A Mad Dance on Shanghai Streets: Zhao Dayong’s Street Life

By Sara Beretta

This entry is part of a weeklong spotlight of newly available titles in the dGenerate Films catalog.

Director Zhao Dayong opens his documentary Street Life with Big Fatty, a physically imposing but cheerful homeless man who collects recyclable litter during the day and turns into a “street slam poet” at night. He sits in the middle of Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, a luxury shopping district whose daytime crowds give way to “invisible” people lurking on the streets at night. A sort of Chinese homeless griot, Big Fatty sings from the popular masterpiece Journey to the West (Wu Cheng’en, 16th century): “Oh the great Monkey King! There is no hurry, monkey. The Celestial Emperor has asked you to look after his horses… But the Monkey King didn’t kneel down. He didn’t understand the rules of Heaven.” Big Fatty’s Impromptu recitation of classic Chinese literature constrasts starkly against Nanjing Road’s night landscape of neon signs and Western luxury shops and restaurants.

Since 1845, Nanjing Road (formerly Park Lane or Main Road) has been a bustling commercial artery of Shanghai, rich in history (a tragic accident occurred here in 1937 during the war with Japan) and commerce. Today Nanjing Road is still the main shopping street in Shanghai, alluring people with its copious malls and electronic billboards, the symbol of development and economic success attracting migrants from all over the country. Zhao Dayong traces a vivid and somewhat ghastly fresco reflecting another side of Nanjing Road, a brutal, raw, and real tale about migrants living and surviving on the street.

With his DV camera, Zhao follows the work routine of several migrants, specifically focusing on the daily misfortunes of Black Skin (Hei Pi). Black Skin is a young, strong and naïve guy who works hard collecting plastic bottles, paper, and other recyclable litter, which he sells to the “entrepreneur” Fatty Lee. He spends his days in the alleys of Nanjing Road, sweating during the day and hanging out with other migrant workers. Another memorable character is Hubei (his nickname for the province in China from which he hails): petty thief, alcohol lover and experienced with jail after stealing Benz hood ornaments from parked cars to resell them. Black Skin occasionally partners with the cripple Ah Qiao, who proves to be as greedy as he is fond of gambling: after their hard teamwork, Ah Qiao disappears with their money. We also meet Anhui (also named for his home province), a young entrepreneurial fellow who teases Black Skin for his belief and hope in living on litter collecting. It’s a hard life on the road, no place for children, yet we are faced with a stray boy, abandoned by his mother and neglected by his father, now pushed prematurely into adulthood. He speaks and acts like an experienced man, but breaks into tears when asked about his mother.

There are many real-life characters surrounding Black Skin’s life; it’s a sort of self-organized sub-society, a network of mutual support and reciprocal exploitation. The territory is not that big and the money is not that much, yet “There’s competition everywhere”, as one of them points out. Everyone must work faster and smarter, collecting rubbish on the street and from those collected by others, a truly desperate form of robbery.

These beggars and litter-collectors exist as invisible and forgotten shadows of Shanghai, moving in a sort of parallel reality but strictly linked to the same boom that excites the city. It is just the other side of the capitalist coin, the extreme poverty of the periphery juxtaosed with the growing wealth of the center, adopting the same capitalist strategies for surviving in a dramatic, grotesque fashion. As commercial wealth flows through Nanjing Road, the migrants try to catch it in desperate manners. An overcrowded night celebration for China’s National Day is an occasion for collecting heaps of litter and picking pockets. Even in the frenetic puzzle of images director Zhao offers us, there are some still moments that are quite dramatic: the tired, tragic and somehow epic walk of old beggars and a blind man in the narrow street singing a love song that virtually brings the entire street to a standstill.

This frenetic world proves too complicated and stressful for the naïve Black Skin: he gets drunk, fights the police and is imprisoned twice. When he emerges from jail he looks mentally disturbed, no longer the active and bustling man we met in the beginning. He is a rootless body with no identity, wondering around the city screaming, singing and dancing, frantically and breathlessly touching the space around him, discarded in what was once the city of his dreams.

Zhao Dayong

Zhao’s investment of time and attention among the migrants is remarkable, allowing the audience to feeling their stress but also a strange sense of freedom of life on the street; hope mises with desperation, even when everything seems to oppose the fantasy of a better reality. Images and dialogues are vividly captured in the moment. The strenuous effort of living is evident from Black Skin’s nervous twitch; the pain is piercing when the camera fixes on the dragging feet of the old epic beggar; an irrational glee is contagious in Big Fatty’s improvised songs and invented histories.

Much as Zhao would do with a peripheral rural landscape in his masterpiece Ghost Town (2008), Street Life exposes forgotten and hidden urban ghosts with direct and abrupt images. Zhao films daily life as it reveals itself to his eye, without judgment. His glance is genuine and participatory, recording the micro-narratives of people pouring from the countryside towards the promise of Shanghai’s Pearl Tower and the Bund, looking for the opportunity to take part in a new society that apparently doesn’t have place for them. While the madly desperate Black Skin’s sings: “Tomorrow will be a brighter day…Tomorrow will be a brighter day…” a large video screen in the square broadcasts the Monkey King from the Journey to the West, brings us back to the opening: “Curse you, Monkey! You’ve crossed me! Now you must pay!” Unlike the Monkey King, many of Shanghai’s migrants have paid a terrible price for their journey.

Sara Beretta is an anthropologist and PhD student at Milan University, researching Chinese independent cinema and visual production.

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