hanghai is one of those places where you leave for a couple of weeks, and by the time you return there’s a strong chance you won’t recognize a venue on your street. It’s a city that looks remarkably different from one week to the next as buildings pop up and tumble down - I don’t know many people living here who haven’t turned up to a favorite spot one day to find it gone. Poof! Vanished into thin air without a trace.
The windows of the tiny bakery you used to frequent whited out; your old barber shop shut up with no sign of return, and only a faded name left etched into the hoarding to mark its former existence; your go-to neighborhood eatery transformed into a building site with the next concept already unfolding in its space. Over the past two years, the store next to my apartment has been an artisanal coffeehouse, a flower shop, a bubble tea cafe and an indie fashion boutique.
It’s partly just a side effect of living in a fast-paced megacity where people and places come and go; that transient nature long ingrained into its DNA. But it’s also because Shanghai is a playground for entrepreneurs and innovators, a testbed of ideas where no plan is too outlandish, no dream too big. People flock to its bright lights like a moth to a flame, drawn in by its unrelenting energy and a strong community of business owners and workers who together throw themselves fully into the city to keep it moving forward. Some ideas flourish, grow and evolve, while others move on or fade out, quickly followed by new ones popping up in their place.
When my partner and I first moved here, we were often met with unrequested assurances from southern friends and acquaintances that our lifestyle here would be much “easier” compared to Beijing, its northern rival that we were leaving behind. But honestly, in the beginning I felt the opposite. Less grit, more glitz, as an outsider Shanghai somehow felt colder and more closed off. Like most metropolises, it moved at a million miles an hour never stopping for breath, and the people who lived there did the same.
Local businesses were our key to the other side, the inside. Regardless of whether they last a lifetime, like the mom-and-pop snack shops and street food stalls passed down from generation to generation, or whether their moment is fleeting, these local businesses really are the heart of Shanghai. They’re the hubs that foster tight-knit communities in a hardened city center: Neighbors gossip at their corner fruit stores, local organizations and groups chew the cud at tucked away-cafes, quirky gift shops stock the wares of up-and-coming local designers, and families host lively catch-ups squeezed around the table at hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Between the four walls of what were to become my regular neighborhood haunts, life slowed right down, and the city’s impersonal facade faded away. After weeks of struggling to meet people, lasting friendships were formed in the space of a few hours at our local live house; chatty grocery store owners spun off their tips for everything from where to find the best xiaolongbao (Shanghai’s signature soup dumplings) to fresh produce in a flurry of Shanghainese; and friendly bartenders behind buzzing cocktail spots recommended their favorite tipples. It’s these spaces that make Shanghai the unique, colorful and unforgettable city it is.
Just like places all over the world, a number of Shanghai’s small businesses are being pushed out of action by increasingly online stores, bigger brands and omnipresent chains that compete for our attention with their promise of convenience and deals. But it’s because of the strong community vibes that when the little guys struggle or run into the age-old issues with landlords and unexpected changes to regulations, their patrons and fellow local joints pull together to try and keep them afloat via collaborations, free publicity and more. And when there are casualties, their legacy often lives on.
While businesses do come and go, it’s safe to say that Shanghai wouldn’t be the city it is without the passionate and dedicated entrepreneurs, artisans, creatives and workers from all walks who give it their all to create spaces where strong community vibes thrive. They’re what keep the soul of our international and unstoppable city alive, and that’s why we’ve got to support them where we can - especially in a year like this one.