Memory Palace

By Karen Kao

The walls of my memory palace are heavy and thick, the only solid thing in this place. The floor can suddenly drop away to reveal a rickety staircase I’ve never used before. Or the door that once opened into my childhood bedroom is transformed into an abattoir. My palace is as treacherous as memory itself.  

The oldest parts were built when I was still a girl, my stubby legs swinging impatiently at the dinner table. I wanted to be away, howling like the other banshee children who lived on our street. Instead, I was trapped inside with my father’s memories as he told one story after the other of Old Shanghai.

I carried them from the dinner table, tight in my two small fists. I didn’t let go until my memory palace had opened itself to me. Then I released his stories like soil over a freshly covered grave.

For many years, I forgot about those memories and my memory palace. But they didn’t forget me. My memories grew up, moved out, got married, came home to die. They multiplied in ways that defy science.

Now my memory palace has a study, a solarium and, in the back, tin shacks where the servants sleep. Some days, the garden is nothing more than a concrete slab where a ginger plant struggles to survive. Other days, it runs all the way to the creek where I hear the pleasure boats slap-slapping among the reeds. These changes no longer frighten me. It is the nature of a memory palace to surprise.

From an open window upstairs, I can see the Garden Bridge, the Bund and the mouth of the sea. I like the water best in the morning when the sea is fresh and full of promise. As the day wanes, the water grows sullen. Mudflats appear and with them the flies, the dead fish and the scuttling crabs.

All of Shanghai lies at my feet: the whores and the wars, the barbarians and revolution. This memory palace is my gateway into 20th century China, the fountain from which all inspiration flows for my writing about Old Shanghai.  

Fruit trees line the garden of my memory palace: pomegranate, kumquat and peach. Their roots threaten the foundation of the palace itself, buckling the concrete of time and place. Here on Avenue Haig, the yin-yang banner flies high in the wind so that guests can find our house. The British Army up Jessfield Road sends out its marching band to practice every Wednesday afternoon. A stout bamboo fence protects our tender vegetables from the riffraff that hide in the Badlands. For a time, this is all the world my father knows. 

He grows up. He learns to ride a bicycle and to taste the whiff of freedom that lingers on the breeze. He rides all the way to the Bund where he gets stuck in the tram rails on Bubbling Well Road. The bicycle is crushed and he is punished, confined once more to the garden where he sees his first Japanese soldier flying overhead. My father waves and the pilot waves back.

War comes. My father and his siblings leave Shanghai. Only my grandparents stay behind. They wait it out in a small nook of my memory palace. The rest of the house is closed, the furniture sheeted, quiet under the dust. All the servants are gone but for one old amah who cooks for my grandparents.

In the years between war and revolution, the family is on the move. My father and his brothers join the army. His sister tries to study in Chengdu while bomb blasts shiver the windows. After the war, briefly, they reunite in the house on Avenue Haig. Then revolution comes, the family scatters and Avenue Haig becomes Huashan Lu.

There are many rooms in my memory palace I have yet to enter, ones that my own imagination has built while I sleep. I listen at keyholes to the sounds of families chatting, squabbling, struggling to survive in the new order. Every now and again a door swings open and out comes a fresh-faced girl. She's got a pail in one hand. In her haste to draw water from the communal tap downstairs, she leaves the door ajar. Inside the room, I see an old granny plucking a duck for the honored guests coming for dinner that night.

Some parts of my memory palace I'd rather not visit. Places of execution or terror. The telephone in the hallway next to my grandfather's study rings only with bad news.

Every time I visit Shanghai, a new door opens. Our house is a call center for a taxi company. The dispatchers push together tables to form a pool of information. They wear white short-sleeved shirts and high-waisted grey pants. They complain about the lack of business.

On my last visit, I find my father's house buried under concrete, glass and steel. Above it rises a fancy residential complex. Instead of vegetables, the garden now sprouts skyscrapers. A multilane highway roars overhead, blocking out all sound of a marching band.

My father marvels at the size of it all. The road he remembers as a vast sea of traffic is nothing more than a two lane street. The landmarks of his childhood have disappeared. Distance grows elastic and time distorts his memory. He says, I miss the smell of opium.

Opium addicts and back street whores live in my memory palace. Good soldiers and bad ones patrol its grounds. There's a one-armed cook, a black bouncer named Beauregard and two American stowaways hidden in the attic.

Still more people move into my memory palace every day. Like Shanghai, my population ebbs and flows with the stream of migrants who come to taste Shanghai's wares. The ay stay for a lifetime or leave on the next tide. We stand together at water's edge and watch the sea go home.

Karen Kao is a writer of Shanghai Noir. Her debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, is the first in a set of four interlocking novels to be called The Shanghai Quartet. You can read more about Karen and her work at