Shanghai Backstreets

Shanghai Initial Impressions

I arrived in Shanghai late at night, caught the Maglev and a series of metros then took a short walk along a busy highway to get to my accommodation. My initial impression was that I was just in another big city. There was the occasional street vendor who would sell items ranging from iPhone cases, scarfs, bags and even an assortment of magnifying glasses, but overall it just seemed like any other big western city, just without road rules.

This first impression was a bit disappointing to be honest, i was expecting to be completely overwhelmed with the culture shift however upon my arrival I thought i was going to be spending a month in a city that is too heavily influenced by the western culture and one that would not provide the interesting street photography I envisioned.

Exploring the next few days proved that beyond Shanghai’s flashy and modern exterior, you can easily find the traditional chinese neighbourhoods, just take the backstreets.

Take the Backstreets

Probably the most overwhelming experience as a foreigner walking the backstreets of shanghai, are the small food markets which are sprawled throughout the city. The most intense element is the smell, especially when there is stinky tofu, it is very hard to explain how bad this smell is, but most locals cannot stand it. It is so pungent that it tickles the back of your throat and tries its hardest to trigger your gag reflex. Once you have experienced the smell of stinky tofu, all other bad smells are obsolete.

The food markets sell all “fresh” food items ranging from vegetables, nuts, fish and live poultry which is killed on the street just after purchase, I was manoeuvring myself to frame a better shot after the photo below and was lucky enough to get some duck blood sprayed all over my jeans during a fresh kill.

One of the most interesting aspects of shanghai and also the most perplexing, is how big the difference between rich and poor actually is. Before arriving i read many articles talking about how the gap between rich and poor in china is getting further and further apart, but i didn’t realise it would be so in your face. One side of the road you will see a large skyscraper with a Starbucks, bakery and an H&M, then directly accross the road you will have these small shanty housing compounds that are completely derelict and in my eyes unliveable. Both sides of the road seem oblivious to this and just get on with their daily lives.

The image below shows an area where some of the poorer Chinese still live, directly across the road from where i had an iced cafe latte from Starbucks. This was a weird feeling seeing this, was I supposed to pity them or feel sorry that they didn’t have the same privileges as the people from across the road, but the whole vibe felt as though neither side of the road cared. I understand that these areas are being demolished, making its way for more high rise buildings and commercial developments, and that some of the people living in these compounds feel the compensation from the government is not enough to justify moving. This fact is sad, but from my short experience exploring these areas, both sides of the road seemed just as contempt as each other. There were no beggars or people that looked like they were suffering, nor were they interested to see a westerner photographing their abode, it was just two very contrasting sides of the road.

One Response to “Shanghai Backstreets”

  1. Jacinta Dickins on

    The overwhelming smell for me is the acrid tang coming from the boys toilets at my school. Keep looking for the beggars. They are there, rolling on skateboards.


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