Weaving through the lanes near Yu Gardens (豫园) or north of Old Town
in Xiaonanmen (小南门), whose layout had been hugely disrupted by carelessly erected temporary walls, blind turns and open sewers, it was difficult to know where one was headed exactly.
Squeezing through narrow lanes, residents and workers trekked in single file to get from one place to another.
I spotted the vermillion sign from afar which signaled a small restaurant round the corner.
Next to it, a compelling art piece proclaimed boldly, “Small Japan, Get the Hell Out of Diaoyu Islands!” (“小日本从钓鱼岛滚出去!”) atop some hazily painted mountains. I marveled at the art that somehow didn’t make much geological sense. Perhaps I was more intrigued by its random placement.
“You like it?”
Perched elegantly on a plastic stool, he puffed contemplatively, the rings of smoke dancing around his mane of long hair. He looked more artiste than proprietor.
“What made you decide to paint this?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I did it a while back. Actually it was an art piece I did during the Shanghai World Expo, then I painted it over several times with different themes. This is the latest one.”
“And the restaurant?” I pointed at the hustle and bustle of food orders being placed, the deep wells of mass-cooked dishes being packed by migrant workers bundled in winter clothing. The food stall had such color and contained small details missing from other quick-eat joints. A mix of plastic and real potted plants dotted the sides and interior, colorful tapestries were hung on the walls.
“It’s mine,” he nodded.
“But you’re really an artist!” I remarked.
He beamed and pointed down the alley, “I’ve got more art, have a look.”
The artist/proprietor had made his mark on each wall panel, a mix of trying sophistication in the form of calligraphy to an almost amateurish arts and craft project of a tree with leaves made out of green foil.
An A for effort in my books, I thought, as I waved the good man goodbye.