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Travel Tales and Short Stories: The Death of Peppo's Trail

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by Nicholas Klar


If the old does not go, the new will not come... - a popular Chinese saying

The entrance to Peppo's Trail

Since long before we ever set foot in Shanghai there had been a little community at the back of our apartments. As with much of Shanghai the area around Hai Lian Gardens has changed rapidly in the last 4-5 years. Darren Pepperell (former teacher at S.I.S.) once told me that when he first came several years ago he sometimes used to follow the old train spur line, now long disappeared, to school. Darren also regularly used to ride his bike to school through the old back lanes of the 'village' behind us. There was no known name for the area, so it was simply refered to by some as "Peppo's Trail". It's most famous feature was the "Bridge of Death" - a narrow crossing without guard rails across a toxic grey/green stream.

Waterfront property by the Bridge of Death

Some of teachers who followed in years to come, including myself, used to negotiate their way to school via the trail. With it's sights, sounds and smells I found it a delightful, if not slightly dickensian, slice of Chinese life to be encountered each morning and evening. There were a very few who viewed me with suspicion as I made my way down the dark narrow lanes but the majority, especially the kids, took delight in welcoming calls of "ni hao" and "heelllooo". On warm evenings especially the streets were filled with life - food being cooked (and washing up being done), groups in conversation or playing cards or mah jong, kids running and playing games with sticks, tins and whatever else could be found. In the mornings there would be the hustle and bustle of a new day - kids getting ready for school, at the outside taps hair being washed and teeth brushed, small shops opening for the day, the ladies with carts who looked like they had already lived a thousand years picking up the rubbish and night soil. Though these people were very obviously poor they seemed to enjoy a fervent sense of community.

Some of the (now former) residents

Some mornings I would stop to buy some fried bread from a local vendor for breakfast or lunch. Then in late autumn one day I found the doors closed. Soon others started to follow, there were less people in the streets and a sense of foreboding came over me. My instincts were quickly realised as the men with trucks and sledgehammers began to appear and the community moved out. I went in with my camera one day to record as much as I could before it was all lost. As autumn moved into winter I continued my regular journeys, sometimes having to carry my bike over debris or dodge broken water pipes. Then one evening as I turned into the street from the bridge of death someone shouted to me. I kept going and discovered the substance of the warning - a new brick wall blocking the trail in readiness for new construction. It was both physically and metaphorically The End.

Looking back towards the entrance

There is so much change going on in Shanghai now that city maps must be reviewed and re-issued every six months at the most. In a way I find all of this progress somewhat sad as whole communities and their histories disappear, especially the old traditional 'shikumen' houses of downtown, replaced by rows upon rows of new apartments. However for the former residents of "Peppo's Trail", most of who would now be enjoying proper kitchens, indoor flush toilets, mains water, gas and maybe even electricity for the first time, there would probably be not too much sadness. Such is the conundrum that a rapidly modernizing Shanghai (and China) faces.

Till next time....

Last shots

This article is part of a series relating to our lives abroad. For more articles click here

Further related reading by the same author: Good Apartment Hunting

© 1992-2006, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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