What does Shanghai mean to you?
"I asked them to describe Shanghai with a keyword, and how they reached a conclusion. Here are some interesting answers."
It has been three months since Shanghai announced it would fully restore normal life after two months of sinking. Jinglin Gao, a graduate student studying in Shanghai and a member of GRR, visited some areas of the city and talked to different people who live in the city. Today's newsletter offers you a piece recording what impressed her during her visits. It includes many angles on the city and was not only about Shanghai's recovery from the lockdown, but also about some people's thoughts and stories about the city.
Whenever there's a lockdown, colleges would understandably implement a tighter control policy to lower the risk of mass infection.
As a result, many college students like myself were confined to the dormitory from mid-March to the beginning of July. At one point, we were planning on a spring break to Chongming Island, a famous sightseeing spot at the mouth of the Yangtze River. But things went completely sideways. When we finally went out, it was already scorching summer.
Wherever I go, the streets are teeming with life. Specifically, cold drink shops and malls with air conditioning are teeming with life, considering the temperature reached 40 degrees Celsius, and no one could stay out for too long.
"It's insane! Everything will be sold out two hours before closing, and that's been going on for quite a while," the guy in a dessert shop named Guangliansheng told me while packing for a customer.
The few traces showing the city was hit hard by COVID-19 were the testing booth on almost every street corner and the stricter temperature check on the doorstep of buildings. I ran into one of the free testing sites every ten minutes.
It's a trade-off worth making to get vibrant Shanghai back.
But nearly four months away from city life got me thinking: Why are people here in the first place? And does city life in Shanghai have different meanings for residents here? Will the residents leave because of COVID?
So I interviewed people randomly. Some visited the city once or twice, some moved to Shanghai years ago, and some were born and raised here, and never lived in other cities.
I asked them to describe Shanghai with a keyword, and how they reached a conclusion. Here are some interesting answers.
"Why would anyone be obsessed with Shanghai? The apartments are small, and there isn't enough place for hanging up the laundry." That was my mom's first reaction when I told her I had applied to a college in Shanghai.
My mom is proud that her life is not disturbed by COVID-19. Three years into the pandemic, the total number of confirmed cases in Guizhou Province is still under 200.
So she never thought about moving to Shanghai. In her opinion, the rural southwest is a lot safer than a metropolis if anything happens, like COVID.
Many from gen X didn't like the city, even before COVID. "Crowded, small, uncomfortable living spaces" are their descriptions of Shanghai.
In old neighborhoods of Shanghai, almost every household has a stainless steel shelf sticking out of the window, for hanging up the laundry. These apartments downtown can't be spacious, or else we wouldn't see this "life wisdom."
In their eyes, Shanghai is also the emblem of high prices and exclusion. Talking about Shanghai, my older relatives always frown and tell a story of "once got tricked by Shanghainese people." Including but not limited to Shanghainese people pointing the opposite way when they ask about the direction, and shops charge more because they are not locals.
I don't know whether these stories are embellished or exaggerated. But one thing is for sure, compared with the coziness in the hometown, many of them don't fall in love with the bustle of Shanghai.
Other than the exclusion, you might find comments online saying that "elitism is embedded in Shanghai".
"In terms of success, they give all the credits only to their hardworking," a childhood friend said to me after living in Shanghai for a year.
She said some urban elites ignore the quality education, job opportunities, and other resources they are born with. The worse part is that they extend the standard to others, to people who are not born with silver spoons in their mouths. The logic is cold. They might be polite when talking to others, but a sense of arrogance lurks behind etiquette.
"Failure means you are not working hard," my friend added.
Probably for the same reason, after living in Shanghai for almost 10 years, a woman from the service industry decided to leave.
She was around 30 years old, sitting alone in the subway. When I approached her, the lady was quite alert at first. I think she must have mistaken me for some salesperson.
"I'll move to other places soon. The epidemic made me feel that the metropolis can be unfriendly to outlanders. I want to go to a more humane place (去一个更有人情味的地方)," she added.
"Vitality is my biggest impression of Shanghai," Miss Pu told me outside a flower shop in Xuhui district.
Pu is a 20-year-old girl from southwest China's Sichuan Province. Now she is a junior majoring in chemistry at Shanghai University.
Interestingly, the vitality that Pu feels does not come from the youth in Shanghai. On the contrary, it comes from the old residents in the city.
She gave me two examples from her own experiences.
One day, she was dozing off on the subway on her way to work. Suddenly, she noticed an old lady sitting next to her was learning English.
"You know, I was amazed! I couldn't help but look at her, and it turned out that the old lady was using affixes and roots to memorize English words on Bilibili!" The girl added.
Bilibili is a video platform. Some see it as China's YouTube, and the average age of Bilibili is only 22 years old. My friends and I love it, but older people like our parents barely know about the platform, not to mention grandmas and grandpas.
"I'm in my 20s, and my memory and cognition are at the prime of my life. While I 躺平 'lie flat' and 摆烂 'put rotten' on the subway, the old lady with grey hair is still learning," she sighed and told me another story.
[躺平 and 摆烂 can be translated into "lie flat" and "put rotten" word for word. Both are trendy words popular among Chinese youngsters. And these two words are used to describe a situation when someone is too tired to work or study, so they just let it go.]
Another story is that she was walking down the street one day. Pu saw an old lady, probably in her 60s or 70s, jogging alone in full gear. The old lady got fitness trackers, sweatbands, and trendy sports clothes.
"The Grandma was really energetic, and it seems that jogging has become her habit. I've never seen anything like this in my hometown before," Pu said.
Shanghai is such a magical place where getting old becomes attractive.
The photo was taken outside a restaurant in Jing'an district
Maybe the youth that keep flooding in Shanghai make this place energetic, and the energy further influences the senior residents here, or maybe it is the vitality of the elderly that shapes the vibe of Shanghai, or maybe it is the interaction of them both. Anyway, it is peculiar that young people are amazed at the elderly's vitality, and admire their young mindset and life philosophy.
For the younger generation in China, Shanghai is a magnet, and I felt it long ago. Back in elementary school, a girl in my class skipped school for over a week. When she showed up again, she told us that her family had taken her to the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Suddenly, she became the most popular kid in the grade. At least for the rest of the semester, she kept babbling about how fabulous Shanghai was. Even kids from other classes would come and listen to exhibitions she saw.
And during my teenage years, Shanghai was always a popular summer vacation destination for people around me. But He Qianyu, my class president from junior high, was the first to put Shanghai's charm on paper vividly.
She wrote an essay about her trip to Shanghai during the summer vacation of Grade eight. I don't remember the exact words, but I do remember she wrote something like, the bund is shiny and clamorous, a place where history meets the future. And when night falls, streetlights paint everything gold.
In her essay, one thing even more dazzling than the city is her yearning for Shanghai. For He, Shanghai is the spot on the stage where the spotlight pours down, eclipsing other places.
The "Shanghai fever" reminds me of the French people's craze for Paris. Like Paris, Shanghai's charm may come from movies and literature, from the endless portrait of the city.
When I was writing this piece, I was curious about what He is doing right now. Is Shanghai still her dream? Did she make it to Shanghai? If so, would she feel disillusioned, or would she love Shanghai even more? After digging into the dusted yearbook, and a bunch of phone calls, I finally got her current phone number.
"Before I truly set foot on this land, the glittering Bund was what attracted me," He told me when I asked where her obsession with Shanghai came from.
"Movies present a glittering Shanghai, full of possibilities. They made me feel that youth is not wasted here," she added.
Over the phone, He sounds just as ambitious, motivated, and determined as years before. She did an excellent job in the college entrance examination and got into Fudan University, a top university based in Shanghai. Now she is pursuing a master's degree in Computer Science at the same university.
Is there a difference between Shanghai in the dream and Shanghai in real life? I asked.
"Other places glitter too, and Shanghai has more than the glittering appearance," she answered with a smile, adding, "Possibilities of Shanghai exceed my imagination. You can find people of different jobs, races, and outfits here. There are skyscrapers [office buildings] that never rest, youngsters have picnics by the roadside, while aunties and uncles practice martial arts in parks. I mean, you could choose your own way of living here, which is much wider than I thought."
The photo is provided by the interviewee He Qianyu
Apparently, Shanghai lives up to her expectations, and offers something more. She embraced the hustle and bustle of the city and became part of it. In April 2022, the feast of Shanghai had to pause due to COVID-19. That's one of the rare moments making her feel somehow melancholic.
"When I left the city for home, much of it was still under lockdown. On the ride to the airport, it was quiet," she said. [Due to COVID-19, universities in Shanghai moved courses of the spring semester online and arranged buses and vans to help students get to airports and train stations.]
But short pain will not turn her away from Shanghai.
He wants to be a computer programmer in the future. As expected, He will hunt for a job in Shanghai, so she won't leave anytime soon.
He's experience says a lot about a group of youngsters in China. They come from small towns all over the country, and Shanghai is the ultimate dream. They are focused, diligent, and finally Shanghai opens a door for them. They have a great life here, and the metropolis is like their second hometown.
Not long ago, an undergraduate from the college where I got my bachelor's degree reached me and asked about pursuing a master's degree. When talking about the future, the undergraduate said, "any majors will do, as long as the college is in Shanghai."
A stopover in the life journey
While Shanghai is the "Holy Grail" for some people, for others, this place is no more than a coincidence, a stopover in the life journey.
There's a tiny cafe on Changle road, central Shanghai. The barista Miss Chen came to Shanghai in 2016 after graduating from college. Chen made the decision when she was traveling in the city.
"The city is nice, and it's easy to get a job, so I just moved here," she said.
Chen had worked in chain stores like Manner and Algebraist. But the homogeneous products and standard operations lacking personal style made her eventually turn to an independent cafe alongside the road.
"The boss is nice, and he would consider my opinions and taste when he decorated the cafe. And the desserts we sell are quite unique," said Chen.
While we were talking, Chen made the coffee carefully and slowly. Her casual attitude greatly contrasts with Shanghai's intense and high-efficient living pace. She looks like the hermit in Tao Yuanming's poem, "ordinary hermits hide in the mountains, great hermits hide in bustling cities."
[Tao Yuanming (365-427 AD) is probably the most carefree poet in Chinese history. He lived in Dong Jin dynasty, and most of his works are about the natural scenery and tranquil life in the countryside.]
Chen told me that the dogs in the neighborhood are her favorite thing in Shanghai, especially a dog named Pipi.
"Pipi lost one eye because of a fight with other dogs," she said. Every time Pipi comes to the cafe with his owner, Chen gives him extra snacks.
To my surprise, Chen majored in environmental design in college. I wonder whether she would feel lost when her classmates get high-paid jobs in skyscrapers, while she works in a cafe on the roadside.
"It doesn't bother me at all. Everyone is on a different life track. I even know a barista that has a Ph.D. Many white collars dream about opening a cafe. When I'm 40 years old, I will have a cafe of my own and decades of experience with coffee. But they will have to learn from the scratchcard, " she said.
Changle Road is all about small but exquisite cafes, restaurants and clothing stores. In a word, they are small businesses that had the most challenging time in a lockdown. But Chen told me that she hadn't noticed any shops on her street go out of business.
The tiny cafe on Changle Road (the photo was taken on July 14)
"Still the same shops and same people, at least I didn't see any difference. There were subsidies from the government and the rent was cut in half. It wasn't good days, but we got by," Chen said.
Before, the barista planned to open her own cafe, but the epidemic swooped in. Right now, she wants to wait for a few years and get a place when the economic environment gets better. Maybe she will open her cafe in Shanghai, maybe in other cities. Chen didn't know for sure.
"The rent in Shanghai is exorbitant, but Shanghainese people love drinking coffee, and it's like a culture here. Rent in other places will be a lot lower, but there aren't many customers," Chen told me.
Inclusiveness is Shanghai's most significant feature to her, "You could dress in any style and no one would judge you. Instead, people might find you cool," she mentioned.
Shanghai is a city big enough for everyone to live as they wish without being judged. Perhaps it is the inclusiveness that made Chen stay. Six years after graduation, she never gets a so-called decent job in companies or the government system. She has no plan for settling down, either. People like her would become a laughing stock in smaller cities or towns. But Shanghai is filled with all kinds of people, and everyone is too busy with their own lives. Thus, Chen gets to carve out a quiet corner for herself, living at her own pace.
"Shanghai is kind of boring," said Mr. Yuan, a young man born and raised in Shanghai.
Yuan dyed his hair shocking pink, and dressed like someone who had just come back from Milan Fashion Week. I never thought anyone would describe Shanghai as boring, especially not him.
"The city changes quickly. But changing only for the sake of change is a lack of novelty," added Yuan.
I met Yuan in "The Mix-place" near Xujiahui, downtown Shanghai. The shop operates in a small European-style house. The ground floor is a regular cafe. From time to time, they also hold cultural events to introduce local artists. On the second and third floors there are photography exhibitions and bookstores.
The photo was taken at Harmony Art Gallery, No.888 Dong'an Road
Yuan is a frequenter of this cultural buffet, and he comes here almost every weekend.
After living in Shanghai for more than 20 years, Yuan believes that dazzling new shopping malls, new products, and new restaurants are just going in circles, chasing fashion in vain. Seeing flocks of influencers taking over the city, he feels strained.
In Yuan's view, though plays and exhibitions come one after another, many of those seemingly rich cultural events are too commercial and simply attention-seeking.
He told me that many organizers only care about popularity and the audience only cares about whether they took a pretty picture so they could share it on social media. In the end, no one cares about art.
“Normality settles down over me," when asked about what it meant to him to live in Shanghai, Yuan replied with lines from a Lana del Rey song.
Would he move to another city because of COVID-19? Yuan gave a negative answer.
"All eyes are on Shanghai, you speak up here, at least your voice will be heard," he said.
But would he move to another place because Shanghai bores him?
Yuan's answer was also no.
"Living in a different city might not be a good idea, probably because I'm shy of most people, and I want to be in a place that I'm familiar with," he said. By familiarity, he explained it's like, never needing to check the map on the subway when he's in town, always knowing where to get the best bubble tea, and all his friends would only be one call away.
He is not the only one feeling "secure" and "comfortable" in Shanghai.
Jian Nairong and Gan Ruiqi, two junior high students I met in an ice cream shop share the same opinion. Shanghai is also their hometown.
The photo is provided by Junior high student Jian Nairong
"I won't go to a different place for college. It's a bit intimidating to adapt to an environment full of uncertainties," said Jian, and her friend nodded. Their favorite summer activity is going to the shopping mall and enjoying ice cream together. They also like taking strolls and chatting on the boulevard of Huaihai Road, downtown Shanghai.
"So cozy, the trees shield us from the burning sun, " said Jian.
"Yeah, the plane trees, they are the icon of Shanghai! Remember that time ... " Gan jumped in before her friend finished the sentence.
It's interesting that whenever I throw a question at them, they compete to answer and then carry on with the topic like no one is around. I find it hard to chime in sometimes.
Their interaction reminds me of the time that my best friend and I spent together. But we both decided that we wanted adventures in a bigger world, so we went to different colleges in different cities. We haven't seen each other for three years because of the distance and the pandemic. All of a sudden, I get the charm of living in a city that you grew up in and seeing your friends anytime you want.
Shanghai might be a place of adventure for millions of people in China. But for them, it's a home sweet home.
See some GRR’s previous posts of Shanghai’s stories:
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