French is, to put it mildly, not a fan of the current forces of skyward expansion and plowing under of the past. Still, as we walk around, he allows that there’s much to like about his adopted home. As long as you know where and how to look.
“That’s the Russian Embassy,” he says. “When I first got here, the ambassador used to put his washing line out and you’d see Madame Ambassador’s massive Soviet knickers, flapping like flags, shocking the tourists on the Bund.”
For him, he says, it remains “a perfect city because it’s a perfect wandering city. You tell people, ‘Turn left, turn right, get lost up an alley, you’ll find something.’”
Shanghai sometimes feels like an overproduced musical, the kind with an exclamation point at the end of the title, with waterworks and choreographed flying machines and the latest pyrotechnics. A mythic city, caught between being and becoming. But I like the quieter numbers. The unrehearsed moments when the city just is: a morning walk down Jianguo Road, in the French Concession, where neighbors are shopping for food for the day’s cooking, a yellow birdcage hangs from a tree, and a man is disemboweling a sofa in the middle of the street. One day, bored with the foot traffic on the Bund, I turn onto Hankou Road and walk a block and a half down a quiet street. I stop in a convenience store with a pink sign that says buddies and fall into a lengthy conversation with a spry old man that consists of one word: eggs. I’d gone in for an ice cream bar (I was hooked by then) and innocently asked him about the slow cooker full of cracked tea eggs by the register. He asks me to write down the English word and then we repeat it to each other 20 times. Eggs, eggs, eggs. A quiet bit of sweet, strange human connection, just off the main tourist thoroughfare. On my last afternoon in the city, I wander the streets around Guangxi Road, another centrally located block with a lot of food stalls. I’m nosily peeking into the cramped back lanes that lead off these already small roads when a white-capped porter from the Peninsula appears. For a minute the two abstractions of the city overlap and I am struck by the sight of this man in a crisp uniform far from his post. I follow him, wondering if I can catch up with him and ask about life on this side of Shanghai. There is too much space between us. In a moment he is gone, lost in the crowd.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.