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Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Shang High Life, #14

Shang High Life, #14
August 14, 2002

After A Year And Eighty Years In Shanghai

I have been in Shanghai a year. There is a hackneyed saying in the expat community that after a week in Shanghai, you could write a book about it. After a month, a page. After a year, maybe a postcard. This is my postcard.

Everywhere I’ve ever traveled, for as long as I remember, I have looked at people’s faces, imagining, telling myself stories about what they’ve seen. In Shanghai, I’m at a loss, and I’m daunted. It’s the old people, mostly, not so much the young. With life lived on the sidewalks, it’s easy to think maybe there are just more old people in Shanghai than other places I’ve been.

But it’s not their number that daunts me, nor their age. Not their tiny-ness, bentness or toothlessness. I am daunted, without having to imagine much, by what they have seen. Every pair of eighty year-old eyes was born into a city that was unrecognizable only a few years later. Another thirty years and it was gone, replaced by something alien. Forty years after that, it became something unimaginable. And for most of that time, what of Shanghai wasn’t hell was on equal footing with purgatory.

It was still just a fishing village a couple hundred years ago. European traders didn’t notice it until the 1800s, a deep port at the mouth of the Yangtse river---the highway to inland China. They wanted it, and that led to a bad episode rather picturesquely called the Opium Wars.

The Qing dynasty’s literati generals, without experience of foreign enemies, competed at drafting eloquent victory speeches while their troops---sons of the civilization that invented gunpowder---marched with swords and spears. The British walked over them.

No one alive, now, lived through the Opium Wars, but today’s octogenarians were born into a Shanghai created by it. I walked by a woman, today, who had one of those faces that looked like it was made of translucent, drying clay. I said “good morning” in Chinese and her returned smile produced a giddy multiplication of uncountable wrinkles. Her eyes were clear, but eighty years is probably a kind guess. I can’t imagine her life.

Her early childhood memories are almost certainly of the city carved out of Opium War reparations. The victorious Brits claimed a large area of Shanghai as spoils, calling it, unironically, a “concession”. Brits governed it, policed it, taxed it. Within its boundaries, British law prevailed, and Chinese were unwelcome unless invited as servants of British residents. French, German and American concessions followed.

Shanghai thrived on this international presence and became perhaps the most important commercial city outside Europe. The woman who returned my smile today, when her eyes were set in a young girl’s face, took for granted the passing of white faces. She still passes in and out of buildings built by the British. Her feet wear down sidewalks paved by the French. She lives (as do Geri and I) in what is now inappropriate to call the French Concession. The streets are wide, lined with trees over a century old: trees the local dialect translates as “trees from France”. She might, as many of her contemporaries do, still call streets by their old French names, despite decades in which those names have been officially illegal---not that you’d ever understand her pronunciation as French, anyway.

She may vividly remember the international city of her girlhood but, even if her mind is tightly sprung, perhaps not. She did not get to enjoy that city for long. By the time she was born, the international free-for-all was out of control. Shanghai was a crock of vice under a lid of opulence: “The Paris of the East; the whore of the Orient.” One Shanghainese woman in four was a prostitute.

Some of the most notorious gangs in history flourished in the cracks between competing police forces in the different concessions. Big-eared “Papa” Du battled the nefarious Pock-marked Huang, who ran the city from his privileged post as head of the French police. Drugs, prostitution, violence and unimaginable wealth. International merchants and bohemians, white Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks. And for the Chinese, poverty and extreme exploitation. At the entrance to one British park, a sign famously proclaimed “No Dogs or Chinese”.

In all this, it isn’t terribly surprising that Shanghai gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party. The heyday of Sun Yat Sen and Mao Zedong, as comrades in Shanghai, is glorious, still, to the Chinese. It marked the beginning of China’s re-emergence from its long darkness under the thumb of Europeans. Of course, it arguably also marked the beginning of China’s next period of long darkness: under the thumb of the Party. But the catalyst of this second darkness did not come from a descending curtain of communism. It came on boats.

The Japanese snuffed out Shanghai as a city of light. The occupation was a demonstration, by the Japanese, of their superiority to the Chinese. Women lucky enough to have avoided selling themselves to British and French men, were commonly forced into the beds of Japanese officers. For the woman I passed on the street, today, the city that was her girlhood playground, and the world’s nightclub, never re-emerged from World War Two. War followed war. The Japanese gone, Mao and Chiang Kai Shek spent their remaining bullets splitting China.

She would have been about my age when it was over. Shanghai, decadent playground of Westerners, fell out of favor with the authorities. Under Mao, the city became gray and functional: a dingy industrial port, its magnificent commercial palaces taken over by state bureaucracies. French villas were partitioned for dozens of families. The ruddy, scrubbed youth that shone through their rough, gray “Mao jackets” became old wearing them. Young women put away their silks for more than 45 years, and lived in fear of being caught up in the violence that punctuated each of China’s great leaps “forward”.

With all this bleakness, it isn’t hard to sympathize with the absent expressions of some old Shanghainese. Harder to explain is the greater number whose smiles light their paths. And it isn’t just one ancient, toothless, beautiful woman.

The old man who hurries up to me in one of the few remaining Qing-era sections of the city, hesitates for a thoughtful moment, then bubbles forth with, “I would like to talk with you about your shoes!” It strikes me that he once probably learned a few words of Japanese to get by, perhaps later learning enough Russian to read Lenin in the original. Now, he enthuses in English, apparently on one of the few topics for which he has the vocabulary to engage. His grammar is perfect, his smile easy.

The Shanghainese share their city with White Boy seemingly without care. The city is, once again after 70 years, the most western place in mainland China. In the downtown valley running among glass towers, the streets are clean. If your lunch order is, “Wo yao yi ge Big Mac,” you’re pretty likely to get the familiar refrain: “Would you like fries with that?” Some days, it is the familiarity that jars, not the different-ness.

I wondered, coming here, if I would bump up against resentment when “rich” White Boy met the great boot-strappers of the developing world. Capitalist meets communist. Ignorant privileged ass meets entire populace clawing itself up from the mire of its own history. But smiles meet me everywhere I go, as does the unreasonably generous effort to speak *my* language so that we might communicate, reaching across the many kinds of distance that have separated China from the rest of the world.

This is a country for which isolation from the rest of the world was disastrous, and interaction with it almost more so. Both have been tried. Both have meant suffering. Yet, Shanghai looks at me, and smiles.

After a year, that is what I know. That, and how to order a Big Mac in Mandarin.