Emerging on the other end line 10, I finally arrive in “China.” The air is sweet with ambition and monoxide, and it’s only 10pm. My friend cannot be found so I set out to locate a Chinese SIM card, perhaps a pack of smokes. To my left is a frantic construction site, to my right a major thoroughfare. Is this is a road or a sidewalk, I muse, as scooters, bikes and portable carnivals lunge toward the immediate and myself with equal enthusiasm. I glimpse a pedestrian in the distance; perhaps his name is also Evan.
Eventually I locate a legitimate sidewalk, and it was good. Altogether, the scene is manically amusing. Women sell undergarments, men skewer chicken and gizzards. Go no further than the street, young man – the West no longer beckons. I find a small cell-phone shop and inquire about the selection. Not surprisingly, the good sir and I sharen’t the same tongue, though we’re more than happy to go through the physical motions for a joyful few minutes. (We mastered charades with Jeremy on Easter in Taipei). I must admit having a very soft spot for Chinese men who smoke indoors and chatter relentlessly without removing their cigarette. Eventually we reach an agreement – that is, I consent to the first given price. Baby gotta eat, as another sage once said, and I don’t mind playing my part in seeing the circle of life take its monetary toll.
I go next door to find cigarettes and they’ve a mint edition of 1985 Camels – the year of my birth and, incidentally, the Uighur camel. A match made in heaven. Of course, they were tealeaves spruced with tobacco shavings, though I quite enjoyed the box they came in, so continued to huff and puff, relishing le néant in all her Eastern splendor.
After dinner we head to the French Concession, a most curious part of China. We meet an old Saint Louis friend outside the building to have a local beer on the street before mounting the guarded elevator to Sugar, our first Shanghai destination. I have not seen this particular childhood acquaintance in very many years, so the excitement is palpable. Rocking the black blazer and Manga-hairdo, he’s accompanied by his beautiful, if comically blasé, Shanghanese belle. It was at this point I understood that (early) adulthood would never fail to amaze.
We mount the elevator and emerge onto a rooftop enveloped in House-und-Trans and Moroccan divans. To my immediate displeasure there are suddenly giant Caucasians everywhere – an expectedly disconcerting sight. That said, we were coming to meet Rowdy Anna, a friend from Hong Kong currently residing in the People’s Republic and an all-around bundle of joy. Overlooking the brick-and-Oak-tree oasis of the French Concession below, we smoke, chat and chipper about the life and times of Charlie Wilson. The view is excellent, the company even better. Anna’s army of ABCs emigrates en masse to the next establishment whilst the immediate crew lingers behind. Eventually, we set sail for Geisha, our next inoffensively named locale, and wander the long, London-plane-lined streets that look more like Mendoza or Sceaux than any of the sprawling madness that is Shanghai along the way.
The following morning we meander the elegantly wide and Westernized tree-lined boulevard along which Ambra lives. Catering to the international students of Fudan University (one of three Chinese grande écoles), it is replete with everything a young bobo in paradise could hope to hope to encounter: cafés, wine merchants, hand-crafted artisanal beer merchants, Mexican restaurants and croc depots: en gros, a Truman Show charade I’m more than happy to embrace, for the time being. (There’s also a reified Reebok outlet store, but we wouldn’t want to sully your image of Chinese consumerism that much, would we?). Rush (my roommate) and I sit down for a latte across the way. The young men beside us discuss video games and air travel to and fro California with a feigned American accent. This is what the future sounds like!
We lunch at the Mexican café along the boulevard – a perpetual meeting ground for the American-born Chinese at Fudan who seem to work out, eat burritos and prod at their Ipads considerably more than learning Mandarin (if that’s not cultural diffusion I’m no longer sure what is). The gentleman who runs the joint speaks flawless American English but is Cantonese from Hong Kong. We discuss his array of light beers and I suggest he try a panaché (half beer, half lemonade). He enthusiastically concurs, declaring it the menu’s newest specialty cocktail.
We settle our bill and set off toward Jiangwan Stadium, merely a stone’s throw away from the manicured ménage of our airy, tree-lined avenue that reminds one more of Northwest DC than the Middle Kingdom. Bear in mind, however, its Potemkian qualities: a wayward block in any direction and you’re back in the suburban outskirts of China’s greatest commercial boomtown in history, brimming with rusted bicycles, Laundromats and disamused young men. To get to the stadium you must traverse the shit-filled canals that precede the boulevard. Whereas our waste bends its subterranean way to the sea (if not merely East St. Louis), Shanghai’s proceeds via open air. Not that there’s anything strange or historically anamolous about that: we’re all familiar with the nitrogen-filled festivities of New York City in the age of horse-and-cabby.
We’re going to the stadium to check out the Asian X-Games (you read that correctly), where Oprah Winfrey’s godson awaits us with free entry tickets (you also read that correctly). A friend of my roommate’s from college, his ‘social media’ company is working the event to generate buzz around town. Tall, dashing and terribly friendly, he proved an excellent host for exploring the city’s cluster of washed-up Californian roller-bladers.
The crowd, it should go without saying, was a fascinating bunch. On the one hand, a strange melee of 20-and-30-something Vancouverian hipsters and young, blue eyed- -blond haired-LL Bean-bearing families. What brings the former or the latter to Shanghai (much less the Asian X-Games), I’ll never know. On the other hand, you’ve your usual gamut of Chinese adolescents sporting enthusiastically ambitious trucker-hats, pink Adidas and whatever else it is the men on Madison Avenue have intemperately suggested. By far the most interesting, however, is the army of guards posted to protect the afternoon’s activities from the various human elements. For the 2,000 or so ‘spectators’ present around 2pm, there must have been 400 ageing sentinels carelessly roaming the stadium or lounging at various entry points thereto. Some of them were quite friendly – as you can witness below – though others were less inclined to see the athletic light of day as anything illuminating. Then again, as Rush was apt to note, such is the face of low employment in rapidly modernizing, albeit (theoretically) Communist, societies.
Games ingested, we catch a cab and head downtown. This is the first I’ve seen of Shanghai by day, and the 30m ride is nothing short of mind-boggling. I’m not so foolish as to think my literary powers of expression capable of describing the insanity of its scope, though try I must. Imagine a field of lilies in southern France – rolling, expansive, numberless, without aim, direction or self-awareness – and replace them with towering slabs of concrete, rubber, glass, steel, plastic, drywall, sweat, mud and metal – and you’ve an idea of what the megapolis resembles. Not that there aren’t a daring number of architectural delights that dot the bullet-ridden prairie – there are plenty. But emerge they must from an unforgiving expanse of indentured gravity, a weight so onerous as to surge as forcefully into the ground as it does into the blackened sky.
We get off at People’s Square, an oasis in an otherwise unrelenting morass of urban mayhem. It’s 4pm on Sunday, though we’re still a tad too early for the connubial conniving to begin. Come 6pm, the People’s matrons emerge, promising to match the young and restless of every stripe that come bearing a photo and something resembling a cover letter/statement of purpose/five-year plan. It’s said to be a veritable fair of sorts, everyone in their Sunday best, perusing the make shift tables set up by Madam X and Mother Y to put forth their finer traits in writing and rudimentary introductions. I do not their (potential) female companions take part in the festivities. Nor do I know whence they emerge – only that they’ve more than their fair choice in today’s demographic conditions (need I remind you the gendercide underway since the 1980s?) Afterward, I wonder if we might’ve brought along our own CV to test the matrimonial waters: how does one line up against 110m bachelors roaming the darkened alleys of the Internet in pursuit of companionship?
We head in the direction of Nanjing Road East, the principle pedestrian thoroughfare that runs through the heart of city. Toward the edge of the park – just in front of the café where I’d thought to indulge a mild craving – I spot for the first time what every foreign observer’s witnessed without fail: the ubiquitous defecating Chinese baby – only this time they were twins (or at least dressed as such). Has their gang of guardians any intention of picking it up? It wouldn’t appear as such. In which case, shall they mosey over to the grass? Of course not; whoever think they shit don’t stink needn’t frequent the People’s Parkside Café. Indeed, most Chinese infants’ pants are reputed to come equipped with rapid-action poo-holes – at times the only solution for Bolivian street-food or Sunday afternoon saunters through the city’s public thoroughfares.
After taming my amusement, I nonetheless pop in to the same establishment to practice my Putongua. “Wo yao caafee,” I embarrassingly crow. “Sure thing,” she smiles back at me, “with sugar, milk, honey or nutmeg? Hot, cold or tepid? Perhaps I’ll splash a dash of coriander in there just to see what happens!” I coolly admit defeat and call Ambra over. Within moments, I’m handed a piping hot coffee in a massive, plastic Slurpee cup, replete with lamination lining over the top and a giant pink bubble-tea straw poking through. You can order it and we’ll serve it, but that doesn’t make you any less of a fool for doing so.
Nanjing Road East is another overwhelming delight. Tens of thousands of intrepid finger-fooding photo-snappers (ourselves included) mosey about the resplendent pedestrian avenue, musing at the caprices of somewhat-bridled Chinese capitalism. The buildings date to the concessionary period and resemble the less considerate of the Grands Boulevards department stores, whilst the side streets all give way to a heart of commercial darkness not dissimilar in sight to the night markets in Mongkok (Hong Kong). The jubilee of unrelenting neon signs peddling beauty and fried chicken offset the barrage of red-star PRC flags that slice their way down the avenue with a vengeance. Rather than stray from the path, we continue to head for the Bund, the epicenter of all that is grand and cross-generationally glorious in Shanghai.
The Bund is a series of Belle Epoque and Art Deco hotels and ambassadorial edifices that line the waterway of west Shanghai along the Yangtze River. At night, they’re lit with an imperial grandeur resembling Deauville-cum-Budapest on crack; a mystery it emerged unscathed from the Cultural Revolution (though aesthetically mirror the Qing it doesn’t). Across the river in Pudong, however, is a sight even more astounding. From the marshes of the Yangtze Delta has risen one of the world’s most impressive concentrations of phallic exuberance. What took New York in its heyday forty years (1890-1930) has taken Shanghai fifteen – a fact they seem to recognize perfectly well (it’s only 1905, bitches! Just you wait ‘til the roaring twenties). As its May Day weekend, there’s an inexplicably voracious crowd of people soaking it all in – hundreds of thousands ambling about the mile-long boardwalk, if my powers of quantifiable observation do not deceive. As you ascend the steps to the esplanade, a giant Mao emerges from the sea of humanity, smiling wistfully as if to say: I’ve survived all this, and then some (when, just when, will he cease to adorn the $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 renminbi-note alike?) In any case, no one seems to pay him any heed, looming and impeccably well lit though he is. A giant pirate ship advertising pedicures was just then sailing past. The people had more pressing matters upon their mind.