It is, conservatively, a thousand degrees in the shade of Spencer Dodington’s ten-gallon cowboy hat. So, while I’m enjoying this tall Texan expat’s learned discourse on the cross-cultural stylings of Chinese Deco architecture in 1930’s Shanghai, it’s frankly a relief when the subject turns to ice cream.
Dodington and I are standing in the empty streetscape of what will soon become a bustling complex called Rockbund: future home to boutique hotels, status-confirming condos, the kind of shops with guards in natty suits—all the nice stuff that would justify expensively gutting and reappointing a city block of handsome, historically significant buildings at the edge of the Bund. We’re a minute’s walk from Shanghai’s storied embankment and prime tourist prowl. For now, it’s quiet at Rockbund, its buildings’ well-scrubbed shells awaiting their retail reincarnation. Save for a man power-buffing the paving stones and a few genteel ladies looking lost and melting under their parasols, we’ve got Shanghai’s next great neighborhood to ourselves.
Dodington went to architecture school here but dropped out when he realized, as he puts it, “they were training students to modernize China and what I loved were the old buildings that were in the way.” Now he makes a living restoring apartments for Chinese and foreign clients in those very buildings, predominantly in the gracious Deco apartment blocks and traditional lane houses of the French Concession. He also takes guests along on meandering walks, talking architecture and history, looking for fragments of the old romantic city in the torrent of the new.
Shanghai is a city layered in symbols, shifting signs, mixed metaphors. The thing is, it can all be a little overwhelming. The sheer physical clutter of the place, its overlapping histories and real-time reinventions, conspire to make it unusually hard to get casually acquainted with. It helps to get to know seasoned observers who can separate the strata of urban archaeology.
Few of Shanghai’s expats cut quite as distinctive a figure as Dodington, six-foot-two in cargo shorts and walking shoes, looking a bit like Curious George’s Man with the Yellow Hat and barking now into his mobile phone in what I’m told is the best Shanghainese dialect spoken by a foreigner in the city. That I’m told this by Dodington himself in no way diminishes that fact. This is confirmed for me by the open-mouthed gape of the kid in the corner store where we go to buy our ice cream when the heat becomes too much. The boy and his mother praise Dodington’s small talk. They want to know, without putting it quite this way, how someone who stands out so much fits in so well. He says something to leave them laughing and we’re back in the sweltering street with our frozen treats (a sweet green-pea ice pop for me, a raisin-and-milk confection for him).
Today I’ve asked Dodington to take me around town not just to show off the buildings he loves or to translate our ice cream orders but to help interpret the city itself. Shanghai is a place of competing myths, kaleidoscopic dreams: a marshy backwater turned into a thriving metropolis, opened up by the Brits to sell opium to the Chinese, carved into international trading concessions, a busy port, a not-quite-colonial city where you didn’t need papers and the bankers and thieves and adventurers and refugees of the world came and everything went. Then the war and foreign flight. In 1949 the city was reshaped by the competing dreams of the People’s Republic liberation and later the nightmares of the Cultural Revolution. In the 90’s, the money and foreigners and building cranes abruptly returned as state planners aggressively pursued a new dream of a different kind of international city, an audacious showpiece of Chinese economic might.
“We Americans tend to think of China in terms of walls and tombs and dynasties,” Dodington says. “Shanghai doesn’t have any of that. As an international city, it’s really only about 168 years old. In China, that’s nothing.”