Before we arrived in Shanghai, our friends and family had filled our heads with a universal preconception: Shanghai is a city that develops before your eyes, and it can be hard to find any trace of the real deal. It's true, towering skyscrapers, scaffold-veiled apartment blocks and the rubble of the crumbled buildings that stood not long ago are all common visions throughout the city. But old Shanghai still exists, you just need to want to find it.
With Leigh's lust for the perfect street shot always in mind, and our natural gravitation toward hole-in-the-wall eats and traditional hang-outs, we read up on a part of old Shanghai that hadn't yet been torn apart for redevelopment, Xiaonanmen.
It was a Sunday, and everyone here seemed to have time to kill. Cool, aviator-wearing old men lazed on deck chairs, kids played with iPads and bubble blowers, and store owners sat outside their shopfronts casually hawking their tea and perfectly piled fruit, but mostly just looking at their phones. Crowds of locals circled around games of cards or mahjong, and even the fluffy dogs quit their yapping to laze around on the side of the road.
We spotted a noodle chef hand-pulling noodles outside of his restaurant, and popped our heads in for a bowl of his steaming soup. Li mian is a 4000-year-old northern Chinese technique where you twist and roll the noodle dough, pulling and stretching it until it falls into hundreds of thin, even strands. For food nerds like us, this was thrilling stuff. He ladled over some of his master stock, and shaved some cured beef on top of the noodles, what we later learned was a halal style of beef. The meat was salty, the stock rich and the noodles were soft but chewy, and easy to slurp up.
As relaxed as it was, the district still had bustle. Little laneways divide most of Shanghai's main blocks, making up the residential areas of the city. Xiaonanmen's also hosted a colourful fabric market, with stalls selling rolls and piles of silks, cotton prints and lace.
Xiaonanmen isn't nearby any major attractions, nor is it particularly unusual and historical. But if you need a moment away from the tourist traps, modern skyscrapers and international boutiques, hanging out with the local Shanghainese was a welcome break for us.
Images: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
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