Locked-down Shanghai residents barter for what money can’t buy


In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a volunteer uses a megaphone to talk to residents at an apartment building in Shanghai, China. — Xinhua via AP

For many of Shanghai’s 25 million residents, the city’s strict Covid lockdown has made procuring food and daily necessities a struggle money can’t resolve. They’re resorting instead to bartering, trading neighbours ice cream for vegetables or wine for cake.

The availability of many goods in Shanghai has been strained by clogged logistics into the city and the lack of couriers to deliver supplies to locals barred from leaving their homes. The city’s sweeping restrictions on movement, aimed at stymieing the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant, are now entering their third week.

With shortages widespread, bartering has become an important avenue for many locals. Kevin Lin, a 26-year-old barber, turned to trading with neighbours after he and his three roommates began running low on food.

"I bought a whole lot of tissue paper before the lockdown. I would like to swap a few packs for food, ideally instant noodles,” Lin posted in a WeChat group chat with others living in his apartment building on Saturday. Within five minutes, three different neighbours had responded, offering flavours of noodle ranging from braised beef to spicy Sichuan.

Deals such as this are almost always struck over social media, primarily Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s ubiquitous WeChat app. Once agreed upon, one person will place their side of the trade outside their door to be picked up by the other person, who’ll leave behind what they’ve agreed to barter.

Among foods that have been especially sought after during the lockdown are fresh fruits and vegetables, which have been difficult to buy from online grocers due to supply disruptions and surging demand. Other goods in high demand include diapers and baby formula.

Amanda Wu, a Shanghai-based investment manager with a 12-month-old baby, recently traded three cannisters of infant formula she’d purchased before the lockdown to a neighbour for vegetables and yogurt.

"She asked if we need vegetables and yogurt as she just managed to grab a lot via some bulk purchases and online platform orders,” Wu said. "I was so excited to hear that after failing to grab any fresh food in the last two days.” She later sent another two cannisters of formula to another mom in exchange for cooking oil, rice and pork.

One thing people will rarely accept for necessities, however, is cash. Indeed, many residents say they’d rather give goods to someone for free than take money, which is not very useful in their current circumstances.

"Money itself has somehow fallen in value,” said Stefanie Ge, who owns a small content creation company in Shanghai and says she’s traded everything from ham and beer to fruit and desserts. "Good relationships and contacts on the other hand are more important than ever.”

That was a sentiment shared by Sharon Cai, an accountant in her 40s living in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Cai said that bartering with other in her building – she recently traded homemade bread for carrots and garlic – had given her a sense of community.

"Covid has brought so many ridiculous experiences,” she said, "but at least there’s been one happy thing. It’s made me feel like a neighbour.” – Bloomberg

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