Photos: Brandon McGhee
Life on Shanghai's busiest street during the Special Period.
There’s hardly a scam left these days on Nanjing Dong Lu, the city’s scammiest street. It’s an unexpected upside to the ongoing Special Period, which has cleared out more than just the usual hordes of tourists from our neighboring provinces. No touts. No art students who really want to practice English with you at a sketchy tea shop. No tour groups chasing a flag.
In fact, the vibe last Tuesday was as wholesome as the bright blue sky and sunny weather, as I spent the afternoon talking to anyone I could find on the one km stretch, once the glitziest in Asia. Built in the 1850s as Park Lane, renamed a hundred years later to Nanking Lu (easier to read for Chinese) and covered in neon almost as soon as neon existed, the stretch of Nanjing Dong Lu between Henan Lu and Xizang Lu has a rich history. "Many of China’s modern facilities made its debut on this road, such as the gas and electric lamps, trolley cars, elevators and skyscrapers, as well as neon lights and large amusement parks," according to Shanghai historian Xiong Yuezhi
Today it’s mostly written off by residents who don't want to jostle with the tourists, dodge the miniature train and have their phone lifted from their pocket.
But this is a Special Period. The rules have changed.
Locals and residents have reclaimed the shopping street for themselves: middle-aged Shanghainese ladies take photos of their dogs, couples have ample space for some quality mask-to-mask time, and groups of older residents lounge in the shafts of blessed sunlight that peek between the buildings.
Canvassing the street, I talked to an Australian couple taking a mental health day, cycling, walking and taking the ferry across the river after being cooped up for weeks. They didn't seem bothered by the guy in the hazmat suit taking temperatures near the People's Square entrance. "The numbers are in your favor, really, and we're not over 70," they told me. I didn’t relay the message to the grandparents sunning themselves.
I found a trio of foreign models who may soon be ex-Shanghai residents. The pretty person market, callously ignored in any of the media I’ve been reading, has apparently disappeared along with all the rest. These young Adonises can only afford another month or two before they'll have to try somewhere else.
It's enough to make your heart ache. A society is only as good as the way it treats its pretty people.
International students from Hangzhou, out for a walk, were both contemplating the same. They chose Shanghai over the lakeside city to avoid its stricter quarantine measures, but the stress of paying for accommodation and being unsure of when the situation will improve is getting to them. One is contemplating returning to Mexico. The other can’t afford a ticket home.
The food stands and the geegaw kiosks off the main stretch are closed. Businesses are struggling, but there isn't the same panic you sense in other districts. Most shops on Nanjing Dong Lu act like they know they're going to be there when it's all said and done. Some of them have been here almost as long the road has.
"Still lots of customers," an attendant at a food court tells me gruffly. She nods to the four people wandering the stalls. “People need to eat.”
No. 1 Department Store doesn't feel as optimistic. Basically empty, a shop clerk relates the most excitement of the past 24 hours: "we sold a pair of kids shoes".
The M&M Store is deserted. The LEGO flagship has a couple buying a set because they were bored to death working from home. McDonald's is still open for dine-in, though the KFC thirty meters away is closed due to "government rules."
Nike, at least, has a handful of customers. The Apple Store is open for gadget fondling. It takes more than an epidemic to faze sneakerheads or the Mac Brigade.
Like the rest of the city, Nanjing Dong Lu isn't back to normal. Even if everyone goes back to work next week, it'll likely be longer, maybe even months, before Shanghai's busiest pedestrian street is once again awash with a river of bustling, gawking humanity.
There's never been a better time to go!