Swan song for the city's hungry night owls

A favorite haunt of night owls looking for something to eat is closing down in Pudong.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

“For lease” signs now hang on the roll-up doors of restaurants on Licheng Road near Changli Road in the Pudong New Area. Once a hub for late-night noshing, many of the area’s small eateries are closing down.

A favorite haunt of night owls looking for something to eat is closing down in Pudong because the eateries have no food licenses and neighbors have complained about oily smells and smoky air.

“For lease” signs now hang on closed roll-up doors on Licheng Road near Changli Road. The popular cluster of street kitchens and restaurants offering tasty food at affordable prices was one of the last of its kind in the downtown area.

Locals and tourists alike flocked there to wolf down kebabs of grilled seafood and deep-fried chicken drumsticks while most Shanghai residents were fast asleep. Many diners had no idea that the sumptuous food was being cooked in unlicensed premises.

Following neighborhood complaints, the Shanggang Xincun Subdistrict government finally moved to shutter the eateries in early April.

A government official surnamed Wu, who declined to give his full name, told Shanghai Daily that 11 businesses had been ordered to shut. He said they may be able to reopen if they get the required licenses and permits, but grilled and deep-fried food will probably be off the menu.

“Area residents will decide which restaurants can stay and which must go,” he said. “Food stands and restaurants producing heavy smoke are supposed to stay away from residential complexes.”

Qu Gang

Licheng Road packed with customers in its glory days.

That’s a blow to the Licheng Road food area, which was best known for its barbecues. “The money I used to make in one night equals what I now make in a whole month,” lamented Boss Liu, 45, who runs a seafood barbecue restaurant on nearby Changqing Road. Two of his restaurants on Licheng Road were closed.

“No seat inside or outside was empty,” he said. “And some patrons used to break out in song in the wee morning hours. I guess they were just feeling happy or drank a bit too much.”

Liu is not the only one suffering. Street vendors who used to take advantage of the area’s popularity to sell clothing, jewelry and digital accessories now report a big drop in customers.

Liu, a Shanghai local who lives in the area, started a street food stand with his wife in 2006, selling a seafood stew.

He said business in the area flourished during the 2010 World Expo, whose main site is just a few blocks away. Around that time, his small business expanded into two large restaurants.

“This area was where everything started for me,” Liu said. “I may start a new restaurant somewhere else, but it’s hard for me to part company with an area I love.”

Qu Gang, Liu’s landlord, said the license and permit problem wasn’t resolved by restaurant owners investing a lot of money over the years to improve hygiene, fire safety and smoke controls.

He said he doubts the government will allow the return of barbecue-style eateries in this area.

A 28-year-old man surnamed Ji, who lives in Dezhou Sancun residential complex on Changqing Road, was a frequent diner in Liu’s barbecue restaurant.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Gu Xiaoxiang prepares fried chicken in her new restaurant on Linfen Road, Jing’an District.

“Licheng Road will always hold happy memories for me,” he told Shanghai Daily. “I will cherish all the midnight meals and the places I used to take girlfriends for late snacks.”

Licheng Road isn’t the only downtown nighttime food haven feeling the sting of the regulatory oversight. Shouning Road, a small street near Yuyuan Garden and People’s Square, was once a popular site for crayfish and barbecue feasts.

In late March, the Huangpu District government said only nine of the 57 food sellers on the street possessed business licenses and permits to sell food.

Gone by the boards

Now, only a handful of eateries on the street are still open. Others are waiting with increasing impatience for the government to resolve their status.

One family restaurant owner there told Shanghai Daily that her entire family has depended on the small restaurant with just a few tables for the past 15 years.

“We work only six months a year, and we really can’t afford to see the best season slip away under our noses like this,” she said.

Other popular night food havens in downtown Shanghai, such as Zhaozhou Road in Huangpu District, known for homespun family recipes, and the seafood market on Tongchuan Road in Putuo District have also gone by the boards.

Perhaps the most famous of the eatery areas to shut down was the Pengpu night fair on Wenxi Road in north Shanghai. It went out of existence in 2013.

Many still drool over the memory of chicken drumsticks cooked to golden perfection in sizzling oil. The outside was crispy; the inside soft and succulent. Served with a slightly spicy sauce, this was the food of kings for local night owls.

Gu Xiaoxiang, better known as Aunt Chubby, was one of the most popular vendors of the Pengpu night fair. She now runs a fried chicken restaurant on Linfen Road in Jing’an District.

“Every night, I fried and fried and fried,” she said of her Pengpu days. “On Friday nights, there were so many customers that I didn’t even have time to look up.”

This Pengpu food fair took off in 2012, but it was forced to close a year later because the street became so crowded that cars couldn’t pass at night.

Gu opened her new restaurant in January 2017, having acquired a business license and permit to sell food.

“Most of my customers these days are my former customers, but those busy evenings in Pengpu will never be repeated,” she said.

Wherever Gu travels to another city, the first thing she looks for are night food fairs. She said she hopes that provisions can be made in Shanghai for their return to downtown areas of the city.

“The night food fairs attract everyone, from those earning 30,000 yuan (US$4,700) a month to those scraping by on just 4,000 yuan,” she said. “They are places where everyone is equal and everyone can enjoy themselves.”

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