Like a whisper it started, as most things do in this city of rumors and beautiful women, “Did you hear? They’re closing Huating Lu.” Impossible, Huating Road, a.k.a. The Black Market, is a Shanghainese institution for Chinese and foreigners alike. Sometimes referred to as a cultural landmark, it is Shanghai in all it’s glory; after all, it must do pretty good business.
Huating Road, a narrow lane which goes for about two blocks off Huahai at the Changshu Lu subway stop, has been supplying anyone who dares to brave its stalls with flashy fake goods for well on 20 years. Emerging with the rest of Shanghai under the slogan of economic reform, it has become a staple of many expert shoppers. For the fashion conscious Shanghainese, it is an opportunity to dress in Gucci, Prada and Fendi. For the occasional tourist, it is a place to stock up on North Face jackets. It’s where you go for J. Crew and Hello Kitty, cool shoes, hip party clothes and T-shirts emblazoned with things like “Strange that South country.” It’s where foreigners learn to bargain like locals and come away looking like them too.
On a good day, Huating Road is fun. It’s colorful and loud. You can get good deals and feel Chinese. On bad days, it’s hot and crowded and you get cheated. In effect, it sums up life in China. One of the motherland’s beautiful idiosyncrasies, Huating is a legal black market, regulated by the government and being relocated, rather than shut down. It is a playful slap in the face to all the bad-boy multinationals, with their products selling for a tenth (or less) of retail.
When the ugly rumors started this summer, no one believed it could be true. The proverbial “they” said there were too many people and too much noise, or maybe the city just decided it would simply make more money if the vendors moved to a location on Huaihai Lu between Shanxi Lu and Xiangyang Lu, where rent would be higher. In any case, a move was foreseeable. But several months passed and on a Sunday in early September, business was still bustling.
According to most vendors, the move must be completed by October 31st. But some saw this date as flexible. They seemed hopeful that it could be pushed back indefinitely. When I told a woman selling dinner sets, I would be back before they moved, she told me not to worry. They would be there for a while yet. But another was using the move as a bargaining technique. “We have to move,” she shouted, “Come get cheap watches!” Her family had sold clothes in the market for years, she explained, and now they had to milk this last bit of time for all it’s worth. With the date set in two months, the sale seemed a little premature but whatever sells does the trick and her stall was full.
When I asked if they had to move, the vendors answered invariably with a sigh. Mei banfa, most of them shrugged. A young woman selling nonsensical Japanese shirts explained, “Our rent will go up, which will make the prices go up. When the prices go up, there will be fewer customers.” People were a little less skeptical after they found out I was a reporter. A woman making beaded bracelets noted they would have a little more space, but it seemed small recompense.
No one cared that they would benefit from modern amenities such as air-conditioning, and that’s saying a lot considering the current heat. A man selling Tibetan jewelry commented, “I’m dying of heat, but business is good.” A little discomfort apparently can be handled, if it means more gold in the bank.
A regular Huating shopper, Helen Hu, likes the market for its “atmosphere of casualness.” She agrees that it’s “another scene in Shanghai with wide choices and lots of people around you.” Not only the vendors are disappointed with the move, but also the market’s many fans. Like one of my friends, who claims she goes three times a week.
The final word came from a woman selling bath scrubbies. With a sweep of her hand and a Shanghainese sigh, she said, “Look at all this, of course we don’t want to move.” Following her gaze, I saw all the Chinese yuan, the Japanese yen, the American dollars and the Deutsche marks milling through the alley. In Shanghai, what more could you ask for?