Alleys: the Flush Color in the life of the Shanghainese
It would be a real pity if you visit Shanghai without taking a walk in its alleyways. In the afternoons, before the people come back from school or work, if you randomly roam away from Shanghai’s major commercial streets and enter into a narrow one, you will immediately see a broad entrance under some parasol trees and the header of the entrance with something written on it. Sometimes it says 1902 below the arcade. Inside there are several rows of townhouses of 2 or 3 stories. The small balconies side by side are filled with warm sunshine. The glass windows deep inside reflect the passing cars in the street. Here, you are in a Shanghai alley.
Half of the residential areas in Shanghai are in such alleys and the majority of the Shanghainese live in the different variants of the alleys.
There is almost always a small convenience store at the entrance of an alley. In such an incredibly small store, all kinds of daily necessity items are shelved in a wonderfully orderly manner, from kids’ snacks, ladies’ needle kits, postal stamps to any daily necessity items one may suddenly need, you will find it here. People often come out to the store in their “homie” clothes and footwear. You can see women, wearing colorful pajamas, come to buy a pack of snack food. Their toes grip the red flip-flops whose heels are already worn down. Such scenes cannot be more ordinary to the people living in the alleys. The store keeper is usually watchful and warm-hearted. His radio is always turned on. Listening to the radio all day long, he also wants to have some real people listen to him talking. Since he has seen so many people walking back and forth in the street, or coming in and out of the alley, as long as he has some imagination, he tends to be a very street smart guy.
Until you step into a Shanghai alley, you won’t really understand the life in Shanghai, the life that is hidden behind Shanghai’s bustling commercial streets, its glittering neon lights, and its flamboyant lifestyle. The Shanghainese cherish their image very much and always keep a sleek look in the shops, restaurants, bars, and parks. However, they look totally different in the alleys.
Light music is peacefully playing and the aroma of the chicken soup escapes from the backdoor of the shared kitchen. Where the sun reaches, the residents living at the bottom pull the hemp ropes, and hang out all the quilts and sheets of the entire family. The sweet smell from the freshly washed cloths permeates the alley. If you look more closely at those colorful clothes fluttering in the air, you will recognize those are the most fashionable style of the year. You also see there is a young lady bending at the sink by the backdoor. Wearing an old shrunken woolen sweater, she is washing her waterfall like hair with a shampoo called Siphone. In the sun, hot steam rises from her wet hair. There is also a shoe repairman sitting at the entrance of the alley. He is making a tatpat sound while hitting the tiny heel of a lady’s stiletto, trying to patch it with a piece of new leather. A sleek woman sitting astride on a stool is waiting with a bare foot. They complain in unison on the poor quality of the shoes today and berate the dishonest manufacturers.
The elderly of the alley are chatting where the sun reaches. Old women are usually more reticent, whereas most old men like to accost strangers. Their favorite thing is to talk about their “salad” days.
There is always a serene and earthly atmosphere in the alleys and you can tell how the Shanghainese treasure this special atmosphere. This is the “living” color of their life. Since the 19th century, along with the birth of the first Shanghai alley named “Xing Ren Li” located near the Bund, it is neither the too flamboyant nor the too conservative Shanghainese life philosophy that emphasizes harmony and pragmatism, yet stays cool with the transient fashion.
In the mid of the 19th century, because of the rebellion of the Small Swords Society in the Chinese section of the city, many people fled to the foreign concessions. In order to make a profit from these Chinese refugees, the foreigners in the concessions copied the workers’ residences in London’s industrial areas and built 800 houses in rows. These are the precursors of the Shanghai alleys in the concessions. The real alley life began at the moment when Mayipa built Xing Ren Li in 1872.
Shanghai is a big metropolis, like the table of a chef at a restaurant with all kinds of tastes. The city was carved up by foreigners; one part became the French concession, one part became the British one and one part was reserved for the Chinese. In the suburban industrial areas, there are places developed for the residences of the workers in the factories. Although these divisions all belong to the past, they have been left in the minds of the Shanghainese. People living in different parts of Shanghai are classified into different classes, and they are not necessarily friendly to each other. They tend to alienate each other and rarely socialize. Shanghai, such a remarkable place, sometimes makes you feel that there are many small nations within it. Just like in Europe, it seems all people are the same at first glance, but when you look at them closely, you will see the seriousness of the German, the romance of the French and austereness of the Poles. People living in different parts of Shanghai also look differently. That is why even those who grew up in Shanghai and have lived in it for several decades still don’t dare to claim that they know Shanghai very well, because all they know is only one small part of Shanghai.
From the early wood houses for the refugees, to the Shikumen houses and the new style alley houses, all of them, are like blood vessel spread across Shanghai in the over 9,000 alleys, yet they all share a similar atmosphere to some degree.
These are the places where the middle class of Shanghai live. They, being the majority of the society, lead a well-off life, but are not really wealthy; they have sleek looking appearances, but without splendor; they are economical, pragmatic, prudent, never indulging themselves in excessive entertainment or luxury. They are hard working and enjoy the well-to-do life. They are progressive, expecting a better life year by year, but also very realistic, and never imagine the impossible. They are living contentedly in their own small world, but whenever they see an opportunity, they will grasp it and strive to succeed. They are not innocent people, but neither are they bad ones.
Despair is never seen in the Shanghai Alleys. Home-made dried vegetables, the recently bought soybeans are baking in the sun on the tiny balconies; in the shades below the window of the small north room, hangs the salted pork that is made of the best pork, which is peppered and covered with oil paper in case of rain. The oil paper rustles in the wind. On the windowsill, resilient succulents are planted in broken washbasins. Even during the most turbulent upheavals, the life in the alleys still goes smoothly at its own pace. This is the philosophy of the seniors, compromising, worldly, sticking to the conventional norms and values and staying lukewarm. They never impose their own opinions on the other people. All they focus on is their own conforming life.
In the evening, many aromas permeate from the open backdoors when all the families are cooking. People are coming back. The country-looking girls are busy going in and out the backdoors. These are the rush hours for those hourly maids. Country girls gain weight very easily after they arrive in Shanghai, because there are more choices of food in Shanghai, and therefore they often look chubbier than the local girls. They quietly, but efficiently work in the shared kitchen by the backdoor. Today’s maids don’t gossip as much as they used to, but neither do they know as much about how to serve the Shanghainese properly. So the sophisticated work is left to the mistress themselves, such as slicing the boiled pork, preparing the sauce for the big hairy crabs, and heating the Shaoxin yellow wine. The mistress puts everything in a big tray and brings it to their room.
After you visit a Shanghai alley, you probably will see more things then when you go to other places in Shanghai, because alleys are the most real and open space in Shanghai. People live a real life in the alleys, where even the Shanghai sophisticates wear the homie outfits and never mind fetching the mails in slippers.
常常在弄堂的出口，开着一家小烟纸店，小得不能让人置信的店面里，千丝万缕地陈放着各种日用品，小孩子吃的零食，老太太用的针线，本市邮政用的邮票，各种居 家日子里容易突然告缺的东西，应有尽有，人们穿着家常的衣服鞋子，就可以跑出来买。常常有穿着花睡衣来买一包零食的女人，脚趾紧紧夹着踩蹋了跟的红拖鞋， 在弄堂里人们不见怪的。小店里的人，常常很警惕，也很热心，他开着一个收音机，整天听主持人说话，也希望来个什么人，听他说说，他日日望着小街上来往的 人，弄堂里进出的人，只要有一点点想象力，就能算得上阅人多矣。
平平静静的音乐开着；后门的公共厨房里传出来炖鸡的香气；有阳光的地方，底楼人家拉出了麻绳，把一家人的被子褥子统统拿出来晒着，新洗的衣服散发着香气，花 花绿绿的在风里飘，仔细地看，就认出来这是今年大街上时髦的式样；你看见路上头发如瀑的小姐正在后门的水斗上，穿了一件缩了水的旧毛衣，用诗芬在洗头发， 太阳下面那湿湿的头发冒出热气来; 还有修鞋师傅，坐在弄口，乒乒地敲着一个高跟鞋的细跟，补上一块新橡皮，旁边的小凳子上坐着一个穿得挺周正的女人，光着一 只脚等着修鞋，他们一起骂如今鞋子的质量和那卖次品鞋子的奸商。
上 海是一个大都市，大到就像饭店里大厨子用的桌布一样，五味俱全。从前被外国人划了许多块，一块做法国租界，一块做英国租界，留下一块做上海老城厢，远远的 靠工厂区的地方，又有许多人住在为在工厂做事的人开辟出来的区域里，那是从前城市的划分，可在上海人的心里觉得这样区域的划分，好像也划分出了阶级一样， 住在不同地方的人，彼此怀着不那么友好的态度，彼此不喜欢认同乡，因此也不怎么来往。这样，上海这地方，有时让人感到像里面还有许多小国家一样，就像欧 洲，人看上去都是一样的人，仔细地看，就看出了德国人的板，法国人的媚，波兰人的苦，住在上海不同地域的人，也有着不同的脸相。所以，在上海从小到大住了 几十年的人，都不敢说自己是了解上海的，只是了解上海的某一块地方。
那是上海的中层阶级代代生存的地方。他们是社会中的大多数人，有温饱的生活，可没有大富大贵；有体面，可没有飞黄腾达；经济实用，小心做人，不过分的娱乐， 不过分的奢侈，勤勉而满意地支持着自己小康的日子；有进取心，希望自己一年比一年好，可也识时务，懂得离开空中楼阁。他们定定心心地在经济的空间里过着自 己的日子，可一眼一眼地膘着可能有的机会，期望更上一层楼。他们不是那种纯真的人，当然也不太坏。
上海的弄堂总是不会有绝望的情绪的。小小的阳台上晒着家制干菜、刚买来的黄豆，背阴的北面亭子间窗下，挂着自家用上好的鲜肉阉的成肉，放了花椒的，上面还盖 了一张油纸，防止下雨，在风里哗哗地响。窗沿上有人用破脸盆种了不怕冷的宝石花。就是在最动乱的时候，弄堂里的生活还是有序地进行着。这里像世故老人，中 庸，世故，遵循着市井的道德观，不喜欢任何激进，可也并不把自己的意见强加于人，只是中规中矩地过自己的日子。
晚 上，家家的后门开着烧饭，香气扑鼻，人们回到自己的家里来，乡下姑娘样子的人匆匆进出后门，那是做钟点的保姆最忙的时候。来上海的女孩子，大都很快地胖起来，因为有更多的东西可以吃，和上海女孩子比起来，有一点肿了似的，她们默默地飞快地在后门的公共厨房里干着活，现在的保姆不像从前在这里出入的保姆那样喜欢说话，喜欢搬弄是非了。可她们也不那么会伺候上海人，所以，厨房里精细的事还是主人自己做，切白切肉，调大闸蟹的姜醋蘸料，温绍兴黄酒，然后，女主人 用一张大托盘子，送到自家房间里。