Shanghai’s old town — with its narrow alleys, pungent street food and tiny single room homes — may be being swept away by new development, but enough of it remains to sustain a vibrant community.
And in the early part of this year, much of the gossip among the shop owners and stall holders centered on the goings on, and the money to be made, not far away on the other side of the dirty old Huangpu River, at the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
“I hadn’t done any stock market investments before,” Lin Jinxia tells me, “but I was influenced by all the talk.”
Lin lives at the top of seven flights of stairs, the landings of which are littered with dusty old bicycles, in a tiny apartment with her husband and her four-year-old son.
They’re migrant workers who arrived from Fujian Province five years ago and, through hard graft in their shop selling buttons to a bustling garment industry, they’ve saved themselves a tidy fortune.
Then in May this year they plowed a large chunk of it into the stock market, investing more than 200,000 RMB ($32,000) into four stocks.
It seemed a sensible enough spread with picks from the electronics, fashion and car-sales industries. But the timing was terrible.
They all tanked, collectively standing now at just half of their original purchase price, amounting to a combined loss for Lin and her husband of 100,000 RMB.
“I’ve lost so much of the money that I’ve worked so hard for,” she says. “Now I’m having to save and cut down on my spending. We don’t earn much. It was all money from our hard work.”
In China, unlike in the European or U.S. markets, individuals make up around 80 percent of the investors.
Many of them are new and inexperienced, often following whim and rumor to make decisions, and so the market is arguably more vulnerable to quick turnarounds in herd behavior.
Having been marching share prices up the hill for well over a year, on June 12 the crowd suddenly veered back down again, and three weeks later almost a third of the value — $3.2 trillion — had been wiped away.
‘I knew there were risks’
Chen Zhihui’s small tailors shop can be found down a passageway close to Lin Jinxia’s home.
And like his neighbor, he too acted on the advice of all those who had, until recently, been making nice, fat paper profits, not realizing he was entering the fray at the worst possible moment.
“To me, personally, I knew there were risks,” he tells me from his tiny workspace with his sewing machine whirring away beside us.
He bought stock in just one company, 10,000 RMB’s worth of a Chinese steel-maker, only to find his shares suddenly trading at around half their original value.
And while his losses are relatively small, Chen is well aware that in almost every other shop and home in this district and beyond, there are others in a similar predicament, or fearing that they soon might be.
“If everyone lost 5,000 RMB, it could add up to a big amount,” he says.
For many analysts, that explains why the Chinese government has been so keen to stop the market sliding any further.
Once it saw a buoyant stock market as a key part of its strategic shift to a consumer society with rapidly increasing share ownership having the twin benefits of both recapitalizing the country’s big debt-laden firms and, at the same time, making the small punter feel richer.
Now the Communist party faces the frightening prospect of the very opposite effect; as savings vanish into thin air, millions of investors are simultaneously tightening their belts with potentially chilling impacts for the Chinese economy and beyond.
For now, it is only the late arrivals to China’s stock market binge that have been burned, with the recent, sharp depreciation in value still comfortably outweighed by longer term gains going back a year and more.
But the slew of measures the authorities have unleashed in the past few days are part of an attempt — perhaps futile — to stop things getting any worse.
It has been criticized by outside observers as dangerous political meddling in the workings of the markets and their ability to put a proper price on risk.
But then, it could be argued, that exact same charge could be levelled at the attempts to pump up the markets in the first place.
Politics not economics
Some analysts dismiss the fear that a full-blown stock market collapse could precipitate a wider economic shock.
“The stock market is too small, too tiny, completely irrelevant,” Chen Long, China economist at Gavekal Dragonomics tells me. “It accounts for just 5 percent of Chinese household wealth, and anyway the market is still up on where it was last year.”
Much more could yet be wiped off the value of Chinese shares, it would follow, before anyone needs to panic, least of all the government. So perhaps, if this view is correct, Beijing’s actions are motivated by the need to contain the political fallout, rather than the economic.
In the middle of an already tricky slowdown in GDP growth, the last thing it needs is hordes of mom and pop stock traders taking to the streets. And so far, at least, that part of the strategy might be working with little sign of any anger.
Despite her already heavy losses, Lin Jinxia’s plan is to hang onto her massively devalued stock in the hope it rises again. “I believe the government will come up with the right strategies,” she tells me.
Liu Changrong is a restaurateur, selling noodles, pork chops and sticky rice a block or so from Chen, the tailor.
He is either canny or lucky, or both. “You just need to buy at the right point,” he tells me.
He did exactly that, buying 200,000 RMB worth of shares in a large Chinese conglomerate last year and then selling them all in May, just below their peak.
He made a very nice profit indeed, coming out more than 50 percent ahead. You might think that would be a good place to call it a day.
But despite the cautionary tales of his neighbors all around him, he’s still confident the government will turn things around.
“When the market improves, I’ll get back in again,” he tells me as he puts a big pan of water on to boil.