Shanghai is an enigma. It was wrapped in gaunt beauty in 1979, when I visited the magical metropolis by the sea. I was a scrawny and bigheaded village boy who had never been anywhere outside my southern village, and the city was a broken giant languishing in its tattered costume, the vestige of her distant colonial past. The Bund stood guard at her Huangpu post, vigilantly looking to the sea. Nanjing Road stretched tiredly, welcoming its multitude of untiring shoppers journeying from far and near to glimpse the city’s faded glory and lament its bygone glitter.
For three unforgettable days, I wandered amid a maze of winding streets and narrow alleys, marveling at the exotic foreign architecture in the city’s French Concession. I dreamed my own dreams of the city’s old grandeur and relished the sensation of touching the sacred ground of this majestic Paris of Asia.
The wonderment of a fast city life overwhelmed me, a country boy. Crowds of people bicycling to work in the morning light reminded me of flocks of autumn geese flying in the sky. Neatly trimmed trees lining the streets and hidden behind tall buildings, temples, and pagodas seemed to yearn for the sun. Its citizens appeared undaunted by the city’s magnitude as they wound their way through the bazaar-filled cityscape. Yet the most lasting memory, by far, was catching the rare and forbidden glimpses of the shapely legs of city girls in short skirts on fast bikes. The city of Shanghai mystified me so.
Over the next 20 years, I visited this bewitching city a few more times, and a richer picture of its physical wonders began to form. In spring, Shanghai is often under the spell of seemingly unending drizzle, poetically known as Yellow Rose Rain, formed by moisture gathered at the delta of the Yangtze River. All household things grow mold during this time; people can be seen sunning their quilts and sheets and mosquito nets on balconies and window ledges when the sun makes its rare appearances. The city then becomes an impressionist painting, dripping with beauty and blurry with nostalgia.
In summer, Shanghai is a hot burner, earning its reputation as one of the Seven Furnaces in China, alongside cities like Nanjing and Wuhan. The entire city rushes out into the streets in the evenings to escape the heat trapped indoors. Old folks sit with their shirts unbuttoned, fanning away the clinging humidity and nagging mosquitoes drawn to their sticky, sweaty skin. And summer turns the city into a lover’s paradise, with every bench inside each of the crowded parks occupied by not just one but two or three couples—young lovers in varying degrees of kissing, fondling, fumbling, and caressing, utterly oblivious to the next couple’s existence only inches away.
In Shanghai’s autumn, the air is crisp with blue sky gently laced with white clouds. Here, the city seems content and settled in spirit, having endured a long, hot summer, with quiet whispers about the pending winter, not far around the corner.
When winter comes, Shanghai shrinks into a cozy little isle where hearts are warmed with hot, spicy food boiled in pots. Fresh fish and shrimp, oysters and octopus, are harvested in the sprawling shallows of the East China Sea; leaping carp and fat frogs are caught from inland freshwater ponds. The fury of the city is hushed into a murmur, with lovers snuggling and cuddling under warm quilts, awaiting the white snow. The cold months are long and bone chilling and seemingly unending, but by the Chinese New Year, in early February, ice in the Huangpu River begins to thaw, and blooms and blossoms break the thin crust of earth until once again the city regains its vigor as the cycle of seasons turns its wheel.
Last April I came with my family from New York, and once more the city enthralled us as we sat at a hotel lounge near the Bund, sipping fragrant Dragon Well tea from jade cups while listening to beautiful music played on a grand piano by an equally beautiful girl. Long hair swished down her slender form. “Are you enjoying your tea?” I asked my 13-year-old son, Michael.
“Not so much,” he replied. “But the girls in Shanghai are definitely cute.”