on and on the river rolls
On and on the Great River rolls, racing east.
Of proud and gallant heroes its white-tops leave no trace,
As right and wrong, pride and fall turn all at once unreal.
Yet ever the green hills stay
To blaze in the west-waning day.
— Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Moss Roberts translation.
In the early 2000s, Indian politicians released a stream of aspirational statements about making their cities more like China’s. “When we talk of a resurgent Asia, people think of the great changes that have come about in Shanghai,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004. “We can transform Mumbai in the next five years in such a manner that people forget about Shanghai.”
If Mumbai had felt suffocating for its sensory overload, Shanghai seemed so for its lack of it. The roads that radiated from Pudong airport epicenter wound through housing complexes and flagged buildings. My taxi ride was silent — I communicated with my driver only through DiDi’s automatic text message translation. I didn’t see another human outside until we stopped.
Shanghai’s French Concession was a tree-lined district dotted with expats and cafes. My friend’s spare, Ikean apartment was in a complex of four whitewashed buildings where citrus saplings reached towards drying nightgowns. People had stacked the stairwell corners with books, sinks, and shower curtains.
Presumable chaos lurked behind VPN networks and government scrapers that crawled my wiped, work-issued iPhone. In the street below, however, the closest thing to litter I saw was a stray autumn leaf, swiftly picked away by a masked street cleaner with pincers.
Later that evening, Lexi and I walked to dinner past a row of well-lit boutiques. The subway station sprouted into a several-storied mall gleaming with Gucci and Balenciaga. The pattern repeated like a film reel: I started to recognize the same bejeweled Cartier storefronts, the same smoky-eyed beauty in a bralette and heels outside each Louis Vuitton window.
This might be what Indian politicians fetishized, I thought, in their Mumbai-to-Shanghai fantasies. Starbucks cafes that could be in Powai or Pudong; Jo Malone’s sea salt perfume flattening differences between luxury malls in either city.¹ Commotion boxed away into housing blocks and streets flush with foreign businesspeople in suits.
Shanghai’s flux lay beyond what I could detect as a non-Mandarin-speaker, so I turned to my books. I spent a morning walking through Changle Lu, the eponymous “street of eternal happiness” (a book by NPR foreign correspondent Rob Schmitz.) Schmitz writes about the people on Changle Lu, from a matriarchal florist’s family to residents displaced by routine demolitions. I took off in hopes of finding them and perhaps exchanging a brief moment of connection.
Chen Kai, my favorite character in the book, was a serial entrepreneur and accordion salesman who’d opened a shop called 2nd Floor: Your Sandwich. CK grew up in the 1980s in Hunan and cycled through jobs assembling accordions in state factories before opening his cafe with a friend. I walked back and forth past Changle Lu 810 a few times before I realized I was circling. A bare concrete square stood where his shop had been a year ago. My Baidu search returned an outdated Yelp page.
When I was bookless and tongue-tied, the only places I could communicate alone in Shanghai were insular expat spaces. The Shanghai Comedy Club was a small room in the corner of Cages Bar and Sports, a jarringly American place where ginger-bearded men burped through football games. Most of the room was foreign: black, Ukranian, South African, American, even Mexican. The jokes were sometimes good and sometimes predictable (squat toilets, yellow fever). Unlike in India, though, I had trouble hailing a taxi home from the club. Drivers took one look at me and drove off — in this country, I was a mute foreigner, not worth the trouble.
A week later, at Art021, one of Shanghai’s largest contemporary art fairs, I stopped for a while near large collaged papercuts by Wu Jian’an. “I feel a strong frustration with contemporary Chinese culture…” he wrote in his statement. “[It] is like a beheaded man, without confidence and dashing here and there without a purpose.”
My fellow observers were largely Chinese, in chic jute pants and jeweled sneakers, turtlenecks over fringed pink shawls. “I love people watching here,” Lexi told me. “I’ve heard three businessmen negotiate art deals in the last thirty minutes.”
The gallery owners were split between China, New York, and Europe. They were startled by my questions — who owned the gallery, and what was their background? How did the buyers choose their preferred art pieces? The artists themselves seemed incidental, snagged in networks where rich businessmen with art advisors sold to other rich businessmen with art advisors.
I escaped Shanghai one weekend to visit my friend Matt in Hangzhou, an hour southwest of the city by bullet train. Expecting grit and disorder this time, at least, I emerged from the train into another Cartier storefront. A venture capitalist told me later that Hangzhou — a metropolis more populated than New York — has the world’s highest growth rate of luxury purchases.
During the day, men power washed the sidewalks with high-pressured hoses, even after it rained. At night, others napped on foldable scooters on street corners, waiting to drive drunk Tesla owners home. Where I expected homeless men or street vendors, there were empty curbs.
Sensing my weariness, Matt suggested visiting the tea villages thirty minutes outside of Hangzhou. We hiked all day through tea bushes and bamboo forest. The only others we saw after we escaped the village were a troupe of sad Chinese teenagers on a backpacking trip led by Americans. “This is awful,” one of them told Matt. Her equipment was still plastic-wrapped. “Jiāyóu!” we cheered. (Come on! — or literally, add oil!)
After hours of hiking, we descended into an unmanned tea stall where tubelights shone on baskets of wrapping paper and longjing cha. (The only other person I’d heard say dragonwell tea was the blonde ex-banker who ran Infini-T in Princeton.) A woman emerged from the connected house with a thermos of boiling water.
Her husband, who’d dyed his hair ice yellow, joined us with a plate of sunflower seeds. He asked where we were from. Before I could say New Jersey, Matt told him to guess. He looked at me and said India. Like the Buddha. Chinese people had figured me out — though they did watch a lot of Bollywood, and we did share a land border. Matt, however, was always a puzzle. France? Poland? Russia?
In the hour that passed, Xu Lin was our only interlocutor, though others joined us periodically to watch the Mandarin-speaking lǎowài and me, his presumable wife. Xu Lin’s tea trees had taken him through both the economic boom and the Great Leap Forward. (I don’t think I can ask him about that, Matt said, when I prodded.) His nephew was a doctor in North Carolina who was getting married to a Chinese-American girl — a small pretty face on his phone screen — tomorrow in Hangzhou. He talked through Matt, but looked often at me. He is woke AF, Matt said, between quick streams of Mandarin on Buddhism and connectedness. Trump’s America was far from his world, where all was one and one was all.
III. Hong Kong
Cosmopolitan Hong Kong presented me with white faces, English signs and — finally — street vendors and foot traffic. I wound my way through markets selling shark fins and ginseng and antique stores with Buddhist states and Ming vases. In the MTR, I had to call out a man for staring.
Thirty floors aboveground, though, was a different story. At a rooftop terrace event, a consultant on his third glass of wine grilled me about the nonprofit I’d incubated in India. Wait, he said, what are you doing here? An hour later, I started to wonder the same thing. I left after my third conversation about rising private equity valuations and ordered room service.
The man who rolled my bean curd dinner into my room looked a few years older than my father. He had tired eyes and shaky hands. I imagined a world in which I could pull him a chair and ask if he wanted to share the meal.
I ate alone and took the elevator to the infinity pool that overlooked the Hong Kong skyline. It was late, and I was the only one there until a man waded in with his iPhone, his back to the waterfront. He made no eye contact and remained there scrolling after I left.
On my last night in Hong Kong, I visited my friend Mary’s home for dinner. A large scroll from the Three Kingdoms adorned her living room wall. I asked her mother for a rough translation. Time flows on and on, she said. Our actions fade and repeat.
Before I left for my hotel, Mary and I walked around Victoria Peak, Hong Kong’s most famous urban vantage point. By nightfall, tourists had thinned. The skyscrapers between leaves tugged me back to Weehawken’s waterfront, where I grew up taking visiting relatives to the Manhattan skyline. Lives ebbed and faded between skyscrapers and ridges as time rolled.
- I paraphrase Prakash, who in Mumbai Fables summarizes Rem Koolhass’ 1988 writing on the generic city. Generic cities look like one another, with the same constellation of shopping malls and spatial arrangements, the same lack of uniqueness. Architecture and urban design are uniform, freed of the weight of history and tradition. The generic city is like a Hollywood studio lot, constantly destroyed and rebuilt. (Mumbai Fables, page 21.)
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