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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

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.

Con­tact the writer at xux­i­aomin@chi­nadaily.com.cn

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

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.

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