The hoarder’s dream, the minimalist’s nightmare – This is Shanghai



Shanghai is full of hidden markets; if you know where to look, you can find anything from heavily discounted and counterfeit designer labels to Communist-era art and literature to antiques dating back to before the People’s Republic of China.

I recently headed north to Putuo (it’s not as far as you might think – just a 20 minute scooter ride from the heart of Jing’an) to Juqi Antique Market, leaving behind the comfort of my bubble for a Chinese cultural immersion.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

The market looks like nothing from the front – in fact, the antique district is in a building about a block behind the main road. When you first enter, you walk through a surprisingly active plant and flower market. Collect anything from RMB3 succulents to RMB2,000 bonsai trees.

There are also loads of crickets (for cricket fighting – a favorite Chinese pastime similar to cock fighting, but somehow more tolerable), reptiles, and fish. I grabbed a basil plant for 10 RMB, then headed to the back building to find the real reason for my visit – the antiques.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

The Juqi Antique Market is more than just an antique market or an art fair. It is a hoarder’s dream, a minimalist’s nightmare; in equal parts waste and treasures. Strolling through the dimly lit alleys dotted with mountains of cultural relics, collectibles, period pieces and – also – legitimate waste that should have been discarded decades ago is like living a bygone Chinese era in a vortex of a building.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

The rows are half deserted, the stalls abandon their stands for an afternoon nap, a casual cigarette, a game of cards. Like at a large indoor garage sale, visitors are caught between piles of worn books, decorative spoons, heirlooms, and faded photographs with curled edges.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Squeaky record players are crammed alongside stacks of cassettes, worn stamps, rolled up posters and a myriad of clocks of all shapes and sizes, most of which stopped working years ago. Jade ornaments, rusty coins, broken watches and uniquely shaped cans are interspersed between wooden carvings, crushed aluminum cigarette cases, tarnished hairpins and ceramic jars, chipped by l age and wear.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Large vases painted in the traditional style of blue and white pottery are covered in dust next to empty frames, woven bags, and outdated electronics that may never have worked properly. The easiest game to play is “spot Mao”, with smiling busts, little red books, and color and black-and-white images of the tall helmsman scattered throughout.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

The building smells of sweat, dust, cigarette ash, and an old – now forgotten – version of Shanghai that resonates through the walls like friendly haggling in a twisted, bouncy Shanghainese dialect. People come and go, eat and sleep, smoke, laugh and play mahjong among the rows of strewn debris, with no notion of time or the outside world. Plum rains or streaming sun, freezing cold or radiant heat, the market is open every day.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

The average age in the market is over 50, but I was still surprised to find that this is perhaps – in fact – the only place in Shanghai where cash is still the dominant form of the currency.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

DSC04372.jpgImage by Sophie Steiner / This is

On the second floor of the market, the piles are replaced with cloth fabrics, laid out on the cement floor and covered with colorful beads, jade, jewelry and small items of interest. Merchant levels jump an octave, as does humidity and damp heat, mixed with the mumble of greedy purchases and the crackle of electric mosquito nets.

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

The floor is littered with the remnants of hours spent waiting for a big sale – empty cigarette packs, torn bubble wrap, plastic bottles, apple peels turning brown, dirty napkins and half-eaten baozi, posing the question: where does it all come from, and who buys it?

Image by Sophie Steiner / This is

A visit alone is worth the cultural experience, which many of us in Shanghai too often miss by staying in the everyday Western cafes and restaurants that might exist anywhere on the planet.

As the country continues to modernize at a faster rate than any other in the history of the world, it is relics like these that remind us of a past China, now outdated and replaced by electronic money, the products of imported luxury and finds from Taobao.

At the Juqi Antique Market, if you are up to digging, you might find something of value, but you will most certainly walk away with unique curiosities from the past discovered in the sprawling rows of pieces and bobs.

See a listing for the Juqi Antique Market.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That’s]



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