Cities are built in our minds as layers of stories, novels, photographs, brief visits. To live in them is not to dispel, but to add, not to remove, but to complement. The romantic vision of Paris still exists, after months of work-time drudgery, at another angle of view.
I moved to Shanghai on a vision and some faith. The Shanghai of my dreams had no maps, had no daily commutes. The Pearl Tower didn’t hover over the river, wrapped in pink reflections and the smoke of a thousand explosions. The small houses of the French Concession weren’t torn out and re-furbished, weren’t divided up and re-occupied. My vision, from this angle today, is hard to find. Perhaps it was of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Perhaps it was actually of Pingyao or Changzhou. There were never this many fireworks, not on a Sunday night in early March. Not enough to have my walk home lit by hundreds from every street corner. Not a week after Chinese New Year, post vacation. Not by every employee, nor with such glee. The Shanghai I left Tokyo for was never wrapped in smoke that flashed green and red, that sparkled, that deafened with the thudding boom no smoke could shield me from.
Watching the suits roll out of Hong Kong plaza at noon on a Wednesday, out of Plaza 66 at 6 pm on a Friday, I wonder where the Shanghai I anticipated has gone. That strange land of Chinese people and mystery, of abduction so literally named that tempted me from afar.
What does New York look like to a boy growing up in Italy? In Mexico? In Bolivia? In Shanghai? What are these visions that drive us all to move across oceans, to push past distance and imagination, and what then do we find?
One night the bar is filled with collars, shirts starting to come un-tucked as Friday’s challenges recede into memory, as beer one’s grateful relief becomes beer four’s sudden enthusiasm. The pool table holds it’s own against the dart boards, the barman counsels whisky choices, Man U scores again and again in slow motion on a pirated Philipino cable channel. Outside on the balcony he’s hard to hear.
“Shanghai didn’t have any streetlights when I got here. Now everything is neat.”
The difference between the Shanghai of imagination and the city of reality coalesce around his sentence, around the bar, around the sense of order possessed by New York, London, and Hong Kong, that of money. The global city that airline customers inhabit with such ease slips over the imagined city of men on plastic stools eating at pasteboard tables outside stone houses with no running water, their jackets square cut a reminder of the ’40s, their bundled half-dozen layers a reminder of the season and the lack of insulation.
Wreathed in smoke tonight it’s hard to tell the two Shanghai’s apart. Zhaojiabang Lu is a mish-mash of explosions and quiet conversations in posh restaurants, parents taking their families out to huge meals, their servers running out the back between courses to set off crackers with the cooks. The smoke wraps the Audis as they attempt to park in multiples on the sidewalk. The smoke masks the specks of red paper and spots of ash that litter their roofs. The cigarette-selling woman stands, arms crossed and grinning at the scene, beside her friend the fruit vendor. They smile as they chat, these women who watch everything that passes on this street: weather, Audis, firecrackers, construction cranes, trees, men with axes, police.
The Shanghai of my dreams was really of someone else’s, or of fiction loosely based. My own stories of Shanghai are fragmentary, dependent on time, mood, luck, and friendship. The Shanghai of Economist editorials, of NYTimes stock rumblings, of factory openings and shipping schedules is likewise a fiction, an abstraction of the complete picture. Shanghai’s dumpling women standing in the steam mid-morning, water pouring down their faces and hair half tucked back, do share this city with the collar-popping crowd of Louis Vuitton fashion watchers, of Guandi party dancers, of dkd bouncers. My commute to work and the school child’s ride, tucked behind their parents on the scooter, are made on the same streets that Zhang Jimen’s Mercedes takes, that is then swept by hand by a blue-uniformed man who pulls his cart behind him.
Yet for everyone the moment comes, “Shanghai’s changed,” it slips out, or “I remember when we could,” or “Back when …” Our visions falter, caught up in who we’ve become, thinking that the city is likewise obsessed, that the stories are not complementary.
Somewhere in this city is a boy just arrived from a foreign country, unable to speak, uncertain of where he will live when the hotel bill comes due. Somewhere in the city is a girl writing a novel that will lure him here once translated. Somewhere in the city is a visitor preparing to leave, is a teacher preparing to travel on holiday, is a student studying unfamiliar characters, is a man renting a small place all his own.
The Shanghai I was curious about from Japan is hard to see through the smoke of enthusiastic celebration. The Shanghai of my vision, so often forgotten these intervening years, was masked with a haze of confusion, of desire, of ignorance and hope. Tonight, walking home beneath colored thunder, these cities are not as far apart as they seem. They are the same, and have always been.