The Illusionary City That Belongs to the World
By MIAN MIAN
Spectacular supermarkets began to appear in Shanghai in the mid-1980s. They brought excitement and joy to my otherwise bland existence as a teenage girl. Soon afterward, many wondrous shops, restaurants and nightclubs sprang up at a dazzling speed right in front of my eyes. My memory of the early 1990s was that if I shut myself in for a month, the city would change beyond recognition. Everyone in the city has been reshaped in this metamorphosis. A window is opening, allowing us a view of the sea. Yet we remain sitting on the inside.
Shanghai is the safest city in China after dark. Long gone is the desperation of 1930s Shanghai. But the lingering magic holds its seductive power. Many men become obsessed with "Shanghai roses" even before they set foot in the city, held fast by the imaginary fragrance of the flowers and their enchantingly suggestive intimacy. Once here, these men immediately start sniffing around for the roses. Their search has a major impact on Shanghai nightlife.
I receive a phone call, informing me of a party hosted by a French television station at the restaurant Park 97. I can easily imagine, without leaving home, the kinds of people I will meet, what they will be wearing, what they will say to me. I even know who will stand in what position and the exact angle formed between their collars and necks. Everyone will greet me with, "How are you?" And it seems I really can't bring myself to say, "I feel terrible. My house caught fire, I was again not paid for my writings, and I lost a tooth but have no money to get a new one." Like all big cities, Shanghai is both charming and hollow. Too many kisses are wasted in this city. I have a drawer full of stories about nights in Shanghai. Which is the most splendid? None. I think I know where I got lost.
Shanghai is feminine, like its roses: narcissistic, time-sensitive, snobbish, extremely temperamental, cold and distancing. Shanghai roses are particularly good at suppressing their yearning for orgasm. They use their sex and gender as a weapon. This is a pretentious city, and expertise in pretentiousness is a necessity for survival in the city's nights.
All kinds of people, languages and dialects permeate the city. Shanghai belongs to the world. Tina Liu, a lovely Chinese-American who works at the Grand Hyatt, has traveled the globe but chosen to settle down in Shanghai. She is convinced it will become the coolest place on earth. Andy Hall, a British designer, is a lost soul who thinks. His favorite person in all Shanghai is a girl who washes his hair in the salon, because for the few lousy dollars she always runs her fingers ever so gently over his head. Miwa is a Japanese beauty working in Shanghai as a model, a make-up artist and an agent. She says she loves Shanghai because Shanghai is her lover. Her ecstasy and agony are rooted in her romance with the city. Kenny from Hong Kong, owner of the Yinyang Club, introduced club culture to Shanghai a few years ago. He never tires of repeating the same line, "Coffee, tea or me?" to those lingering customers who are reluctant to go home on Sunday mornings. Shanghai, in the local dialect, is fedaga, which means "nothing is connected to anything." Christopher Lee, the pride of Chinese DJs and the epitome of Chinese dance-music culture, stubbornly devotes his passion to Shanghai, bringing pitches of sensation to us night after night. In his eyes, Shanghai people are born with an amazing ability to absorb new things. And he is absolutely convinced that at the proper time, Shanghai will regain its rightful place, surpassing Hong Kong.
My rock hero Cui Jian once said, "Shanghai makes me realize what Beijing will look like two years from now. But I am clueless as to what Shanghai will turn out to be in two years' time, totally clueless."
If you go out at night, you can always find at some meaningful party a crystal-eyed, reticent Swiss named Lorenz Helbling. He came to Shanghai four years ago and started a gallery called ShanghArt. He introduced a new group of artists like Zhou Tiehai and Ding Yi, who possess the unique temperament of Shanghainese artists: sensitive, radical, illusionary, subtle. Yet their styles vary, as do the issues they address. Lorenz believes that many meaningful things are happening, yet they are still not very obvious. It takes time. He also believes that Shanghai artists are performing on the world stage.
In contrast to Park 97, where concept reigns in absolute supremacy, in contrast to the lovely Shanghai Bund and to the zealous enthusiasm of Beijing, Shanghai eyes reflect some special images.
Wang Wanping, 21, a scrawny biscuit of a girl, plucks her heavy electric guitar in a moldy air-raid shelter, trying to find the right touch by repeatedly playing Joy Division songs. Plus Wang, a 24-year-old architect, is planning a joint exhibition of works by architects and artists. He is frequently seen at opening ceremonies of public and private art exhibitions. He stubbornly sticks to his habit of drawing architectural blueprints that will never be realized. He dreams that, by the time he turns 60, he will be a world-class master of architecture who bridges the worlds of Internet technology and architectural art.
Novelist He Weiyan, 21, believes that the ground people stand on in Shanghai is made of plastic. She thinks that her immediate environment will make her grow quickly and that she will find it increasingly easy to move rocky burdens from her heart to her head.
Yang Fan, a 26-year-old Internet whiz, two years ago launched one of Shanghai's first new-media web-design companies, Shengquan Design. Some years from now, he will construct and manage an Internet medium that belongs to all of us.
And in the unprecedented, coolest Eclipse Party, organized by Taiwan's Jack Tseng, three dance pits at the China Town Club simultaneously play house music, techno and trance. The trio of DJs--Bobby, Benny and Nicole--are all 20-year-old children of Shanghai.
These people symbolize the future of Shanghai. They are Shanghai's treasure babies, who are growing up along with the supermarkets in the city. They take their steps forward in secret. They are fascinated by Western music technology, not because it originates in the West, but because they believe they are pioneers of mankind. But even with the Internet, it's a problem constantly obtaining new information. They can't casually cruise the record shops, as their Western counterparts do, chewing gum while picking up their favorite albums. Shanghai babies are forced to come up with peculiar methods in order to lay their hands on desired new stuff. And they find ways. Some day when these Shanghai babies are free to go out in the world, they will be the coolest the world has ever seen.
I too am a Shanghai baby. I dive deep into the city as a writer and a staunch celebrant of party culture. My environment, filled with challenges, is my teacher. Living in Shanghai, it is very difficult not to feel lonely, and that makes it possible for me to keep my character intact. Living in Shanghai, it is easy to forget oneself, which helps me maintain my strength. I love all the streets in this city because their tender curving lines suggest loving emotions. But I am only too familiar with the city's potential for cruelty. I enjoy being a Shanghai girl because all the pleasures and pains it brings me are equally special.
A long tunnel runs under Shanghai, from the northeast to the southwest, transporting people across the city every day. Some of them radiate with exuberance, others seem lost and still others have eyes that shine with innocence. They are from outside Shanghai. Their lips crack from the dry, excessive heat in the subway tunnel. They do not have lip balm, but it doesn't matter. Together we will witness the last ray of the dawning sun this century.
The moonlight outside my window is just like a baby's face. The moon is forever over Shanghai. It is Shanghai's eyes.
Mian Mian, a Shanghai writer and rock-show promoter, is the author of short-story collection La, La, La and the forthcoming novel Candy
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