Shanghai’s Illegal Hole-in-the-Wall Diners Off the Hook, For Now
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2017-06-30 13:17:16

SHANGHAI — In a tiny restaurant tucked away in a courtyard off North Maoming Road, customers sit huddled together as they dig into simple dishes of meat and vegetables.

An elderly Shanghainese couple have been running the nameless dining spot ever since they lost their jobs at a state-owned company in the mid-1990s. “We didn’t want to become parasites who live on government allowances,” said the woman, who, along with her husband, declined to be named.

Back then, setting up a restaurant was easy, and there wasn’t so much red tape, she said.

But those days are long gone. Following Beijing’s crackdown on illegal storefronts earlier this year, Shanghai, too, appears to be on a mission to clear the streets of some of its small mom-and-pop restaurants that authorities say violate food safety regulations and fire and construction ordinances.

Sixth Tone’s reporters took to the streets of Shanghai to gauge how residents feel about new regulations aimed at improving health and safety standards at the city’s numerous unlicensed eateries. By Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone

On July 1, new rules will come into effect in Shanghai that will make it difficult for restaurants such as the one off Maoming to survive in the long run unless they start complying.

According to the rules, small restaurants that fail to meet licensing criteria will still be allowed to operate in the city over a grace period of up to three years. However, during this time they will also be subject to closer scrutiny, and will be shuttered if, in the end, they fail to comply with the requirements.

While the wording of the new regulations and the criteria are vague, their targets appear to be the numerous small restaurants that operate from tiny premises — often just a few square meters — and dole out a range of low-cost, fast food-type snacks, such as steamed buns and noodles.

These unassuming shops are important sources of sustenance, especially for the city’s poor. It’s common to see throngs of working-class people crowding the sidewalks as they line up for breakfast. Then at lunchtime, many of these same venues set up makeshift tables and chairs to accommodate the hungry masses. Hygiene is often one of the first casualties in the rush to fill plates at these establishments, most of which already violate building and fire codes.

At the restaurant Sixth Tone visited, transparent sheets of plastic drooped over the handful of tables, and the cook — who, along with his wife, is also the owner — was working in an open kitchen. In the absence of a range hood for ventilation, a coat of soot had covered an entire wall. Yet the customers didn’t seem to mind; in fact, more kept trickling in.

The owners said they are aware of the new regulations and foresee their sooty walls being an obstacle to obtaining the permit needed to legally operate their restaurant.

They can’t imagine a scenario in which their permit application is refused, because moving to another location would be all but impossible given the high rents along the already heavily gentrified road in Shanghai’s city center.

The cost of renting a 14-square-meter room nearby is around 16,000 yuan ($2,400) — more than the restaurant makes in a month.

Customer Wu Hao said he’s been eating at the restaurant for years. “I come to this place because the owners are Shanghainese, and because I trust them and the taste of their food,” Wu said over a dish of green pepper, bean curd, and pork. “The local government should consider this new measure carefully, because the owners’ livelihoods depends on it.”

The cook’s wife takes pride in her attention to hygiene. “I wash dishes immediately after the customers finish dining, and I don’t leave any grime on the table,” she said.

Still, several people Sixth Tone interviewed felt the new rules were needed, with one Shanghai resident saying it was a good idea to standardize restaurant management. Another called the measures “reasonable” and said they would likely help to improve hygiene, as intended.

Harry den Hartog, an urban designer and researcher who has lived in China for nearly 10 years, told Sixth Tone that one consequence of a crackdown on these kinds of restaurants would be a loss of richness and variety in the city’s street life. “In the end, we could only be left with shopping malls,” he said. “However, if the hygiene problems are so great, or if such restaurants pose other risks to public safety, then some improvements are in order.”

For now, the aging couple who own the North Maoming Road restaurant seem resigned to their fate. “If the permit application doesn’t pass this time, I guess I’m just going to close the shop,” the woman said.

Additional reporting: Liu Jingwen, Huang Youqing, and Tan Tingting; editors: Colum Murphy and David Paulk.

(Header image: A cook inside a small community eatery in Shanghai, June 6, 2013. Yang Shenlai for Sixth Tone)