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February 25, 2013

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Heartbeat of city's famous old Cao'an Market soon to be stilled

THE loudspeaker tonelessly blares out what everyone already knows: The downtown market is closing.

Cao'an Market, Shanghai's oldest central wholesale-retail agricultural products market, is due to be shuttered at the end of the month, forcing stallholders and customers alike to less reknowned markets on the outskirts of the city or small neighborhood greengrocers.

In its waning days, the colorful landmark that has been selling fish, vegetables, meat and fruit to residents for 20 years is still ticking along, but somberness hangs in the air.

"Business goes on," said Liu Jianhua, 47, as he removes his work gloves at his mushroom stall in one corner of the market. "For us, we will just have to head where the business goes."

Perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the historic Les Halles wholesale wet market in central Paris that fell victim to urban redevelopment in the 1970s, Cao'an will be demolished to make way for gleaming new shopping malls, office buildings and hotels.

"I will remember the place fondly," said a retiree surnamed Xu, who lives nearby and was among the up to 30,000 people who went to the market every day.

"We have no choice but to go to other smaller green grocers nearby," another woman who shops regularly in the market said sadly.

Strolling through the market last week, a visitor couldn't help but be struck by the price of progress as yet another piece of old Shanghai is set to be gobbled up by modernization.

The major roadway inside the market, muddy after a night's rain, was clogged by pedestrians, carts, bikes and trucks, jostling amid the hubbub of hawkers. Fish flapped in the buckets of stall owner Jiang Jiabao. On the wall behind him is a notice he penned in large characters: "Our stall will move to a nearby wet market and continue operation. We welcome all customers, old and new."

Jiang said he and his wife will not relocate to a market on the outskirts of town. It's too far away, he said, and the daily commute would affect his products.

At a stall across from Jiang's, a fishmonger surnamed Song said he will probably go out of business after selling fish for 10 years. "I do not know where to go," he said. "Other markets are not as good as this."

Price of modernization

Cao'an has long been the premier wet market of Shanghai, thanks to its prime downtown location at the west gate of the city. More than 1,500 stalls there have done annual trade valued at 6 billion yuan (US$952 million). Prices were generally up to 30 percent cheaper, attracting shoppers seeking the freshest ingredients at the lowest prices.

As Shanghai modernized, old landmark industries sitting on what has become very valuable downtown real estate have been progressively moved out to make way for flashy new structures. Cao'an Market itself shrunk in size when the Middle Ring Road was built.

Kang Zujian, the brains behind the market and its main operative for two decades, said he will retire when the market closes. "My mission in life is over," said Kang, in his early 70s, who has handed over transition details to a task force of district government officials.

Signs of retreat are obvious. Some stalls are already shuttered. The monthly trade volume at the market late last year dropped significantly. On one December night alone, wholesale trade in Chinese cabbages was only 14 tons, compared with the usual 50 tons.

For many stallholders, the market's demise is deeply personal.

"My whole family is here," said Feng Zunchun, 62, a wholesale fruit seller who employs his son, daughter and daughter-in-law. "I guess I will go back to my hometown in Jiangsu Province. They can carry on the family business at a new location."

Mushroom seller Liu, snapping awake from a quick nap before the noisy nighttime trade begins about 7pm, said he will probably move his business to a wet market in suburban Baoshan District, an hour's drive away. It's one of six options offered to stallholders. All agree that no new site can begin to rival Cao'an.

In a mostly abandoned two-story building next to the meats, a clocking-in machine still hangs on the wall. A garbage collector wanders narrow market pathways. The atmosphere is eerie as a loudspeaker blares: "Attention, operators! To avoid losses, be advised not to purchase more goods ... "


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