Street Stories: A Domestic Dispute


An aging woman was staring down an alley, her eyes hooded and preoccupied.

I stood next to her, wondering what had caught her attention.

On the concrete floor of the lane, a plump middled-aged woman sat with her legs splayed wide, her face staring fiercely at the ground. Her chest was heaving and her face was wet with tears. A man stood over her, speaking sternly. Was he the husband or a brother? He pulled at her arm, demanding her to come back into their home. She refused, shaking her head as the tears fell. She began shouting at the man, who grew more agitated.

I stood watching, unsure what to do. The old lady next to me kept staring.

The man bent down and hooked his arms around hers, tugging her towards the house. The weeping woman struggled. Her shoes fell off as the man overpowered her and pulled her past the landing, slamming the door against prying eyes. I moved towards the commotion with hesitation. I had read about warnings against interventions during acts of domestic violence. Concerned passers-by should instead seek proper authorities to mediate. But it was not a clear case of a raised hand, more of a family argument that was escalating.

I turned to my fellow witness to voice my concern. As if sensing my need for conversation, she turned abruptly and returned home.

I walked towards the door of the fighting couple. Inside, the woman wailed in anguish, blubbering in a dialect that I could not comprehend. There was soft, consistent thumping against wood, perhaps a hand against a table, as if to emphasize her emotional pain. A child accompanied her crying, sounding scared and confused by what was happening.  There was no further response from the man.

Trapped by my ambivalence, I circled the neighborhood a few times and returned to the door twenty minutes later. I mentioned what I had witnessed to a neighbour who was moving out. He shrugged and said he didn’t know the couple. A few more neighbours and movers gathered around to discuss it. There was an unspoken acknowledgement that if the man was not beating the woman in the alleys, it wasn’t something to get involved with.

A total of forty minutes had passed and I walked by the door a third time. The crying had stopped, punctuated by a stifled sob. Instead, the gurgling of a toddler seeped through the door.

Her shoes were still in the middle of the lane.

Sue Anne Tay is the photographer and author behind Shanghai Street Stories, which documents the heritage, architecture and community of Shanghai’s disappearing old neighbourhoods. The Guardian called Shanghai Street Stories one of "the best city blogs around the world"