Back in my bakery days, I used to be fully caffeinated by five a.m. and pulling my second round of pies from the oven by six. Despite the obvious pain of an early wake-up call, I loved having the mornings to myself. The commute was a breeze, the kitchen was calm, and I had so much accomplished by noon that I felt like a champion.
Now that I’m writing and my schedule is fully my own, I don’t even set an alarm…but that doesn’t mean I get to sleep in. See the guy in the pic above? He rides up and down our lane around seven, collecting recyclables and ringing a giant hand bell. After him comes the fruit guy hollering about his oranges, then the large-electronics-recyling dude with a speaker attached to his scooter blaring “MICROWAVES!FREEZERS!TELEVISIONS!COMPUTERS!” on repeat. Finally, the middle school across the street begins playing creepy, come-hither music, which is somewhat unfortunately used in place of a morning bell. So while I may not set an alarm, China’s seems pretty set on waking my ass up anyway.
Which is actually totally cool with me, because it turns out these people are up early too.
In fact, everyone gets up early in Shanghai…especially on the weekends. Young and old flock to the parks (the best being Fuxing) to meet with friends and participate in their activity of choice.
Options for group participation include line dancing, ballroom dancing, maraca shaking, saxophone dueling, ballad singing…
toy playing, kite flying, water calligraphy, tai chi, card playing, badminton, mahjong…
and huddling around storytellers.
But what about the poor souls who just aren’t into such quotidian hobbies? Well, they can just wrap newspaper on their head, wear a garbage bag as a shirt and practice pond-side calligraphy. Everything goes here. Everything.
Back out on the street there are hundreds of poodles out for their morning stroll, and real go-getters squeezing in some calisthenics at the al fresco community gyms. All this activity is great for health and social bonding, but I think its main purpose is to work up a big enough appetite to tackle the Shanghai breakfast scene.
And quite the scene it is. Nearly every street corner has at least one vendor selling something fried, steamed, or boiled at a shockingly low price. Within a one block radius of my apartment, we’ve got:
Da bing, or “big pancake,” a beautiful saucer of fried dough.
Zongzi , tight bundles of soy-flavored rice steamed in a bamboo leaf. The innards are impossibly sticky and often surround tender braised pork or a bright orange egg yolk.
You tiao, simple deep-fried dough sticks most often eaten with soy or mung bean milk.
Ci fan tuan, a ball of purple sticky rice wrapped around all manner of fillings, including hard boiled eggs, pork floss, and fried dough.
Guo tie, pan fried pork dumplings filled with broth.
And of course, jian bing, a crispy mung-bean crepe filled with egg, scallions, spicy hoisin, and a crunchy strip of fried dough.
Despite their savory components, most of these bites are strictly relegated to breakfast fare. By nine in the morning, the jian bing lady has pulled the plug on her griddle, and by ten, the fried dough sticks have gone cold. Soon, vendors begin prepping skewers and noodles for lunch, or disappear all together. The entire morning routine here is frenetic and fleeting, but if you miss it today, you can try again tomorrow…earlier.