Letter from Shanghai
Heidi North-Bailey returns to China as the New Zealand Fellow on the Shanghai Writing Program.
A room of one’s own
I was last in China 12 years ago. I lived not in Shanghai but Huizhou, Guangdong province, southern China. I was there teaching English and drama for a year. The studio room I shared with my then-partner was tiny, decorated in every shade of brown. It was also deeply inauspicious, apartment number four on the fourth floor, double bad luck.
The bathroom/shower/kitchen was one tantalising unit. Tucked beside a squat toilet with shower nozzle dangling over it was a sink and hotplate attached to a dubious-looking gas bottle – it did once leak gas and almost kill us. The small bar fridge doubled as a bedside table. If either of us wanted any privacy in the space we had to pull the thin nicotine-coloured curtain around the bed (careful not to snag on the fridge) and sit inside the yellowy polyester walls.
I did not do any cooking in that apartment. And after the gas incident we removed even the possibility of using the hotplate.
I knew that China had changed rapidly since I was last here, and that the Shanghai Writing Program probably has a better budget for accommodation than the language school I worked for last time, but still I braced myself for what to expect of my accommodation.
Comparatively, the room I’ve been given is palatial. An air-conditioned oasis of calm, a studio one-bedroom hotel unit much as you’d find anywhere in the world. I have a separate bathroom – a Western toilet, whole shower unit all to itself, a large glass basin. And a small kitchenette with two electric hotplates, a rice cooker and a slightly unusual collection of cutlery. No toaster, but I’m very happy to have a kettle to make tea.
My writing space doubles as my kitchen table, but because I don’t plan on cooking much in this city of divine food, it quickly becomes just my writing desk.
Best of all, this room, for two months, is all mine.
Three writers in the plum rain
On my second night we had our welcome reception at the Shanghai Writers’ Association headquarters. Some of us had met informally, but this was the first time all ten writers would be together.
I’d been out that afternoon when it was slightly cooler – still around 30 degrees but the sun wasn’t beating down quite so hard. I was looking for a teapot, and in my jetlag haze I’d been distracted by a whimsical laneway. So vaulting back to the hotel, teapot clutched under my arm, I only had time for a quick shower before throwing on a red dress and applying a sweep of red lipstick before going down to the lobby.
A car arrived to pick us up, which was lucky because as we stepped through the hotel’s glass doors the tropical downpour started. The season of plum rain, as they call it here: we arrived at the tail end of it. But that night rain fell in waves, hissing on the steaming pavement.
Once safely stowed in the air-conditioned cabin of the car we made our way through the city, inching through water and heavy traffic. When the car stopped, the driver indicated to the two people in the front seat where to go. By the time the three of us in the back had exited the car, the others had disappeared into the night.
‘This way!’ exclaimed the Polish YA writer I’d just met in the car, rushing off on her skinny heels into the thundering rain. ‘I saw them run this way!’
The Argentinian poet and I ran after her, hands over our heads, trying uselessly to stay dry. By the time we all got under the cover of a flimsy awning, there was no sign of anyone. We checked the two restaurants on the narrow street, looking for a welcome banquet. Nothing but some very helpful staff trying to usher us in from out the rain to eat at their deserted restaurants.
We traced our steps back to where the car had stopped. No sign of our destination. No sign of anybody. The plum rain continued.
Three writers lost in Shanghai. The Pole was concocting such a tantalising adventure story for us – focusing around me, the lady in the red dress – that I almost didn’t use the phone number I’d taken from one of our hosts when she picked me up at the airport the day before. She tried very honourably not to laugh when I explained our predicament, and, in less than one minute, a man materialised to lead us to our dinner destination – right opposite where we’d been dropped off, but tucked at the end of a dark garden. However, had we not listened to our dazzling Pole, we might have noticed our fellow writers running down the garden path.
The rain. The novel I want to write is tentatively titled In the Shanghai Rain. It does not, as yet, feature getting lost with two other writers, but it might now feature a woman in a soaked red dress.
The hallway of sweet messages
Starting to write this morning, but stalling, filled with questions about how exactly to structure my novel, I went adventuring instead.
I wandered towards the Bund with a willowy American writer with a cascade of dreadlocks, and we decided to step inside the Peace Hotel. The lobby is pure Art Deco – dark panelled wood, beige tiles, shimmering crystal chandlers, jazz crackling in the background.
But one floor up it transforms to über-modern, all white walls, blond wood and steel. The place is deserted. We wander through the hallways, and discover we’re in the heart of a flashy artist residency, the Swatch Art Peace Hotel. We’re surely not supposed to be here, but there’s no one around ask us to leave. The vast white door to one studio is open and we peek inside the space-age modern smooth space to see a laptop, a man’s cracked black leather shoes and stacks of plastic neon cut-outs strewn over a table. We back out quietly, and that’s when I see the first message, tacked on the otherwise immaculate white hallway wall:
Give me that dark moment, I carry it with me like a mouthful of rain.
And wandering further down the hallway, there is another, on a torn piece of paper:
Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it
you will live along some distant day into your answers.
After that everything felt like a sign.
The hallway of sweet messages
Live your questions now, Rilke urges
one day the answers will rise
like the one tight pink lotus flower
in People’s Park
holding tight, unbudded while
others around it bloom in abandon
Give me the dark moment
I will carry it
like a mouthful of rain
Mary Oliver’s voice torn at the edges
scrawls over a scrap of lined paper
a murky surface
in the shimmering steel white
hallway lined in artworks and light
the artist tells me
There are so many new walls
in today’s Shanghai all those empty spaces
and nothing to fill them
even t-shirts jostling along The Bund
might contain the answer
I disappoint myself /
It’s not ok
in the bathroom I turn to a Warm tip!
everything is not as it seems
in this city of soaring heat
snowflakes are indicated
The Window Finder
I quickly become known in the group of writers as ‘the window finder.’ I’m not sure what possesses me to crawl along the window ledge behind the bed exploring every inch of my room, but there I find it, tucked in the corner, the one narrow window in the room that can be opened. I open it, because even if the air is smoggy, there is something about being able to open a window that makes all of us writers breathe easier.
I often take my laptop and a cushion and sit in this secret nook. I’m trying to write a novel, for the first time, while I’m here. It’s daunting.
The American writer from Boston who’s written five novels and been translated in 16 languages gives me some excellent advice.
‘Novel writing is like rock climbing,’ she tells me. ‘It’s not hard until you look down.’
I think of this sitting at my open window. The view is much better when you look out, not down.
On being here
Shanghai is a city of extreme extremes. There are almost 25 million people packed into this place. It’s the most populous city in China, and the most populous city proper in the world. The numbers are unimaginable.
The city is like a crazy mirror maze at a fun house – distorted versions refracted and reflecting, each direction you turn a totally different vista, and even if you look back again, it’s never quite the same.
If I walk ten minutes from where I’m staying in one direction I will be in Gucci-land: air-conditioned malls, slick stores with gleaming glass doors selling all manner of designer goods I have no hope of buying.
On the road, claiming space from the electric bikes, beat-up taxis, the thrum of people on foot, and women huddling under bright umbrellas in the beating sun, teenagers drive past in their Porsches.
If I walk in the other direction I’m in lilongs, older-style Shanghai laneways, and stepping into one of these alleyways is an instant relief. There is no traffic save the odd motorbike and older people wandering on foot. Here you can hear the sound of their plastic slip-on sandals scuffing the pavement, their bursts of language.
The laneways are too narrow for cars, although I do occasionally see one forcing its way though, inching forward, the driver’s hand jammed on the horn as people flatten themselves into doorways, tutting.
While I’m here I want to absorb this city as if my skin was steamed open, unwrapped like a dumpling before it’s sealed tight with expert lightening-fast fingers at the outlets on every corner. I want to soak in the feel of this city, this crazy, bustling, bursting place. I walk around and around these streets because I want to have a body memory of the way the sky is low-slung purple on the evenings when the smog is thick. The way neon lights shine like beacons when the sky is damp with rain. The way the constant waves of people part and lush piles of vegetables – tomatoes, bok choy, spinach and skinny long aubergines, heaped in woven baskets sold by a toothless granny with a fistful of money – surprise me when I round a corner. The way a four-year-old, glossy and immaculate in a dress made entirely of white frills grins and gasps and points, tugging on her grandfather’s hand, saying, ‘Hello, hello!’ as I pass her.
And then when it becomes too much, I hurry back to my air-conditioned room, stopping only to stock up on the essentials of life: watermelon, water and bao zi (feathery fat steamed buns filled with chopped vegetables).
For a few dazed moments when I return to my room I sit there, only the hum of the air conditioner and the sounds of the street drifting up nine floors punctuating my breathing. I don’t turn on any music; I just breathe in the sweet clean quiet.
Then I make a pot of green tea, watching as the dark tight leaves begin to unfurl in the glass teapot I bought on my second day here. And then I start to write.
Heidi North-Bailey, the author of a poetry collection, Possibility of flight (Makaro Press, 2015), is the second New Zealand Fellow on the Shanghai Writing Program, joined by nine other writers from the USA, Israel, Denmark, Argentina, Russia, Poland, Spain and Catalonia.
Every second year a New Zealand writer is invited to attend. In the intervening years, a Chinese writer is invited to a residency hosted by the Michael King Writers’ Centre in New Zealand. Heidi’s residency is made possible by the Michael King Writers’ Centre, the China New Zealand Friendship Society, the Shanghai Writers’ Association and the Association for Friendship with Foreign Counties in Shanghai.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell