Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Drawer # 6.6 : Auspicious Phone Numbers

These days we pre-pay minutes by plugging our phone numbers into a credit card processing type of widget at our local convenience store. But it used to be that we needed to buy phone cards and so we’d head to the shops festooned with hand-painted lists of phone numbers. My preferred shop was not much more than a hole in the wall, its assortment of local & international (IP) phone cards displayed in a glass case, out front, on the sidewalk. The phone cards listed long strings of numbers, all of which had to be entered into the phone, with various press 1’s & press 2’s, instructions all in chinese. I relied heavily on the kindness of the phone card seller to get me thru this task; while he plugged away on my phone, I pondered the aesthetics of the painted lists.

Across the street from my shop was another, also covered in phone number paintings and a street or two further away was “phone number street,” its every facade bedecked in phone number paintings: long lists of cell phone numbers, the occasional number crossed out or checked, always drawn by brush in red paint with blue, sometimes black, embellishment, always arranged schematically in rows & columns in accordance with some established convention.  

Besides phone card sales, the business of these shops was a bit of a mystery to me. Why you would buy your phone number there rather than at one of the two phone companies, I didn’t know. Why were only one or two numbers crossed out or checked? Who actually knew what those few marks recorded: the signs never changed over time, no additional checks or crossings out from one visit to the next. And why would you make 150 0085 8588 your entryway number? (Though, admittedly, it's rather magical with its rhymes & symmetries.)

I never thought to ask; I just worked up an explanation to suit myself. Tying the Chinese penchant for numerology to the signs’ wealth of auspicious 8's & 9’s & 5’s and dearth of foreboding 4’s - go ahead, count ‘em - I concluded that they must be… Auspicious Phone Numbers! Since I never asked, no one told me different: Auspicious Phone Number Paintings they were & shall remain. Sometimes the imaginative flight is so much more satisfying than the plain truth.

I studied the patterns & the scripts endlessly, admired the fluidity of the vernacular Jasper Johns’ brushwork, pondered their organizational systems. The signs as paintings were a wonder to me, each individual sign on the verge of revealing something of its painter’s character. But what really sent me was what the paintings did to disorient the spaces they occupied. A different artist than me, one of greater energy & audacity perhaps, might have dismantled the best display (the one where they also made keys?) & simply re-installed it somewhere to great acclaim. 

Alas, not being that artist, I, instead, shrunk those spaces into the drawers of the cabinet. And then later, expanded them again, into glass vitrines. By virtue of which mimicry, I came to admire the signmakers yet more.

"The View in Fragments: Auspicious Numbers"  Cardboard, milk paint, glass vitrine, 13.5 x 14.25 x 9" Collection of
M-Restaurant Group, Shanghai. On view at Glam, Shanghai.

The newly arrived often say to me how much change I must have seen in SH in my time here. Now I get the dazed look that I saw on the faces of the “old china hands" to whom I had made the comment on my arrival. The changes have been huge, of course, but also, so continuous, so incremental that one can be hard pressed to quantify them. 

Back when my archiving began, locals, Chinese and foreigners alike, easily recognized the contents of the drawers and laughed at their nostalgic familiarity. Now, ten years later, there are things in the drawers that the newbies can’t recognize because those things don’t exist in the Shanghai anymore. 

The auspicious phone number shops are now all gone.

Before: My IP man.* (see below.)          After: The Q that replaced the auspicious numbers shop. 

I don’t know what my phone seller thinks of having moved in from the curb to the antiseptic, climate-controlled environment of the Q. Probably he’s glad to be part of the great Chinese accomplishment of pulling millions out of poverty into, at the very least, a modest middle class-ness. There’s no arguing with that. But me, I miss the liveliness of the street, the paintings with their telling scripts, the quirky spaces that evolved out of their owners’ needs & ingenuity, all those small moments of individual expression.

A Chinese friend describes spaces as "organized' & "not so organized." On the left,  the corner of the fruit & phone card sellers on Shan Yin Lu back in the days of  "not so organized"; on the right, same corner post-organizing. Better or worse?

In the end, I don’t think my miniature versions really capture much of what I loved about the Auspicious Phone Number shops. It turned out that the dizzying spatial effect of the number paintings requires a full-bodied scale and that the combination of chaos & order that is the street eluded me. What’s left in the drawers is maybe like the transcription of a lost language as rendered by the last remaining non-native speaker but, if only for me, it gives a bit of immortality to the anonymous sign painters & display constructors, recording & preserving just a trace of the endeavors that once gave me so much to admire.

*Re the IP man:
 Inside the shop , maybe 5x7',  were sodas for sale & a tiny side room in which the man's wife cooked. Their little boy sat on a small chair inside the shop at tiny card table that served as his desk & their dining table. A ladder led from the tiny room up to a sleeping space. We were almost the only foreigners in the 'hood then: the man, off to somewhere on his electric bike, gleefully waved if he buzzed by me like he'd spotted a favorite stray cat. One day, just back from the States,  I found the small shop transformed into a Q, a chain convenience store. When I went in & congratulated the IP man, he didn't much respond. Apparently, there's still some market for phone cards, as his old case is now just inside the doorway (you can see the IP behind the bike wheel in the photo.) The pitched roof above the Q sign is the space that was the bedroom for the old shop; perhaps it still is...

From the top: 1. Collection of IP cards for international calling 2-4. Variations on a theme...
Photo credits: Vitrine & full drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine. 


  1. Great post! Love the pictures of the 'hood so long ago.

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