Not only are bicycles great for long-distance travel, but they are also excellent vehicles for getting under local cultural strata as well.
Clear days and mild fall temperatures bring pleasant riding weather. Itching to get out a bit, I was up in the morning and out into Shanghai my bike seeing what there is to see.
This morning’s destination: one or more of Shanghai’s longtangs or “lane houses” in the hopes of getting a peek into the city’s quintessential yesteryears that are all too rapidly fading away.
In a city like Shanghai, adventure is only a short ride away.
Background on Longtangs
I first experienced Shanghai’s longtangs over 16 years ago when I first came to Shanghai to visit family and friends.
The word “longtang” means “lane houses,” which are found lining narrow side streets or alleyways in small enclaves scattered throughout the older parts of the city. Most of these residential developments date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are rich in Shanghainese culture and replete with real local color.
Similar to the famous hutongs, or small neighborhoods of Beijing, these small communities consist of clusters of two and three story housing units, sometimes secured with a common entrance gate. In their prime, these residential collectives represented the lowest level of self-governing administrative organizations and acted as base liaisons between the citizens and the local government.
Shanghai’s longtangs provide an authentic glimpse of the past. Among the bustling side streets and narrow alleys, China as it once was can be seen and experienced.
Mornings are a hub of activity in these tight-knit communities. Endless clusters of men and women are forever chatting amongst themselves. Grannies are getting the groceries for the day while checking up the local gossip with their besties.
Nowadays, Longtang residents consist mostly of older people, save for grandparents tending their grandchildren. Most of the young people have all gotten jobs and moved into more modern upscale high-rise apartment complexes blanketing the city.
Along the narrow lanes and alleys, life is lived on the street. Outdoor plumbing and community restrooms are still commonplace in the older longtangs. Sinks are often mounted on the outside of the apartment close to the front door on the sidewalk.
The occasional night pot can be spotted cocked against a wall airing out in the sun. I raised my camera to make a picture and Annie freaked out. “Do you know what that is?”
Residents go about personal hygiene at the edge of the curb. Old men can be seen brushing their teeth. Women wash their hair and clean dishes in outdoor sinks.
Walking my bike or riding slowly in the milling crowd of locals it is easy to imagine a life of long ago. It’s easy to see life how it once was before modernity arrived.
The opportunities for street photography in Shanghai are virtually endless. Interesting people and activities abound. It’s down these bustling lanes where genuine life lives where tourists rarely tread.
Most Chinese are a bit camera shy until you personally engage them. They are often just as curious about you as you are of them. After a few minutes conversation, they warm up for a photo and often want to make one of their own.
Annie and I spent the morning rolling the alleys, peering through the doors seeing what can be seen. Occasionally I pulled out my camera to grab a few street scenes before we headed back home.
Happening Social Scene
Longtangs are generally lively social scenes. Grandmas and aunties can be found chatting in the morning sun. Old men sit around a small table and smoke cigarettes and while playing the Chinese board game of xiangqi. Two old ladies haggle over the price of fish in the wet market. This is daily life on the street.
Old men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes sit on stools just outside their front doors wryly surveying activity in the street. They slowly blowing clouds of smoke, they meticulously scan the morning crowd. Occasionally one will give a jerky nod or croak out a greeting to another old dude shuffling by.
A web of power lines crisscrosses the street overhead.
It’s good to have a local native speaker with me. Being Shanghainese, Annie is great in conversations. Curious people will almost immediately start up a conversation with Annie to find out more about me. “What is the foreigner doing here? Are you his guide?”
Chinese are always interested as to the nature of Annie and my relationship. Is she my guide or are we married? Because Annie is much better looking than me and looks so much younger, they often think she is my guide/interpreter.
Vibram Five Fingers are a great conversation starter. Chinese are quite curious about my “toe shoes.” On the way across town, I chatted with a guy from New Zealand, who noticed my Vibram’s while I was waiting for a light. “So, how far have you ridden?”
Authentic Street Markets
Virtually every longtang has a local street market in it or near it, and these little hives of activity are always worth a gander.
A fairly quiet market during the weekday. The full-on market happens on the weekends.
The “wet market” or section selling seafood is usually stocked full with styrofoam crates filled with fresh cuttlefish, eels, numerous kinds of shrimp I’ve never seen. With the seafood, this is usually a selection of various frogs and turtles as well.
If you purchase a couple frog for dinner, a lady will gladly chop their heads off and strip the legs from the innards so you don’t have to at home. If you want to do the job yourself, she will happily bag them up for you live so that can be on your way.
There is usually a wide selection of ocean and some river fish well. Many are still alive in aerated tubs or glass tanks. The Chinese want their fish as fresh as possible.
Fall is the season for famous green crabs from Tai Hu (Lake). They can be found in tubs and barrels all over Shanghai.
Fresh fruits and vegetables in boxes and baskets arrive from the fields daily. Few Chinese stock up on food for several days in a row and prefer to have fresh meats and vegetables daily.
Markets are a great place to get freshly fried dough and steamed dumplings prepared to order and cheap. Eating local in China is very economical. Dining on anything “western” is another story.
Negotiating is always part of the process. You will not be respected if you don’t haggle at least a bit. Most of the time, I tend not to haggle too hard. I’m not a honed negotiator like my wife, and the shop owners aren’t a making that much. If I really want a good deal, that’s when I let slip the take-no-prisoners “Dragon Lady” and her mad haggling skills to go in for the best deal.
Out with the Old
Sadly, most of the longtangs are disappearing, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house, family by family. Progress marches on.
Most of the _longtang_ neighborhoods are facing imminent demolition and falling victim to the wrecking ball. Out with the old, in with the new. In a modern China, clay tiles and plaster walls must make room for new glistening steel and glass skyscrapers.
Such is the way of modernization. I understand the process and the reasons for change but am saddened to see the old neighborhoods go just the same.
Major developers are buying out homeowners and relocating them to new high-rise apartment developments and then demolishing the old land apartments. Most of the former owners are relocated to new high-rise complexes going up on the outskirts of Shanghai.
On this trip through a couple of the longtangs, I’m surprised to see a fair amount of remodeling and renovation taking place rather than demolition. It appears in several neighborhoods, there are efforts underway to preserve some of the longtangs, which is good to see.
Get Out There
Authenticity is what Shanghai’s longtangs are all about. Turn down a narrow alley and wade into the local color. Get a taste of authentic Shanghainese culture. See how the other half lives. Stop and be sure to strike up a conversation with some of the locals. Chat it up. They are just as curious about you. See who the Shanghainese really are. You won’t be disappointed.
Keep the bike set up and lay your clothes out the night before so you can get out the door just that much easier in the morning. Air the ties up the night before too. When the alarm rings, brew an espresso and get out the door. Figure the rest out along the way. Adventure awaits…