Remove Your Shoes Before Entering the House in China (or, the grossest article you will ever read at Thursday Review!)

Street food vendor in China

All images by Michael Bush

Remove Your Shoes Before Entering the House in China (or, the grossest article you will ever read at Thursday Review!)

| published October 9, 2015 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review contributor


It would be an enormous understatement to say that you, as a westerner (American, Canadian, Brit, wherever), are not prepared for China. You can read all the books and articles you want, watch as many documentaries as you can, and hear about it firsthand from everyone you know. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to be shocked, and not just once. You’ll be two years into living in China and still come across something that completely takes you by surprise, even if just for a moment. Quick tip right up front: if you are visiting or living there, remember to take off your shoes when you get back to your house, apartment or hotel room. Let me explain.

On Lujiabang Road, near the Nanpu Bridge, you will find the South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market, also known as the Fabric Market. It’s a must for many tourists coming to Shanghai for many reasons.

The market has stall after stall of vendors that will make anything you want to wear. Copies of popular styles, recreations of a worn out jacket you bring in, something completely out of your own imagination, or an item from one of their books; all made from the materials they have in their shop.

Some stalls specialize in shirts and pants, others in suits, jackets, dresses, costumes, etc. You name it, and they’ll make it. Laowai (foreigners) flood the hallways, paying way too much for their clothes because their bargaining skills are horrendous and they speak no Chinese. The vendors all speak pretty decent English, a useful tool to help them make more cash.

Am I saying not to go here? Absolutely not…you should go. You should get something made, too. Just bargain hard, ok? I got a pair of jeans made there, and the vendor tried charging me 100 rmb (about 15 dollars US) more than my friend paid a week before, because he was a few sizes smaller than me. But since I spoke to the vendor in Chinese, I ended up paying 50 rmb less than my friend did a week before.

Another reason people like to go here is the vendors of Tibetan and Mongolian style jewelry that line the sidewalks right out front. There are some really beautiful items, and some excellent decorative knick-knacks too. Once again, be prepared to bargain like hell. I got a necklace for my wife while bargaining in Mandarin, right next to another laowai buying the same one in English. She paid four times as much. I would have helped her, but the vendors would have torn me apart for interfering. Sorry lady!

One time, I even saw two tiger feet for sale on the mats where they sell their wares. Two. Real. Tiger. Feet. Flesh dried out, bones poking out…it was illegal and strange.
Street jewelry vendor
The third reason people come to this area, is the plethora of good street food out front. The prices are a bit higher than other parts of the city because it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but my two brothers and our father ate some noodles out there on the first day or two of their visit to China, and they still talk about those noodles two years later. Yes, they’re that good.

But if you want to escape the touristy rip offs, and the safe/normal sights (aside from those dang tiger feet!) you only need to walk for about eight minutes down the street. As you do, you’ll enter a very local neighborhood, whose residents are not there for your amusement or to take your money. They live and work there. The vendors lining the streets are not for you, but for the locals. Open your eyes and behold some strange sights that will surprise you, whether you are a first-time visitor or a long-time resident of Shanghai.

Once you begin, on the left side of the street you’ll see a group of older Chinese women sitting on small plastic stools, their shirts pulled up to expose their backs. A man, probably a practitioner of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) and definitely a hack, will walk back and forth between these women. Glass bowls will be attached to their backs with the power of suction, creating big hickies up and down their bodies.

It’s an old tradition, cupping, and many people believe in the benefits. I have done it before, and in my opinion, the only benefit is the cool story you can tell later when people see that a giant squid or octopus has obviously attacked you.
My back
What this witch doctor does differs from the normal way I’ve seen and experienced cupping. He will raise the hickies on people’s backs with the cups, and then remove the glass bowls. With “only his hand,” by which I mean a needle concealed in his fingers, he will strike each one and make a very martial arts noise akin to “keeyah!”

As you would guess, blood will begin to come out. Like I said, a tiny needle is involved, but he will tell the audience it is his magic powers. Then he will reapply the glass bowls with suction, pulling more blood out of the women’s backs. Once a good amount is present, he will remove the blood and theatrically throw it onto a piece of newspaper, but not before using sleight of hand to add some form of thickening agent. The blood, now thick and chunky due to the addition of something he claims was never added, is so thick he can pick it up with his bare hands. He will then declare the women are purified of their sicknesses or ailment, and present the grody, icky blob of chunky blood to the audience.
street chicken vendors
If you’ve bravely followed in my footsteps so far, you might as well keep going from there. Once you’re prepared for worse, walk on down the road and you’ll find a man squatting at an intersection with around six or seven live chickens all tied together on some paper. Choose one yourself, or wait until someone else does, and he’ll take the chicken, right there on the sidewalk, and cut its throat with a pair of kitchen shears. The man will then pour boiling water all over the dead bird to more easily remove the feathers. Once that is done, and the guts all removed, he’ll wrap it up for you to take home. Cheap and easy!

If you’re not ready to head home just yet, keep walking. Take a turn not too far down the road and you’ll enter a neighborhood market even darker and dirtier than the ones you seen so far. A dentist sits at a table in the street, ready to examine you right there. A barber gives haircuts in an alley with only a barber chair, a comb, and some scissors.

Street Barber 

Vegetables line the roadside in bins, on paper, and sometimes right on the road. More vendors in stalls offer pigeons, ducks, chickens, and once I even saw a peacock. After you choose a bird, they take it out of the cage, cut its throat with kitchen shears, and toss it into a white bucket to bleed out before cleaning and wrapping it like the sidewalk chicken slayer did.

Vegetables Birds

Plastic tubs of still live fish line the other side of the street. Hoses pump in a constant flow of fresh water to keep them somewhat alive. Until you ask to buy one, that is. Once chosen, the vendor will remove a fish, bang it on the sidewalk until it stops flopping, and then scale it and clean it right there on the dirty ground. Sanitary! But much faster than the seafood guy in your local grocery store back home.

Fish Man
If you’re lucky like me, you might find crate after crate of skinned and gutted minks, with their guts piled up on the street beside them. I don’t know why. I was told by an Ayi (which means “aunt”; read more about that in my article Finding the Right Aunt in China, Thursday Review) later that mink makes for good eating. I never found out how good, though, to my shame and sorrow.

People also hang their meat out to dry here. Vendors and locals alike will have racks and racks of pork belly, eels, fish, and ducks all hanging out to dry for preservation and, heck just because they just like the odors and the funky fermented taste. The smell is very potent here, especially in the summer months. You will need to have a very strong stomach to cruise this market. Very strong indeed.

Drying ducks
For some reason, you may, as I once did, come upon a skinned cow head at one vendor stall. Nothing else will be there, except for a skinned cows head lying on the ground. It was so disturbing to my wife that she deleted all the pictures of it. Luckily, I backed them up, so I still have a few for your amusement and edification.

Cows head
Butcher stalls are everywhere in this street market, and the smell of raw meat flows as thick as the Yangtze River through the air. I realized as I walked through this market that it’s a brutal reminder for us as to where our food comes from. I even wanted to bring the youngin’ and show him where meat came from. We should appreciate the process more, in my opinion. Seeing these things could trigger the emergence of the vegetarian hiding inside you.

Street butcher
I love meat, and I’m not giving it up anytime soon. And I like the idea of it being so fresh that the animal is killed in front of me. The vegetables sold beside the dying animal were picked that morning, with dirt still visible on the roots. This type of fresh eating is actually cheaper in China than going to a restaurant or buying overly processed and packaged garbage in the store.

I lost over 100 pounds once I started shopping in these types of markets and cooking fresh food. I cut back on beer and soda too, and I’m sure that helped. Now that we’re living in Malaysia and doing the same thing, I want to teach my boys the benefits of fresh food, so they never end up a big ol’ fatty like me.

So while these types of images may be shocking, they show a simpler lifestyle than what companies like Monsanto, Unilever and Archer-Daniels-Midland want Americans to have. I don’t think we should get witch doctors to stab our backs and suck out the blood, nor do I want to get my teeth examined or a cavity filled while sitting next to a stall where chickens are killed on the street. But I do want more Americans to try and eat fresh and local food like the Chinese do.

If only it were as cheap and affordable in the U.S. *cough cough*

As you walk out of this insane neighborhood packed with sights and smells that, at the same time are both shocking and inspiring, you might see one more thing that you will never ever wrap your head around as a laowai.

A bowl full of blood sat by itself next to a bush, with one chopstick lying across the edge. You might stop and stare at this strange sight. “Why the heck is this here?” you might ask. You’ll snap a photo, and continue to feel dumbfounded.

Blood bowl
An old man will walk by and scoop up the bowl of blood. He will begin walking back home, I assume, and using the chopstick to fish out bits of… stuff (?) from the blood, and flick it on the sidewalk as he walks away.

Between this, the fish clubbing and scaling, the chickens being murdered, the minks’ guts on the sidewalk, and the substances mentioned in my previous article, The Long Corridor: How One American Adjusts to Living in China, I will remind you of something very important.

You must always take off your shoes before entering the house in China.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Finding the Right Aunt in China; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; October 3, 2015.

The Long Corridor: How One American Adjusts to Living in China; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; September 19, 2015.