Juqi Antique Market: Hoarder's Dream, Minimalist's Nightmare

By Sophie Steiner, July 2, 2021

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Shanghai is full of hidden markets; if you know where to search, you can find anything – from heavily reduced, knockoff designer brands to Communist-era art and literature to antiques dating back to pre-People’s Republic of China. 

We recently headed north in Putuo (it’s not as far as you think – only a 20-minute scooter ride from the heart of Jing’an) to the Juqi Antique Market, leaving behind the comfort of our bubble for some China cultural immersion. 

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The market looks like nothing at all from the front – in fact, the antiques area is in a building about a block behind the main road. As you first enter, you walk through a surprisingly active plant and flower market. Pick up anything from RMB3 succulents to RMB2,000 bonsai trees. 

There are also loads of crickets (for cricket fighting – a favorite China pastime similar to cock fighting, yet somehow more tolerable), reptiles and fish. We snagged a basil plant for RMB10 and then headed towards the back building to find the real reason we came – the antiques. 

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The Juqi Antique Market is so much more than a standard antique market or art fair. It’s a hoarder’s dream, a minimalist’s nightmare; equal parts trash and treasure. Walking through the dimly lit alleys stacked high with mountains of cultural relics, collector’s items, period pieces and – also – legitimate junk that should have been scrapped decades ago is like experiencing a bygone Chinese era in one time-warp vortex of a building. 

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The rows are half-deserted, with stall-keeper’s abandoning their stands for an afternoon nap, a casual smoke, a game of cards. Like one massive indoor garage sale, visitors are caught between piles of worn books, decorative spoons, family heirlooms and fading photographs with curling edges. 

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Creaking record players are heaped next to piles of cassettes, worn stamps, rolled posters and a myriad of clocks in all shapes and sizes, most of which stopped ticking years ago. Jade ornaments, rusting coins, broken watches and uniquely-shaped canisters are interspersed between wooden carvings, pounded aluminum cigarette cases, tarnished hair pins and ceramic pots, chipped from age and wear. 

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Tall vases painted in the traditional blue and white pottery style sit covered in dust next to empty frames, woven bags and obsolete electronics that may have never functioned properly in the first place. The easiest game to play is ‘spot the Mao,’ with smiling busts, Little Red Books and both color and black-and-white pictures of the Great Helmsman scattered throughout. 

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The building smells of sweat, dust, cigarette ash and a former – now forgotten – version of Shanghai that echoes through the walls as friendly haggling in a twisted, bouncy Shanghainese dialect. People come and go, eat and sleep, smoke, laugh and play mahjong deep within the rows of scattered debris, with no concept of time or the outside world. Plum rains or streaming sunshine, frigid cold or radiating heat, the market is open every day. 

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The average age in the market is over 50, yet we were still surprised to discover that it may – in fact – be the only place left in Shanghai where cash still acts as the ruling form of currency. 

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On the second floor of the market, the piles are replaced by fabric cloths, laid out on the cement ground and covered in colorful beads, jade, jewelry and smaller items of interest. Bargaining levels jump an octave, as does the humidity and dank heat, intermingled with the mumbling of eager purchases and the crack of electric mosquito nets. 

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The floor is littered with remnants of hours passed waiting for a big sale – empty cigarette packs, torn bubble wrap, plastic bottles, browning apple peels, dirty napkins and half-eaten baozi, begging the question: where did this all come from, and who is purchasing it? 

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A visit is worth the cultural experience alone, something many of us in Shanghai miss out on far too often by sticking to everyday coffee shops and Western restaurants that could exist anywhere on the planet. 

As the country continues to modernize at a rate faster than any in the history of the world, it’s relics like these that remind us of a past China, now superannuated and replaced by electronic currency, imported luxury goods and Taobao finds. 

At the Juqi Antique Market, if you’re willing to dig, you may find something of value, but you’ll most certainly walk away with unique curio of yore uncovered within the sprawling rows of bits and bobs. 


See a listing for the Juqi Antique Market.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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