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Lane Small Wonton Eatery

Add:No.107, 1025 Nanjing Rd. W., near Maoming Rd. N.

Credit Cards Accepted
English Service Available

2013-01-30

As many a seasoned traveler would attest, a city's best food is not always haute cuisine served up in ritzy restaurants, but rather humble but delicious fare from corner stalls.

Cai Xinmin, a 58-year-old left lame by polio as a child, runs a small wonton and noodle eatery out of his home in a lane connecting Weihai Road and Nanjing Road W., a prime area of Shanghai.

Before China's modernization ushered in an array of polished takeaway food chains, local wonton stalls were among the most popular breakfast spots for the area's residents. Every morning, stall owners, usually husband and wife, would set up stools and tables outside their houses in little residential lanes and welcome customers with bowls of freshly cooked, steaming wonton.

People call it "lane wonton." Though once prosperous in the network of old lanes of Shanghai, open-air wonton shops started disappearing as the lanes were demolished to make way for urban redevelopment and as the government imposed tighter regulations on family-run businesses.

Cai's eatery, which has been operating for 26 years, has changed with the times - forced to move indoors for one thing - but it has never lost its basic principle of serving up savory food.

"It is tiring but rewarding work," Cai said, taking obvious pride in the long years he has dedicated to providing the best noodles possible to his customers.

Cai started his business in the early 1980s when the government embarked on a daring program to free part of the economy from state control. People were encouraged to xiahai, literally "to go down to the sea," meaning starting their own businesses.

Cai seized the opportunity and opened his own "lane wonton" shop.

"The Shanghai government offered to lend 200 yuan (US$30) at zero interest to people who wanted to start up their own businesses," Cai said. "That was a large amount of money at that time, but many people still felt there was a stigma attached to private enterprise."

People at that time typically went to work for state-run factories where they earned about 50 yuan a month.

Cai had received little education because of school closures during the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976) and found it difficult to work in a factory because of his disability. For him, a wonton stall was a cheap and simple way to forge a new life.

"I got a business license without difficulty because that was what the government was encouraging," Cai said. "Though some people scoffed at me sometimes, my income was beyond average, and I lived more freely."

Nanjing Road W. at that time was a rather ordinary area of small shops and low-rise residential buildings separated by lanes. Along the road, retailers sold basic food, clothing and household utensils. As most lane wonton stall owners did at the time, Cai made a batch of fresh wontons early in the morning, and finished a day's work when all the wontons were sold, usually before 10am.

The environment began to change in the early 1990s, when the Shanghai government decided to upgrade Nanjing Road W. into a luxury retail area. He said city inspectors visited his stall and told him he would have to apply for a new business license if he wanted to carry on with his shop.

"I was very angry and couldn't understand why the government's attitude shifted," Cai said. "But everything turned out fine. A few months later, the city officials told me that I could be exempt from the licensing requirement because of my physical disability."

He now runs his eatery without a business license, and he said the municipal watchdogs leave him alone, as long as he keeps his food clean and safe.

"It's not bad idea to maintain good order in a business," Cai said. "But it does raise the threshold for people who want to start on their own now. And whether they can do that or not usually reflects the government's decision, not the market's."

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