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In the days before air conditioning, people used their wits to stay cool
2014-08-19
By Lu Feiran

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On these scorching August days, spare a thought for the Shanghai of the past, when few homes, shops or workplaces had air conditioning.

How did people survive the oven-like conditions?

Well, some headed to beaches and swimming pools. Popsicle vendors did brisk business. Hawkers peddled watermelons.

People sat on stools outside their homes, stirring faint breezes with hand-held fans.

Humans are adaptable, says Wei Jiandie, who has lived with her extended family in old Minhang Town for decades. As she sits in air-conditioned comfort today, she thinks back on an era when people had to use their wits to stay cool.

Wells, cattail-leaf fans and cross-ventilation

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Wei’s home didn’t even have an electric fan until the late 1980s. She was a shop assistant in a local department store back then and spent her off-work hours in the lane where she lived.

Her tiny apartment was hot and muggy, even with all the windows open. But the lane outside her door was cooled by cross currents and shadows.

People sat in the lanes on small stools, chatting and fluttering cattail-leaf fans,” says Wei. “Some seniors and children took naps in the lane after lunch, and when it was extremely hot, men slept there overnight.”

There was a well in the lane. Some people living on the ground floor would fetch cold water from the well and wet their front doors in the hopes of cooling down the rooms inside.

The well also served as a sort of ad hoc refrigerator, since most homes had no fridges. Residents used to lower watermelons by bucket into the well to keep them cool. Watermelon was a great refresher during those summer days.

Lane life brought people together. Neighbors ate together outdoors and exchanged gossip. They became close-knit, like family.

Today Wei lives in a residential complex in Minhang. The air-conditioned rooms are nice, to be sure, but neighborly contact has been reduced to nods and quick greetings in the elevator. There’s no well in the garden of the complex. Wei said she threw away her last cattail-leaf fan when she moved in.

Water gauze and seersucker

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Every summer, Wei and other older Shanghai residents wear water gauze shirts. The silk, which in Mandarin is called xiangyunsha, is soft, well-ventilated and sweat-resistant.

When Wei was young, only wealthy families could afford water gauze. She recalls being envious of smart ladies on the street who wore clothes made of the fabric.

Nowadays, water gauze has been pretty much relegated to senior citizens.

“Only exquisite old ladies know how good the material is,” Wei says. “I never see young people wearing it. Such a pity!”

Seersucker, another popular summer fabric, has also faded from the scene. Wei says she still remembers the 1990s, when she would buy the puckered, all-cotton fabric in a shop and take it to a tailor to make dresses for her niece.

“Little girls wearing seersucker dresses looked so very adorable,” she says. “And the material is comfortable, too. People don’t go to tailors anymore. They buy all their clothes, mostly made from artificial fibers, in stores.”

Long-horned grasshoppers and tumblebugs

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When Wei’s son, 36-year-old Chen Qiang, was a little boy, ice cream vendors weren’t the only attractions on the street. He fondly remembers the sellers of guoguo, or long-horned grasshoppers, plying their trade in the lanes.

The din of hundreds of noisy grasshoppers excited all the little boys, who wanted their very own pet grasshopper.

The insects were kept in tiny rattan cages full of holes so that the grasshoppers could breathe properly.

But the cages were too small to allow much movement.

“Thinking back, I guess it was kind of cruel,” Chen says, with a slight chuckle. “But as a child, you don’t think that way. We just loved the grasshoppers.”

Chen said he usually hung his grasshopper cage on a cupboard door handle. A grasshopper could survive several weeks if properly fed on green soybeans.

Chen admits that the constant noise from grasshoppers in a home sometimes drove parents mad.

Dragonflies were quieter. They weren’t sold by vendors. Children had to go out and catch their own in bushes and fields.

“After catching one, we would attach a thread to one of its legs,” Chen says. “They could still fly, but they couldn’t fly away. Their wings flapped rapidly and gave out very loud buzzing sound.”

Playing with bugs in summer was a popular pastime for children, he says.

“The boys sometimes liked to scare the girls with them, causing them to scream and run away,” he says. “It’s all rather silly, I guess, looking back on it.”

Salt soda, popsicles and ice cream

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Snacks and drinks were special treats for children in the old days, Chen says.

Before the advent of Coke or Pepsi, children relied on “salt soda” as a summer refresher.

The ingredients were simple: water, salt, sugar, soda and a bit of tartaric acid. The taste was a bit like a salty Sprite or Seven-Up, but with less lemony flavor. The beverage was refreshing because it replenished the sodium lost by sweating.

“And it was cheap,” says Chen. “We didn’t have much pocket money back then, but we could still afford a bottle of salt soda once in a while.”

Popsicles and ice cream started to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Vendors selling popsicles carried a wooden box covered with a thick quilt to keep in the cold.

They rapped on the wooden box with a small piece of wood to announce their presence in neighborhoods.

“That knocking sound was music to my ears,” says Chen.

“Every time I heard it, I would pester my parents until they agreed to buy me a popsicle.”

At first, Chen remembers, there were only two flavors — cream and orange. The cream popsicle tasted better, he says, and the orange one had a “strong taste of saccharin.”

Later, the variety of ice creams increased, and they were sold in small shops rather than by street vendors.

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There was one ice cream in the shape of a doll’s face, Chen recalls. The hair, eyes and mouth were chocolate and the rest was vanilla. There were also the popular “ice cream bricks,” which had a very strong milk aroma, and the “tricolor cups” with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavorings.

“Those were the best ice cream I’ve ever had,” says Chen. “To us, they were the Magnums or Haagen-Dazs of their day.”

Some of the old ice cream varieties are still available. The “ice-cream brick” has made a bit of a comeback this summer in Shanghai, mainly sold in kiosks.

“Now that I can have ice cream whenever I want, somehow some of that pleasure of anticipation has been lost,” he says.

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