Falling City

by Nina Powles

  Abandoned, John Burns

Abandoned, John Burns

1. Eileen Chang was born in 1920 in a part of Shanghai then known as the Shanghai International Settlement. In her early twenties, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, she began publishing shortstories, novellas and essays in newspapers and magazines and soon rose to fame. Her Chinese name, 张爱玲 (Zhang Ailing) was given to her by her mother after her English name; “Ailing” is a direct transliteration of “Eileen” into Mandarin. The two characters of “Ailing”, 爱玲, mean “love” and “tinkling jade.”

2. She lived in a seven-storey apartment building, one of many art deco style buildings in the centre of Shanghai that still survive from an era when the city was known as the Paris of the East. The building stands at 195 Changde Lu, at the intersection with Nanjing Xi Lu. I must have walked past it a hundred times unknowingly, until one day I passed just close enough to notice the plaque by the door.

3.It was the beginning of spring, shortly after I returned to Shanghai to learn Chinese and to write. It had been ten years since I lived there as a teenager, when my family moved to the city for my mother’s new job. I was obsessed with retracing my steps through the district where I lived for three years when I was young - the same as Chang’s - making note of what changed and what hadn’t. I sought out the exact places where I had stood ten years earlier. I let bright waves of nostalgia wash over me. I could see them coming from a distance.

4.I knew I needed to stop doing this or else something might break. I knew I needed to stop; parts of the city were becoming haunted.

5. Things that changed: the crossings have lights now, the American diner has been pulled down, yellow flowers have been planted in the middle of the road. Things that haven’t changed: the hotel where my parents and I used to get yum cha on Sundays, plane trees wrapped in purple stars that light up at dusk. My last memory of you: after you hugged me goodbye I walked away and stood in their glow, waiting for the cars to stop.

6. In Chang’s stories set in Shanghai, the moon reappears. All within a few pages of the short story “The Golden Cangue,” the moon is “high and full like a white sun,” “that abnormal moon that made one’s body hairs stand on end all over.” She is right: in Shanghai the moon is abnormal. Walking back to my dorm room one night late that spring, I look up and the color of the surface of the moon makes my breath catch in my throat. I try to take a picture with my phone but it never comes out, just a pale blur against dark purple. The haze turns everything into the softest blur. Some nights it has the quality of a sunken dreamworld seen through pink stained glass, like everything around me could collapse at the slightest touch. Light, sound. The air that separates you and me.

7. When I came back to Shanghai that spring and started seeing you again, you who I hadn’t seen in ten years, for a while my map of the city consisted of only places you showed me. The tiny ramen shop on Changle Lu, the grimy underground club full of ultraviolet light on Wulumuqi Lu, the hotpot restaurant on Donghu Lu where I waited outside while you went in to return a watch your ex had left at your apartment. I never avoid any of these places lately, but when I walk past them I always speed up a little, especially on summer nights, when the risk of dreams pouring in is high.

8. It is difficult to know what Chang was like. What I guess from reading her stories is that she understood certain things that I’m also beginning to understand, like the difficulty of telling the difference between a real person and the dream version of them in your mind, and how the Shanghai sky contains many different colors at once. “At the horizon the morning colors were a layer of green, a layer of yellow, and a layer of red like a watermelon cut open.” But when reading a work in translation, even when translated by the author herself, it’s as if you’re looking at it from a distance or through a thick pane of glass. You can only stand outside on the street and peer into rooms where her ghost has been.

9. After you left I was unable to write for weeks, then months. I could only shut my eyes and listen and memorise the shape of the city through sound, through touch. I could only write down scraps in notebooks, single words and textures, which is like trying to mouth the words but no sound comes out, like writing a coherent story out of something that is not coherent at all. I walked alone through the city at night, suffused in the fog. I kept thinking: I could reach out and touch it but I’m not sure it is real. I could reach out and touch you but I’m not sure you are real.

10. The women in Chang’s stories are rarely likeable. They are selfish, bored, cruel, petty, trapped in stuffy apartments and unhappy marriages. Shanghai is an easy place to feel trapped, with the spring rain that pours for days and the summer humidity that suffocates and saps energy. They call it mèn (闷), a colloquial word for humid that can also mean bored, depressed or tightly sealed. The character is made up of a heart心 inside a door 门.

11. One night in August my pre-paid electricity card ran out at 3a.m., shutting off my air conditioning. I checked my phone for messages from you even though I hadn’t heard from you in weeks. I got out of bed and took off my t-shirt and lay on the tiled floor, my damp hair fanned out above my head, my fingers spread out, not touching any part of my body. Every few minutes I shifted onto a cooler part of the floor that my skin had not yet made contact with. I drifted in and out of sleep for hours. I thought of the women in Chang’s 1940s Shanghai, their tightly curled hair frizzing in the heat, creating a halo of light around their heads. They sit by the window in dark bedrooms and hotel rooms, awake while everyone else sleeps. They wear silk cheongsams and cotton slippers with flowers embroidered on the toes, the moon in the sky like a melon cut open.

12. City of dimly lit windows and half-open doors. City of smoke moving through still air. City of trapped hearts.

13. Map of Haunted Places in Shanghai. I clicked the link. There’s a map where you can zoom in on little red stars that mark locations in and around the Former French Concession and International Settlement. Among them is the Paramount Ballroom, where a young woman was shot and killed on the dancefloor in 1941. It’s likely that Chang frequented the Paramount; it was the center of Shanghai’s nightlife in the 1930s and 40s. The building still stands today on Yuyuan Lu in Jing’an district. People claim to have seen the shadow of a young woman in the fourth floor ballroom, dancing in slow circles by herself.

14. Through deepening autumn we spoke less and less. I still sometimes hoped to see your face in the street or in the subway station, especially in the leafy streets of the French Concession. At the beginning of winter, when you finally left the city for a new job somewhere else, I expected to feel sad that the possibility of bumping into you could no longer exist. Instead, after a while the outlines of the trees seemed to sharpen around me like a fog lifting. You wanted little to do with Shanghai anymore, and likewise Shanghai wanted little to do with you. The city moved on.

15. Chang has been called a “New Woman” by literary critics and historians. The term “New Woman” (新女性) was popularised in the late 1910s by radical intellectuals such as Lu Xun, who saw the inferior status of women in China as a symbol of China’s lack of progress. The New Woman of their dreams was well educated, financially independent, and free-spirited. Chang herself may well fall under this label, but most of the women she writes about do not. In her novella Love in a Fallen City, Liusu tells her husband: “If you were killed, my story would be over. If I were killed, you’d still have a lot of story left.”

16. The silent film New Women (1935), directed by Cai Cusheng, is about a young single mother who dreams of becoming a writer. Her manuscript gets accepted for publication, but when her daughter falls ill she becomes a prostitute in order to survive. Eventually she commits suicide. Shanghai starlet Ruan Lingyu, who played the main role, died from an overdose of sleeping pills on March 8, 1935 at the age of twenty-four, one month after the premiere of New Women. 300,000 people marched in her funeral procession along the streets of Shanghai. It is said that during the procession several women committed suicide in the street.

17. “Liusu found herself thinking that in a city of such hyperboles, even a sprained ankle would hurt more than it did in other places. Her heart began to pound.” (Love in a Fallen City)

18. The New Zealand writer Robin Hyde was twenty-seven when she visited Shanghai in 1938, a year after the city surrendered to Japanese forces. In her travel memoir Dragon Rampant, she writes of visiting refugee camps, going to a Chinese opera, and eating “what must be the best chocolate cake in the world” at a bakery in the French Concession. I like to think that perhaps Robin Hyde and Eileen Chang crossed paths sometime in 1938. Browsing in the same bookshop, smoking in a corner of the same dance hall, or crossing the same street somewhere near Nanjing Xi Lu. Their eyes meet for a passing moment.

19.When she was in Shanghai, Hyde dreamed of being back home: “Almost every night, lying in the padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses were a fairy-tale.” When I myself returned to New Zealand for a few weeks in the winter, I had been away studying in Shanghai for a year. Those first few nights back in my old bed, in my old room, I didn’t dream of you once. I dreamt of plane trees and rain-soaked streets and a night sky that is never dark.

20. In the preface to her collection of short stories Romances, Chang writes: “Our entire civilization—with all its magnificence, and its insignificance—will someday belong to the past. If the word I use most often is desolate it’s because I feel, in the back of my mind, this staggering threat.”

21. The last time I saw you, we were standing on the corner of Nanjing Xi Lu. Over your shoulder I could see the apartment building where she lived when she was the same age I am now. I walked away when I couldn’t stand being near you any longer, knowing that if you touched me again I might burn up in the cold air or worse, I might do something reckless like kiss you in the waning daylight. I never told you much about me but if you had asked, if you had stopped talking to listen, I would have said: my dreams take place in the rainy season.

22. I can never really show you my map of Shanghai, not because it’s a secret but because it’s huge and sprawling and only belongs to me now. It includes the pagoda in the corner of Fuxing Park where an old man plays the saxophone in the afternoon, the street vendor who makes the best scallion oil noodles, the neon pink light installation that I found once on the side of a building on Xiangyang Lu and never found again, and the bookshop café on Daxue Lu where I go to write. There, I pay 10 yuan to send a postcard to my future self. They put it in a box to be posted months and years and decades from now.

23. “I’m looking for the first day of spring in the lunar calendar,” says Shijun in Chang’s novel Half a Lifelong Romance. He says this while standing in a room with the woman with whom he is beginning to fall in love, one rainy afternoon in Shanghai. Shijun flicks through the calendar hanging on the wall, an old fashioned Chinese lunar calendar with one page for each day. There is one just like it on the wall of the dumpling shop where I eat lunch every day. Each page is printed in bright green ink with a pattern of flowers and fruits along the edges. Each page is torn off and thrown away when the day is done. Weeks’ worth of torn pages lie crumpled on the floor under the calendar. On my way out I pick up one, fold it, and put it in my pocket.

24. March 1st, 2017. The postcard is one of those you can get in any souvenir shop. It’s an old black-and white photo of a young woman with shiny dark hair pinned back in victory curls. She could be a movie star, a pin-up girl, the girl on cigarette packets and posters advertising stockings and perfume and underwear, the girl they would have called “New Woman,” still a symbol of Shanghai. She is not smiling but looking directly into my eyes like she can read my mind. Her lips turn upwards slightly, almost a knowing smirk. I sit down at one of the tables in the café and begin to write. It is the first day of spring.


Nina Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and now lives in London. Her debut poetry collection, Luminescent, was published by Seraph Press in 2017. Her essays and poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Best New Zealand Poems, and Hotel. She is the 2018 winner of the Jane Martin Poetry Prize.

John Burns works with schools on scaling innovation and educational reform. He spends his spare time on rooftops around Shenzhen, photographing the city.