A modern, tarred road leads off the main thoroughfare, but soon peters out into a jumble of narrow footpaths lined by ramshackle two-storey structures scarcely visible behind all the plywood, corrugated iron and plastic lean-tos tacked on to serve as outdoor kitchens or makeshift sleeping quarters. Most residents are migrants, who rent from native Shanghainese landlords, one step up the Chinese pecking order because they have an official urban residence permit, which the migrants lack. Complaints about the landlords are common: on the padlocked door of the room under Cao’s, residents have scrawled a note in magic marker on to plywood. It says: “Landlord please fix this room or we will move out.” When asked how many people live in the building in total, Cao’s husband cannot even hazard a rough estimate. “There are a lot,” he says, pointing out that residents turn over regularly, leaving as soon as they find something better.
The eaves are so low that even a diminutive woman such as Cao narrowly misses braining herself on them. Floor space is so limited that everything that can possibly be hung from the eaves or tacked to a plywood wall has to be. A fat side of pork is suspended from a coat hanger, and the family spatula is tucked between two layers of the cardboard that lines the inside of the roof — to stop the crumbling roof tiles from raining dust into the stir fry.
To cook, Cao has to pull her wok and gas cook-plate out on to the narrow landing, where she fires it up with a gas bottle. A dusty shrine to the Buddhist goddess Guanyin clings to a shelf on one wall. Walls are papered with pages from a 2009 calendar. The bed is a thin bamboo mat on a wooden platform, heaped high with colourful comforters. The loo is down the lane, in the direction the duck was running in.
But still, this isn’t Mumbai, or Soweto — or for that matter, parts of Baltimore. What passes for slums in China’s most modern city are not quite as desperate as some of those in other parts of Asia or Africa.
One important difference is Shanghai is relatively safe: murders are rare here. And for a big city, it is pretty clean, with no stinking mounds of faeces-strewn trash or fetid waterways of sewage. That’s already quite an achievement.
And like many such makeshift migrant communities in Shanghai, it is remarkably self-contained, offering many of the necessities of life. Directly opposite Cao’s front door, scarcely a metre across the lane, is a laundry complete with dry-cleaning equipment and a sewing machine for alterations. Right next door is a small, dry goods shop selling rice, drinks, soap and other essentials. Down the lane are butchers who display ribs and cutlets and chops and other pig parts, en plein air — as well as caged live chickens, basins of squirming eels and flopping fish, all ready for the cooking pot.
And at 6am, a cooked traditional Chinese breakfast is easily to hand also: an open-air stall dispenses fresh-fried local breakfast delicacies. Frugal Cao makes her own morning repast, a bowl of rice and preserved vegetables, and packs her lunch for the 40-minute tricycle ride to work, to save money. Where she works, in one of Shanghai’s most expensive residential and commercial areas, lunch at an upscale diner can easily cost more than her total profit from a 12-hour day.
Cao could live somewhere more expensive: but she prefers to invest what she earns in the future of her 23-year-old son, who plans to attend graduate school to study economics (she also has a 21-year-old daughter, who cost her a fine of three times the family’s annual income, because she was born in violation of China’s one-child policy).
“If my son can make Rmb5,000 a month, he will be more than willing to give me Rmb500 or maybe Rmb300 a month when I am old. But if he makes only Rmb2,000 a month, then he will not be willing,” she says, assuming like most migrants in China that her son will be her pension. But it will be “quite a few more years yet” before her filial investment begins to pay off.
So every morning she sets off on her tricycle-cart at 7.30am, and each night she returns home more than 12 hours later. From the neon towers, to the room that she calls a “hole”, in the city that she calls “fabulous”. But she’s not complaining: at least it’s warm in the winter — and definitely better than where she came from.