Scented flower vendors keep sweet smell of tradition alive

Ke Jiayun
Under sweltering skies, local flower grandmas and grandpas are still selling traditional Shanghai flowers to maintain the culture.
Ke Jiayun
Scented flower vendors keep sweet smell of tradition alive
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Wang Huiying is selling tiny jasmine buds bound together by thin wires to a little girl.

“Zi zi hoo, ba lam hoo” — gardenia, white champaca — is a typical flower hawker’s cry in Shanghainese that many local residents will surely be familiar with.

While branded shops and online vendors have driven many of the city’s street-side flower pedlars out of business, a few stalwarts still cling to this traditional business.

Posted at the intersection of Middle Huaihai Road and Sinan Road, one can often find 78-year-old Wang Huiying selling tiny white champaca and jasmine buds bound together by thin wires.

Wang is a former employee at a local instrument and meter factory who started selling flowers after her retirement. Come rain or shine, scorching heat or typhoon winds, little will keep granny Wang indoors. She describes selling flowers as more of a pastime and a way to meet new people than a serious business.

“I think we elderly people should have our own hobbies,” Wang told Shanghai Daily. “During the old days, white champaca was the favorite for three types of people — teachers, medics and bankers — who were well-educated and cultured.”

Before selling traditional flower crafts, Wang used to sell popular favorites like roses, carnations and lilies. “That required me to ride a tricycle and carry silt to make flower baskets. As I grew older, my children felt it was too burdensome for me, so I changed my mind.” It was then that she went to some local flower markets and fell in love with white champaca, a fragrant flower in the magnolia family.

These flowers have traditionally been braided together and pinned on clothing for their perfume-like scent.

“I liked white champaca from my childhood and my mother loved them, too,” said Wang. She has been selling these flowers for nearly two decades and made many friends along the way.

After each transaction, she says “wish you good luck” to her customer. She sells her fragrant flower crafts not for money so much as the opportunity to interact with people.

“I’m getting older and older, and my husband passed away. What should I do? I have to find something to do on my own. It’s too boring to stay at home alone,” Wang explained.

“But when you sell flowers, those you meet are always passersby and ‘fresh friends’ who love these flowers; they are in a good mood at the sight of them,” she added.

Wang’s flower prices will fluctuate based on freshness and availability, but she also gives her blooms away for free if it means brightening someone’s day. “With some older women, I can feel they really want a flower but they might not have enough in their pocket to buy one. So I give them flowers and lie to them by saying they are leftover from the day before.”

Her clientele also includes foreigners. “One that impressed me is a Chinese-American who visits me every time she returns to China. She takes photos and chats with me. One year she didn’t come back and later when we met again, she said how much she missed me.”

Over the years, Wang has also received her share of kindness as well. “When my stand was near Cathay Theatre, people from the cinema treated me very well and offered me dinner every day.”

But when asked how she endures the heat, the cold and other hardships of her profession, Wang explained that all worthwhile activities require will and perseverance.

“When you are alive, you should live the life you want and be independent,” Wang said. “Don’t fully rely on others, even your own children.”

Much like Wang is Fang Deping, 82, who started selling white champana and jasmine after retiring about three decades ago. 

“After retirement, I had nothing to do at home. I was lonely,” said Fang, who sells scented flower crafts near the People’s Square Metro Station.

Scented flower vendors keep sweet smell of tradition alive
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Fang Deping is helping a girl to wear a bracelet of jasmine buds she made.

Fang often receives customers from other cities, who tell her that her fragrant goods bring back hints of old Shanghai. “Foreigners also greet us when they see the flowers,” she said. “They take pictures of them when they are in different shapes.”

Every day she takes flowers from a seller’s home at about 5am, and then arrives at the station before 6am. “The flowers I get from the seller can mostly be sold out by night.”

Fang has a special fondness for children who visit her stand, and hopes her flower crafts can be passed down to younger generations. She also teaches migrants to Shanghai how to make such crafts if they want to learn.

Over on Nanjing Road W., a 62-year-old man surnamed Liu sells flowers with his mother, in her 90s. “It’s a part of Shanghai culture and it should be passed on,” said Liu. “We never consider how much we can profit from the sales. What we care about is the tradition of Shanghai.”

Scented flower vendors keep sweet smell of tradition alive
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

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