There are places which have always carried an irresistible air of far away and exotic mystery for me from an early age, including both China and Shanghai. Emile Ford and the Checkmates had a hit in 1960 with a version of On a Slow Boat to China which just reinforced the idea of China being so impossibly far away it was almost imaginary. This notion was confirmed by Christmas trips to the Pantomime which often turned out to be Aladdin and where China was again an exotic, distant locale that merged into a fairy story with magic lamps and lanterns and songs about noodle soup and poodle soup at the supermarket in Old Peking. About the same time I was taken to see the film Inn of the Sixth Happiness, supposedly set in pre World War 2 China at the time of the Japanese invasion. The fact that it was actually shot in Snowdonia passed me by, as did the oddity of the Mandarin of Yang Cheng being played by a white British actor, Robert Donat. I did, however, wonder how and why all the Chinese child refugees were singing This Old Man in perfect English as they marched to safety behind Ingrid Bergman. It just added to the notion of China being a very strange country.
Shanghai itself remained even more akin to a fairy tale place to me, a notion helped by an old book from the genre of ‘rattling good yarns’ called Shanghai Adventure that I found about the house and from family stories about a great grandfather and sea captain named Damnation Joe, who had gone to sea as a midshipman at the age of 15 and sailed the seas to Rangoon, Cape Town, Sydney and Columbo, bringing home a parrot that could swear and a crocodile. He also sailed one of the fast tea clippers from China and I sometimes imagined him in Shanghai strolling past the shipping offices along the Bund dressed in white linen and pipe-clayed shoes –or maybe even carried in a sedan chair - whilst barefooted Chinese labourers loaded the matted tea chests onto the ship. The reality was probably nothing like that but just the name ’Shanghai’ seems to inspire romantic notions. Take some of the songs about the place. John Denver rhapsodised that “Shanghai breezes soft and gentle remind me of your tenderness” in his 1982 track Shanghai Breezes. Ed Harcourt imagined moving to Shanghai “to swim beneath the ocean, watch the red sky…and have our own rickshaw cart” in the Shanghai track on the Here Be Monsters album. Joe Jackson dreamt of being “ by the river in Shanghai. The colour of the sky is something I've never seen” in his Shanghai Sky track from 1986.
Looking across the skyline with the Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the skyscrapers and towering office blocks stretching off into the distance and manic traffic that makes one feel that one had somehow entered a video game when you are in the midst of it, it was difficult to recognise the picture painted by these songs, especially on those days when the air pollution count was high enough to close schools, pedestrians and cyclists went about in face masks and the horizon was invisible through the smog. Yet despite all the rapid expansion and changes of the past 20 years or so, the magic of old Shanghai could still be spotted not just along the Bund or French Concession district where the old colonial buildings still stand but even in the city centre where it is easy to soon see someone practising the graceful movements of tai-chi or a group sitting round concentrating on a game of mah-jong or the entrance to an old alleyway where you can see the bright colours of quilts and clothes fluttering on ropes to dry and smell the aromas of chicken soup and soybeans. In People’s Park it was possible to see an odd but also rather touching attempt to merge the old and new when, on a Sunday afternoon, parents with unmarried children set up stall with some written details of their son or daughter - age, height, education, job, salary, zodiac sign, rarely a photo – in the hope of finding a match and suitable marriage partner. I somehow doubted the success rate.
The song that captures for me this mixture is one released by the American singer/songwriter Beck (Hansen) as sheet music in his Song Reader project in 2012 and entitled Old Shanghai, an evocative piece of old men smoking in cafes and lanterns under the night sky. As intended, there have been a number of versions of the song, including one by the Teng Ensemble, a Singapore outfit that blends traditional and modern musical influences but the one I found most suited to my own feelings of the place was by the Portland Cello Project with Lizzy Ellison of Portland indie band Radiation City on vocals, released in 2013. It slopes along with the kind of lazy Sunday afternoon feeling you sometimes get in a Randy Newman song, like his Dayton, Ohio 1903, past and present merging as when you find a spot of tranquillity sitting by one of the ponds or pavilions in Yu Gardens with the sky scrapers temporarily out of sight and mind. Maybe the song was right and there's more to do than there is to say in old Shanghai