The car leather smelled like it’s been under the sun for ages. The taxi driver managed to make me feel so unsafe in a VW Golf I wasn’t sure to be afraid or impressed – he switched lanes for no reason and the giant crack on his phone screen was screaming at me. The radio was playing a Cantonese song. This could be KL, Hong Kong, Toronto or Eastern Melbourne.
Where do I start?
How about I was supposed to arrive a day earlier?
How about it’d completely slipped my mind that I needed a visa to enter the country and when I realised my mix-up I was already in Fukuoka, bed-ridden with sinusitis and the only visa processing centre is in Tokyo, or Osaka.
The thought of navigating through a typhoon-infected Japan to ‘maybe’ get a visa was enough for me to write a long apologetic email to Nelson, saying perhaps we should postpone the trip. Cancel it, do it without me.
Long story short, Nelson found the solution – provided I enter Shanghai via country A and depart to country B, I could obtain a six-day transit visa.
So I booked a flight from Fukuoka to Seoul, then Seoul to Pudong, thinking I could still use the return leg of my original ticket.
Anyway, better eighteen hours later than never, right?
Since I didn’t have a working phone, my given instruction was to jump into a taxi, show the driver the address, and once we’re within the vicinity, borrow the driver’s phone to call as there were four different gates to the address.
“Don’t worry, people in Shanghai are quite friendly,’ he texted.
I’m not sure if shouting over the phone was part of being friendly, the driver arrived at the wrong address at first and drove off before I could confirm I was at the right place.
“If all else fails, just look for a KFC near the station,” I recalled our contingency plan.
It was the first time we’d met each other in person. Nelson came in for the hug while I offered a handshake. And then we both switched course and ended up in a weird elbows-in-between-bodies kind of hug. He helped me with my luggage and as we walked through an alley (nong) we passed a crowd arguing who should reverse their cars out first. I saw a fully eaten corn cob in front of his house entrance. Nelson kicked it away without any explanation.
The first thing Nelson did, he handed me the book.
The default reaction was to probably grab onto it next to my chest and sob in a fetal position, but I knew the whole week would be about the book, and felt like I needed some distance away from it. Hui Chin, Nelson’s partner, served us moon cake and that’s when I remembered it was mid-autumn festival.
We sat around trying to make a local SIM card and VPN to work with my Google phone. We gave up after half an hour and decided to leave for lunch. My first meal in Shanghai was dim sum. Specifically, dim sum in a restaurant within a mansion within a garden with Thai elephant statues at the entrance.
After that, we walked around the former French Concession – the fanciest, whitest, most gentrified area of Shanghai.
It’s not reality; but an idea of how Shanghai could be if there were no poor or ugly people. So yes, it’s the Brighton, the St Kilda of Shanghai.
I didn’t know how, or why, my phone started picking up data. I quickly messaged everyone I was supposed to message, and kept my fingers crossed.
I used my WeChat app for the very first time to purchase a coffee.
I brought RMB in for Nelson and he turned them into app ‘money’ in my app ‘wallet’. Like a mobile game.
I had an amazing piccolo latte in the middle of Shanghai.
It was the best coffee I had outside of Melbourne, ever. (Sorry Tokyo, Auckland, KL, Singapore, Chicago.)
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in an old lady’s flat.
Nelson and Hui Chin used to live in this building, and she was their neighbour/landlord.
Since it was mid-autumn festival, they dropped by to say hi.
I wouldn’t say I felt nostalgic since I’ve never been to China, but somehow it reminded me when I was young, visiting someone else’s home with my parents. Her family offered to cook us dinner and we did the polite refusal hand-waving gesture. They brought me to their secret lookout on a rooftop which oversaw this sacred empty land next to a high residential apartment.
Just around the corner, we visited another friend of Nelson who ran a bakery.
She trained in Tokyo and converted the ground floor of an old townhouse into a comfortable space. Her own space.
She was making a special type of moon cake. She was thinking of going back to study more about making pastry.
Hui Chin decided to stay and help out while Nelson and I made our way to Seesaw – the cafe that was going to host our book event two days later.
When Nelson mentioned ‘cafe’ in our emails, I was picturing a small space that could fit 10-15 people, like the default workshop space in Melbourne. My bowels moved when I realised the cafe was in the middle of Huaihai Rd, located next to a Muji superstore, the equivalent of Times Square. Fifty people had signed up for the event.
We met the venue manager and decided where we would be doing the slideshow, and then we waited for my friend, Yinyan to show up.
I received Yinyan’s message yesterday just as I was boarding the plane. We stayed in the same college in 2003 and had not seen each other since. I’d forgotten that I actually had friends in Shanghai and I’d never have expected her to be the first customer of our book. Yan worked in a financial consulting investment conglomerate and she took me to this exclusive private restaurant – Wu Li Xiang, owned by an artist / ex-model who apparently would not serve you if he didn’t like your face.
The place was filled with his own (abstract) painting of his wife. We had some really delicate Shanghainese home dishes (si fang cai) and I saw the next table with a dish that was based on a the Romance of The Three Kingdom’s folklore – cao chuan jie jian. It perfectly described Shanghai to me – liquid nitrogen used to generate fog (the new) for a dish that’s about a wooden boat stealing arrows (the old).
After dinner, we walked towards the shiny Xin Tian Di side of French Concession and everyone just seemed so … contented.
I actually came expecting everyone to look busy or miserable or lost, and maybe coughing from all the pollution, but it was a really relaxing walk. One that made you feel like you wanted a life there, before realising you’re fifteen years too late.
We stopped by a bar (Sober which I later found on the World’s Top 50 list) and I ordered a Pu’er tea cocktail.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had an alcoholic drink at the bar. 2007? When I was still in advertising?
The bartender was Japanese but spoke perfect Mandarin and English. I mean, bilingual was so 1995 am I right?
We kept walking at Xin Tian Di and maybe it was a long day or the jet lag, my brain just switched off – all this brand, wealth, and people, this shiny-ness, this celebrity-owned cafe with personalised guitars had no relevance to me at all. I was truly useless without my phone, at the same time everyone else is advancing in their own way – I’m the only being barred from all this coolness. Yinyan ordered a Didi (Chinese Uber) for me while we queued at the taxi rank, reaping the benefits of both old and new tech again.
As I sat in the taxi looking out at the colourful night version of Shanghai it dawned on me that I did not pay for a single thing that night.
And also, I had no idea where I went. I just followed instructions, ate food, and mobilised.
As I walked back to Nelson’s place, that alley which was the only familiar way I knew, I took a photo of the full moon and with my 35mm lens it came out tiny on the display screen.
It was a reflection of how I felt on my first day in China – you are smaller than you think you are.