He had a most unusual stand along the street market on Dongyuhang Lu (东余杭路), like a giant pharmacy of traditional Chinese medicine. It sold herbs and accoutrements that belonged to animals I’ve never heard or seen, in whole pieces, in ground powder, in jars, bottles and vacuum packs.
In the winter, he stood out wearing a giant ushanka, a Russian fur hat with ear flaps that can be tied up to the crown of the cap. His prized fox stoles would be laid out on a makeshift bunk stretcher. The head of a winter fox hung sadly off the side, one glassy giving away its pre-death sadness of being wrapped around someone’s neck.
In the fall and spring, deer antlers and horns of unfortunate forest creatures would take front row places, next to boxes of unidentified ginseng floating in jars and boxes of dried herbs. He’d swtich to a cowboy hat.
I’ve known the gentleman for over two years since I began photographing the Tilanqiao (提篮桥) street market. We had taken a photo together when we first met. I returned weeks later with a copy and we would sit and chat every time I walked by. I’d talk about Singapore while he would talk about Northern China where he had moved around most of his life. We were both outsiders in this city.
A Northerner he was, tall and sturdy with ruddy cheeks. He was from Inner Mongolia, worked in Shandong province and now does most of his business in Shanghai. He lived nearby in a tiny room where he paid RMB 500 (USD 77) a month for rent. He would return home to Inner Mongolia in the summers, taking an especially long vacation during the Shanghai Expo last year when local officials shooed most street hawkers away.
Towards the early evening on the day I carried my photo boards for The Roving Exhibit, I decided to take a rest at his stall after setting up in various other spots all afternoon.
He proudly wiped the photo boards down and balanced them on his chairs, tilting the fluorescent light he had hanging over his stall. With the dinner rush at 630pm, in a street market that turns even more lively after dark, it was prime time with a ready audience.
As I sat on the pavement nearby for a drink, he began a one man monologue on photography in the street market to whoever stopped by for a gander.
“Have you had a look at this picture?” he said to a middle-aged woman browsing a pack of tea leaves. She registered no interest and left. “And what about you, sir? What do you think of these photos?” The customer studied the photo and asked about the price of a vacuum packed American ginseng. Two gents from Wenzhou selling leather shoes lingered, poring over each photograph.
When it was completely dark, I decided to head home. He helped me wrap up my photo boards and gave me a sample of herbs which he said was good for … I forgot. He’d generously given me so many things which I have no idea how to cook.
My last stop of the day was perhaps the best part of the day. I collapsed in a cab and fell asleep all the way home.