Walking with a 6-foot-2-inch red-haired man in Shanghai is one way to get attention. On The Bund — flanked by the Yangtze River and architectural clones from European streets — teenage girls jostle closer to us, giggling conversations behind cupped hands.
Several young women bashfully ask for a photograph and my friend is ever-obliging, aqua imp eyes flickering. It’s our first time in the city and we’re savouring it. Bands of young men don’t request a picture they just fire their flash in our direction.
Hazy late afternoon air is drowning in the smell of industry and docks and food and…something. We walk on. My friend’s celebrity ebbs; we talk about long-distance love. Jazz resounds in basement bars and I suspect businesses are born and broken in rooftop restaurants.
Beyond The Bund, where the roofs of the Old Town curl upwards to ward off evil spirits, old men dream in tea houses. Black cables cut the air between buildings in urban alleys. They carry electricity and linen; whites somehow impervious to stain.
Shanghai presses itself urgently — and deeply — into our senses. Neon flares across the cityscape after the briefest twilight but part of me ignores it, preferring to imagine the place steaming and hedonistic and underbellied in the 1920s.
It’s now been a long time since I walked by the Yangtze. But Shanghai still burns in my brain. I walked those streets when everything felt amplified. Life was raw and huge and I devoured it. There’s a strong sense of ‘true self’ tied into my recollection of that city too and it anchors me when I feel I could go AWOL from my own life.
I was reminded of all this when a friend told me recently she liked the ‘second chance’ of Chinese New Year. If 2012 hasn’t begun as you hoped, why not start again on January 23? Where do you want to be (physically or metaphorically) this lunisolar year? Join me in making your Year of the Dragon burn.