenient.

And Nanchang Lu itself – on one of Shanghai’s most beautiful quiet streets the plane trees, bare for so many months, have just started budding this week, their leaves an extraordinary bright pale green. In no time at all the street will be one long, green archway perfect for cycling along. Can’t wait.

Blood, Guts and Frogs – Food Shopping in Shanghai

Wet markets are visceral, bloody places. 
Small deaths happen every minute as live fish, ducks, chickens, frogs meet their end, necks neatly snipped with a strong pair of scissors, blood dripping on to the floor. I can’t recall that ever happening in Woolworths. As I walked the brightly-lit neon aisles of my local supermarkets in Australia last week, marvelling at the clearly displayed prices and the general orderliness and lack of shoving amongst my fellow customers, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of nostalgia for my local wet market here in Shanghai.
Let me introduce you to the way I shop for food every day. There’s no barcode-scanner, no chocolates and lollies aisle, and no set prices. Everything – from the tiniest mushroom to a hindquarter of sheep – is up for negotiation on price, which can be exhausting or exhilarating, depending on your mindset and level of energy that day. When I walk through the doors of the market into the huge, dimly lit space, full of noise, movement, energy and interesting smells, I feel excited about food, and excited about cooking. Supermarkets don’t give me the same level of buzz, and never have – you’re never as close to your food as you are in the wet market, whether you like that feeling or not.
So what can you buy in a wet market? Wet markets are where you go for the best, freshest food, delivered in the dark before the day has even started from smaller farms, wholesalers, and guys on motorbikes with sacks of vegetables stacked to handlebar level. Mushrooms, bamboo shoots, meats, live ducks, chickens, pigeons and geese, frogs and eels, seafood, river fish, snails, cockles, and a hundred varieties of tofu and home-made pickles, duck eggs, quail eggs, free-range eggs – they’re all here, fresh today.
Meet the bamboo shoot and mushroom lady – her hands are covered with nicks and cuts covered with small bandages – the result of day after day of peeling the tough outer layers of the winter bamboo shoots off with a huge sharp cleaver. It’s not that she’s especially careless, it’s just a really difficult job and she’s always doing it in a hurry, with a big smile. 
She sells an incredible array of mushrooms too – cloud ear, oyster, enoki, shitake – in little red plastic baskets neatly lined up on her stall.
I have a soft spot for the eel lady, even though I don’t really love cooking eels – she’s shy and had to be coaxed to have her photo taken. Her hands move fast and skilfully, killing, gutting and splitting the eels. Friends at nearby stalls tease her remorselessly – “She’s so fat! Look at her face! Why do you want to take her photo?” but she ignores them and smiles a quiet smile.
Banter, kind or otherwise, is an integral part of going to the wet market. Vendors banter with one another, customers banter with vendors, and with each other. There is a constant back-and-forth discussion on prices and freshness and quality, interspersed with jokes, and teasing, and people develop close relationships with their favourite vendors, greeting them like old friends. Ot at least, old friends who might be known to cheat you from time to time.

Vegetable sellers are the market’s mainstay – selling only produce that has been picked that day. For freshness, wet markets beat supermarkets hands down, and the very fussy Chinese customers will quickly boycott any stall that tries to sell less than premium fresh produce – I’ve witnessed many stand-up arguments over the age of freshly-picked beans.
I found the meat sections of the wet market quite confronting at first, all those slabs of glistening fatty pork and pieces of beef tendon hanging on hooks, Sweeney Todd style. But now I like walking the rows, looking at the interesting cuts of meat and asking for something particular. 
The chicken/duck/pigeon coops are a different matter. The birds are chosen by the buyer, weighed first and paid for, then taken to a glass-fronted room where the buyer can watch as their chosen bird is killed, dipped in a vat of boiling water to loosen the feathers, plucked, gutted and cleaned before being passed through the window, limp and pink, into a plastic bag. I’m working my way up to buying chicken this way.

There are bullfrogs too, also sold alive and killed, skinned and trimmed to order.

And every wet market has a dry goods stall, filled to bursting with dried beans, rice, dried mushrooms, dried berries, cooking oil, spices, sauces and condiments.

It’s a totally involving way to shop. No two days are ever the same in the market, as foods come in to season and go out of season.What will I find today? To walk in and find the first spring bamboo shoots, the autumn hairy crabs, to enjoy the brief, sweet, week-long season of yang mei in mid-summer, or the last of the winter bamboo shoots, the wet market marks the passing of the seasons, and the bounty of nature.
If you have a favourite market where you live, I want to hear about it!
Jiashan Wet Market
Corner Taiyuan Lu and Jianguo Lu
Open 7 days from 5am til dark
More Food Stories….
More Travel Stories….

The Miao Sisters Meal Festival, Guizhou Province

Seven Must-dos at Nanjing’s Lantern Fair

In Xanadu, with Kublai Khan

Things to do Outdoors in Harbin. Like Swimming.

They breed’em tough in far northern China. This pair of diehards are dōng yǒng 冬泳 or winter swimmers, and they’re about to dive into a swimming pool cut directly from the thick ice of the frozen Song Hua River in Harbin, wearing nothing but the scantiest shreds of lycra and a swimming cap. 
Winter swimming is apparently good for your health, but possibly only if you already possess an extremely robust disposition, or you need a full-body shock now and again to let you know you’re alive. Just like sticking your finger in a powerpoint, but colder.
I heard about these winter swimmers before I left Shanghai and I felt an immediate affiliation – I mean, I’m a winter swimmer myself! Winter swimmers like to pride themselves on swimming outdoors all through the winter months, because indoor swimmers in heated pools are just babies who can’t take a bit of cold. Or maybe they’re just sensible. One or the other.
But my winter swimming usually took place in subtropical Queensland, where a chilly winter day was about..oh.. twenty degrees celsius, or in the Pacific Ocean where the water temperature never drops below twenty four degrees. Not exactly a rugged hardship then. More like a summer vacation somewhere a bit further from the equator than Brisbane.
This sophisticated machine keeps the water churning constantly so it doesn’t freeze over. Water temperature – minus five degrees celsius.
There are very cold parts of the world like Russia, Scandinavia, and China, where winter swimming actually takes place in sub-zero conditions and they have to employ all sorts of smart techniques to stop the water re-freezing. These guys are truly hard-core and can proudly call themselves ‘Polar Bears’, which most of them do. They even have a Winter Swimming World Championships every December!
What I didn’t realise was just what a tight-knit and unique group winter swimmers are. More of a cult really, if you consider the many winter swimmers who believe that plunging into ice-cold water on a regular basis will bring you closer to God. But then again, most near-death experiences tend to do that.
According to winter swimming advocate Dr Vladimir Antonov  (a prolific writer who has written books on Atlantis and the Atlanteans and Sexology, amongst other learned classics), winter swimming can also cure a whole stack of diseases previously thought tricky to get rid of, like TB. This, from his Eco-Psychology website:
‘winter swimming decreases the sickness rate for cold-type diseases 60 (!) times, and for other diseases 30 times….winter swimming can heal many diseases including radiculitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, pancreatic diabetes, chronic gastrintestinal diseases, inflammations in genitals, menstrual cycle abnormalities, dermatoses and so on [32,65]’
Try as I might I couldn’t find Dr Antonov’s references 32 and 65 anywhere, which is a shame because I’m sure they might have made for interesting reading. He does caution that swimming ‘in water with temperature over 8 degrees…may even cause untrained individuals to catch cold’. So take care, and only swim in the really icy stuff. 
Back to China though, where life is much more pragmatic and a whole lot less spiritual. These guys swim in winter, yes, and they do believe it’s good for your health….but they’re only getting in the water if you pay them quite a lot of money. Totally sensible, like a paid dare really. The rest of the time they’re sitting in a cosy heated cabin drinking hot tea and waiting for guileless tourists like us to happen along.
This guy is the official swim pimp. For only 200 yuan (about $30) he said he could arrange for someone to swim for us. We bantered the price back and forth, but when my husband opened his wallet there was only 120 yuan inside. He snatched it quickly and shuffled on the slippery ice back to the heated cabin, to break the good news to the swimmer. 
In the end though, we got two swimmers for our money, a man in his sixties and a younger woman. They strode out of the cabin without robes, looking for all the world like they really enjoyed this stuff, hamming it up with crazy poses and growls of bravery. Neither of them popped a single goosebump the entire time, perhaps an indication they’re genetically suited to winter swimming.
I was alarmed to see they were planning to dive from the not-very-sturdy diving platform, a feat worth every yuan of the danger money we were paying. The platform was constructed from tent poles and a few planks of wood, with spindly legs embedded in the river ice, and the whole precarious contraption wobbled and swayed when the first swimmer took to the ladder.

Look at that. After diving in and swimming half a length, not a single goosebump, although I think the involuntary look of pain when he resurfaced after the dive says it all. Extraordinary.
Next, the woman climbed to the highest rung and edged out along the diving plank. At the last moment she took off her plastic slippers, positioned herself and blew us a kiss before executing a perfect dive into the water below. 

I’ll make sure I think of these guys when I’m next doing my winter laps back home in Brisbane, sun shining and a balmy twenty-one winter degrees.

Charcuterie Ducks, Eels, and Kidneys: Chinese New Year is Coming!

Well, if there are rows of flayed ducks lining the streets, then it must be Chinese New Year. The whole city has been transformed into an enormous outdoor charcuterie – every footpath is lined with makeshift wooden frames covered with the oddly attractive looking bodies of drying ducks, head and feet intact, tiny ribcages on display. The ducks are tagged around the neck or one webbed foot with the name of the purchaser so that when they’re ready (five or six days, in cold dry weather) they can be collected.

Look up as you walk and instead of ducks you’ll see doorstop-sized hunks of pork, soaked in brine and drying in the cold winter air, pierced with bent wire coathangers and hung alongside the week’s washing.

There is a terrific do-it-yourself aspect to all of this – just the same way my mother still makes her own Christmas puddings every year, many families in Shanghai follow in an age-old tradition and make their own dried goods for Chinese New Year.

Back in Shanghai watching the Chinese New Year preparations hot up, I can tell you there is a world of dried meat involved. I’ve been trawling the internet for hours trying to get to the bottom of the whole dried fish, dried duck, dried pork, dried sausage and dried chicken thing, but needless to say there will be thousands of years of tradition and a deep degree of symbolism behind it, much more than I could ever understand. I guess it tastes pretty good too.

The fish I can understand, because the word for fish (鱼 yú) sounds just the same as the word for prosperity or surplus (余 yú). So you should eat some fish, not all of it mind, and you’ll be sure to have a surplus of wealth in the new year. The favoured fish around town is an alarming looking giant eel, split neatly down the middle, flattened like a skateboard and strung up on a clothes rail in the street to dry, like an enormous sharply toothed silver sail.

My neighbours, previouly unknown to me as charcuterie experts, have been drying ham and stuffing their own strings of Chinese sausage for weeks now, draped over their balcony rails or hung neatly under their air-conditioning unit for protection. I’m unsure what kind of protection the exhaust vent from an airconditioner box offers, exactly, but it is a neat place to hang stuff. 

The sausage is pleasingly attractive, all knobbly with hunks of meat and large pieces of fat. The butcher shops have taken to hanging theirs in festive red and white garlands strung between telephone poles or conveniently placed trees outside their shops, where the passing traffic can see their wares and the sausage can catch a few fumes for extra flavour.

What I really love though, are the ducks. The first time you walk outdoors and see the weirdly flattened shovel shape of a drying duck it is rather confronting to those of us accustomed to having our smallgoods prepared out of sight and away from inclement weather. 

Why outdoors? Well, I suppose it’s partly a question of space, and finding somehwere with good airflow – the charcuterie experts among you will know about that. If there was plenty of space to be had in a city of twenty million people, why would you decide to hang your ducks under a high-voltage transformer to dry, for instance? One short-circuit and…..boom! Charcoal.

Next to the ducks hang funny little strings of baubles, but on closer inspection they turn out to be drying hearts, kidneys and livers, out of reach of the neighbourhood cats. Not a thing is wasted, everything can be rendered tasty.

My Chinese friends tell me that seeing ducks and eels out to dry is the seasonal equivalent, for them, of seeing Christmas trees appear in the shops for us. It means a time of delicious food and togetherness is coming and you can feel the goodwill and excitement building out on the streets. In less than a week, families will come together, cook wonderful meals and share the news of the last year with each other. And some dried eel.

The Apocalypse, Now. Constructing the New China

It’s a scene from the end of the world – a pallid sun struggles to push through a thick polluted haze to the ground below, where an endless miasma of cold grey mud covers the ground as far as the eye can see, pitted with pools of stinking green water. Men, such men as can live and work amongst the mud, move slowly and laboriously through the landscape, mud sucking at their every step. They work side by side with rusting hulks of dirty machines digging at the mud and belching smoke and nearby mud-covered pipes spew liquid mud endlessly from one filthy pool to another. Mud moves from one place to the next, covering everything, colouring everything.
The sky is pierced by towers of steel rigging, soon to be cranes, and in every direction for as far as the eye can see are the hazy silhouettes of cranes on other building sites littering the horizon like so many giant skeletal weathervanes, pointing the way to some dystopian future. Flagpoles planted to stake a claim in the earth. 
This is a construction site in the ‘New Town’ of Ningbo, next door to the Ningbo International Finance Centre where I spent a day last week photographing their public art at on my first real ‘professional’ photography gig. Ningbo, I suspect, is a city built largely on mud, sitting on the coastal cusp of the Yangtze delta. Mud barons have spent gazillions to create glittering towers from displaced mud, where before were only flatlands and barren wetlands. 
While I searched for a vantage point to photograph a particular artwork at the Finance Centre I realized I had a birdseye view over the foundation groundworks nearby, normally hidden completely by twelve feet of impenetrable hoarding around the site perimeter. Within that perimeter hundreds of men (and women labourers too) live and work, surrounded every day by all that mud. 
Of course, this hideous mud-covered scene is particular to part of the east coast of China where sediment from as far away as Tibet washes out to the sea, advancing the coast of China by an inch a day. Extraordinary to think all that sediment will make China one mile wider in about a hundred and seventy years. But this kind of building isn’t confined to Ningbo’s new financial district, it’s going on all over the country.
China, every last inch of it, is in the grip of a building boom so vast, with a scope so broad, so deep, and so tall it beggars belief. If I hadn’t crossed the country top to bottom and east to west and seen it for myself I couldn’t even begin to imagine the extent of it.  Millions of metres of new roads, thousands of new skyscrapers, hundreds of bridges and tunnels. 
I watched this man in intervals over the course of the entire day as he shovelled mud, by hand, from the left side of the roadway to the right. Mud continued to ooze from some unseen source, undoing all his work and he would begin clearing the same section of road all over again. It seemed rather futile in the grand scheme of building a skyscraper from scratch, but the more I watched him and thought about it, the more it brought home to me that every skyscraper is the work of thousands and thousands of hands, shovelling, hammering, welding and grinding. And moving mud.

The Camera-less Blogger

The last photo taken with my Canon, Xietu Lu 2.30pm 
It’s been one hell of a week and already Wednesday, without a single word to show for myself. Chinese classes, sick children, overseas visitors, and to top it all off, camera troubles. I’m between cameras, you see, saddled with one that keeps breaking down but not committed to buying a new one. It’s an unpleasant state similar to realising your current boyfriend is gonna have to go, but you haven’t yet found a replacement for him. 
The trusty Canon and I have travelled some 100,000 km together in the last three years, across China several times, to Australia, France, Scotland and the Netherlands and back, and up and down just about every street and lane in Shanghai. 
A hard-working camera like that definitely deserves better treatment than I’ve dished out. I dropped it hard, twice, once on the Great Wall and once on Nanchang Lu, both falls resulting in a short stay at the Shanghai Canon hospital’s high dependency unit. Touch and go on the auto-focus. It’s never even had its own camera bag, it just rumbles around in my handbag along with a hundred pens, a few half-eaten biscuits and leaking bottles of water. I can see the real photographers cringing when I say that. 
And then it started to play up with little lapses of attention and weird lens behaviour. It couldn’t seem to   capture Chinese reds (lanternsfirecrackers, lucky underwear, and so on) as well as I wanted. When I called my photographer sister last week and asked her advice, she went through all the possibilities and finally said “You know what the problem is? You’ve outgrown your camera. Your technical skill is now beyond what the camera can offer you.”
What? My technical skills??! My technical skills have never outgrown anything, not the DVD remote control, not the self-assembly instructions from IKEA, nothing. Certainly not a highly complicated bit of kit like a digital SLR, surely?
I was gutted. I loved that Canon and could use it with my eyes closed. Or half-closed and kind-of-screwed-up. A new camera would just be a whole lot of hassle and I’d have to learn the buttons all over again, and I hate purchasing technical stuff. Really, really hate it.
Which leads to an embarrassing disclosure – my husband and I both hate purchasing whitegoods and electronic items so much, we outsource the purchase decisions to family members who seem to get some kind of perverse pleasure from drawing up spreadsheets with the pros and cons of various washing machines or DVD players. Based on their research and calculations, they tell us what we need and we go and buy it. 
And if there aren’t any available gadget-loving relatives around, we walk into the shop and get the shop guy to do the thinking for us.
“So, what are you looking for today?”
“A computer”
“Any idea what kind?”
“Which brand?”
“Don’t know”
“Screen size?”
“No idea”
“Memory capacity?”
“No. No idea. I haven’t done any research and I don’t have any preferences. How about I just tell you what I need it for and you tell me which one I should buy?”
“Can I interest you in a discussion about pentium processors?”
We’re dream customers. The guys in the electronic shops know our type, and basically just hand us a iBag filled with iGoods, take our credit card, and hand us an iReceipt and an extended iWarranty. They’re happy, and we’re happy because we haven’t spent hours and days wondering if we should have bought the iGizmo v 2.0 instead. We didn’t even know it existed.
So you can see why buying a new camera was, for me, an iNightmare. When I asked photography-loving friends what I should buy, they asked all sorts of tricky questions and then came up with four completely different solutions. When I asked Mr Google what I should buy, he came up with “It depends.”
There was nothing for it. I spent the last two wet rainy days researching sites like dpreview‘s great side-by-side camera comparison. I asked Mr Google a lot more questions, got sidetracked as various photographers biffed it out in online forums (photography buffs apparently love to fight over technical stuff like lenses and something called ‘bokeh’, not a Middle Eastern food).
I went to the Shanghai Photography Market today and on the way in, took a few last photos with my Canon. The autofocus gave up for good soon after, probably dying of a broken heart. I put it away in my handbag, where it had always lived, and walked out an hour later with a brand new Nikon (purchased entirely in Chinese! Chinese classes are paying off after all) in a padded, waterproof, sturdy-as-hell bag of its very own.
I believe it does all sorts of cool things the Canon couldn’t, although I can’t be sure because the instruction manual, as it turns out, is also entirely in Chinese. Mr Google and I are going to be having a very late night. 
What camera do you use, and what would you buy if money was no object?
First photo taken with my Nikon D700, Huating Lu 5pm.
The Shanghai Photography Market

Cnr Luban Lu and Xietu Lu
Open daily 9am-6pm

Husband Wanted.

Female. Born in 1983. Shanghai residence permit. 1.62m tall.
So begin the qualifications of a potentially marriageable young Shanghai woman. Not that she wrote her own description of course, she might not even be aware her vital statistics are being displayed every weekend in a corner of People’s Square by a marriage broker – her own mother. 
According to the sign, pegged to a shopping bag, she works in administration for a foreign enterprise with a monthly pay of 6,000 yuan (about $US1000).
She is also shanliang – good and kind-hearted, laoshi –  honest, and xiangmao jiao hao – of quite good facial appearance.
Parents already retired, living in Shanghai.
Yuqiu – wishing for – a man with a specialized field of study (bachelor degree or higher), born between 1978 and 1985, honest, dependable, and with a salary of more than 6,000 yuan per month. 
The last line, 有事业心的有房男士,as translated by two Chinese friends, basically says : ‘Have professional ambitions for a house and husband‘.

On any given Sunday in Shanghai similar testimonials in their hundreds line the paths of a particular corner of People’s Square known as the Marriage Market. Far from being a place for the young lovelorn to find girlfriends or boyfriends, this is a serious business conducted mostly by parents concerned for their children’s marriage prospects. 
There are few photographs, and character descriptions are sketchy at best, but the eligible bachelors and bachelorettes are heavy on degrees, masters degrees and PhDs. It’s all terribly pragmatic. Middle-aged mothers and fathers perch patiently on folding stools next to their child’s qualifications, and wait for interest from other parents. Should they be short on time, there are professional brokers who will hang their child’s description for them every week and take enquiries on their behalf.
Shanghai is well-known for its mercenary marriage ‘requirements’, and most young men can forget about making a good match until they have a good income, a car, and an apartment. Marriage markets and marriage brokers exist in other cities in China, but not in the same ruthlessly prescriptive way in this city where status is everything.
What I find really interesting is how very Dickensian it all is. In 2011 we’re still using essentially the same criteria to find a good husband that the Victorians used. None of these unsuitable love matches of which no good can come. Parents want their children to make a good marriage, but always on the understanding that eligible applicants for the job of future wife or husband have such and such a level of education, or income, or social standing. In all, that their prospects are good and their fortune is solid, and if love should follow, then happy days for everyone! But is not….well, at least he’s a good earner with a Masters Degree.

But it’s just not very….romantic, is it? As Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett would say:
“What is the difference, in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?”


Laundry Airing, in Public

You thought I had some juicy gossip today, right? Well, sort of…Life on Nanchang Lu is featured in the November issue of Shanghai’s best glossy monthly, Shanghai Talk Magazine (shorter online version here) in an article on Shanghai food blogs. Exciting stuff! They also featured two blogging friends who have great food blogs worth checking out: The Shanghai Foodist, and Wok With Me Baby, in which MaryAnne cooks familiar foods using only Chinese ingredients she can source locally.
Other than this news, today probably qualifies as the shortest post ever because tomorrow I have a Chinese test. I should be studying right this second but I loved these photos so much I had to post them. Many of my favourite images never make it into a post of their own – they’re just things I’ve snapped on the street, often pictures without a story. 
So invent your own story for these frothy confections of wedding dresses. It was a lovely sunny day yesterday and they were being hung outside a store on Jiashan Lu to air….I think. I certainly can’t explain the chef’s whites hanging alongside, or the random bra and pair of red underpants.
Wish me luck for tomorrow!

Recycling, Shanghai Style.

Recycling is not an activity you might automatically associate with the world’s largest producer of disposable stuff. Know what though? Chinese people are avid recyclers, driven in part by thrift, and in part by business – after all, several of China’s biggest multi-billionaires made their fortunes in the waste recycling business. 

Walk down any street in Shanghai and you will soon notice the scrap recyclers – they’re the guys collecting used water bottles, dismantling old mattresses to remove the metal springs, and flattening and stacking used cardboard boxes.

Roving scrap merchants go from house to house tinkling a small ‘bell’ made from a tin saucepan or teapot lid, the sound of which lets people know to bring out any scrap they might want to sell. The merchants then collate and stack their recyclables onto the back of a tricycle cart and pass it up the line to a bigger recycling unit, hopefully making a small profit along the way.

What can be recycled is limited only by your imagination and your patience. I’ve watched old nails being painstakingly removed from lengths of wood, and the plastic coating being stripped from short lengths of wire to get to the copper beneath.

I can’t tell you much about the big busines end of the recycling game (you can read more about how recycling works in China at Adam Minter’s excellent blog Shanghai Scrap), but I can tell you how it looks from the bottom up, where I live. 

Meet Mr Zhang (above) and his wife (below), the couple in charge of weekend recycling in my lane. Mr Zhang and his wife come from Shandong province but moved to Shanghai many years ago, and while the recycling business hasn’t made them rich (far from it), it has enabled them to put their two adult sons through university. No small feat for any parent.
Our lane has some 70-odd houses arranged in 8 rows, many houses consisting of two or three separate apartments. Overall, we produce a great deal of rubbish, most of which goes through the windows seen above into large black wheelie bins in the refuse room, a small building in the middle of the lane. 
Anything discarded but worthy of recycling gets put to one side by Mr Zhang, or more often, kept in people’s homes until the weekend when it can be sold. Mr and Mrs Zhang set up a miniature recycling ‘shop’ in fornt of the refuse room first thing on Saturday morning which stays open until late Sunday afternoon. A huge sack for plastic bottles. Stacks of newspaper and cardboard. Glass bottles and jars. Scrap metal. Scrap wood. Scrap fabric. In addition, they have a set of green semi-industrial scales used for weighing the scrap people bring them and depending on the type, they will pay a small amount per kilogram.
Two ‘customers’ have brought a box full of glass bottles for weighing.
By mid-morning the piles are getting large and Mr Zhang begins stacking his blue tricycle with a load to take to the recycling plant.
The empty tricycle….

Now fully stacked. Mr Zhang tells me the most lucrative items to recycle are newspapers and plastic drink bottles, with a full load like this netting him around 100yuan ($16) at the recycling plant. He would usually manage to fill two loads over two days, perhaps three on a good weekend. Not a great deal of money for two full days’ work, but it earns him extra on top of his earnings as the night guard for our lane.

He was interested to hear about how recycling works in Australia, that we have a separate bin for recyclables that is collected once a week.

‘How much do they pay you for it?’ Mr Zhang asked me.

‘Why, nothing! I have to pay them to take it away!’ I explained.

Mr Zhang was flabbergasted. To him, it seemed an extremely backward way of doing things and you know, I had to agree. Perhaps if we were paid for our recycling we would be better at it. But perhaps recycling only becomes economically viable in a place where labour is cheap, and everything has a price.