I came to Shanghai as a migrant country boy at the age of 15. I’ve now been in Shanghai almost half my life and have made the city my home. Following in the footsteps of my father, I have been in the gardening business from the beginning — cultivating lawns, planting trees, landscaping small hills and fishponds, and so on. Eventually, I came to run a gardening store with my father in Songjiang, on the city’s southwestern outskirts. Last year, our store, along with hundreds of others, was shut down.
The demolition of large gardening markets has gone on for years in Shanghai. In 2015, three were closed on the western side of the city, and another in Pudong New Area, on the eastern side, was relocated to a spot out near the seashore. The authorities say gardening markets like ours pose fire and health hazards. Other sellers, though, were told outright that their land contracts had expired, that they were essentially trespassing, and that the government couldn’t wait any longer to requisition the land for development.
Leafy Songjiang is home to a large number of Shanghai’s well-heeled types, many of whom live in beautiful gated communities. Their villas often feature large gardens and are naturally a magnet for migrant workers who know the trade. Our market in this part of the city covered nearly 20 hectares of disused farmland, hosting about 260 shops and 1,000 merchants, farmers, and children.
My family — my parents, my wife and child, and I — lived in a makeshift house at the rear of our gardening shop. In the front, we laid out flowers and shrubs to attract customers. Out back was where we cooked, ate, and slept. The whole place was covered by a tarpaulin sheet. It saved us the immense expense of renting a house in Shanghai, but — if I’m honest — definitely violated safety regulations, too. We worried that our old gas stove might set the tarpaulin on fire, and in the summer, when we had the air conditioner on all night, we risked shorting the circuits and causing a blackout. One of the other shops nearby did burn down one day, though fortunately nobody was hurt.
Beginning in 2008, when I became self-employed, my father looked after the shop, my mother went to work at a food company, my wife was employed by another gardening store, and I worked as a landscape gardener. Among the four of us, we earned less than 200,000 yuan ($29,000) per year when business was good. We had to pinch pennies to get by. There was no option but to stay in our makeshift abode and risk eviction.
In 2015, we found our market flooded with new customers. A few miles down the road, another huge gardening market had been cleared out, and Songjiang’s green-thumbed residents had ventured our way to get hold of their supplies. Business boomed, but it couldn’t last. Soon, we were also handed eviction notices explaining that the marketplace’s land contract had lapsed. We were effectively operating without a permit.
Some of the other shop owners petitioned the local government, but my father and I didn’t join them. What would be the point? The greatest reward they would get from their endeavors would be a paltry increase in their “prize money” — what the government called compensation payments.
We also heard rumors that the landlord from whom we had leased our patch of land might just run off with our lump-sum rental deposit. All we could do was cooperate with the authority, ensure we were refunded the remainder of the yearly rental fee we had paid up front, and move a few miles away to a new marketplace the local government had built for gardening stores like ours.
The new market is a neat little place with roomy retail lots and good parking facilities, but it’s much smaller than the old market. Even worse, nobody knows it’s there. My father was anxious to get in early and secure a retail space, so he hurriedly put down 48,000 yuan in annual rent. We made next to nothing last year, though, at the new market. No customers come by on weekdays around here, meaning we just sit idle until the weekend, when a few people wander by in dribs and drabs.
Last summer, there was practically no business. We hardly ever even went to the shop, because who was going to come buy anything? We stayed away for days at a time and often came back to find that some of our plants had withered and died from dehydration in Shanghai’s steaming summer heat, because we couldn’t afford to turn on the air conditioning.
This April Fools’ Day marked one year since we moved the shop to the new market. Fortunately, the rent for the year to come can be paid in two installments. Business hasn’t improved much, but it’s good to know I’ll have a brick-and-mortar shop to show my clients that I’m a trustworthy supplier.
In Shanghai, the fate of the gardening business fluctuates with the high-end property market. About a decade ago, whole neighborhoods of villas sprang up in Songjiang. Customers would pay whatever price I quoted, and I made a lot of money from them. Now, fewer people are building villas out here, and I’m lucky if my profits exceed 30 percent of my revenues. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine got me a gardening gig at a newly built housing compound, a deal worth 700,000 yuan. I jumped at the chance, even if middlemen would take a chunk of the profits.
It’s touch-and-go running a business in Shanghai, but I don’t see any other choice. My hometown is in Tancheng County, a farming region in the south of eastern China’s Shandong province. It’s only a six-hour drive away, but I can’t bear the thought of returning home and doing backbreaking farm labor for a living. I moved to Shanghai so early in life that I never learned how to work the land. Nor will I go and work in a factory like many other migrants. My trade is gardening, and I live to be outdoors. If I joined the production line, I’d be like a bird in a cage.
The local government in Jiuting — the part of Songjiang where I do my business — has made a big push to clear out unlawful buildings. Last year, officials freed up over six times more space from land requisitioning than they had in the previous decade. They’re also looking to redevelop around 25 square kilometers of land that until recently housed poorly performing factories and unlawful markets. The land will be converted into an oasis of high-tech businesses and research firms.
I turn 30 next year. In my community, by that age I should have become a respectable working man. Personally, I feel insecure about it. It might be the year I establish myself; it also might be the year the rug gets pulled out from under my feet. I may be forced to leave Shanghai, my second home, and give up everything I have accomplished here. I understand why the municipal authorities want to attract more highly educated migrants, move polluting factories out of the cities, and close down unofficial gardening markets. I don’t blame them, but it doesn’t make things any easier for migrant workers like me.
Driving my van through the streets of Shanghai, I realize that I know this city far better than anywhere in Shandong. The relationships I’ve built here with fellow sellers, clients, suppliers, and friends are stronger than any I have back in my hometown. Returning to Shandong means starting over from scratch, something that I simply can’t bear to think about.
I want to move forward with my life, work hard for my family, and give my child a future. And I’d love to obey the city’s safety laws and environmental regulations; it’s just that I need to stay in one place long enough to establish and grow my businesses. On behalf of my fellow garden workers across the city, I say: Shanghai, let us stay.
Editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A kite flies over the Bund in Shanghai, March 30, 2009. VCG)