‘Can you pay cash?’ the chef asked. It was a bizarre request: Shanghai abandoned paper money years ago. ‘My neighbours reported me for hosting private dinners at home. It’s better that you pay cash so there will be no proof of a commercial transaction. And by the way, if anyone asks, just say you have come to celebrate my mother’s birthday. Tiptoe upstairs if you can.’ I wasn’t going to disagree. I told my fellow foodies and went to the bank to withdraw some old-school notes, wondering how many birthdays the chef’s mother has had recently. Before the dinner, everyone took a PCR test to show the doorman at the apartment block. You also can’t use public transport without a negative test result. They’re valid for 72 hours: people joke that a Shanghainese’s ‘shelf life’ is shorter than that of a loaf of bread.
After more than ten weeks (some endured twelve) of strictest lockdown, Shanghai’s residents were finally let out again last month, one district at a time. The streets were a bleak sight in early June. On my first day out, I walked for almost three hours to find an open café. The owner talked about all the paperwork he’d had to submit to different ministries to get an ‘essential food and drink supplier’ permit. In the empty street the wild grass was thriving. It wasn’t the only thing that was overgrown. Walking round the silent city, I occasionally came across a barber trimming the long beard and hair of a caveman out in the road. Manicurists and masseurs tried to do the same but were driven away by police. ‘Have you no shame?’ one was asked. ‘Cutting nails and rubbing feet in the street? This is not an essential job, go away immediately or else you’ll be fined!’ The girl grumbled and signalled to the customer to come back when the officer had gone.
Policemen now dress in hazmat suits and are sometimes referred to as the ‘white horror’. They bang on people’s doors at midnight and drag them to quarantine centres. If you refuse to co-operate, they make threats: ‘Think about your job and your family’; ‘Your behaviour will affect the next generation.’ One young man said what many were thinking when he replied: ‘Don’t worry. We are the last generation.’ On the first days of lockdown easing, the police patrolled the streets and dispersed any gatherings they found. They were booed by Shanghainese filled with two months’ anger: ‘You are supposed to be the servants of the people, not the enemies of the people!’ ‘Don’t be so hard-working! You are not paid enough to do all this!’ ‘Go home and be with your family! Live your life and let us live ours!’ People who were picked up for violating Covid rules or protesting against them said they were treated respectfully at the police station. The officers complained that they had too much work to do and didn’t want to treat their fellow citizens harshly.
The PCR testing booths in downtown Shanghai have permanent queues because you need a fresh negative result every two days to go anywhere (and if you go seven days without a new test your green code turns yellow). There are also long queues for divorce appointments at the Civil Affairs Bureau. A friend of mine who gave birth during lockdown told me she drank beer while breastfeeding so her baby would sleep more instead of crying all day. Six Hundred South Wanping Road, the home of Shanghai Mental Health Centre, is now the most famous address in the city. It has become a meme, too. All sorts of unauthorised merchandise have appeared – tote bags and T-shirts saying ‘Happy Discharge from No. 600’ as well as No. 600 mugs and masks. A doctor friend who works at the centre told me he had never seen so many patients; if I wanted sleeping pills I’d have to wait like everyone else.
Over the past two and half years, Shanghai residents have spent close to six months in full or partial quarantine: 2022 has been worse than 2020. In spring 2020, we didn’t know much about the virus and most people volunteered to stay home to support Wuhan. Food supplies were stable and hospitals were below capacity; there were no steel fences keeping us locked up. During the latest lockdown I ate only rice dumplings, wontons and boiled vegetables. After two months of that it’s difficult to remember what your favourite food tastes like. At the end of April, I traded some homegrown flowers for two pieces of homemade cake and gobbled them in tears. Another time I paid an outrageous price for a small basket of strawberries from a neighbourhood profiteer. Most of us don’t want to see potatoes and carrots (the basis of every government ration package) ever again.
The outlook for the city has never been worse. Three months of no trade (while still having to pay rent and wages and tax) killed off many restaurants and bars, and the survivors are struggling with the ‘takeaway only’ rule. Some are secretly receiving customers indoors, covering the shop front with black plastic. When inspectors pass by, the owner will turn off all the lights, either hushing customers so the place appears empty or rushing them to the back door. A Weibo post that went viral claimed customers at one restaurant had been asked by the owner to dress up as waiters to fool the inspectors: ‘Dinner turned cosplay.’ Modified movie posters – A Quiet Place (make a sound, the monster will get you), Squid Game (make a move, you’ll be shot dead) – have become memes. Shrewd restaurants only accept regulars and turn down calls from new customers. Some people were making ‘fishing calls’ and then reporting rule-breaking restaurants to the authorities to claim a reward. I called a local bistro the other day to book a secret dinner. The dismayed owner told me they had been caught in a random check by industry and commerce officers. First-time offenders are shut down for three days, repeat offenders for ten days. Restaurants used to beg customers to share pictures of their food and location on social media; now they beg you not to.
Picnics are trending. Restaurants put their meals in takeaway boxes for customers to eat on their porch steps or on picnic mats. But for the fancier places, takeaway business can make up only a fraction of the usual turnover, since people refuse to pay as much for it. A prestigious chef complained online that he had ordered large quantities of expensive fresh ingredients on the day the lockdown lifted, in anticipation of ‘revenge consumption’, only to find that he wasn’t allowed to let anyone inside. All those fresh ingredients have gone to waste and his restaurant looks set to close for good.
New group chats have sprung up to share the latest intel on which spots are secretly open. The best coded advertisement was for a badminton gym: ‘Due to Covid restrictions, our gym is not open to the public. We are hiring cleaning personnel: four people per court, cleaning in shifts at different time slots. All courts need daily sweeping.’ Other forms of Prohibition-speak have also flourished. ‘Can we volunteer at the theatre to see the dress rehearsal?’ ‘Can we be hired as ushers to watch a movie?’
The economy has tanked, and so have birth and employment rates. The tech giant Tencent is carrying out mass layoffs, and many small businesses won’t survive at all. Even the most reliable employer, the civil service, is cutting pay by 20 per cent. ‘Common prosperity’ has become the shortest-lived slogan of the Xi era. Among the many long-faced losers in the job market, the most unexpected was Li Jiaqi, the live-streaming e-commerce superstar. He was presenting a tank-shaped ice-cream cake (a Wall’s Viennetta with Oreo cookies for wheels) on the eve of 4 June, in total ignorance of the date’s sensitivity (young people in China don’t learn about what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989), when his live stream was cut off. He hasn’t been back online since. Before the incident, he had more than sixty million followers and once made sales worth a record-breaking ten billion RMB in a single day. Now his innocent followers wonder why he has stopped streaming, and how a cake could have pulled the e-commerce king from his throne.
Until recently Shanghainese were unwanted visitors in other parts of China. We saw on social media that airports and railway stations had put up boards saying: ‘Shanghainese, please return home immediately.’ Friends travelling to other provinces on essential business were given a yellow code for at least seven days, meaning forced hotel quarantine and daily PCR tests. Last week, the government finally allowed indoor dining and removed travel restrictions. Compulsory quarantine for international travellers has been reduced from ‘fourteen plus seven’ (fourteen days in hotel quarantine plus seven days of monitoring at home) to ‘seven plus three’. On the same day, there were double rainbows after a summer storm. Shanghainese were cheered by the good omen. They say that in the social media era people have short attention spans and even shorter memories. But our limit has been tested, and we all know that we can’t bear another lockdown.
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