‘My family is from Shanghai, but my mother was sent to the countryside [in the mid to late 20th century] and I was born in Jiangsu province. My grandfather was a chef at Shanghai’s Meilongzhen Catering Company; he brought me there after high school and I learned how to make Shanghai specialties such as wontons, xiaolongbao and shengjian mantou. It was hard work; during that time, I broke three of my fingers pounding the flour for the dumpling skins. After my hand healed, I wanted to be more independent so I began selling tea eggs on Nanjing Dong Lu. I also tried selling fruits and later, clothing, but none of these ventures were very successful.
‘In 1994, at age 27, I decided to return to making shengjianbao, which was something I always enjoyed, despite the hard work. I was living with my grandfather at 65 Wujiang Lu and I found a small space available at number 60, directly across the street. The space was only 4.5 square metres; it was so small that we had to put the stove on the street. On the first day, I worked late into the night preparing our mantou with my grandfather. Little did I know that he had also spread the word to our neighbours, and when we opened, there was already a long queue waiting outside. I felt very lucky to have the neighbourhood’s support, which is a big part of our success.
‘Over the years, there has been a lot of fierce competition on Wujiang Lu – in the beginning, it was quieter; there was a morning vegetable market and only a few stalls. But in 2002, it was designated a special ‘food street’ and it became very busy. Many restaurant owners tried to run me out. One claimed that his father was a police officer and said it was illegal to have the stove on the street. Another tried to undercut my business by selling their shengjian for less. At the time, ours cost 1.70RMB/liang, but he offered his at 1.50RMB/liang, with free soup – and they had a waitress shouting “buy one get one free”. It attracted a lot of attention - there was even a TV programme about the competition. But fortunately, we stood out.
‘Our shengjian has a special recipe – it’s different from traditional shengjian mantou. When I first started, I used to make them in the dry, traditional way, but I started to make changes to meet customers’ tastes, most notably to make them sweeter and to have more soup inside. We have gone through three major recipe changes through the years – the current recipe has been used since 2005. The saying we have for it is: "pi bao, zhi hou, rou xiang, diba cui" (skin thin, soup heavy, meat fresh, bottom crispy).
'When Wujiang Lu was demolished, we were pretty much the oldest restaurant on the street. I was at our Huanghe Lu store when I heard the news that the first store at number 60 was knocked down - a TV station had filmed it, but I couldn’t watch; when they interviewed me for the programme, I even broke down and cried.
I couldn’t sleep for several nights afterwards. I’m sad that the old street is gone and I know Wujiang Lu will never be the same again, but I feel fortunate that I am able to have a store on the new part of Wujiang Lu. I never thought that we would grow so much, to be able to have a store in an expensive mall. We have always been in old houses because it was much cheaper; after all, shengjian is a street food. But this is a new era – it’s a triumph for us.’
Xiaoyang Shengjian Second Floor, 269 Wujiang Lu, near Taixing Lu. See full address details
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Time Out Shanghai.