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July 10, 2020

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Small shops adding to poetic beauty of a great city

When I cleaned my home over the weekend, some small boxes popped up, each containing a bundle of buttons saved in the past in case a worn-out piece of clothing might need repair.

I asked my wife whether we should now wean ourselves from these buttons, because neither of us had proved to be good at sewing. She hesitated for a while, but decided we’d better keep the buttons, many of which still quite new, for there must be someone around who could handle a threaded needle.

She was right, though at first I was not that confident in her judgment. Over the past few decades, we have disposed of most worn-out pieces through donation partly because that “someone” skilful at needlework has rarely emerged anywhere near where we work or live. I do not mean there’re no such craftsmen; I mean only that they are not as easily spotted as they were about 20 years ago, when streetside stitchery was quite at hand.

But things are changing, again, breathing new life into small streetside shops. Earlier this week, Jiading District in north Shanghai published a list of such shops, praising them for their persistence for over 20 years in serving local people at reasonably low prices. A stitching shop caught my attention in particular.

It’s a 10-square-meter shop which has been open for 33 years in Malu Town. Chen Yixing, the 67-year-old owner, has been stitching and weaving for 48 years. He often works from 6am to 8pm due to a sustained demand from customers near and far. A woman surnamed Shen just bought two trousers and found them a bit too long, so she dropped them at Chen’s shop for a fix. Total cost: 10 yuan (US$1.4). Chen charges the same low price even for more expensive trousers.

To be sure, Chen’s shop is still a bit far from where I work and live, but from the high-profile report of this story I can see more government support on the road for petty businesses indispensable for people’s daily lives. It will not be too long, I gather, before someone settles near our neighborhood to fix our clothes and other petty problems like a haircut.

I moved from a rented apartment in downtown Shanghai to a town in the western suburb about eight years ago. Over these years I have found, to my dismay, that a haircut in town has increasingly become as expensive as that in city center. Against this background, I find an old barbershop in Jiading all the more soothing for its professional service at a low price.

The barbershop has been in business in Loutang Town for more than 40 years. Its furniture — a worn-out iron chair, for instance — is reminiscent of life in the 1970s and 1980s, and betrays the barber’s time-honored professional service to be given at low prices. The barber, Jin Yiming, is 70 years old and has been in the trade for 53 years. “Good service at a low price” has always been his motto. Even after several rounds of price adjustment, he still charges far less than those nearby barbershops. A typical haircut now costs around 11 yuan at his shop.

What Jiading and many other districts have spared no efforts to keep small shops alive and well reminds me of a passage from E.B. White’s writings: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: It compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”


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