The energy begins hitting two blocks before, the crowds? One more later. And the turn onto Nanjing Road, wide and packed with shoppers and picture-snappers, along the stone balustrades and marble dragons of the French stones decked out with luxury brands and fast food signs. The concert in People’s Square and thirty-odd dancers and toysellers and foodstands, and they barely register. I’m being pulled towards the Bund, and nothing else matters.
Four blocks, five blockades later, we’re herded north while the purple bulb of the pearl tower pushes past the colonial marble. People are buzzing, starting to push; it’s like Christmas, itching to open the present you’re pretty sure you know it’s what you want but’re not really sure. We reach the stairs: police say you can’t get up this way. Arbitrary blockade #485. Okay. We reach the next stairs: take a breath, get ready for Shanghai.
When I was 14, National Geographic did a special feature on Shanghai for its upcoming world exposition. I didn’t have much interest in Asia at the time—not much interest in the world outside Winnipeg in general. I’d been on a plane twice, Florida-bound-and-back, in the past five years. But I open this spread and I’m looking at the future. I couldn’t believe that these commanding, stark towers lit in reds and golds actually existed somewhere in the world. It’s the first time I recognized Winnipeg would not give me everything I needed. That Canada wasn’t exactly the center of the world, and Asia was where it’s about to be at.
And here I was, standing on the Bund seawall, looking across the river on the Pudong Skyline. It’s so much bigger than I realized. The river, still running black coal tankers beside giant, glittering cruise ships. The towers that, even from here, stand over you like lightshow giants. The darkness: of the river, of the space between the towers, of the air hanging over you like some invisible, omnipresent cloud.
I stumble up against the rails. Staring at it, or rather up into it, I’m first awed, then scared. Then I feel nothing at all. It’s incredible. But is it real? I’m suddenly tired. Listless. I don’t know what I’m doing here, or how I’ll get home. For a second, I forget what home means.
Shanghai is the place I stopped being interested in The City. Not all cities: some of my favorite places are some of the biggest places in this world. But the city as an idea, as an automatic “there gonna be good times” meeting grounds, where the creatives and weirdos and moneymen all meet around the same ten-block radius. That was Chicago, Montreal, Paris; Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong.
China stabbed the stake through that assumption. China with its overnight cities of glass and questionable money. Its smog and stress and rampant homelessness. All along the Yangzi, this pattern of train stations linking up to city centers with their shopping street of Western luxury brands, these buildings marching on the narrow last-breath alleys of the Mao-era. But, “Shanghai’ll be different! Shanghai’s a real city!”
And then, about five minutes into standing on the Bund, I felt what it would take me another five days to truly understand: that Shanghai was just another Chinese city, that it wasn’t what I wasn’t looking for, and wouldn’t give any answers to the toughest questions I’d been asking. And that slowly unraveled me.
This year, it’s the largest city in the world. And I never met a single person. My Couchsurfing host was basically non-existent (feeling more like AirBnB, walking in on an empty apartment), and the hostel I stayed at apparently had a “no talking, only cell phone use” policy while I was there, judging from the (lack of) interactions going on. It was a city of 35 million no ones.
It started to unnerve me. I’m extroverted to a fault, and though I’ve learned to appreciate being alone during my time in Japan, I need other people to process and filter things I’m seeing. Living in my echo chamber, thoughts build and exaggerate. The dirty looks I got at every convenience store I went into, the security cameras and police checks, the way street workers were treated like a different species from the people locked on their IPhones (always IPhones). It was cutting me down. Making me a jack-o-latern with my gaping tourist smile.
It’s a terrible feeling being alone in the world’s biggest city. When you go days without interactions, it starts to feel like you’re looking out at people from bubble wrap or even, when it grows dark and the depression settles in, from another world. Does everyone feel like this in Shanghai? So few people were talking. I suddenly was getting nostalgic for Beijing or Chongqing’s give-no-fucks rough and tumble. Shanghai: the city of the perfected ice-gaze.
And you start feeling like something really terrible is about to happen. That if you miss this train it’s gonna set off a chain reaction that leads to your deportation. China, after all, is not a great country to entertain nervous delusions. You start seeing red stars everywhere you go.
This all came to a head when I did an overnight trip out to Hangzhou. Historically called the “Garden of Heaven’ (double check) by various scholars and emperors, Hangzhou today still tops domestic and international tourist lists for its massive West Lake. I went out there hoping that the country air mixed with that glimmer of old China would help me connect back with what was important. Connect back to myself.
But this is China we’re talking about here. The entire perimeter of the West Lake was packed with tourists, souvenir carts, and shaved ice stands, around an old city completely demolish (in the hopes that Hangzhou will look exactly like every other city in China: success indeed). So as beautiful as the lake was, I was shuffled through like we were pasture cows going out for our daily exercise. And what was I doing here? Was I supposed to feel like some old scholar going for a stroll, contemplating the meaning of life? All I could hear was the Chinese pop songs they played from the speakers strung along the path.
The sun was always in my eyes. And I felt an exhaustion that rippled from my chest to my feet. I couldn’t analyze this. I didn’t want to. I was sick of mourning the death of old China, sick of clinging to the last pieces of it and trying, desperately, to imagine the rest. Just like any street of 2016 Shanghai, all I saw when I looked out across the water was another product fit to be capitalized: the hundreds of boats charging 200 RMB a ride.
The sun sets, and the lights along the far shore come up. They’ve made the entire far mountain electronic, with a moving light show that’s been made to resemble the flowing misty overtones of an old scroll. But it’s not an old scroll; it’s a fucking mountain they’ve plugged in to draw the tourists. And I looked at it all through a long tunnel pulling further and further away. I didn’t have the words anymore. And I wanted to go home. I saw my Vancouver friends and would’ve given all the crappy Chinese lightshows of the year just to have another sing-along on the beach. I didn’t have the energy to get back. And I couldn’t stay.
And when I returned to Shanghai, the mystery was gone. The whole four weeks I’d been shaken, challenged, stressed to a pincer point, but always pulled along by my fascination. This contradicting, shell-shocked place; this is where I could spend some serious time. Shanghai came and it suddenly it felt like walking through a fun-house mirror with the crappy lightshow in the corner.
I went back to the Bund a second time, and it was as bright as ever, only one of the tower’s shows (originally falling snowflakes) had crapped out and gone to the desktop page of a windows OS. It stayed like that, the mouse button hovering over the powerpoint symbol, for the rest of the night. There’s something hilarious about that; there’s also something very sad. That it’s that impossible to reach someone to come and fix it, or that there’s so little shits given by this point that “well fuck it, who cares?”
And when I hop across to the Bund and see these towering structures close up, the LED fronts are beginning to fracture or fade, parts buzzing out or losing color. Ring road freeways link and loop them, and if you stare off into the western distance of Pudong, all you can see are the taillights of stalled, honking cars.
And what was I looking for in China? At the end of it all, I was looking for the next Japan: a China that was gonna save my soul. Enlighten and expand. Maybe there were glimmers of that. Maybe standing on the great wall or listening to the opera singer in Chengdu in the middle of moon cake making. In Shanghai I saw a city obsessed with money; money at all costs whatever the cost, no matter how you do it and who you displace.
And once I saw it there, I started seeing it everywhere else I’d been. Xi’an’s gutted city center. Bullettrains. High rises. Hundreds of migrants sleeping under bridges. This is what China’s all about. And the longer I spent there, trapped on my island, the more I wondered if any other city I’d been to is really so different— “they just have prettier faces, don’t they? China will grow its face soon enough right?” I start questioning everything I’d valued. I lost the answers to the questions I’d forgotten to answer when I was 17. When salvation was The City. And now, what?
The final day in China, I went to the Shanghai Museum (“the only legit museum in the country,” to paraphrase Lonely Planet). The lady made me test the water in my bottle, and surprise: it was vodka and sprite I’d forgotten from last night. So I’m an 11 AM tipsy getting up the stairs, and realize there’s nothing stopping me now from drinking the rest of the bottle as I go through these halls. Getting trashed on calligraphy and jade; losing myself in the paintscrolls of mountaintops as I lose my mind. I’m done with trying to draw through all the missing links. I don’t want China anymore.
Where do I go from China?
I’ve been asking it ever since. I’d been pulling towards it, silently, ever since Paris: Japan was supposed to be China’s jumping off point. And now I feel like a dart without a bullseye. Now I wonder where the world’s going. Because, however varied and quirky and challenging the rest of China is, Shanghai is the ideal. That’s not a place I want to be.
The alcohol wore off by the afternoon, and under the skyline gray and heavy amongst the clouds, I felt like I was drifting in tides—there was an old neighborhood over there, Lonely Planet said it’s good, and I just couldn’t rouse enough energy to care. I went to the Natural History museum, mostly to kill time and the last of my yuan, during the forty minutes before closing. In criss-crossing floors, there were dinosaurs mammoth and rock formations, but I couldn’t pull myself from the space one about the creation of the universe. And it was weirdly comforting being there. Feeling the tides of the universe, indifferent and somehow warm at the same time. Kind-of like the city, pulling you along, creating you, even when it doesn’t care.
Does this make sense?
I felt warm there. Connecting more to the electronic stars than anyone I’d met there. And when I slept in the airport that night for my Taipei flight, I felt empty and bleared and somehow fulfilled. This was the place I needed to be, however much it fucked me up. And thank God I was leaving: thank God this was the last line I was pushing through while increasingly stressed travellers yelled at their families. Thank God the line wasn’t so long (a mere 100 minutes) didn’t make me miss my flight the fuck outta here. Thank God these four weeks and the people I met and the billions I didn’t, the rush and squeeze and drain and highs—all I learned even when it, often, was all the least pleasant things to know. Thank God, you crazy dragon.
But, sitting on that plane out, where do I go from here?