XII: Clocking In At Shanghai

Shanghai, May 18th—Today the smog is heavy, like lard. The CBD, viewable yesterday from the corner near our hotel, is hidden. We struggle around the city. I’m feeling the statistics that say each temperature degree rise has a commensurate uptick in crime. I’m not shoplifting, but if pressed I’d lash out, like if someone cuts me on the metro, for example, I’d give their ribs a nice elbow. Perhaps chaotic societies—not violent ones, but ones with chaotic governments and traffic flow—develop near the equator. This does not explain Singapore, but it does explain here. Places north and south, near the poles, require flannel and fur and universal healthcare to protect from the windchill that stifles a person’s wild side. It explains Norway, Iceland, and Denmark but not Russia.


We walk and walk and walk to find the French Concession. It was a district reserved for French expats and merchants, and they made it into a mini-Parisian fiefdom. According to bloggers and travel guides, the Franco-aesthetic lingers in cafes and acute-angled boulevards. We walk in and out of the Concession three times, each time unaware of what we’ve done. Since we couldn’t recognize it while passing through, we say screw the whole endeavor and go to rest in a Turkish restaurant. The restaurant was a merchant’s home at one time, or this is a fact I made up to account for mercantile and homely aspects of the place: exotic wood, wainscoting, iron balcony. We are the sole patrons and sit on ottoman cushions and drink soda. Mom has had enough Chinese cuisine; I have too. I still feel the glittery tingle of MSG on my tongue from last night’s soup and I have conspicuous nausea. Going on a few nights now I’ve had run to the bathroom for a prayer session with the porcelain god, and between the evacuations, I fear it’s a precursor to something worse.


I need new glasses, and mother, as an international flight attendant, has an in at an optometrist near the Science & Technology Museum. Optometrist is used loosely here. The man, thin and with perfect vision, owns a shop within an underground warehouse of shops. His is a 180-turn in width and as long as a row-boat with a freighter’s worth of cargo packed inside.

The market is a material warren with stalls and other small stores that sell Armani jeans, Messi or Ronaldo soccer jerseys or knock-off watches and electronics. Optometrist shops must be especially lucrative since they’re so copious. Every third store has a sign engraved with a pair of bifocals. This is but a snippet of the merchandise that’s available. The roof is a mite above overhead and the lights radiate fluorescence. Sub-continent tourists negotiate for caravan’s worth of luggage, a family from Texas argues over belts, vendors pause from their shared meal of rice and whole chicken to push merch on us. For me, watches are a popular pitch item, and for my mom it’s purses and scarves.

This is a place of privilege for my mom, and what that privilege is is evident as she passes by each shop and shares its reputation with me. One word by a single flight attendant has the ability to spread through the uniformed rank and file, acting as an open or shut valve for a vendor’s potential income stream. Mom has her DVD guy. Her pen guy. Her electronics girl. Her glasses guy. The overlap with other flight attendants’ DVD guys, pen guys, etc. is near exact. And not all flight attendants come here just for their own consumption: some have side-hustles, bringing back suitcases of stuff to sell. A flight attendant, to a vendor at least, has the potential to be as profitable as a hacked slot-machine and just as capricious.

The optometrist, as I said, is an optometrist in name only. He takes my glasses and uses a machine that measures the width and curve of the lenses and then grinds out four new ones. The man files these to fit into the frames I’ve picked. One is a pair of black and round Tom Fords. While wearing them, I look like a cantaloupe that is wearing two, smaller, plastic connected cantaloupes. The other is a pair of Maui Jims. In these, I look fantastic.


We stroll the Bund, which is across the river from CBD. CBD is where wharves and docks had been built. There was a cotton mill too, and a cemetery called Pootung. Pootung remains but as a park. Graves belonging to foreign sailors and soldiers were paved over. Atop is the Oriental Pearl Tower, a great anal bead of a skyscraper. At night, a light display moves from its base to its tip like a laser gun gaining charge.

Though bund is an anglicized Urdu word, and as an infant was put to use to describe embankments and causeways in the Asian sphere of Britain’s empire, this particular Bund—now formal—was built by Americans, Russians, Italians, French, and Dutch. It feels as if all the nations desiring empires in the 1800s tested their colonial flex on this street. Old maps where the French word “Changai” is in the legend, show, among things, a Club Concordia, a German Post Office, the Trinity Cathedral, a customs house, and a German and Japanese Consulate. A few of these remain though the Japanese Consulate was banished to a suburb after the War and has a one-star rating on Google.

Standing on the Bund, I envision a scene from a dystopian movie: some key historic event is altered so that the world of today is irrevocably changed to be dark and sinister and under the rule of some foreign, totalitarian power. Or I see in the Bund a glimpse of what is, in actual fact, the West’s future. Splendid Art Deco and Gilded Age buildings are shoulder to shoulder with their corners catching and spreading the light of megawatt bulbs. Opulent bars are lit emerald and gold. They are behind tall windows that are themselves decorated and crowned with gables. White-gloved doormen stand atop stone staircases and hold substantial brass handled doors. These are the Ritz and the Walford. And atop each and every building is the most out-of-character ornament: the five-star red flag, out-of-character because the architectural world it’s hoisted above is and never will be its own.

The customs house, the street’s oldest building, is an exclamation point to this fact. The clock’s face is styled after Big Ben, and an English foundry cast its bells. They were sailed over and tuned to knock “Westminster” at the top of every hour. The bells did so, on time and without fail, until Mao. He ordered the tune changed to The East is Red, a folk melody that has these lines: The east is red, the sun is rising/From China comes Mao Zedong/He strives for the people’s happiness/Hurrah, he is the people’s great savior!

Alas, the custom house bells cannot play The East is Red, so a speaker does and the bells hang silent. The bells did play a final time in the 1980s when Queen Elizabeth visited. But since then, they’ve been still, and the top of the hour song is that folk one. It has these lines too: The Communist Party is like the sun, Wherever it shines, it is bright/ Wherever the Communist Party is, Hurrah, the people are liberated!

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