Historical Friction

IN ONE OF MANY MEMORABLE SCENES in The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi’s ravishing novel of Shanghai, a character called Old Colour lies on the rooftop outside his dormer window, staring up at the night sky. It is 1985, and Shanghai is rapidly transforming into a modern city. Old Colour is only twenty-six, but he already mourns the loss of the city’s elegance and wishes he could turn back time to experience the Shanghai of the 1930s and ’40s. As he stares into the darkness, warped images of past and present begin to appear before him: “One after another, they rolled over the horizon formed by the rooftops. How this city resembles a sunken ship! . . . Old Colour was so sad he could almost have cried.”

It’s impossible not to be affected by the clash of Shanghai’s identities if you live there for any length of time. In this most aggressively modern of places, futurism seems enmeshed with an almost tangible yearning for the past, as if the city hasn’t quite figured out how to live up to its image as China’s brash capital of consumerism. When I first moved there, I quickly became aware of the Shanghainese people’s enduring appreciation of their history as well as of the ravages of time—qualities that almost all the characters in the novel display. Old Colour is fascinated, even obsessed, with a former beauty queen called Wang Qiyao, the novel’s protagonist. Wang Qiyao is forty years older than Old Colour, and her life mirrors Shanghai’s fall and rebirth—from its decadent heyday in the late ’30s through its devastation during the war and again in the Cultural Revolution, until its latest reincarnation as a shiny new metropolis complete with discos and Nike sneakers. The clash between modernity and tradition is perfectly encapsulated in Wang Qiyao’s failure to understand her daughter, Weiwei, who is thrilled with the very things that Wang Qiyao finds repulsive: the commercialization of food, fashion, and etiquette; the easy availability of things once considered luxurious; the willingness to give up individual tastes to fit in with the masses; and, above all, the changing manners of young women.

This atmosphere of nostalgia hangs over the streets of Shanghai even today. Throughout my time there, I was continually struck by how determinedly old-fashioned Shanghainese people were in the face of relentless modernization. Strolling along the streets at night as I often did in the areas behind the Bund and farther west in the French Concession, it seemed as though little had changed in the twenty years since the time described at the end of the novel. The European-style stone buildings were silent with a faint air of dereliction, as if purposely left unrestored, and roads were still densely lined with ancient plane trees. Even in the modern parts of town, such as the fashionable street of Huaihai, music would play in the open air, and old couples wearing long coats trimmed with fake fur would stroll arm in arm as the sun went down, greeting one another and exchanging gossip. On summer evenings, people of all ages danced rumba in the parks, and old men took daintily dressed dogs for walks around the block.

Even young Shanghainese today hold tight to the city’s past. I had a number of local friends in their twenties and thirties who wore the latest Western fashions and knew the difference between macchiato and ristretto, but in their spare time they practiced calligraphy and took lessons in traditional Chinese musical instruments. When we went on walks in the evenings, they would take me through old parts of the city, as if they wanted me to retain that image of Shanghai, rather than the glitzy new one.

Much of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is set in the famous longtang—the traditional neighborhoods enclosed within laneways—where the narrow houses are rarely more than three or four stories high, and families have lived pressed up against one another for generations. The novel opens with a twenty-page description of these lanes, starting with a sweeping panorama before descending to document every detail of life in a typical longtang: the tingzijian that serve as bedchambers to the young women of each house, the fog-covered alleys, the pigeons, the kites, the gossip, the dim lights of the homes, whose mass is “dense as a pot of pea porridge.”

This denseness might well be used to describe the novel’s opening passage itself, which comes before the introduction of any characters and marks the conscious decision to place Shanghai’s traditional lifestyle squarely in the middle of the story’s frame. Old Shanghai, the Shanghai we have almost lost: That is the main character of the novel. It is the very opposite of the current vogue—both in the West and in China—to cast Shanghai as the emblem of modernity itself. The opening feels like an act of defiance, yet it also seems true to the city. Every time I visit Shanghai, I see a city unable to lose its attachment to the past, despite its ever-ascending skyline. Perhaps that is what Shanghai is destined to be—a place that can’t help being old despite wanting to be new.

Tash Aw’s latest book is the novel Five Star Billionaire (Spiegel & Grau, 2013).