Nanjing Lu leaves nothing to the imagination, a capitalist monstrosity eating away at the very heart of China’s communist struggle. The Bund, Technology Park, People’s Park, modern Pudong and even the French quarter follow in it’s ravenous footsteps. It’s just not China, at least not the China I expected. Heading away from tooting taxis and angry hordes of money-wielding tourists I wander through the backstreets of central Shanghai, twisting and turning ever further from the glistening Metropolis and its Starbucks sheep.
As tall glass buildings give way to low-rise suburbia the street life builds, just a few side stalls selling Gerbils and freshly cut pineapples at first, then hair salons and cafes, carpenters and antique traders, and suddenly you’re centre-stage in a Sino-Shakespearean masterpiece. In Shanghai, the old China exists by thriving at street-level; hairdressers and butchers deftly slicing their meat as if the same, fish mongers man-handling yesterday’s catch from shallow coffins, dropping them on the ubiquitous scale-encrusted wooden chopping block, hacking and scraping until satisfied.
Toads hang in nets, gerbils share tanks with terrapins, pigeons display to the highest bidder, and crabs routinely make a bid for freedom while meaningless arguments distract their stall owners. Sound and colour erupt from all directions as crimson-red blood navigates its way through the gutter, passing glistening scales and entrails of all descriptions. Quacking ducks get plucked from tiny cages and plunged head first into boiling hell, their screech drowned by the latest romantic ballad to eject itself from the Barbour’s speakers next door, volume at 11, naturally.
Happily no one seems to notice me, so I side step a few unidentifiable objects and make my way past more squirming shells, blue lobsters watching as hairy crabs and their less-hairy cousins are tied up into neat little bundles ready to drop in the pot. Steam and incense bellow from cook-pots and cloud my already dazzled vision as I finally step in something so viscous it almost takes my shoe off. Exhausted I find myself off the main thoroughfare and sit at a small table, order a cold Tsingtao with noodles and watch the chaos continue for an hour or two, everything ticking along just like clockwork.