Life In The Old Streets

By Zheng Zhongmin


    Life in the old streets Series was taken in the old area of Xiping Town, Songyang County seat, Zhejiang Province, China.

Childhood Memory

    Songyang is an ancient county with a long history for more than 1800 years. Built in Qing dynasty, the old area of the county seat reached its peak in the late of Qing dynasty. Before 1980s, it was the county seat center with many shops crowded with visitors. On both sides of the street were lined with two-story old wooden houses densely with shops of groceries, snacks, fluffing cottons, coir raincoats, steelyards, tailors, hard wares, cylinder bowls, portraits, seals and others. On market days, three or four meters wide streets saw the flood of people, pedestrians jostled one another on the way with the sound of peddling, bargain and shouts. The lanes in the old streets extended from the sides out, crossed and entangled, forming like a maze.

    When I was in the fourth grade in primary school in 1984, I transferred from Yuyan district to the county seat full of curiosity to everything. The very next day, parents took me to the barber’s in the old street to make me neat and fresh before studying in the new school. The barber’s located in the bustling street area lined with continuous customers. The barber’s was opened in 1981 and owned by two sisters who got on well together. Looking at the back of the two sisters, I had never thought I have been having my hair cut in the shop for nearly thirty years until now.

    I often followed my parents going shopping in the old street. I seldom saw such a busy street in my hometown, but I like going shopping. I would ask parents when I saw the new things. During the holidays, people would buy each bag of sugar and orange cake as gifts, which was regarded as the best ones at that time. With sleight of hands the shop assistants firstly packed it with fine paper, and then used thick paper to do a shape of ladder, on top of which put a piece of red paper packed with papyruses.

    When I passed by several terrible coffin shops, I would think of coffins in the ancestral halls and huts of my hometown, where children were reluctant to play. I was always far away and timidly and quickly went away from them.

    My parents often took me to the old cinema. When entering and exiting, the audiences were too crowded in the narrow streets to make headway. We were hand in hand for fear of lost. Sometimes, I rode my dad to squeeze way out of the crowd. I leaned on his broad shoulders often having a sweet sleep.

    My family economic conditions did not allow us often to dine out. When I was greedy and wanted to eat pork noodles in the street, I would keep at my mother to take there. My mother often met my requirements to bring me a big cup and give me a few cents. I flew to the food shop asking for a large bowl of noodles and shared it with my family. The taste is still fresh in my memory.

Great Changes in the County Seat

    After 1990s, the county seat has accelerated its urbanization with reconstruction and expansion of the streets, making many old streets fresh to look wide and straight. The tall brick buildings erected on both sides, whose bottom located the street shops with fashion clothes, hair salon, pastry, electrical apparatus, etc. Pop music and attractive advertisements could be heard from the shop gates, behind which were lined with residential districts. The old area gradually substituted by tall buildings to form many a “villages in the city”. The downtown area gradually turned to the main streets. However, the narrow lanes were too lonely to lose their former prosperity.

    Today, the barber’s is still there, but the elder sister retired to remain younger sister alone to run the shop. The assistants of food shop no longer packs sugar, orange cakes and something like that. Many various and exquisite packages of health and nutrition appear in the shop. After the funeral reform in 2003, the coffin shops making children afraid disappeared overnight. With the popularity of television and the rapid development of network, the new and old cinemas don’t release films. As for the food shops in the old streets, somehow, it is unable to find the original taste of pork noodles. Many people have moved into the new houses, remaining the old, rustics and workers in the old streets.

    Under the impact of the city culture, some traditional industries in the old streets are dying out. New industries are springing up, vanishing and refreshing constantly. The number of the shops in the old streets near the downtown is more than those which are too far away to rent. Many shops and houses fell into disrepairment and were inclined and broken to be dangerous. Some residents made unauthorized repairment and reconstruction to destroy the original architectural style. Shops were installed the roll-up doors instead of the traditional wooden doors for it’s not convenience to open and close and decorated and painted, losing its original appearance and meanings. The old streets looked cool, messy, ruined and decay, which is not the former picture in my childhood memory.

Photography Ideology

    I still like to walk in the old streets after working. Unfortunately, due to the lack of recorded consciousness, I seldom focus on the old streets around me. I began to be aware of taking photos of the old streets until 2007. With the gradual increasing of the photos, I slowly found ideas and direction in photography combined with interviews and shooting, figures and environment. Currently I have interviewed more than 200 people working and living in the old streets and have gained more than 50,000 literal materials.

    The people are the masters in the old streets and the creators and successor of the street culture. Its change mainly come from people, closely related to the process of urbanization. Attention paid to and records on the old streets’ people and its development can really show the growth of the old streets. Meanwhile, person is who in the environment belonging to person. The old streets’ people in the typical environment can be the united combination with mutual background, showing the figures survival conditions and spiritual outlooks through the details.

    If it is said that the new street is a daring and energetic young with trendy clothes and fresh blood of the new era, then the old one is the aged dressing in a slanting gown full of gully shaped crinkles. The customs lingers on but the prosperity goes away. In the rapid process of the urbanization, the old streets will be submerged and swallowed or become a vassal and manmade tourism landscape of the city. The old streets like human beings with its life. One day, they will disappear like the end of human so naturally. What I can do is to leave more images with the camera and write more stories for the old streets.

    In the future, the old streets will leave behind the light recollection in mind. People only see its charm and charisma from the photos.


    Photos listed in order of time sequence

    Photo 01: September 12th , 2007, No.49 South Street. Sixty-nine year old Yang Jilian and his sixty-three year old wife Chen Xiangjun are doing the local flavor snacks: oil pancakes. This kind of cake is made up of oil and flour with crispy crusts, which is similar to moon cake of Suzhou in the shape, texture and taste. The cake usually is made from before Hungry Ghost Festival (the 15th day of the seventh lunar month) to after the Mid-autumn Festival (the 15th day of the eighth lunar month). At present there are only two shops to sell oil pancakes in the county seat.


    Photo 02: September 15th, 2008, No.172 People’s Street. The seal engraver Zhang Zhiyuan completed the woodcut "FuWa" in April, 2008 and wanted to donate it to Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee as a memorial through a friend. Unfortunately, he received a reply that the committee stopped receiving Olympic souvenirs. Zhang was born in 1955, inherited his father’s (Zhang Shichao) craftsmanship. His father started an engraving shop with a history of over 50 years from 1952, in partnership with other engravers.


    Photo 03: December 12th, 2009, No.144 People’s Street. The fortuneteller Huang Jinfu’s shop is most simple with a signboard, a table and a few stools. Huang was born in 1952, followed his teacher to learn fortune-telling in 1986, engaged in a variety of industries, and helped acquaintances to do some fortune-telling in his spare time. He opened his fortune-telling shop in Lishui and Songyang in 2007 and 2009 until 2010.


    Photo 04: Juanuary 2nd, 2010, No.7 Shangqiang Lane. The barber Wu Linfa is having acquaintances’ hair cut at home. Wu is at the age of 80, engaging in hairdressing for 70 years. He is said to be the oldest hairdresser in Songyang County seat.


    Photo 05: January 30th, 2010, South Street. The seventy-three year old You Feiyun is buying vegetables. Flowing vegetable hawkers can give convenience to the residents in the old streets.


    Photo 06: January 30th, 2010, No. 145 People’s Street. The couple Huang Weibing and Wu Jinmei is cooperating very well with palm bed. Huang was born in 1962 and started to learn the skills at 13 and made a living at 16 for 35 years. Huang feels there will be no successors in future to carry the torch. There is only his shop in the county seat at present.


    Photo 07: January 30th, 2010, No.7 Qiaoting Street. When the blacksmith Lou Youjia strikes the iron, his wife Hu Chuncui also helps with him. Born in 1931, Lou started to learn blacksmithing at 15, engaging in the industry for more than 60 years. He is a senior of the profession in the old streets.


    Photo 08: March 14th, 2010, No.2 Zilihui Lane. Sixty-four year old mute Yu Zaigang is at home making wreath frames with a faithful shepherd dog accompanying him. The dog was bought by his grandson to the Yus.


    Photo 09: April 25th, 2010, No.107 People’s Street. Fifty-five year old Cai Xiaohua is repairing watch. Cai family inherited and engaged in watches and clocks and dental industry, which Cai's grandfather, uncles, elder brothers exclusively or concurrently engaged in. Cai’s skills were learned from his mother’s 3rd brother.


    Photo 10: May 16th, 2010, No.100 People’s Street. Herb shop owner Wang Xianyun likes playing erhu. The herbal carton boxes are written with the name of drugs, and directory on the wall make it easier to search for herbs in plastic bags. He is the age of the Republic. He started medicine at 15, and used to be a barefoot doctor when he was young and opened his herb shop in the early of 1990s.


    Photo 11: May 30th, 2010, No.11 Heng Street. Sixty-five year old Wang Genshui is sewing the traditional breasted clothes for the old. Wang with left foot disabled lived a rough life and engaged in selling stamps, clothing, hairdressing, selling cloths after graduation from primary school. He opened his shop in 1980s until now.


    Photo 12: June 15th, 2010, No.99 People’s Street. Que Wanwei is replacing a bottom for an old kettle. He and his brother Que Wanxin inherited the iron skills from their father Que Weiwen. They opened shops by their own.


    Photo 13: July 4th, 2010, No. 97 South Street. Ding Changshou and his son Ding Sheng are making twister crullers at the gate of their shop in the morning. Their food shop was opened in 1987 mainly to provide breakfast with some cigarette retail.


    Photo 14: July 31st, 2010, No.3 Yanhang Lane. Eighty-three year old Chen Jinju is drinking the appetizing soup sent by her youngest son. The nave laid with her husband Ye Youxin’s (1921-1983) portrait. Chen’s three sons are very filial, wanting her to live with them, but she is still used to living in the old house in the old street.


    Photo 15: August 8th, 2010, No.102 People’s Street. Ninety-one year old Chen Pinlin often sits in the hall, looking at old photos on the walls with deep thoughts. The TV screen reflected his figure. Chen Pinlin has no children but adopts a niece as daughter. His wife died three years ago. Now he lives alone and hires a nursemaid to take care of him.


    Photo 16: October 31st, 2010, No.3 Tatou Street Lane. Seventy-seven year old Pan Lixiang is at home repairing and cleaning hairtail. Her husband Ye Shichang died seven years ago and Pan lives alone at present.


    Photo 17: November 14th, 2010, No.62 North Street. Seventy-two year old Ying Faliang is preparing lunch. Ying is a staff of original farm tools factor in Songyang County. He has a son and three daughters and lives with his wife Xu Junqiu now.


    Photo 18: January 22nd, 2011, No.10 Panhou Street Lane. The couple Zhang Song and Zhou Tuxiang and their daughter and son-in-law are having lunch together at the bedplate used to make quilts. Zhang was born in 1960, learned fluffing cotton from his teacher in 1975, and began to make coir raincoat and cotton in 1978, and set up shop in 1990, engaging in cotton industry for 35 years.


    Photo 19: March 5th, 2011, Heng Street. When it is raining, Ye Tufu is busy keeping off the rain out of his street stalls with rainshed carried from his home. Born in 1930, Ye is suffered from arthritis and spurs for six years, making him a cripple.


    Photo 20: March 5th, 2011, No.158 People’s Street. The blacksmith Que Xianming is having lunch made at home and sent by his wife. Que learned blacksmithing at 14 in 1967 and engaged in the industry for more than 40 years.


    Photo 21: March 5th, 2011, No.40 South Street. The little girl is waiting for Yin Aihe the boss of a noodle shop to make noodles. This noodle shop has been run by Yin’s grandfather, father and mother, Yin and her husband with a history of nearly hundred years. Compared with the 1980s and 1990s when the customers crowded in the shop lining to wait for their turn, the market days in the old streets are less lively, let alone on ordinary days. In fact, there is no business today except on the market days.


    Photo 22: August 13th, 2011, No.172 People’s Street. Two high school students are learning painting in Xu Xiuhe’s portrait shop. The shop was opened in 1991 with a history for more than 20 years.