As Chinese New Year Approaches, Shanghai's Bustling Streets Grow Quieter

Jan 27, 2017
Originally published on January 27, 2017 6:31 am

At any other time of the year, Shengping Lane bustles with life. But the Lunar New Year holiday is near, half the city has left for their hometowns and Shanghai has returned to the Shanghainese.

The only vendor left in the alley sells calendars, but soon he'll pack up, too. It's the time of year when Shengping Lane lives up to its name: 升平 or "Rising Peace."

It'll soon be the Year of the Rooster, and Yuan Shuizhen is preparing chicken feet in her tiny kitchen for the big meal. The 85-year-old wipes her hands, retreats outside and plops down on a chair along the side of the alley to chat with friends.

"All the outsiders have left for home," says Yuan, leaning over to peer down the narrow lane. This is the time of year when hundreds of millions of Chinese workers return to their hometowns. Nearly half of Shanghai's 26 million people weren't born in Shanghai, and many of them have already left. "It's much quieter this time of year — less crazy," Yuan says.

Her two friends nod. The three grannies go through a list of food they'll make for their families: Beef, fish, dumplings, hotpot. After a meal with family, they'll go to the Buddhist temple to pray and burn incense.

"When I was young, we'd go to the cemetery to worship our ancestors," says Yuan. "Then we'd cook one pot of rice, serve it in small bowls, and we'd eat it for the next five days. Now we cook meals every single day. Life has improved."

Yuan's friend Ni Jindi agrees, but the 94-year-old still grumbles about her grandchildren. They're all working professionals, and they rarely have time to visit their grandmother here in the lane. This is the only time of year she gets to spend time with them and her great-grandchildren.

"They're leaving on the third day of the holiday to go travel somewhere," says Ni with a wave of her hand. "I don't know exactly where they're going. I'm too old. I'll stay here."

She'll have company. Her two friends are great-grandmothers, too, whose families will also fly somewhere exotic after the first of the year: Japan, Thailand, the United States. With their relatives gone and the holiday setting in, Rising Peace Lane will grow even quieter, with just the chatter of three grannies sharing memories.

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And tomorrow marks the start of the Chinese New Year and also a time when China's big cities feel empty. Hundreds of millions of workers who migrated there for work are returning home for the holiday. NPR's Rob Schmitz is still in Shanghai, where it really does sound quiet.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Any other time of the year, Shengping Lane bustles with life. But the Lunar New Year holiday is near. Half the city has left for their hometowns, and Shanghai has returned to the Shanghainese. The only vendor left in the alley sells calendars, but soon he'll pack up, too. It's the time of year when Shengping Lane lives up to its name, rising peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

SCHMITZ: It'll soon be the Year of the Rooster and Yuan Shuizhen is preparing chicken feet in her kitchen for the big meal. The 85-year-old retreats outside and plops down on a chair along the side of the alley chatting with friends.

YUAN SHUIZHEN: (Through translator) All of the outsiders have left for home. It's much quieter this time of year, less crazy.

SCHMITZ: Her two friends nod. The three grannies go through a list of food they'll make for their families.

YUAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Beef, fish, dumplings, hot pot. After a meal with family, they'll go to the Buddhist temple to pray and burn incense.

YUAN: (Through interpreter) When I was young, we'd go to the cemetery to worship our ancestors, and then we'd cook one pot of rice, serve it in small bowls and we'd eat it for the next five days. Now we cook meals every single day. Life has improved.

SCHMITZ: Yuan's friend Ni Jindi agrees. But the 94-year-old still grumbles about her grandchildren. They're all working professionals, and they rarely have time to visit their grandmother here in the lane. This is the only time of year she gets to spend time with them and her great-grandchildren.

NI JINDI: (Through interpreter) They're leaving on the third day of the holiday to go travel somewhere. I don't know exactly where they're going. I'm too old. I'll stay here.

SCHMITZ: She'll have company. Her two friends are great-grandmothers, too. And their families will also fly somewhere exotic after the first of the year. With their families gone and the holiday setting in, Rising Peace Lane will grow even quieter with just the chatter of three grannies sharing memories of family.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.