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Sometimes Shanghai seems to be everywhere. Late last September, on one of my first days back in New York after several months in China, I noticed a new sidewalk vending machine selling copies of China Daily, the English-language edition of the official Party newspaper. The headlines announced that Premier Li Keqiang had launched a bold economic experiment, persuading the State Council to create a Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in the city. There, foreign and private enterprises would invest freely and banks would convert yuan into and out of other currencies. Select Chinese companies would conduct offshore business, and goods would come and go without having to clear customs. The whole thing would occupy around eleven square miles.

The thumbnail map that ran beside the article showed a shaded polygon northeast of Pudong district, the glittering range of skyscrapers that looks over the older part of Shanghai from across the Huangpu River. It was labeled Waigaoqiao. The name means a “tall bridge outside,” and I knew that there were many precedents for such an effort to bring in foreign business. Starting with the southern city of Shenzhen, in 1980, Deng Xiaoping created a series of Special Economic Zones along China’s coast. The liberal economic policies and management practices that reigned there, as well as the government investment and tax incentives that these zones received, allowed them to play a key role in China’s “reform and opening up.” They attracted the foreign money that transformed an impoverished country into the “world’s factory.” They were why my childhood in Brooklyn in the 1990s was cluttered with objects made in the Pearl River Delta.

Nonetheless, after decades of dramatic development, China’s economy had been stalling. In 2012 GDP growth was merely 7.8 percent—the lowest in thirteen years, since before China joined the WTO. Premier Li managed to create the FTZ because even skeptics within the Party leadership acknowledged that they needed another economic miracle. Shanghai makes sense as the place to look for it. The skyline built up in the past twenty years has often been cited as proof that the current leadership, whatever its other failings, can lift the country “from rice paddies to skyscrapers,” fast.

China Daily opened its story on the FTZ by advertising the city’s dramatic evolution. “Several decades of carefully planned development have transformed Shanghai from an industrial dinosaur filled with smokestacks into a modern service powerhouse adorned with gleaming high-rises full of banks, multinational enterprises, and large trading houses,” the lede read. Like a time-lapse video in which the grubby “smokestacks” of bygone industry evaporate into merely metaphorical “powerhouses,” this passage all but makes the city vanish. Yet despite being strangely bodiless, the place it conjures exerts a strong pull forward: “Shanghai has even grander things in store”; the FTZ is “a pilot project … expected to pave the way”; a “test run … widely seen as a precursor to economic restructuring and financial reform on a national level.”

China Daily is, for obvious reasons, a paper that tends to present politics as a series of official decrees—statements about things that will happen and bring about other desirable ends. The banality of its optimism may be extreme. Yet as I read it in the New York subway, I realized that the sense of momentum it evoked is present in almost all rhetoric about China’s development. That word, “development,” itself conveys a strong sense of inevitability that the sci-fi resonances of words like “zone” intensify, as if the processes we hope for had merely to unfold. The press release spoke of Shanghai as if it represented a future—or, indeed, was already in that future, and would soon jolt the rest of the country into joining it there. I used to think about Shanghai that way, too.

The first time I went was basically by chance. It was my first time going anywhere in China. After one year of intensive Chinese courses at the university where I had started my Ph.D., I received a grant for a summer language-immersion program in Beijing. But I happened to have a month or so free before those classes began and nothing keeping me. I started looking for a project or pretext that would let me arrive early. It turned out that a more practical friend would be working at Shanghai’s provincial sovereign wealth fund for the summer. At the time she seemed connected, capable; in retrospect, I suspect that she feared being lonely. In any case, she helped me apply for an internship at a television station owned by the Shanghai Media Group. And when her bosses confirmed they would be putting her up in a hotel suite, she offered me her extra bed.

In the hurried weeks before my departure, I read less than I had meant to. I did learn that historians dispute when Shanghai became Shanghai. The Chinese Communist Party commemorates 1291, the year in which Yuan Dynasty records first mention an administrative center on the Huangpu River. The true founding, however, has more often been dated to August 1842, when the British forced the Qing emperor to sign the treaty ending the first Opium War. The Treaty of Nanjing and the Treaty of the Bogue, which followed it in October 1843, created two foreign “concessions” around the old, walled “Chinatown”: the International Concession, which was primarily British but also housed Americans, and the French Concession, which was French. Both were politically autonomous, with their own legal systems. They effectively opened the city to unlimited foreign settlement—there were few, if any, real controls on immigration—and to unrestricted trade.

In the boom years that followed, “shanghai” soon became a byword for misadventure. The OED cites the first use of the verb meaning “to enroll or obtain a sailor for the crew of a ship by unscrupulous means, as by liquor or drugging” to 1855. For decades the ratio of foreign men to women hovered around nine to one, hence the frontier-town atmosphere that made legends of women like the Sing Song Girls and the White Russian courtesan Shanghai Lily, whom Marlene Dietrich plays in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). In another Sternberg noir, The Shanghai Gesture (1941), a Dragon Lady casino owner played by Ona Munson in yellowface stages a supposedly traditional Chinese New Year scene to titillate her foreign guests: a dozen girls in rags, of all races, are hoisted in bird cages above a crowd of slavering sailors who, she says, will bid to take them as sex slaves. The victims shriek as firecrackers erupt around them and the extras catcall below.

The extraterritorial status that made Shanghai infamously permissive inspired turn-of-the-century Chinese nationalists to see it as a place where anything might be possible. When the last Qing emperor stepped down, in 1911, it was to Shanghai that many patriotic intellectuals returned from abroad. After the Versailles Treaty turned over the German-occupied province of Shandong to Japan, the patriotic protest movements filled the streets, and the leaders began advocating the creation of literature in baihua, everyday speech; the polyglot journalist and later Party leader Qu Qiubai translated “L’Internationale” into vernacular Mandarin. The founding journals of the New Culture Movement, as it came to be called, moved to Beijing, but it was in a two-story house in Shanghai’s French Concession that the Communist Party of China held their first congress in July 1921, with French and Russian advisors. Young Mao Zedong attended as the delegate from Hunan.

Mao and his army would put an end to the “century of humiliation” that the founding of modern Shanghai had begun. And yet, the sense of the city’s exceptional status has persisted. Indeed, it has powerfully revived since the 1990s. As capital from the biggest economic boom in world history flowed in, and cultural producers followed, the city of the Chinese internationale reemerged as “global.” A heady influx of migrant workers from the countryside, waidiren, helped build its iconic skyscrapers and boost its ranks: Shanghai is now the most populous city in the world. When Paris Hilton went to attend an MTV award show in 2007, she gushed that Shanghai “looks like the future” three times at a single press conference.

I did not necessarily expect to like it. But the idea of Shanghai began to exert a pull on me. As an American who has come of age in the era of what we are constantly told is our decline, I could not help feeling that Shanghai was on the right side of history—and feel drawn to a momentum that I hoped would touch and somehow change me.

In fact, from the moment of my arrival, I experienced the city as a series of almost continual frustrations and delays.

When I finished the thirty-hour concatenation of flights that I booked from Newark via London, I realized that I had failed to write down my hotel address. At the exit from the airport terminal, a hustler in a tulip skirt, who must have been stationed to scan the curb for just such occasions, saw me struggling to tell a cab driver where I thought it was. She snatched my Google Maps printout, marched me inside to make some calls, and then back out to her guy, lugging my club-footed duffle bag in one stinging hand. She charged me 500 yuan, something like 80 USD, at least three times what it should be.

From the ride, I remember the moment when the white cords of the Huangpu Bridge soared into view to our right, above the river, gold with sunning filth, and we turned west, following the first ring road down into a series of arcing, leafy streets. At an intersection where our car stopped at a red light, I saw a fruit seller stooping to yoke his neck into a carrying pole, cross the street, and continue into the shade, his two heaped baskets swaying in tempo with his step. The driver told me a long story, the punchline to which I had look up: jiaguji, “jacuzzi.”

My friend’s suite turned out to be a single room with one desk and a fridge too small to hold the bottle of Sprite I had bought at Heathrow in any posture. The hotel was run by the Party, and notwithstanding its location at the north edge of the former French Concession, and the Muzak rendering of “Non, je ne regrette rien” that sometimes tinkled in the elevators, I never saw another foreigner there. Before opening my VPN to log in to Facebook, which crashed our dial-up for the afternoon, I wrote emails saying I had arrived smoothly and that Shanghai looked great. It did. The city’s scale and strangeness made even trivial mishaps interesting.

My second day, spent finding my way to a jangling electronics mall called Metro City, did not feel like a waste, even though I failed to find someone to unlock my iPhone. The salesgirl who finally sold me the same model Nokia that I had used as a foreign student in Berlin in 2005 trailed me for an hour, practicing her English by bitching about her Egyptian boyfriend. He would not marry her because of his religion. “In Shanghai,” she warned me, “foreign men just want to float.” Did she mean swing?

The solecisms that I ran into around the city were giving me a pretty good idea of what my Chinese must have sounded like, at best. During my first days in Shanghai, phrases I had carefully memorized kept tripping all wrong off my lips. I misheard the proprietor of a bakery politely saying hello (ni chi gou le) for his exclaiming in surprise that I liked dog meat (ni chi gou ah!) and spat a mouthful of harmless veggie bun out into my palm. I had been meticulous asking a waitress for tofu, since a teacher had once warned me that if I fumbled my word order I would say something risqué. But tacking a Sprite (xuebi) on to the end of my order in the wrong tone I inadvertently asked for “and one snow-cunt!”

That night, my friend and I took the first of what would become habitual walks—three, even four miles east, under the humming Ring Road. We went as far as Jing’an Temple and the maze of shops around it. We stopped in side streets, lingered at food stalls hissing with hunks of smarting meat, and then headed on toward the Miu Miu and Gucci billboards that marked People’s Square. As we wandered, the abstractions with which I had arrived, the idea of the city as a shiny thing of glass and steel, began to dissolve into concrete details.

In the alleys behind the lane houses, strings of ghostly laundry hung, drying, beneath windows lit like north stars. In larger avenues, food vendors set up noodle stands, and people sat at low plastic tables, smoking and playing cards past midnight. All kinds of things were for sale. Men on bicycles pedaled barges stacked with densely packed plastic recycling, or with pastel mountains of plush teddy bears. Peddlers set up carts with heaps of dishware or stacks of pirated books and DVDs. For some reason, all of them seemed to be playing either “Bésame Mucho” or “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” The godmother who babysat me when I was a child used to watch the Bette Midler movie that song comes from, and hum the tune, but until then I would have sworn I had forgotten.

I had expected days at the TV station to move faster. Having been invited to help out on a lifestyle show called City Beat, I went in with aspirations to work hard and sniff out the true story of how state-owned media functioned. But as it turned out I spent much of every day at my desk, attempting to look occupied. By day three, boredom had given me the courage to sneak one of the few paperbacks that I had brought with me to China out from my Longchamp purse. André Malraux’s Man’s Fate was already wilting in the wet May heat. I curled it open in my lap and read.

Published in 1933, Man’s Fate centers on a failed Communist uprising that took place in 1927 and led to what is called the “April 12th incident,” “purge,” “counterrevolutionary coup,” “tragedy” or “massacre,” depending on whom you ask. In March of that year, Zhou Enlai led a force of union workers to defeat the warlords then controlling the city. They occupied and governed the Chinese districts for weeks before the National Revolutionary Army arrived, at the invitation of the European powers the Nationalists were hoping to replace. Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law and issued a secret order to expel all Communists from the Kuomintang (KMT). When thousands of students and union members went to his army to protest, soldiers opened fire, killing one hundred and wounding more. Zhou fled to Wuhan, and the young Mao to the countryside, where the violent course that the twentieth century would take began.

Malraux tells the story of the uprising through the fictional, French-Japanese leader Kyo Gisors, and the Chinese assassin T’chen. The novel was a runaway bestseller and won the Prix Goncourt in Popular Front Paris. The great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein so admired it that when Malraux came to attend the First Writer’s Congress in Moscow, he locked both of them in a room for days, to write an adaptation that never materialized.

The next morning, I emailed in sick. I swiped a few mantou (steamed buns) and satchels of jam from the hotel breakfast buffet and lay in bed reading until afternoon. Outside, the cathedral arch the plane trees made above the curving streets of the concession bent in the wind. It was going to rain. A woman selling lychees stood up, fit the balance over her neck, then started making her way toward Fuxing Lu. When the fuwuyuan came in to change the sheets and found me still in them she looked at me with what seemed like embarrassment. I accepted two bottled waters and told her she did not need to make my bed.

In Man’s Fate, all but the most cynical characters die in the end. But at the time Malraux was writing, other visitors to Shanghai were offering brighter visions. A 1934 travel guide that I came across, quoted in a history book, called it “Paris of the East! The New York of the West! The most cosmopolitan city in the world … a vast brilliantly hued cycloramic, panoramic mural of the best and worst of Orient and Occident!” When Christopher Isherwood and his friend and sometimes lover W. H. Auden traveled across China by train to research the travel book they were to write together, Journey to a War (1939), Shanghai was where they chose to finish. Isherwood makes the city sound like a genie lamp that lets you wish for more wishes:

You can buy an electric razor or a French dinner, or a well-cut suit. You can dance at the Tower Restaurant on the roof of the Cathay Hotel, and gossip with Freddy Kaufmann, its charming manager, about the European aristocracy of pre-Hitler Berlin. You can attend race-meetings, baseball games, football matches. You can see the latest American films. If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath-houses and brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray, like afternoon tea … Finally, if you ever repent, there are churches and chapels of all denominations.

The next generation of European aesthetes remained attracted to Shanghai, but they went looking for something different: not the worldly pleasure park that Isherwood had sought out, but proof that a cultural revolution could live up to its promise to transform society. Roland Barthes came in 1974 as one of a group of French Maoists from the literary journal Tel Quel, invited by Mao’s government under the supervision of the official Travel Bureau. (Jacques Lacan was also supposed to go, but pulled out at the last minute.) Barthes had been writing prolifically about his travels in Japan since the 1960s and hoped that the trip would produce a book. But what he came up with was only a brief article in Le Monde entitled “Alors, la Chine?”

It is the record of a disappointment. “We went to China armed with a thousand pressing and, it seemed, natural questions,” Barthes writes. “We shook the tree of knowledge in order to make it answer, so that we could return supplied with what is our primary intellectual nourishment: a secret deciphered. But nothing fell. In a sense, other than the political answers we received, we returned with nothing.” It was not until 2009 that a fuller account of Barthes’ travels in China appeared: the three notebooks that he filled over the course of the three-week trip.

Barthes knew from the beginning that describing the country would be a struggle, and he soon got sick of rehearsed speeches. On a scheduled visit to a worker’s home, Barthes writes: “Set theme of Gratitude. Set theme Past/Present. [Here: Theme of the Poor.]” When his wife speaks: “She develops the Set Theme, with personal incidents … [The Story, the Repetition, the lesson: the lectio.] [Rising anti-stereotype nausea.]”

Unlike Malraux or Isherwood, Barthes spends a lot of time seeing himself being seen. He recalls getting gawked at in the Nanjing Zoo. “Double zoo: we stare at the Panda, fifty people stare at us.” China itself keeps startling Barthes by looking and sounding familiar: “One peacock cries ‘Léon Léon’…” On his first day in Shanghai he notices “three women of three different ages washing clothes in a wooden tub, with a plank like in Morocco.” He sees French friends in Chinese faces—“an emaciated writer in his cap, who reminds me of Foucault.” He concludes that as a fact-finding mission the Tel Quel trip is hopeless. “I feel that I won’t be able to shed light on them in the least … just shed light on us by means of them.” He concludes: “What needs to be written isn’t So, what about China?, but So, what about France?

Barthes recognized that what Tel Quel was looking for in Mao’s China was a mirage. Where Malraux had wanted to create an imaginary history by documenting an urban revolution that never took place, the French Maoists wanted evidence that the radical aesthetic principles that they had been promoting in Paris could help bring about a revolution in consciousness—or, as the Chairman had put it, a “systematic remolding of human minds.” Indeed, the fictions about Shanghai that I misspent my time in the city reading gradually showed me how powerful this city was as a fiction. The power of this fiction has drawn successive generations of visitors to rewrite it, each in the image of their own desires.

So what about us?

The truth is that the foreigners I met in Shanghai mostly wanted to party. (Barthes himself conceded that the Shanghai streets would be “good for cruising.” “A lot of people, more attractive!” he jots in his notebooks as soon as the plane bearing the Tel Quel contingent lands.) The friend who was hosting me in her hotel valiantly found friends of friends, even of friends of friends, who lived in Shanghai. Most seemed to be finance guys, or diplobrats who had stayed after their parents left, or kids who had bungled university in Britain or France, convinced their father or uncle to buy them a one-way ticket, and were now killing it with the Ferrari contract, with the Lancôme contract, with the TAG Heuer contract. I made friends, too. Between our efforts, we went somewhere almost every night.

We went to Ladies Night at the clubs on Yongufulu, accepted free champagne flutes and, at the servers’ insistence, cardboard party hats. We met a lanky Australian named Brad who had just moved to Shanghai to work for Tesco when he leaped into the open door of our cab, a sausage-truck sausage still in hand, and redirected it to another club called Velvet, where he bought a $300 bottle that no one touched.

We went to a dinner party hosted by a woman who designed BDSM-inspired shoes at the apartment she had built for herself above her studio and cooed, with everyone, over the portraits of her pug that she had hired local graffiti artists to cover the walls with. The real pug, outfitted in a Bottega Veneta collar, trotted beneath the table—which consisted of a slab of glass balanced on a thicket of interlocking mannequin legs clad in bright stockings and that season’s line of footwear. Over dinner, ruddy businessmen talked about how China was “over”; they were planning to move on to Burma next year.

We went to the party that a fashion blogger who was “famous on Weibo” (Chinese Twitter) held in his boutique-hotel suite in honor of a new lifestyle magazine that he was launching. We ate almonds and goaded two brothers who said they were doing a project on urban spaces and utopia, but who seemed to make their living as consultants, into lifting their polo shirts far enough to show us the matching Lacoste alligators they claimed to have tattooed onto their left pectorals. They did (and they did).

We went to a lecture at a new museum aimed at prospective donors and their impeccable wives, given by a French curator with bleached hair, white jeans and a visible crotch bulge. He pontificated for two hours about the history of the museum since the French Revolution, then showed a video of anime Minotaurs copulating as an example of what kind of work he, as curator, would bring to this space. When the others clapped, we clapped.

We went on, justifying our exhaustion on the grounds that a rush was what we had come for. In its current incarnation, Shanghai has superficially revived the anything-goes “phantasmagoria” that Isherwood described in the 1930s. Indeed, in rebranding the city as a hub of global capital, the contemporary Party leadership has embraced and reclaimed precisely the cosmopolitan—colonial— history that the Maoists aimed to destroy. It is as if nothing has changed, in the half century that this version of the story rather willfully elides; at the same time, everything has.

Foreigners have always come to Shanghai in order to feel that they are living on the verge of the future. For Malraux, that future was Communist. For Tel Quel, it was peopled by new kinds of social collectives, thinking and speaking in fresh, new languages. Today, foreigners travel to Shanghai because they believe that China will be the world’s next economic superpower. The city serves as a beacon of hypercapitalism that, it seems to promise, will survive the global financial crisis, beyond the reach of politics and even geography.

All of these visions are utopian; and as utopias, they feel curiously placeless. And yet the sense of placelessness that repeatedly invades the Pudong district, and which places like the Waigaoqiao FTZ seem designed to epitomize, comes from a very specific place. The future that they conjure has a very particular history. Thinking about Shanghai and its prospects now, I can’t help but remember the pantheon of past visitors to whom my own procrastination reading introduced me. The futures that drew them never arrived. Or, rather, when the time came, Shanghai was never quite as they had imagined.

Art credit: Liu Jianhua, Unreal Scene, 2008

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