In April, Pudong Press hosted their annual non fiction writing competition. This year's theme was "Shanghai Story." Pudong Press received many notable submissions, but we could only choose 3 winners. Below are the three winners as well as their winning pieces.
1st place: Leina Hsu
An Afternoon at Old West Gate
It was the first Tuesday of April, and I dreaded to say, four worthless days into my weeklong break. I laid face up on the covers, surrounded by open tubes of chapstick and hastily bookmarked novels, looking like the centerpiece of a new-age sacrifice. In equal doses of restlessness and indolence, I had hoped some handsome adventurer would spot me at the window of the twenty-second floor, and by my simple existence, be enticed to rescue me from an (entirely self-inflicted) summer of nothingness. Yet, this rescuer did not come in the form of a sharp-jawed James Dean-type, but rather a local news headline, reading:
Demolition Of Laoximen: Shanghai’s Best Link To Its Pre-Colonial Past May Soon Be Gone
I was enraptured, maybe because of some misplaced sense of nostalgia or the finality of it all—I just knew I had to go. At this point, the sky was already dim and having temporarily deleted all prospects of “tomorrow,” I quickly grabbed my backpack and raced to the nearest metro station. It wasn’t until after my feet had left the platform that I realized I had thrown myself into this in a Columbus sort-of fashion, with little understanding of the world I meant to explore. So, here is what I can tell you about Laoximen, with research, completely coincidentally, spanning the length of metro line 10:
Laoximen, also known as Old West Gate, is a neighborhood located between Fuxing and Fangbang Road, stretching around two square kilometers. Having been developed in the 16th century, Laoximen truly flourished with China’s economic prosperity in the early 20th century, and many of the shikumen (stone houses) there now are from that time period. These residential complexes are not only a link to Shanghai’s pre-colonial past in the architectural sense but also in the ancestral sense, as generations upon generations of families have made homes out of them.
Despite local protest, demolishment of the shikumen is already in progress in favor of low-rise housing developed by the Huangpu District.
Ding. The doors parted. This was my stop. Stepping into the Laoximen area, I was hit by a buzzing hub of activity. Glass cubes lined the streets, as did young employees, holding their Bluetooth earpieces like storefront mannequins. In the sky, advertisements rang, another model telling me about another perfume, watch, or lipstick that is an essential for the working girl. This unrelenting modernization could not be clearer if placed on a giant billboard, yet it was, plastered by a construction site, a futuristic cityscape with the tagline “Heaven on Earth—Coming Soon.” For a disappointing second, I had thought that the contractors got here before I did, yet as I continued to walk, the flashes of blue and pink dissolved into one spot not quite as lurid.
Entering the heart of Laoximen can only be described as bite-sized cultural shock. It was as though someone had misplaced a transition piece and awkwardly shoved the two streets together. I followed a rickshaw from the pavement onto the mud path and the neighborhood swallowed me with its mossy walls. The first thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to move either slowly or not at all, like the elderly gentlemen napping at their front porches. Then, it was the smell. Unlike the way a mall’s perfume occupies a space, here, each of the smells bled into each other: dog sweat, rusty bicycles, steamed food. Above me, the wires played cat’s cradle with the rooftops. I located a quiet place by a temple where I could sit down with my sketchpad. I was pretty wary that locals would become
hyper-aware of my foreign presence, as this
seemed like a place where everybody knew
the comings-and-goings of everyone else.
But most passerby only seemed curious, if
not somewhat bemused, at my sketching of
their wooden windows and hanging
As I moved from place to place with a sketchpad in hand, one building, in particular, caught my eye. The Gothic structure was laid with ivory bricks that had vines crawling among them. From a barred window, I could see kindergarten students inside, sitting in tiny chairs and attentively listening to their teacher. As I would later discover, the history behind the kindergarten is equally as astounding as its beautiful architecture. The building was originally a church erected by Protestant American missionaries in 1899. It was then repurposed as a medical dispensary for locals during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in the 1930s. As a previous emblem of religion, war, and now, education, I can only hope that the structure survives in spite of nearby threats.
The evening had knocked, and as I made my way down the familiar dirt path, I noticed that the shopkeepers were pulling down their metal doors. In place of napping gentlemen were now empty lawn chairs. I turned back, just in time to see a photographer with his lens pointed at the sunset silhouetting the buildings. He was, like me, hoping to catch a last drop of this evaporating neighborhood. To hold and keep the cracking walls, the lined faces, the clothing strung along the sky like lanterns. It is a shame, really—that all this beauty has to go. It is a shame—that it took the demolishment of it for us to notice.
2nd place: Audrey Tang
I’ve never seen American suburbia at night.
The streets of Jinqiao were empty by 12 o’clock since there was no reason for anyone to stay out late on a school night. The moon slept somewhere behind the cloud or smog (you couldn’t tell the difference at night) and the fancy western streetlamps cast a warm orange glow onto the street. We walked in the middle of the road, the one against the traffic, since the cars are all locked behind garage doors. In the rest of the city, cars are probably still weaving in and out highways, pulling up on neon-lit stores and greasy pavements. Though we couldn’t see, we knew the skyscrapers were blinking, and a part of the city only just woke up. But here in this suburbia, only the wild dogs behind fences and the two of us are awake.
The soft amber glow, filtered by looming birch leaves, printed on our faces. She was talking about something (boys, probably) when I noticed the sleepy light made her freckles look like stars. I saw that her eyes glistened like the bund when she smiled. Her dark circles became Saturn’s rings and her bruised wrists galaxies. Her fears melted into the asphalt beneath our toes, and for a moment, so did my voice.
Later she said she found her happiness undeserving. She blamed it on the the sodas. I blame my silence on the sodas too.
3rd place: Rebekah Christensen
Shanghai Through the Eyes of 9 Year Old Me
“No, seriously,” she said, “Stop messing around.”
I gave a sort of helpless laugh. I couldn’t really blame her. I mean, three years ago when I had told my friends I was moving to Mexico they had all thought I meant New Mexico. If Mexico City seemed far, then China was basically a whole other planet.
She stared at me for a minute and then she hugged me. We walked to the door and she cried and kept hugging me, and I just wanted to go home.
Later, when I was in a new house in a new neighborhood in a new city in a new country, I would cry and cry and cry and wish I had a time machine so that I could go back and relive that moment and appreciate it while it was still there.
At the moment though, it still hadn’t set in that I was moving and that this was the last church activity in Mexico City that I’d ever go to and that this was the last time I would ever see my friends. I wasn’t even staying until the end of the school year. I was missing my own 8th grade graduation to go to a place that I’d never even in my wildest dreams imagined visiting. Even when I got back home and saw the boxes everywhere and slept on a foam pad because my bed was already on its way across the ocean, my mind refused to accept that I was leaving forever.
Later, I would wish that I had committed my house to memory, appreciated the huge basement and the stone pillars and the backyard with the fig tree; committed my neighborhood to memory, the trees and flowers and cobblestone streets and the weirdly shaped houses in all different colors and the bits of broken glass on top of the concrete fences.
But even as we drove away with more suitcases in the car than we could possibly carry, even as we got on the airplane and I watched Mexico City get smaller and smaller and smaller until it disappeared, it still didn’t set in that we were moving away and never coming back.
The longest plane ride of my life passed by in a blur of sleeping and nausea and bad movies and bad food. And when we got off the plane I couldn’t even think about how we were halfway across the world, because my contacts had dried out from wearing them for so long and all I could think about was how it felt like there was sandpaper in my eyes.
I trailed behind my parents, rubbing my eyes, and I registered loud sounds but didn’t understand what they were. And then we dragged our luggage through the halls and I realized I was hearing people talking, but everyone seemed to be yelling at each other and I didn’t understand a single word. I almost burst into tears right there in the airport because Spanish had been low and smooth and melodic, but Mandarin seemed loud and discordant and far too unfamiliar.
When we stepped outside the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was so humid; it felt like stepping into a suffocating, hot, wet cloud. After coming from Mexico City, where I’d passed out from the altitude and gotten nosebleeds from the dryness, Shanghai humidity made me feel like I was dying and couldn’t breathe. My clothes were sticking to my skin and the air felt too thick.
As we drove away from the airport, reality started to sink in a little bit, with the wide roads and the smooth driving and the absence of topes and vados and the way I couldn’t read any of the street signs.
We arrived home and I didn’t have the motivation to unpack anything and I’d never heard the word “jetlag” before, but now I was waking up at 3 am every morning and falling asleep before dinner.
My parents kept insisting that we go out even though it was always miserably hot and I’d already collected over ten mosquito bites that got even itchier when I went outside and started sweating. But we walked around the city despite my complaints and there always seemed to be thousands of people everywhere we went. Some places we went to were almost like mercados, except they sold things like brightly colored fans and little bags with sayings on them in English that made no sense and fat, golden cats waving their arms about in the wind. And whenever we went out for lunch there was always rice and some sort of slimy green vegetable, and the first time I bit into a dumpling it squirted liquid all over my favorite shirt.
Grocery shopping with my mom was overwhelming. It was so crowded and so loud. I had thought Costco in Utah was bad, but this was at least 100 times worse. There was always a lot of shoving and yelling going on, and employees had weird megaphone things that they were saying things I didn’t understand into. The potato chips were all bizarre flavors, like cucumber or braised pork, and when my mom went to get soy sauce there were over 30 different brands to choose from.
A lot of subtle things were different; instead of mangos and jicama now we always had pomelo; instead of granola bars we had little rice crackers; instead of putting tajín and miguelito on everything people used soy sauce and vinegar; instead of agua de Jamaica or apple soda or horchata, people drank tea and hot water; instead of flan there were a lot of red bean and tapioca desserts; instead of chili or tamarind candies there were white rabbit chews wrapped in rice paper, and sugary-sour dried plums.
The weeks passed by and my collection of mosquito bites seemed to be growing exponentially. I got used to the sound of cicadas, sort of used to the humidity, and not at all used to not being able to communicate with anybody. Pretty soon it was August and I was seeing Shanghai American School for the first time after taking the placement tests, for freshman orientation. I suffered through more awkward icebreakers than I could handle and left the tour feeling even more lost than I had to begin with.
And then it was time to start school for real. It seemed like there were a million hallways and I didn’t know anybody and even Spanish class wasn’t familiar because it was Spain-Spanish not Mexico-Spanish and I had never used “vosotros” in my life before. I couldn’t remember anybody’s name and at lunch someone asked me if I wanted to sit with them but I was so nervous I accidentally panicked and said no. The cafeteria was so big and they actually had real food and real plates and big cafeteria-like tables instead of the little wooden circle tables and gross pizza and molletes and powdered donuts they had in Mexico, and you paid with a real lunch card instead of cash. After school I almost missed the bus because I got lost, and by the time I got home I wanted to go to sleep and never open my eyes again unless I magically woke up back in Mexico City.
I had tried to keep in touch with my friends all summer on our WhatsApp group chat, but whenever they were awake I was asleep and whenever I was awake they were asleep. And once we all started school they talked all the time about their classes and teachers and I started feeling more and more left out and then I got a Chinese sim card and I couldn’t access WhatsApp anymore because I had created my account with my Mexican phone number. I tried emailing some of my friends from church, and they would respond and we’d email back and forth a few times but then they would stop replying so eventually I stopped trying.
I cried myself to sleep sometimes because it felt like all of the pieces of my old life were slipping away through my fingers and I couldn’t hold on to them tightly enough.
School was horribly different. In Mexico, kids showed up late to class all the time and very few of them cared a lot about their grades; at Shanghai American School almost nobody was ever late to class and people thought getting a B was terrible. In Mexico, my teacher had put me into the peer-tutoring program to help people with math; at Shanghai American School I was in the lowest math class available to 9th graders: “Algebra 1 Part 2.” In Mexico, half of my classmates never wore their uniform to P.E. and we played soccer for most of the year; at Shanghai American School we had to wear straps during P.E. that measured our heart rate, and one time I forgot my uniform and got into so much trouble that I cried when I got home.
September 16 came and I wore red, white, and green. September 16 passed just like any other day. I chanted ¡Viva México! in my head and went to sleep early on my damp pillow.
It started getting cold and I didn’t own enough warm clothes because Mexico’s only seasons were Dry and Rainy and the temperature stayed in the 70s and 80s all year. Shanghai’s seasons were a lot more varied, and the only constant was the pollution.
Christmas vacation came and went, and I had almost-friends now, people I could wave at in the halls and sit by at lunch and complain about classes to.
My parents took us sightseeing on the weekends sometimes, and while at first I couldn’t help comparing Chinese temples to Mexican cathedrals and ancient pyramids, I couldn’t deny the beauty in the skyline; in the sparkling buildings all lit up at night; in the glowing red lanterns during Chinese New Year; in the elderly people dancing together at night and doing tai chi in the morning.
And when I went back to the USA that summer and people asked me about Shanghai, I taught them how to say “ni yao pu tao ma?” and I grinned as I regaled them with tales of people fishing in the canals and my parents eating a snake and the sheer amount of electric scooters always clogging the streets.
I don’t resent moving to Shanghai anymore, however, I will always be bitter that I moved here two months after Owl City went on tour and performed live in Shanghai.