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June 22, 2010 / Katie

I Left My Heart in Shanghai

I knew San Francisco long before I ever met New York, but for the past week I’ve been hanging out in SF, seeing it as if for the first time. Sure, I’ve got some opinions about SF’s Chinatown, but I won’t get into those just yet.

You may be wondering now, why I’m in San Francisco if it’s in Shanghai that I’ve left my heart? I took a stroll through the Asian Art Museum today, which is hosting a year-long celebration of that city on the sea, along with its Shanghai exhibition.

Moonlight over Huangpu River by Yuan Xiutang

Looking through the exhibition pieces–line drawings of Chinese courtesans dressed in Victorian costumes from the 1880s, oil painting landscapes of Fuxing Park, Nanjing Road, and the Bund, silk qipaos (cheongsams) from the 1930s, advertisements depicting the Modern Chinese Woman, black and white photographs of city architecture, Chinese art deco furniture, and the list goes on and on–I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia for my good ol’ Shanghai days (and nights).

Shanghai has a fascinating history, long intertwined with foreign and modern influences, even a bit of Communist history to boast (the city was the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which Mao Zedong himself attended). The general depiction of Shanghai as a den of sin and unchecked hedonism, though greatly exaggerated and even idealized, is still mostly accurate. I suppose you could say Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s was like a real life Mos Eisley, or in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

I have a curious attachment to this city, a willing enchantment of sorts. I spent two summers living there alone; one as an “intern” at a Chinese newspaper (新民晚报) following reporters around, the other doing research on Shanghai shopping malls and the rise of consumerism.

Evening Glow on the Huangpu River by Shen Roujian

But it was what I did outside of these legitimate occupations that cemented my connection to the city. There is nothing quite like sipping a cocktail from a rooftop bar on the Bund while gazing out at the sparkling promise of Pudong, the Pearl Tower at its forefront, and knowing that later I will end up at a 24-hour breakfast joint where I can eat greasy 粽子 (zòngzi) and 油条 (yóu tiáo) to my heart’s content. I will walk home through the dusty streets of the French concession, taking it all in: shirtless workers sleeping on the sidewalk, red government propaganda signs asking citizens not to spit, taxi drivers searching aimlessly for a lone 3 AM customer, laundry hanging out to dry in the humid night air. I might buy a red bean popsicle for 1 kuai and eat as I walk, the sticky juice dripping down my hand, then catching on my knee.

Something is latent in the air there. I always have the feeling that anything can happen in Shanghai. It’s a place of change, a city that can reinvent itself overnight. And yet, some things remain improbably the same. It’s been nearly three years since I was last there, and I fear that it will have changed beyond recognition by the time I get a chance to go back. But somehow I also know that Shanghai will always be there, waiting for me to return to her, when I’m in need, when I’m ready to metamorphose into my next self.

Perhaps Poppy in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture (1941) described Shanghai best:

I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity, like a half remembered dream. Anything could happen here, any moment.

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