I was in Shanghai last week – a business-trip tag-along with my Bride. My first trip to China…actually, my first trip to Asia. Aside from the expected culture shock of tremendous urban energy, undecipherable Chinese characters, mystery buffet items and impenetrable smog, it was a thought-provoking, romantic journey. And by “romantic,” I don’t mean the usual lovey-dovey connotation; the romance of this trip was in walking the streets of Shanghai, surrounded by the imperial monuments of Western hubris, expressed in Art Deco architecture. Think of sepia-toned photos of young adventurers – male and female – out to conquer the Far East; picture grand hotels with crystal chandeliers in the lobby, peopled with poets, hacks, opium kings, businessmen, professors, near-sighted Chinese detectives.
Shanghai is the collision of 21st century electronics, the world’s most burgeoning economy, a shady-and-brutal past and ossified communism. It is the city of yesterday; it is the city of tomorrow.
I did my best to avoid the typical ex-pat hangouts, preferring to wander just outside the French Concession, the area partitioned by the European powers in the late 19th century that was reserved for France’s interests; it’s know as Xintiandi today. A cacophony of colors, motor scooters, food vendors, street markets and cut-rate shops of every stripe, Xintiandi is the focal point for New Capitalism, Red China-style. It assaults your senses with odd sights (imagine a shop that sells nothing but disposable diapers, for all ages!), geriatrics playing mahjong on impromptu tables set up on the sidewalk, traffic moving in every direction at once (with little regard for traffic lights or lanes or speed limits or rights of way), ubiquitous bicycles, scooters, three-wheeled trucks, big black Mercedes sedans…even the odd caterpillar-treaded back hoe trundling down the pavement. It’s all happening in Shanghai, and it’s happening all at once.
I saw him just out of the corner of my eye – a truly dashing figure (seriously, how many times can you say in today’s world that someone is actually “dashing?”) flashing by on an olive drab sidecar hack, looking to be a repro BMW of WWII vintage. Slicing through traffic, heralded by long dark hair, trimly built in a tailored leather aviator jacket, Ray-Bans, jeans – he looked like he just rolled off the back lot of an Indiana Jones movie. He was lost in traffic before I even thought to shoot his picture, but his image is burned into my head. Youth as romantic pursuit. Out to conquer the Far East. Drinking absinthe in hotel bars, surrounded by bored ex-pat wives, daughters and Chinese bartenders. Bargaining for a piece of the action, any action. Old Shanghai as Wild West – updated, but not sanitized, for the Chinese Century.
I’ve written here before of a certain “letting go” as one gets to retirement age. It’s okay to let kids the age of my grandchildren kick my butt on the mountain bike trail; it’s now acceptable to be “cute” instead of “hot;” it’s okay to look in the mirror and see puffy eyes and laugh lines placed there by a blessed life.
But I have to tell you, I felt a tinge of jealously watching that young man motoring through the first day of Chinese winter with the wind in his hair and the world at his feet.
Shanghai is that kind of place.
All things are possible, time stands still, romance is the air you breathe. For me, it’s a reminder of my own Shanghai – that hubris, that optimism and exuberance of youth, during which you never doubt yourself, tomorrow is full of promise and you’ll never grow old. But it’s a healthy reminder…
Packing for the return flight to “normal” here in Decatur, I decided to fill my metaphorical leather Gladstone with a little residual romance. Having had one run at youthful idealism, this time around my adventures will be more considered and more focused.
So if you see a dashing figure roaring down Ponce on a mighty Vespa, you’ll get a sepia-toned idea of what it means to get Shanghai’d in Shanghai.