Sub-tropic heat has arrived. No warning given, it just arrived last week like a slap round the face. The midday heat is so intense your head feels stuck in a clamp and your veins pulse madly through your skin. This is Shanghai, and I’ve been told this heat is nothin’ so far.
On Sunday afternoon, I’m noticing men wear crop tops (seems only the men with beer bellies do this) and women wear pajamas. It’s like a slumber party in the bakery, with all these people in slippers and bear print. It’s not a good look, but the streets are just like everyone’s extended home, so it’s nice.
Long gone are the days living at North Xizang Rd; that means the late-night violin playing, the women who’d knit everyday on the street corner, daytime fireworks, the smell of dumplings, the folk dancing outside the subway, and living in a girl’s walk-in wardrobe… Now I live in a new room in a totally new area.
There is a slightly European feel here. The streets are quiet and tree-lined. And at night, there is the music of the nightclub opposite. It’s good to experience these different angles of the city.
Back to Sunday afternoon at Laoximen: I go in search of the flower, bird, fish & insect market.
I choose randomly from about 6 exits, and then from 6 different roads, and find myself in a place where nobody speaks English. And when that happens, you’re direction-asking is just futile. You either get shooed away or yapped at in Chinese, and you walk away more confused than ever.
It’s a dream world, Shanghai. My friend back home imagines it as a “grey and sparkly world where people float”. Have to say she’s not too far off. The subway – everyone’s just like bats down there, zigzagging between the crowd with ease. You see the expats, stand out in a sea of Asians. And find yourself making up stories about people.
There are so many people it’s insane. Sometimes at work it takes up to 20mins to get a lift up to the 17th floor where I work. Lifts will go by crammed with uncomfortable faces. Once I tried the fire escape but I ended up in some air raid-like tunnel and got creeped. It makes me wonder what would actually happen if there was a fire…
Again we return to Sunday. I am lost. Angry at myself for not looking up the route beforehand. But then I think it must be because a part of me loves to get lost. I was roaming old neighborhoods where old shikumen houses stood caved in, hollow, crumbling, and beside them people sat by heaps of watermelons and others sang as they walked down the street.
Then I came across the antiques market (on Dongtai lu) that I’d been told was right opposite the FBFI market. I wandered down the quiet open street, two sides lined with sellers. I thought fleetingly, and uncomfortably of spiders – the sellers only came out their dens when you looked closer. A guy tried to sell me a domino for 3000 quoi… but failed.
Branching out into side-alleys I got lost again, tangled in washing, and hunting out this hidden market, but I soon found it just over the street.
I shuffled in with the crowd, into this dark warehouse stinking of cat piss and bird shit. Kittens lay curled up smiling together, birds tried to catch your eye and guilt-trip you – I felt if I stared too long I’d end up walking out with one…
There were men inspecting tortoises and insects, sizing them up. In one hand a baby tortoise, in the other a Double Happiness cigarette. There were men playing mah jong; smoking, drinking.
Everyone says China’s a man’s country, and you feel this here. You feel it in the conclaves of men clustered round their card decks… never a woman in sight.
There are crickets parceled in straw cages, no room to move, and chirping all out-of-sync. Adding a mounting tension to this hot and crazy warehouse. Hawkers sell neon frogs, colour-dyed like candies in a fish bowl.
I watch a mother and her son kneeling on the market floor and she passes to him a tiny fish in a bag to take home with them. He looks so happy. I’m reminded of a time in my own childhood when my mum surprised me and a boring trip to buy a washing machine turned into a trip to the pet shop to get a hamster.
At the end of it, you emerge from this market, and still out in the streets the craziness doesn’t stop. You’re spat out onto the street to weave in and out of angry traffic, and then you’re back down floating around in the underground.
I love this place but I feel like I need a weekend in the Chinese mountains ASAP, where there isn’t 10,000 people to every sq mile.