Casual deletion

Arriving at PVG towards the end of August I am immediately covered in sweat. The merino hoodie that sheltered me high above the Pacific has no use in this city of clouds and dust. Shanghai welcomes me with the need for a shower, with a new banking fee, and with an entire new ring road from airport to city.

It seems I start every visit the same way, exclaiming that Shanghai has changed. Why do I not feel this way landing at JFK, or at HKIA, at SFO, NRT or LAX?

As the fastest-moving place on the planet for the last fifteen years, Shanghai’s shift should come as no surprise to this once resident. And, on my third visit since departure, finally, it does not. Instead it comes with sadness born of empty storefronts that once housed comforting restaurants, once held a tiny shop curated by an owner for whom the space represented a life’s dream. In fact the list, when organized, represents a comprehensive naming of places once frequented by a boy on an electric scooter.

Shanghai has gotten richer, has purchased the yellow Lamborghini that sits on Wuxing Lu, a block from my first apartment. Shanghai now works in Ermenegildo Zegna offices, on the 50th floor of a building in Lujiazui.

The changes are not all so individually grand yet overwhelm in their completeness. The basement of Metro City in Xujiahui is no longer filled with hundreds of booths selling semi-pirated electronics. Instead Carl’s Jr offers the same food they do anywhere, an entirely new entrant into the China fast food scene. Likewise some of the boom of two thousand eight has been swept away. A huge two-story shop launched as the flagship of a nationwide chain, ‘the Chinese version of Threadless’, has been so completely overwritten that I am not now sure where it stood on a street of identical single-story storefronts.

The shop of two Chinese hip hop lovers who sold me my Taiwanese mesh back cap with its image of a Japanese yogurt drink-bearing scooter could have been replaced by any one of a dozen small jewelry shops, each featuring a single bored middle-aged woman as attendant. These shops might be owned by a single diamond conglomerate, itself using the multitude of fronts to run well-controlled experiments on which dress on the mannequin in the window attracts more customers.

What is it about humans that makes them copy each other so carefully? We truly are social creatures, and at some seventeen million, Shanghai is a test bed for our tendency towards duplication.

A fancy bakery opened my last year here is not only closed but has had all of its signage poorly redone in Chinese English at least once, demonstrating a now-failed attempt to copy the original in between. Three short years later and my friend, taking time off from work to write as I once did, says he is going to a cafe.

“I used to write in Boona 2, on Fuxing,” I offer, remembering my favorite cafe, bustling on weekends and with plentiful power outlets.

“That’s been closed for years,” he says, “I write in the cafe that replaced it, absolutely horrible but constantly empty.”

I shake my head at the improvement, and wonder about the financials of such a switch.

My roommate’s motorcycle, left in our basement garage in two thousand eight as we fled, which had remained in its dark corner on my visits in two thousand nine, and ten, is gone. Who now rides that machine which he once slid so gracefully through an intersection beneath Yan’an, the weight of both it and him skidding on his MacBook’s aluminum chassis? I look for it as I wander the French concession, wondering whether those scrapes would be recognizable, and how much it was sold for.

We are temporary creatures, maintained by our habits and effort.  All signs of our passing will one day be erased.

HKIA

Hong Kong looks gorgeous as the sun rises. In early thanks to good wind and awake thanks to the ability to sleep anywhere, the mountains get my full attention as the light creeps down them. 

People often tell me San Francisco is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. I ask them if they’ve seen Hong Kong. Because, liking one, with it’s bay and bridges, with the tricks of light from the constant clouds, with greenery plentiful and the water to reflect the sun, the other comes easily to mind. The mountains are vertiginous, rising behind the airport, rising from the sea on the smaller islands. The boats are scattered without pattern, across the water at odd distances. The buildigns are tightly packed, and tall, allowing the narrow corridors of air so familiar to Asian cities, so distinctly rare elsewhere. 

Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Three years since my last visit, I wonder why we left. 

To and fro

From the edge of the Pacific, on his thirty second birthday, a man watches ships approach from China, their decks stacked high. With steel sides and huge size these vessels are proof again that something exists out beyond the waves, concealed by fog and distance. The beach is a windy place, and despite the coffee shop’s sign that says “we love the fog” along Judah, most seem content to stay indoors. It is a Monday in San Francisco, and, not having to work, he approaches the ocean alone, to check that both have survived the year.

At twenty eight he stood on the shores of this ocean, facing it from the other side. The South China Sea, specifically, though the bodies of water do not require fare at their borders. The waters instead leak back and forth, stirred by currents far larger than these boats, by motion on a scale beyond that of any one person. His visit to the ocean that day, in the back of a Buick, after a factory floor and before a seafood lunch that would make him sick, was due to a job he could not leave for celebration, had no need to escape at the moment.

In August San Francisco sees little of the world, is an island unto itself. As he drove north the weekend prior sunshine lingered on California hills. Covered in vines of grape and tall grass, they were a message so clearly of summer as to be painful for one who lives in the fog. Returned for the work week to the city of his current residence he wakes sore and sleeps restlessly, muscles tired and mind overcome. In the morning he lingers in the house, cleaning and re-arranging, thinking and remembering those far away.

The ocean swirls with colors deeper than blue, pulled from far below and reflected back by the low hanging clouds. A group of teenagers cavort at the water’s edge, and another man who looks more lost than most here sits on a log and talks to no one. Walking along the water’s edge, his red sneakers leaving brief impressions, he of thirty two says almost nothing, singing instead into the wind. From the ship growing larger to the shore the ocean is a turbulent mass of white, and the birds are constantly flapping away from the crash of the waves.

A week later and he again has tickets to cross it, has friends whose houses await and strange factories to visit. Purchasing flights once more is exciting, most of a decade after those first tickets to from Japan to Shanghai, ten exactly since he first felt this combination of uncertainty and joy. Of all the birthdays since then, twenty eight feels most real, standing on the shore of the sea, looking east towards Japan and California. By the count of years he is four older now, looking west from San Francisco. Yet with visas and tickets in hand, with the wind off the ocean and no idea where he is going, he feels much the same.