A foodie’s nightmare: Shanghai edition

Wujiang Lu in happier times

Food, glorious food. It’s the easiest way to my heart. I grew up in a house where eating was an institution: dinners would be loud, discursive, collective and never half-hearted. Food was to be enjoyed and savoured, not feared or dismissed.

So, unsurprisingly, one of the highlights of my last few months in Shanghai has been the divine grub the city has to offer. From the street vendors selling succulent pork buns and meat skewers to 3 kuai xiao long bao houses, the tantalising smells of the peppery frog and sweet roast duck restaurants beneath our apartment to the hairy crabs that have been delighting our icy winter, and the 6 kuai hole-in-the-wall steaming noodle places to the smoke filled restaurants filled with simple dishes and drinking games, this city has it all. Without it, I’d be a lost cause in this town.

Which is why I screamed a shrieking WTF?!! to my flatmates upon reading this on Shanghaiist earlier today. One of Shanghai’s signature food streets, Wujiang Lu, will be completely demolished and relocated into a “sanitised mall-like environment” for the Expo by Chinese New Year in February.

… (pause for roar).

Wujiang Lu is a beacon of light in central Shanghai, with its shopping malls on overdrive and barrage of Western brands at every corner. Yes, 6″ meatball subs are nice, but nothing beats a box of jiao zi for 5 kuai (although I’ve not gone through half a dumpling without the roof of my mouth being scalded) or a couple of juicy lamb skewers for 6 kuai. While there are other food streets, such as the fantastic Yunnan Lu with its steamed chicken and sesame balls aplenty, losing Wujiang Lu still cuts out a chunk of one of the city’s simplest and best offerings in a perfectly central location, both in principle and practice.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that Shanghai has no shortage of malls. Given a history of abject poverty, an obsession with consumerism is hardly surprising or unjust. But it is still unsettling to see hordes of crowds hang around Wujiaochang (my local) on the weekends, and the enormous queues outside Haagen Dasz and Starbucks, whilst cultural activities cost a bombshell and bookshops are few and far between. Materialism hasn’t really had the chance to mature or pace itself among the nouveau riche, but that is perfectly understandable.

The bottom line is that it’s sad that simple pleasures, like street food, have to be wiped out to make room for ‘sanitised’ consumerism ahead of the Expo. Paul French, from China Rhyming, says

it’s symptomatic of the people-unfriendly environment being constructed – a spa for the rich, a hotel for the rich, an office building for the rich suits and not even an attempt at a park!! (…) We truly do live in an age that has lost all sense of style and taste.

I guess during times like these I can be glad I live out in the sticks, on a street with a million hole-in-the-walls, each filled with several colonies of roaches, and where I’m often the only white woman sat fumbling with chopsticks. But, Christ, the niu rou mian is a dreamboat and sets me back 70p.

That’s my kinda China.

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