By Alexandre Gobin
We’re having a drink near Jing’an temple, Xiao Yu and I. We’re not talking much. It’s bothering me, actually, that we don’t have anything to talk about just now. Xiao Yu, I know she’s okay with it. I know she’s content to be here, sipping her beer. She’s like a pet basking in the moment. In fact I secretly call her mon toutou, my pet. It’s not patronizing the way I think of it—it’s not patronizing, but that's not to say I'm going to tell her.
In the bar, three TV screens are hanging from the ceiling, and from where I’m sitting I can see all of them. One of the TVs is showing an old documentary about Ceausescu, with black-and-white footage of what I assume is Romania back in the 60s or the 70s. Another screen is showing a game of cricket, and on the last screen, the one above the counter, so far I’ve only seen ads for Pepsi or Tsing Dao beer. I’m looking at all three screens, their simultaneous images drowned in pop music from the bar’s loudspeakers and the sound of conversations. Then it hits me. The fact that I live in Shanghai. Once again, I’m struck by the earnest nonsense of this city.
For people in Romania, I imagine the mere mention of dictator Ceausescu is loaded with a lot of meaning. Not for me. I’m not Romanian, and in fact I don’t know anything about Ceausescu. I only remember seeing his face before in textbooks, I know he’s an important figure. But to see his face now, between a Pepsi ad and a game of cricket, makes him look different than in the textbooks. It makes him look… I don’t know, misplaced. Irrelevant. The way things look in Shanghai. Sometimes everything in this city feels misplaced and irrelevant. Things are loose, here. They don’t fit together. "They don’t fit together at all," I say to myself, as I grab a handful of spicy peanuts on the table.
I look at Xiao Yu, she’s checking her phone. Like almost everyone I know in Shanghai, she’s not Shanghainese. She’s from Henan. Her hometown is near Zhengzhou, but I can never remember the name of it. It used to be the capital of one of the dynasties, but today you can barely see it on the map. It’s not very hard to guess that Xiao Yu comes from a second-tier city, I think. Or third-tier city, or fourth-tier… Who knows? She doesn’t have a great sense of dress. Well, actually, sometimes she dresses very well. That depends. Every time I'm on my way to meet her at a bar, or somewhere in public, I always have this moment of apprehension. I’m always hoping that she won’t be wearing one of her lacy dresses, one of those with fake stones around the neck and fluffy layers of transparent fabric. Those remind me of the white embroidered tablecloth my grandmother likes to throw over the furniture in her house. I’ve never made any comments about her clothes. I’ve often wanted to, but I have the feeling that something would be lost if I did. It would make her self-conscious, I think, if I criticized the things that she likes; and maybe she would be less… I don’t want to say less pure, clearly the word invites sarcasm, but I don't know a more suited word. It's very unusual how gentle she is. Sometimes I look at her and I try to understand how she ever managed to grow into such a gentle human being. What I suspect is that she was told her whole life to be a good girl, and she never had the curiosity to be anything else. That can happen. I wish she didn’t wear the lacy dresses, but I can’t bring myself to tell her. I'm afraid I might end up trying to change her. Overall, I like her the way she is. Tonight she’s wearing jeans and a leather jacket, and she looks just fine.
Later we leave the bar, we take a walk down West Nanjing Road. Across the street, Jing’an temple is sparkling like a Vegas casino against a background of hotels and shopping malls. We walk another block; the Kerry Center in front of us is looming over shop windows of luxury brands and over a five-meter-high bronze sculpture of a melting clock, one of those by Dali. Then it hits me again. The same feeling, but this time I’m expecting it. I’m looking forward to it, in a way. I often come here, I’m familiar with the place, the Dali clock, the tall buildings, the glossy shop windows and the temple nearby. It's dawned on me before that none of that fits together. Especially the clock. And the temple. Now and again, you have to marvel at how inventively absurd this city looks. You have to marvel at the Bund, at night, with its splendid lightning, fierce like a neighborhood of ardent nouveaux riches competing with their Christmas decorations. With its commanding I ❤ SH soaring a hundred meters high… I mean, yes, I also think it’s pretty. Of course. But still. Or Xintiandi… Xintiandi is the ‘model’ version of a neighborhood, like those model apartments that are on display, and that anyone can visit. The real neighborhood must be somewhere close by, but you never get to see it. It’s not open to visitors. Every time I walk through Xintiandi, in the back of my mind I always have this idea that a prank is being pulled on me. It’s hard to take this city seriously. Shanghai is loose. Very loose. And because of that, sometimes it's life itself that feels like it's not holding together properly.
I want to tell Xiao Yu about this as we walk, but I don’t. Actually I think I've told her before. I try to avoid talking negatively about China too often with Xiao Yu, because I know it might sound personal. Generally I don’t know how to say anything negative about China to a Chinese person without making it sound personal.
Paris is different. Although I don’t really know Paris, I should say. I’ve been there many times, but I never stayed long, and in truth it's a city where I’ve always felt somehow like a foreigner. It doesn’t look anything like my hometown, in Brittany. But unlike Shanghai, it’s hard not to take Paris seriously. Paris has been curated like an art history museum, and when you walk the streets, it almost feels like you should buy a ticket somewhere. In Paris, I don’t think there would ever be a massive shopping mall and a Dali clock anywhere near Notre-Dame. It wouldn’t fit in. It wouldn’t go with the storyline. Paris unfolds like a story. Like an anthology. People say it’s a romantic city, but it’s supposed to look that way. It’s built after a solid romantic plot. I can’t say I like Paris, really. Or rather I do like certain things about Paris, but I never felt like I would want to stay there for too long. It’s like the city compels me, it sets the mood for me. I can feel the dead weight of its monumental past bearing down on me, I’m not used to that at all. To live in Paris is demanding. Everything is already in place and you need to squeeze yourself in. Back home, in Brittany, I don’t need to squeeze anything. I can look at the sea, it doesn’t compel me. It makes no demand. The sea doesn't know any stories other than those you want to be told.
Now the melting clock is behind us, and we’re taking a taxi home. It’s not too hot anymore at night, it’s comfortable. We’re floating down a river of lights. The funny thing is, deep inside I know I like the clock. I like the slick and shiny temple surrounded by fancy hotels, and I like the whole district, and the whole city. Bad taste and all. Do I like Xintiandi? Maybe I do, in a guilty way. I think I genuinely love Shanghai—I genuinely ❤ SH, I’m afraid.
"Shanghai is such a free city…" Here again is something I said to Xiao Yu before. Something I've said so many times that I’m starting to sound stupid as I keep saying it. Such a free city... Nothing really matters here. Or is it what we call freedom? Ceausescu doesn’t matter. Dali doesn’t matter. Temples don’t matter. Cricket, obviously, doesn’t matter. Scraps of foreign culture, fragments of stories from here and there. Random bits and pieces rising to impressive heights. Spectacular Shanghai. This city doesn’t feed you any transcendence, and for almost as long as I’ve been living here, I’ve been wondering: is this bad, or is it liberating? I feel I might get old before I can figure that out.
Now, here is another question: suppose that two people grew up on a desert island, could they ever fall in love with each other? I don't think it would be possible. I think it wouldn’t happen in a thousand years. Love is a cultural refinement, you have to tell yourself a convincing story if you’re going to love someone. Only culture provides that story for you. Culture provides the plot.
I’m enjoying the ride home in the taxi. We’re a bit drunk, Xiao Yu is resting her head on my lap. We’re cosy. I’m stroking her hair. Taxis are romantic, they incite intimacy. Sometimes the driver listens to shitty music and it ruins the mood, but tonight there’s no music. Only the hum of the engine to cushion the traffic noise.
I remember one day, I watched a political show on French TV; one commentator was talking about urban modernity. I remember he was making a point that big cities were increasingly cut-off from the countryside. Big cities nowadays were like "worlds of their own", like self-relevant bubbles plugged into the global economy. "Paris, London, they’re leaving their country behind," the commentator was saying. Big cities are leaving. I picture Shanghai leaving the Earth, now, like a spaceship. A really shiny spaceship. It’s going away. I imagine that Xiao Yu and I are traveling with it, and we’re feeling nervous. "It’s gonna be alright," I say, but I don’t know. It’s exciting though, one way or another we’re going to be free. We’re going into outer space, where nothing matters anymore. She looks at me, I can see a hint of surprise in her eyes. Already we don’t remember exactly why we’re holding hands.
Alexandre Gobin, Visual Editor, has lived in China for four years. He is the chief editor of HuArts, an online magazine focused on Chinese contemporary art. He is currently helping to write a comic book about one of the few French missionaries who lived in early-20th century Sichuan.