LIGHTING three incense sticks and placing them before a statue of the God of Fortune, the boss of the Yuyuan Seafood Restaurant on Tongbei Road in Yangpu District bows respectfully three times.
However, the 30-year-old restaurateur, surnamed Zhou, admitted that he’s not convinced that even divine intervention can now save his restaurant from demolition.
Old residential buildings on the west side of the road — better known as “Yangpu Seafood Street” since the 1980s — are being demolished as part of an urban renovation project by the district government and around 20 seafood restaurants, including Zhou’s, are set to go under the wrecking ball.
Similar scenarios have played out in other Shanghai food streets in recent years, due to redevelopment, hygiene problems and complaints from neighbors.
While now the restaurants stand surrounded by rubble from demolished homes, in their heyday, both sides of the 200-meter road were filled with eateries and thronged with customers from 3pm till 4am.
Many foreign travelers made the journey to sample Chinese seafood, Zhou said.
“In 2009, the street was so filled with people that a bicycle could hardly get down the road, let alone a car,” he said.
But the lights dimmed on the vibrant street in 2012 when the district government announced that it was demolishing houses that are in poor condition, relocating residents and businesses. New residential developments are set to be built.
Standing outside his restaurant Zhou pointed to an adjacent wall with the Chinese character chai — meaning demolish — sprayed on it.
“Just two years ago, we had to move tables outside there to make more room as customers were still coming here in droves,” he said.
“And now, I’m going from a restaurant boss to an unemployed man,” Zhou added.
The seafood street emerged in 1980s, partly due to its proximity to the Pingliang and Tilanqiao residential communities.
Tongbei Road was also close to the now-closed Jiangpu Road seafood port along the Huangpu River, where fresh seafood from the Zhoushan islands, outside of Hangzhou Bay, was landed.
More recently, restaurants have bought seafood from Tongchuan Road seafood market in Putuo District, Zhou said.
The seafood street soon became popular, attracting diners from near and far with its fresh fare and low prices.
“The seafood was fresh, the flavor was authentic local style and the prices quite low,” an 83-year-old nearby resident surnamed Ruan told Shanghai Daily. She said it cost only 300 yuan (US$48) to order a table of seafood that would cost more than 1,000 yuan in larger restaurants.
However, not all neighbors have good memories of seafood street.
“We were kept awake by noisy diners through the night, even after 4am, and in the morning the public toilets would be filthy and there would be pools of vomit on the road,” said a resident surnamed Wang.
“We also had to inhale oily smoke for 20 years,” another resident, surnamed Zhao said, adding that living conditions in nearby houses were poor.
“We had to share the kitchen and use the public toilet.”
Most Tongbei Road residents said they were pleased that the old community was being demolished and that they would be relocated.
Some 90 percent of residents and restaurants owners have agreed to relocation contracts with relocation fees from the government, according to the Pingliang Community relocation office.
The remainder are sticking out for higher compensation, including Zhou’s family.
“The government offered us 8.5 million yuan for our 85-square-meter restaurant that was converted from three apartments,” an aunt of Zhou’s told Shanghai Daily.
“But that can hardly buy us a restaurant on the same scale nearby,” the aunt, also surnamed Zhou, added.
She was born in the community, opened the restaurant with her sister — Zhou’s mother — around 2000 and saw it become one of the most popular in the street.
But now she was despondent about the future of the business.
“It will be impossible to revive our former glories,” she said.
Many other restaurant bosses seem to agree with this gloomy view.
“I’m considering opening a fruit shop elsewhere in the city as I’m pessimistic now about owning a restaurant,” said a restaurateur surnamed Liu, who owns the Dragon and Tiger eatery on the road.
Among Shanghai food streets that developed at the end of 1980s, the most popular included Zhapu Road in Hongkou District, Wujiang Road in Jing’an District and Yunnan Road and Huanghe Road in Huangpu District.
In 1986, there were more than 100 small restaurants along Zhapu Road alone.
But business suffered from the opening of numerous Sichuan and Cantonese restaurants, which became popular with locals, and chain restaurants in modern shopping malls.
In 2013, the famous Pengpu night market in Zhabei District moved to a regulated market in Baoshan District.
Now, Tongbei Road looks set to go the same way as other food streets as the flow of the city takes a different course.