Today, the Shanghai Daily, picked up in the dining room of our hotel, had a piece about home schooling. The picture showed a man with a large cricket on his arm, with the caption, “Biology Lesson”. The photo caught my eye because yesterday when showing our friends around the Old Town of Shanghai we came across a bird and insect market.
Hundreds of crickets were on display in small jars, alongside small carved gourds and hollowed out bamboo stems which could serve as their homes. Cricket fanciers – pretty much all men – were buying and selling small green and rather larger brown insects – more like locusts to my untutored eye. The sound of ‘singing’ echoed around the crowded, enclosed space. If crickets weren’t your passion, then you could buy colourful song birds or even sparrows in intricate cages, kitted out with tiny blue and white ceramic water bowls. Grotesque stones, or were they walnuts, also seemed to be of intense interest to collectors.
Outside the market, we watched a small group of men squatting on the pavement animatedly showing their crickets to each other. This seemed to require poking the insects with thin wires, perhaps to make them annoyed enough to fight. I’ve been interested in leisure and public spaces ever since I came to China and friends have told me how men take their caged birds out for a walk in the park, but this was the first time I’d seen the cricket collectors. The crickets don’t last for long, and apparently this is the season to find more in the fields and breed them for fighting. The National Day holiday (1st October) is the peak time for hobbiests.
Our walk to the bird and insect market took us through narrow streets and alleyways, past traditional food markets and food stalls. Suddenly, we came to a huge building site, where similar tumbledown buildings and streets had been bull-dozed to make way for the next high rise block. It’s just over a year since we first came to Shanghai and it’s fascinating to see the rapid progress of construction. The tallest tower on the Pudong side of the river (the financial district) was about half built last year; now it has been fully revealed, with cladding and scaffolding removed and only the final few metres to be completed. However, when you discover an old market area, where people are clearly making a living, it is poignant to speculate that it will probably be swept away by the next time you visit.
One small shop we found much to our friends’ delight was dedicated to the sale of bras – piles of them in many colours and sizes. My friends are keen readers of my blog, so they insisted on taking a photograph of me in front of the shop, rather to the bemusement of the shop owner, who stared out at us. What were these tourists doing?
Shanghai was getting ready for the National Day holiday – now not just one day to celebrate the founding of the PRC, but a whole week. It is one of the holidays that have been established in the last 15 years to stimulate domestic consumption, including tourism. If you love China, buy, buy, buy! Even CNN – one of the treats of going to Shanghai is access to English language TV – had a discussion of the many Chinese online consumer sites that have sprung up to encourage people to buy home goods, from toothpaste to TVs. It seems these are most popular with people living in second and third tier cities where there are fewer western style goods, but as much aspiration as in Shanghai, Beijing or Chongqing.
The picture of the home-schooler with the cricket on his arm also interested me because I hope soon to visit a primary school in Ningbo. I have the opportunity to do an internship rather than write a dissertation in order to complete my MA. Having spent my entire adult life concerned with education, I can’t resist the chance of seeing a Chinese school from the inside and finding out what life there is really like for both pupils and teachers.
The man in the Shanghai Daily explained that he didn’t like the learning style imposed on his son and felt he wasn’t making fast enough progress. In competitive China, getting ahead in education is a number one priority. The only trouble is that if you take your child out of the national system he or she cannot sit the national university entrance exam, and must go to university abroad. But presumably this might be in line with the aspiration of the newly rich middle classes anyway, as they discard the old ways and embrace the new. Except for those old habits of collecting insects.