I don’t venture over to the antique market on Dongtai Road all that often. I have plenty of Mao pins and propaganda posters, porcelain and jade really aren’t my style, and the stuff that I like the most—Art Deco furniture and light fixtures—is both out of my price range and a hassle to get back to the States. But on Sunday afternoon, I made a special trip to Dongtai Road because I wanted to see it one last time before the city shuts it down.
The market was established in 1985, a time when people were breaking away from jobs at state-owned enterprises and starting their own businesses. Within a few years, lots of older buildings in Shanghai were being torn down to make way for new construction, which created a supply of antique fixtures for the market as vendors scavenged or purchased them from demolition sites. (For more, Shanghai Art Deco has a video interview with Pan Zhizong, a vendor on Dongtai Road since 1998, about how the city’s antique industry has grown and changed since he entered it in the late 1980s.) Most of the true antiques, as Paul French notes, are long gone; the jumble of objects crowded into Dongtai Road’s shops and stalls these days are “antiques” with a patina of dust for authenticity, plus plenty of generic Chinese tourist junk. Still, if you’re okay with buying reproductions and don’t mind bargaining hard, Dongtai Road is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon and come away with a few interesting knick-knacks or Christmas gifts. In terms of atmosphere, the old French Concession alleyways are far preferable to the florescent-lit multi-story buildings that Chinese cities have moved other street vendors into over the past decade (such as Shanghai’s Pearl Market and Beijing’s Silk Market).
Unfortunately, something like the Silk Market might be the future iteration of Dongtai Road, as the local government announced last month that the antique market would soon be shut down and demolished so the area can be redeveloped. As is often the case with such moves in China, it’s both understandable and frustrating: the homes in the Dongtai Road area (which date to the 1920s-30s) are small, in poor condition, and lack amenities like bathrooms. Doing full-scale historic renovations would be costly. But Shanghai’s old alleyway neighborhoods are disappearing quickly, and with them the old fabric of city life.
I got a sense of the community that will be lost when Dongtai Road goes away as I wandered around the 150 or so stalls and shops yesterday afternoon. Business was light: I saw a few other foreign tourists and some Chinese families out for a stroll, but most of the shops were empty of customers. Vendors hung out in groups scattered along the lane, drinking tea and chatting or playing mahjong, pausing the conversations and games to dash over to their shops whenever a tourist who looked like she had money to spend ventured close to the entrance. Many of the Dongtai Road shopkeepers are elderly and double as babysitters, minding their stores with one eye and their grandchildren with the other. In terms of work/life balance, it’s hard to beat the setup over there.
I had gone to the market with the goal of buying one specific thing—a figurine of a revolutionary ballet dancer—and somewhat randomly picked a shop in which to make that purchase based on how nice the vendor was. (She didn’t force a sale on me, AND she complimented my Chinese! I’m a soft target.) As she wrapped up the dancer, I asked about the impending move. I had heard that the shops would all be closing on October 15 and the stalls remaining another two months, but no one on Dongtai Road seemed to be packing up their stuff in preparation for departure. The woman told me she wasn’t certain that they would really have to vacate the shops by Wednesday, and that the vendors haven’t been told yet where they’ll be moving after the market is closed. They’re watching and waiting to see if that October 15 date is real. I got the sense that no one is going to box up a single object until the local police are standing in their shops holding eviction notices.
The younger shop owners will, I expect, relocate their businesses to wherever the Shanghai government deems the new antique market will be. Older vendors will likely retire and be forced to move elsewhere; even if new apartments are built on Dongtai Road, the neighborhood will become too expensive for current residents to live in.
I’m not really much of a shopper, and I certainly have plenty of stuff cluttering up my life already, but I walked into every single store and examined every single stall, wanting to see all of Dongtai Road before it goes away. I didn’t buy anything else. I don’t need an “ObaMao” t-shirt or deck of Chinese emperor playing cards; I don’t know anyone who would want an abacus or oversized writing brush. I was just trying to see it all, in the hope that I’ll have a few memories of Dongtai Road after it’s gone and the old shops have been replaced with an H&M and yet another Starbucks.*
As I meandered through the lane, a tour guide who was escorting a foreign man around the stalls stopped to speak with one vendor and commiserate over the market’s planned demolition. “How can they close it? This is Shanghai’s most well-known market!” the guide exclaimed. The vendor nodded and shrugged at the same time, a move that somehow communicated an entire thought: I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but what can I do? The vendors on Dongtai Road might bargain hard with the tourists who frequent their shops, but the realists among them know they can’t negotiate with the city government to prevent the demolition of their homes and businesses—whenever that happens.
* Not that I have anything against Starbucks—that’s where I’m writing this. But good lord, I think we can all agree that Shanghai has more than enough of them already.