A winter wander down memory lane
Having grown up in a Shanghai lane house during the early 1980s, of the happy times during winter in the city reminisces
In my memory, winter in Shanghai during the 1980s was marked by a popping sound and a sweet, warm scent. The source of this was Shanghai-style popcorn, one of the few street snacks available at that time. It used to be a very popular treat that was only available in winter. Today, you would struggle to find this snack being sold on the streets.
The popcorn seller was a reticent man clad in an over-sized deep blue coat. His fingernails were as black as a coal miner’s. He would place rice or corn into a blackened ceramic pot before rolling it over the fire as me and other kids covered our ears and waited from a distance for the “explosions”. When the popcorn vendor opened the pot after a barrage of pops, puffy bits of snowwhite rice rolled out. It was the taste of happiness.
In the early 1980s, before the city had been gentrified, Shanghai’s winter was grey, almost depressing. But despite the cold weather, there was nevertheless a warmth and happiness that was emanated from familial bonds.
Most people, including myself, lived in narrow lane houses where homes did not come in regular shapes and sizes. Families usually gathered at home to stay warm. Adults smoked and chatted or played poker. Till today, whenever I read about family happiness, the image of a small house, grey smoke and vague figures puffing on pipes and sipping tea, immediately comes to mind.
The children would insist on playing outdoors despite the biting cold. Many of them would end up with a runny nose but they hardly seemed to care. Sometimes, when we were aimlessly running along the lanes, the cold air would carry a whiff of sweetness that would cause everyone to let out a big cheer — the old man selling baked sweet potatoes was just around the corner.
The baked sweet potatoes, which everybody regarded as the best winter snack, were always found in a big iron bucket. The heat from the potatoes kept our hands warm. We would hurriedly peel the dirty skin off as steam from the piping hot red and golden flesh dissipated into the cold air. The tantalizing aroma and the sweetness of the flesh always tempted us to bite off a large chunk of the sweet potato but we had to refrain from doing so or risk getting our tongues scalded.
Beside the old man would almost always be an old woman who sold eggs simmering in a pot of fragrant dark liquid. The smell of these eggs, stewed with tea leaves and various spices, posed a dilemma every single time: should we pick the sweet potato or the egg? As most parents earned a monthly salary of just 20 yuan during those times, being able to have both was a true luxury.
While the children were scratching their heads over their snack choices, the sort of dilemma the adults faced often involved new clothes. The 1980s was an era when everyone in the country wore deep blue jackets. Chinese New Year was the only time that the city’s frustrated fashionistas had a reason to create something different.
It has always been a tradition in Shanghai to have a new piece of clothing made for the new year because we believe that this will usher in good luck. You would need to, at the very least, get a new pair of cotton-filled shoes.
When society was gradually opened up to the outside world, Shanghainese women quietly resumed their pursuit of fashion. Their first acquisition was often a traditional brocade cotton-filled jacket featuring beautiful but complicated buttons. It was a refined form of the qipao which had disappeared from the streets since the Cultural Revolution which took place from 1966 to 1976.
Women would head to Nanjing Road, the major shopping street in the city at that time, to select fabrics before returning home to show off their new purchases. Brave fashion gurus often picked bright peacock blue while more conservative women would select rose red. I still remember how the vivid colors and intricate patterns of the smooth brocade stood out in the center of the dimly lit home.
Thrifty housewives, like my mother, used cheap cotton to make winter clothes for their children. In an old photo from when I was three, I can be seen dressed in a very puffy coat and pants, all stuffed with cotton, that made me look like a huge melon sprouting from the soil.
Later, such tailor-made jackets were quickly replaced by massproduced down jackets which were lighter and easier to wash. Ironically, as Shanghai society started to embrace the international fashion scene, the city quickly lost these unique brocade colors that were definitive of a generation.
As much as me and other children loved the idea of sleeping in on sunny Sundays, that was hardly ever possible as our parents would be quick to drag our quilts away to the courtyard to catch the sun’s rays, a rare commodity during winter. There would be hundreds of quilts between the lane houses, transforming the small space into a labyrinth.
Having lived in lane houses their whole life, the old people knew where to find the ideal corner among the ocean of quilts to enjoy the sunshine. They could spend an entire afternoon just enjoying the warmth afforded by the rays. That is, until they were awoken by the occasional arguments that ensued, usually because one family’s wet clothes got another family’s quilt damp, or because a housewife “invaded” another family’s “territory” when hanging her quilt.
The fights were like a storm in a teacup and would often swell until several people were involved. Dozens of other neighbors would look on, seemingly enjoying the show and making moral judgements, which often involved colorful language.
As there were no individual bathrooms in lane houses, having a bath was a big weekly event, especially on sunny days. Residents would go to public bathrooms or to those in big State-owned factories that allowed employees and their family members to enjoy a hot bath for a very low price.
Small groups of young women with happy expressions and rosy cheeks would smilingly comb their wet hair on the way home after a long shower. Such scenes would probably be considered unusual or inappropriate today, but during a time when people had their meals, slept or had family fights in public, it was not a big deal at all.
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Washing day: A man hangs clothes in the narrow alley between Shanghai lane houses.
Warm day: Playing poker is a popular activity in winter.
In the open: In the old days, almost everything was communal, from bathing to cooking and eating.