On a local friend’s recommendation, we dine at Lost Heaven, a three-story fortress dispensing Yunnanese delicacies downtown. Something of a tourist haven, it’s still a site to behold: laid in bold stone relief and built to withstand the vagaries of most architectural trends, the outside drapes are drawn in blood-red, lit by candlelight to augment the religious experience many Canadians no doubt encounter as the peppered fare meets their virgin palate.
We enter the culinary temple through an imperial oak portal and into an open atrium. A well-manicured photo exhibit reveals the vast and variegated beauties of Yunnan province. Two young women, no doubt unimpressed by our casual, unshaven demeanor, crudely smile from the reception desk. I go straight for the inspirational images of Yunnan village life (in but a moment’s time we shall eat the rice she’s plucking from the earth!), relishing my next voyage rather than debate the terms on which we’ll be allowed to dine. Ambra begins negotiations with the hostesses. She speaks lovely Putongua, from what I can gather, though often runs into trouble making herself understood with Chinese women. A great many of them resent her confident, if marginally flawed, efforts to speak their tongue; rightfully proud though roughly five-foot-nothing, she then openly resents their resentment, demanding they understand what they’re perfectly content not to. An entertaining – and somewhat educative – state of affairs, though one that accrues few material benefits; alas, we’re told there’s an hour’s wait even though half the second floor is empty.
Sit we eventually do and the fare is impeccable. Our attitudinally inclined server takes a liking to Ambra’s communicative abilities, so things go our way. Rush muses over Trotsky or the Tulips and we leave contented, though not without the single most glorious sight these eyes have beheld in some time. At first there’s only one – a lone, gangly-faced adolescent with about as much sense as an unbridled Catholic in Londonderry – until the deluge.
I was on my way back from the boys’ room when I first spotted him, moseying about the top of the stairs, unsure of his demeanor though with arguably no intention of turning back. There he was, a typically pimply 15-year old European male, prancing about Shanghai in a traditional Chinese button-up tunic and topping it off with a rice-paddy hat fully atop his head. Hardly had I contained my glee when a further flood of happiness soon flowed up the stairs. An entire Caucasian tour group of middle-aged balding men, their wives and awkward adolescent offspring was decked out in faux-traditional Chinese garb – replete with dragon-patterned shiny tunic and rice-paddy hats. More than a few were sporting the straw-laced buffoonery atop their heads, though others let them rest upon their shoulders, much in the fashion of many a Saint Louis gangster in the summer of 2002 (someone tell me they recall said trend).
More than sixty-deep, the sight of them was cause for more mirth than I’m comfortable admitting. Nonetheless, there was something utterly dystopian at play. Consider an equivalent charade in different climes. At the end of the day, it wasn’t that dissimilar from a group of Japanese tourists showing up blackface at the Apollo. As my grandfather once said, only so many spiritually deprived Frenchmen can rock the swastika-studded Hindu hippie garb before individual ridicule becomes overwhelming collective murder (Here’s to you, Herzog).
Next stop, Tianzifang, the old pedestrian Chinese quarter tucked away in the French Concession. Another (paradoxically) Western haven of sorts, the neighborhood is rightly touted for its bohemian buzz. To enter, you must pass through one of two informal archways, each a simple portal carved out of a larger European stone-and-stucco building. Once inside, you’re in a maze of red-exposed brick alleyways dotted with cafes, bars and mildly kitschy, albeit catchy, boutiques. The edifices are suddenly only 2-3 stories high, the entrance to each dwelling brimming with bamboo and other variegated verdure – not unlike the quainter quarters of Taipei. A pint in a crumbling avant-garde third-floor crawl-up and we wander the midnight streets, divining ancient from modern at every hidden dead-end. Since one can only enter this pedestrian kingdom in the midst of China’s great megapolis on bicycle or foot, you wonder whether permanent village life is as appealing as this momentary respite.
We’re next to meet Dylan at Bounty, a locale for Western privateers modeled upon their 16th century antecedents (truth be told, Shanghai has a far more ‘diverse’ set of expats than does Hong Kong. They can even make pretense to having hipster, alternative, skater, gothic chic scenes, etc., whereas Hong Kong, lovely though it is, caters to roughly three foreign aesthetics: bankers, teachers and stroller-popping housewives). Herein flows blackcurrant rum by the bottle – and order accordingly we feel obliged. True to underground form, one must be suitably prepared before heading next door to Shelter, a former bomb-shelter from the Sino-Japanese War.
By this point people are suitably merry to make the underground descent – though the winding, cavernous and quite slippery path leading to Chinese Prentzlauerburg was not without its challenges. The dance floor is literally a bombed-out bunker, hotter and grimier than anything Westerners are willing to put up with at sea level, mais tant pis. On the floor, Dylan becomes a miraculous caricature of himself, bopping about without a care in the century, consumed by rhythmic insouciance. Throw in his magical manga-hair and blazer, and it was the happiest I’d been to see a fellow Louisian abroad in quite some time. Rush, on the hand, had chanced upon a giant Floridian belle (in the literal, not Balkan, sense) – and was rapidly making the rhetorical rounds. Only partially successful – forgive my crudity, mother – the boys were forced to finish amongst themselves, so up into the pale night we ascended.
A weather-beaten Uighur donning a dancing monkey atop his shoulder greeted us as we reemerged into the streetlight. A moment later a shirtless mensch came peddling Tibetan tea of dubious texture: we kindly declined. We hopped in a cab and made for what would be the trip’s most epic meal. Thirty meters off the moonlit intersection of a non-descript block of tower flats lay the eve’s most enticing event. A makeshift tent straddles the curb of the boulevard, giving shelter to the sweltering grills below. A neighboring stand bulged with delectable veg, raw fish and meat of every imaginable hue. You grab a basket, load it to the brim and pawn it off upon the gentleman operating the fire pit before taking your plastic seat on the refuse-ridden sidewalk. The early morning air smells of sweet injustice, an ode to acts unrequited. Scooters simmer past as the sun unfolds, revealing an endless urbanity. We’re now penniless, but Dylan negotiates an assortment of pastries from the baker just emerging down the sidewalk; it was good. We pay the bill at the sit-in street vendor, fully five US dollars for food and beer alike. The morning's fully upon us, and we amble down the road to Dylan’s bachelor abode, a singularly daunting edifice in the sky.