Sojourning in Shanghai

Well, it has been a while: last time I wrote I was in America, about to travel around the west. We did this and saw many wonderful things, driving on snow in mountains with loads of furniture stashed in the back, in a sturdy little truck that never crashed (though my hard drive did, most inconvenient).

Then there was a long, stretched interval after the travel while we waited for job offers to harden and set. We tried to finish off things at the cabin (but cabins are never finished), and prepared for our new, old life.

And now I’m in here. In Shanghai.

We’ve been here a few months now, settling in, watching the seasons wheel around, coming to accept that this amazing place is our home now. At least for now – there is no permanency for foreigners in Shanghai, and perhaps there never was, except for a few, specially blessed persons, like Matteo Ricci. A sociologist pointed this out, giving a talk in someone’s nice apartment, one of those splendid places favoured by wealthy expats, with two storey windows and a grand piano.

The sociologist said that foreigners could only sojourn here now – the Shanghai of Shanghailanders was a dream of golden days past, no matter how hard we pretended otherwise. Very well, I’ll sojourn here as long as they let me, watching and listening, dreaming sometimes.

Some entries from my notebook, always in my bag:

1st February, 2014

The morning after New Year – and the streets are already as clean as a whistle. There are tiny scraps of red paper around the grated trunks of the plane trees on the sidewalks: the only sign of the raucous night.

Fireworks Tree

Many people are out walking, on a New Year’s day. Old people stroll with hands clasped behind their backs like sages. Streets are quiet of traffic, but these streets never see many cars, apart from taxis. Beggars are conspicuously absent – gone home for Spring Festival with family, a holiday for them too, it seems. Can one take a holiday from poverty?

It is strangely warm, but some people are wearing their padded pyjama promenading suits. We walk a long way, slowly, meandering, stopping to read historical markers, or peer through restaurant and cafe windows, closed with friendly New Year’s messages pasted onto doors and windows.

The skies are surprisingly clear despite the bombardment of the previous night. The odd shelling can still be heard. Clear because construction work and traffic has been stopped for the holiday? It makes you think.

Foreigners are walking too, or riding bikes, or doubled on motorscooters. Foreign men hold hands with Chinese girls; some, I know, dislike the ostentation of PDAs (public displays of affection), but bear it with passive, closed faces. Old men are out in the tiny corner parks, playing Chinese chess, or cards, or mah-jong in the privacy of the streets, or just sitting in wicker chairs, smoking, watching, chatting with their friends. Some look at me, and will respond with real friendliness to a “Xin Nian Kuai Le!”*



Almost a Street Party
Almost a Street Party
European Bar in the Former French Concession
European Bar in the Former French Concession

We wandered down one of the hip bar streets – crowded, half a street party – it’s warm enough to make being outside pleasant, and people are in a holiday mood. Scooters weave slowly and carefully around the drinkers.

A few weeks later…

In a cafe that feels like Hong Kong, with detox salads, soft trance music in the background, distressed leather chairs and copper top tables. But it is snowing outside.

Rainy snow, steady but not sticking, turning to water as it lands. The roads swish as cars drive cautiously along. Some people are still out walking, delighted by the gift of difference. We joined them on the streets, gloved and hatted.

The dictionary on my phone tells me the word for snow, and thinks it important to add the verb that means “walking through the snow to view plum blossoms“. On the way home I do indeed see a plum tree covered in cerise blossoms, and start to understand what Spring Festival means.


Morning View
Morning View

A rainy day in Shanghai, in the drift of cold days following Chinese New Year. The snow seems to have gone now; it was never more than a suggestion anyway.

The plane trees are asleep. Their coppiced shapes clear now, as are the buildings usually hid by their whispering leaves. Yellows and greys, the colours of Shanghai streets.

In contrast to the shut down quietness in this North, I know that in Adelaide a great flowering is taking place: the festival will start and be a time of happiness and colour. I begin to miss it, but I’m not unhappy to be in these grey streets, the frowning sky doesn’t offend. The forms of the bare trees are good to look at, the dark tiles on the old mansions add to the pleasantly sombre tone of the streets.

Plane Trees Bare in Winter
Plane Trees Bare in Winter

Shanghainese walk by, bundled still, but mostly hatless under umbrellas. Delivery guys wear long bright plastic robes on their motorbikes. Shanghai women – cashmere and fur collars, boots and bright tights, fabulous hair. It is hard to find a Shanghai woman with bad hair – that lovely thick hair cuts so well.


Back of the Bund, a cafe of shining newness, but it is rigorously styled to look like a 1930s French cafe. All the waiters speak French (they are mostly Chinese), and English with French accents. “Oui, we are all from France, even Bernard, who is from Australia”, they say, buoyant and certain of their excellence.Bernard smiles shyly from behind his hand, and serves us excellent coffee.


A small local restaurant, with room for dozen diners perhaps – the plaything of a famous American chef.

Many of us are foreigners. Rastas sit at the bar – we learn from magazines later they are visiting DJs. Two blonde women go out for a smoke, slender white paper tubes poised and ready in their hands before they reach the door. Solid confident bodies, in aged blue jeans, certain that they own this life in Shanghai.

“We should leave a tip, says T, who’s been chatting to the owner-chef. “Just because this is really California.”

*Xin Nian Kuai Le! – “New Year has come!”

4 thoughts on “Sojourning in Shanghai

  1. Hi Tracey

    It’s always good to receive your cloud writing reports. Interesting point you made about foreigners just sojourning in Shanghai. It’s the same in Indonesia – we are just visitors here and will always be just that, no matter how long we stay or how we feel about the place. Lots of expats forget that!!!

    With love


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