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Old-School Street Peddlers still Seen in Modern Shanghai's Cityscape

Pub Date:17-05-24 08:10 Source:Global Times

Seventy-one-year-old Mr Zhou has been sharpening cutlery in Shanghai for nearly 30 years. Originally from Anhui Province, Zhou rides his bicycle from dawn to dusk, neighborhood to neighborhood, across the city, covering different districts daily. He sets up his wooden sawhorse and whetstone, announces his presence with musical metal leaves, then waits. "I used to sit in front of residential gates and people would rush out to bring their knives and cleavers to me," Zhou told the Global Times. "But these days, young adults would rather just buy a new knife instead of taking the time to have their old ones sharpened."

Back in his prime, Zhou sharpened up to 50 knives, cleavers and scissors per day; today he averages around half that, at 5 yuan ($0.73) per knife, each which he spends approximately 10 minutes on. He now receives most of his business from wet market mongers, who sharpen their steel cleavers at least once a week.

As there are few roving knife grinders in Shanghai anymore, Zhou still sees a steady income and said he does not expect to retire anytime soon.

Street life and its clamor of commerce is a hallmark of Chinese culture. Most provincial neighborhoods have their own outdoor knife sharpener, cobbler, barber, locksmith, tailor, fix-it men and food carts - each with their own characteristic call.

But in Shanghai, the use of sidewalks has become a game of cat and mouse between authorities and "disruptive" itinerant vendors, who risk losing the precious tools of their trade if caught.

Zhou is one of several traveling tradesmen and pushcart peddlers in Shanghai who this photographer has attempted to track down for a series on street merchants. As most keep no regular route or schedule, I had to lay in wait for weeks or months at a time until they reappeared where I first encountered them. Many I never saw again.

Over the past few months, many of Shanghai's last street merchants, curbside craftsmen and handcart hawkers, such as popcorn cannons and migrant costermongers, have been run off the sidewalks by chengguan (urban management officers) following the latest crackdown on unlicensed vendors.

Instead of dealing with the complicated procedures to obtain a license, many simply retire from their trade, leaving Shanghai with one less craftsman skilled in the old-school arts.

Residents who once relied on traveling tradesmen setting up shop outside their community gates have grown collectively impatient with their increasingly erratic appearances.

Locals are thus now more inclined to repurchase mass-produced products at commercial shops than wait around weeks or months just to have something old sharpened, repaired or mended. And so it goes


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