Outside our apartment in Shanghai, China is a small triangle where 3 roads cross. In this small patch of grass no bigger than a little league infield, sit a few old men on benches around a statue of Tian Han (田汉). They’re all old enough to remember when his poem was picked in 1949 to become the national anthem of the new Communist China.
Most mornings at 8am we walk out of our low lying lane of three-story brick apartments and the chicken man is standing at one corner of the triangle.
In the winter he wears a thick coat, in the summer an old dirty blazer. No matter what the season he’s smoking a cigarette and leaning against one of the most complicated bicycles you’ve ever seen.
There’s a cage of chickens welded onto the back, and attached to the side is an oil drum of water heated by burning coals. For about 20元 (~$3) you can buy one of these chickens and watch him spring into action.
In a few flicks of his wrists he’ll have slit the throat, drained the blood into the gutter, plunged the (almost dead) carcass into hot water that makes the feather plucking easier, and then, he hands you tonight’s dinner. No registers or receipts, no shipments, and no watchful eyes of the FDA (or whatever the Chinese equivalent is). The blood slowly trickles towards the sewer in thin side- winding rivulets for minutes after the kill.
By 10am, when one of the four subway lines within 10 minutes of our front door has taken us to work, our neighbor, Mr. Zhu, will be sitting across the street from the chicken man, also smoking.
Mr. Zhu, also old enough to remember Tian Han’s poetry, grew up in this neighborhood. Though far older, far more dogmatic, and far simpler than his American neighbors, he’s not mad at us for gentrifying his block. In fact he and his wife are kind enough to bring over the occasional dinner of home- wrapped wonton dumplings, translucent and filled with fresh shrimp and spring onions. And when our toilet breaks, Mr. Zhu comes over immediately to fix it — a jerry rig using some twine and a fishing bobber because buying replacements parts would be an unnecessary expense. He surreptitiously smokes cigarettes in the bathroom while he works, stubbing them out when we return.
Back at the triangle, Mr. Zhu smokes and perhaps pulls out a pack of playing cards with his friend while behind him, ubiquitously scarved Europeans gather for authentic Mexican fare and noontime margaritas. Mr. Zhu sits, content, on the bench right in front of their window, almost as if he hasn’t noticed that in the past ten years foreign restauranteurs have taken over the street opposite his house, where the charge for a dinner probably matches a month of his rent.
Into the early afternoon, after the foreigners have left, the restaurants have slowed down, and Mr. Zhu has returned to our alley to work on some fix-it project for the housewife next door, the intersection seems to pause for an afternoon nap…
…until a careless cab comes through and catches a back bicycle wheel. A 30 year-old woman who’s dressed to the nines ends up on the street. Her dark tights, stiff up-do and painted nails haven’t kept her from the default transportation here. While she’s picking herself off the pavement, China shows off its one, universally unsurpassable quality — people, people, and more people.
Within seconds, 50+ have gathered around to watch this fiery woman give a confused and defensive cab driver an earful. Luckily the only casualties are her bent back tire, scuffed leather boots and Louis Vuitton handbag that now has only one usable hand strap. Fortunately the bag was a black market imitation and will be easily replaced.
After the sun sets and the street lights come on, we come back for dinner at a cheap hole-in-the-wall one the third side of the triangle, a spot we have affectionately dubbed ‘the dumpling place.’ Inside there are six tables that sit, at max, four a piece. And they’re always sitting four, because these are the best dumplings in the neighborhood.
The lady who runs the joint is curtly taking orders up front and shooing people out the minute they finish their last bite. Tonight we have two orders of the pork and chive dumplings dipped in a mix of crushed peppers, minced garlic and rice vinegar. No drinks available unless you order a warm beer, and tonight’s not that kind of night. So it turns out splendid – but rather savory – and we need something to balance it out.
This is where we start doing the math of rationalization. Since we spent a grand total of $3 for two heaping plates of dumplings, maybe we can spare twice that much for dessert.
We walk down the triangle over to a gelato place and enjoy three scoops of spicy chocolate, coconut, and crème caramel – all homemade recipes by the Italian owner. While we order he pokes fun at us foreigners who always order the coconut — “I can never make enough ko-coo-naut!” he grumbles — and then goes on to complain how the Chinese always order the green tea because all the other flavors are too sweet.
“I just don’t understand, ice cream should be sweet, no?” he’s still puzzling as we walk out the door.
We’re going to bed early tonight, and by the time we’re turning off the lights at 11pm, Shanghai’s nouveau riche are just lining up outside Club 88 back on the “foreign end” of the triangle. Clubs in Shanghai, an imported concept, still retain the techno, the strobe lights and the scantily clad hired stage dancers. But imagine all of that blaring in a room that, instead of a dance floor, has a crowded, Victorian style sitting parlor where groups of friends crowd around a dice game and pitchers of a lethal Tanqueray and green tea cocktail.
Outside, some Muslim street vendors have taken over the chicken man’s spot and they grill kebabs for the crowd that will make a mass exodus at closing time. A beggar sits on the bench that was Mr. Zhu’s afternoon spot, waiting for some change.
The last one standing is the granite Tian Han, surveying the triangle from his austere pedestal. Only years after his lyrics were selected for the Chinese anthem that is still sung today, the Cultural Revolution turned his countrymen against him, and he died alone in a prison cell.
This statue is perhaps an apology. Once accepted as a revolutionary for his fierce prose — Arise! All who refuse to be slaves! / Let our flesh and blood forge into our new Great Wall! / … Brave the enemy’s fire, March on! — the times changed on him as quickly as they are changing today.
Into the wee hours when the chicken man is already up and reloading his bicycle, the techno beats on, the new anthem of a neighborhood, a city, and a country still as fluid and as unpredictable as the one that once lauded, then silenced, then statued, Tian Han.