Flower grannies keep a fragrant tradition alive

Updated: 2013-08-13 07:25

By Wu Ni in Shanghai (China Daily)

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 Flower grannies keep a fragrant tradition alive

An elderly woman sells ylang-ylang and jasmine at a Shanghai subway station. Gao ErQiang / China Daily

Sitting near the exit of People's Square station, one of Shanghai's busiest subway stations, 85-year-old Yang Guoying focuses on her handiwork - tying two Michelia alba (commonly known as ylang-ylang or cempaka, or miangui flower in Chinese) blossoms together with thin wires.

Yang has been selling ylang-ylang and jasmine at the same spot for five years. The floral fragrance fills the air, attracting bustling passers-by to stop and take a look or buy some of the flowers.

She was introduced to the trade by a friend 10 years ago. "At first I sold flowers on the streets. But my legs are weak these years. So I could only sell here," says the woman with a tanned, wrinkled face.

Every morning, Yang leaves her home at Hongkou district at 6 am, takes a bus for an hour to the subway exit and stays until about 5 pm. Lunch is usually leftover food from the night before.

The ylang-ylang can be preserved for about three days after Yang buy them from the flower market. To keep them from withering too fast in the summer heat, she put a sheet of ice, 4 cm thick, at the bottom of her basket.

She gets angry every time a passer-by stops by at her stall, picks up a pair of ylang-ylang, smells it, puts it back and walks way.

"The flower is very delicate. To breathe hot air on the petals is like pouring hot water on baby's skin. The petal will turn yellow fast and no one will buy it," she says.

Wearing scented flowers is a tradition in Jiangsu province, and it became popular in Shanghai in the 1920s, according to Xue Liyong, a folk custom expert in Shanghai History Museum.

The ylang-ylang is widely planted in the southern Yangtze River region, he says. In Suzhou of Jiangsu province, young women used to wrap the flowers in their handkerchief and put it inside their clothes, creating an effect known as "you can't see the flowers but you can smell the scent".

In the 1920s, carriages ran between Jiangsu and Shanghai to transport newly picked flowers to the city in large quantities, Xue says.

"Perfume was a luxury at that time in Shanghai and the flowers could cover the smell of sweat. So the popularity increased and there were many women selling flowers," he says.

The tradition continues today.

Each year from May until the end of October, when the ylang-ylang blooms, it is a common sight to see older women peddling bamboo baskets filled with scented flowers on the streets of Shanghai.

Yang is just one of them. She is almost stubborn with the price: 3 yuan (49 US cents) for a pair of ylang-ylang and 5 yuan for a jasmine bracelet. "Those who really like wearing the flowers won't bargain," she says.

Yang could earn up to about 2,000 yuan a month, modestly above the city's minimum wage of 1,620 yuan. After retiring as a street cleaner of the city's sanitation bureau, Yang's pension has risen to 3,300 yuan per month.

She has four children who could support her although her husband died a few years ago. "My sons and daughters-in-law don't want me to sell flowers. But my mind is still sharp and I will not stop making money as long as I can," she says.

For others, however, selling flowers is not merely to make some extra pocket money, but for survival.

One old woman who sells ylang-ylang and jasmine at the exit of South Huangpi Road subway station, says the seemingly trivial business is laborious.

The 60-year-old woman who only wants to be known as Grandma Xu has been selling flowers for six years. She arrives at the subway exit at 6:30 am every day and wraps up by 10 am before it gets too hot. After lunch, she heads to the wholesale flower market. At 5 pm, she goes to the streets and starts selling the leftover flowers from the morning.

Upon reaching home at night, Xu continues her chore - binding the petals of blooming ylang-ylang together with white thread to prolong its fragrance and tying them with thin wires. It takes her about three hours to finish 40 pairs of flowers, which are then carefully kept in the fridge with food wrappers.

"There is not a moment of rest for me," she says, adding that she only has four hours of sleep every night.

Jiang Nan, a 32-year-old Shanghai native, remembers that as a child, a pair of ylang-ylang costs only 0.50 yuan.

"I used to tie the wire of the ylang-ylang to the button of my clothes, normally in front of my chest. It was a popular ornament. And when I went to bed, I placed it beside my pillow."

Jiang, like many women in Shanghai, remains a regular patron of the flowers.


(China Daily 08/13/2013 page20)