When my ayi returned from her village after new year she brought us a live chicken. My disconcerted feelings about coming home from work to a feathered creature hiding under the desk were matched by her incredulity that no one in our family had any idea how to handle, never mind kill, such a common part of our diet.
While a chicken roaming around on the rug may be a bit too close to home.
I have long grown accustomed to – and appreciative of – the wet market across the street where poultry and fish are sold live (and then killed and cleaned on the spot).
These local markets, however, are in danger of disappearing as Shanghai’s drive for development seeks to clean up, civilize and sanitize the trade and traffic of the street. (For more on the tension, inherent within capitalism, between supermarkets — where all chickens come in plastic wraps — and street markets see this piece written 10 years ago after a visit to the Taipei night market.)
The ‘clean up and development’ campaigns taking place in Shanghai today are particularly frustrating. Partly this is because they so profoundly disrupt any linear sense of development. As China works to erase all signs of ‘backwardness’ tied to the urban poor, cities in the more ‘advanced economies’ are re-embracing farmers markets, bike-paths, local street food and urban gardens and are struggling with how to spread these sustainable practices beyond the bourgeois elite.
This paradoxical irony is particularly acute when it comes to urban farming – an especially fashionable contemporary trend. In Shanghai most urban farms are planted and maintained by migrants, peasant farmers like my ayi who are now adjusting themselves to city life. As artist Chen Hangfeng documents in his work Invasive Species many of the gardens migrants plant in the corners of their new living spaces are illegal and are thus, regularly being destroyed in the name of an ongoing process of’development’.
These photos of Shanghai’s real urban farms were taken on a walk I lead near xiaonanmen station: