Last year when I met Master Chu Hongsheng, he had been making qipaos, the form-fitting dress popular in pre-Communist China, for 80 years.
Master Chu is now 95 years old. And this time when I pay him a visit at his shop on the Street of Eternal Happiness, he has news for me.
“I figured it was time to retire,” Chu tells me with a touch of finality. “I still come here to the shop to chat with friends, but I’m just a bystander now.”
When he’s not at the shop, he whiles away his days at performances of Pingtan, folk music from his hometown of Suzhou. It’s been a good run for Master Chu. In 1933, when he arrived to Shanghai from a poor rice farm at the age of 15, this neighborhood belonged to the French. One of his first customers was the wife of Du Yuesheng, the city’s most notorious gangster who, for a time, ran the city’s opium dens and brothels.
“He was a nice guy,” remembers Chu.
Twenty years later, the Communists were in charge, and Master Chu made qipao dresses for the wives of party leaders in secret, because qipaos had been deemed symbols of Western excess. When China finally joined the global economy in the 1980s, he was a tailor to Chinese celebrities who starred in Hollywood films. Now he’s recognized throughout the country as the best qipao tailor money can buy, but here on The Street of Eternal Happiness, he’s just another worker trying to get what he can from China’s incredible economic growth. He was one of more than a dozen people I sat down with over the past year along this street to talk about their hopes, dreams, and their place in 21st century China.
A few blocks down the street, I catch up with Zhao Silin, hard at work at her flower shop. In the past year, business has slowed. So has China’s economy, steered by the frugal policies of new president Xi Jinping.
“The government’s cracking down on banquets and other expenditures for local officials. That’s been bad for business,” says Zhao. “Hotels have lost business, too. Fashion stores along the street are closing, and rents are starting to drop.”
Zhao’s sitting inside her tiny air conditioned shop, surrounded by flowers, writing Chinese characters along red banners for the opening of a Thai restaurant down the street. Her son and daughter-in-law are outside in the 100 degree heat, assembling floral displays. Neighbors fanning themselves on lawn chairs keep an eye on Zhao’s 18-month-old grandson, who’s wandering in and out of shops next door.
Zhao came here 20 years ago from a mining town in Northern China. When she arrived, she couldn’t wait to see the ocean — in Chinese, Shanghai means ‘on the sea.’ In fact, the sea is an hour away — the city was built along a river.
“I wore red socks and a big flower in my hair — I thought people in the city dressed that way!” Zhao remembers, giggling, “I walked past a bridge and I asked people: ‘Is this the sea?’ They laughed and said, ‘No.’ I had always dreamed of seeing the sea.”
So Zhao settled for her favorite song at the time, Big Sea. She listened to it when she missed her husband, a coal miner hundreds of miles away. “If only the sea could take away our sorrow,” the song goes, “like it draws water from a river.”
Back then, Zhao took a 12-hour train ride once a year to see her family. In today’s China, the journey takes three hours on a high-speed train. She sees them every other month. Back then, she had to convince her sons to live with her in Shanghai.
“Now when we return home, my own grandson won’t even eat the food from my hometown,” says Zhao. “He just wants to eat Shanghai food. I’m thinking of sending him home for good, so he knows where he comes from. In the end, we should all return home.”
I ask Zhao about “The Chinese Dream.” Xi Jinping has positioned the concept as a guiding principle for his presidency — the idea that all Chinese deserve equal opportunity to enjoy a prosperous life. In his first speech as leader, president Xi said to realize the Chinese Dream, the Chinese had to be patriotic and unite to strengthen the nation. I ask Zhao if she’s living the Chinese dream.
“I don’t even know what that means,” she says, baffled. “I don’t have time to read about new government policies anymore. I’m busy taking care of my grandson and preparing to hand over my shop to my son and daughter in-law so that I can retire.”
Zhao’s not read about the Chinese Dream because she’s too busy trying to make her own dream come true: being a good mother, a good grandmother, and making preparations to return home.
As for Master Chu, he plans to spend his retirement listening to his hometown music and playing poker with his friends. He’s lived through a tumultuous hodgepodge of revolution, famine and war. That’s been replaced with an economic system where you can now begin to achieve your dreams, whether they’re packaged in political dressing or not. Master Chu started his life dressed in rags on a rice farm. And after I say goodbye to him for the last time, his driver helps into a black Mercedes that carries him down the Street of Eternal Happiness back home.