Two weeks ago I arrived in Shanghai. After a long and bumpy plane ride my taxi dropped me off at my temporary home, tucked away in a little alley just off busy Changle Lu 长乐路. This can be literally translated as “long happy road” but a foreign journalist who lived here and wrote a book about it called it more poetically the Street of Eternal Happiness. A resounding name and hopefully a good omen for my next year in China. First things first: I set up my tea table in my new home.
All roads lead to…
I have lived on a road with a poetic name before, the Rainbow Mountain East Road in Kunming. That road brought me a lot of happiness – interesting work, friends, life in a laidback city with lovely weather and food. It’s also where I was when Covid hit and decided to gamble on an insecure existence as a freelancer in a closed country during a pandemic. The last street in China where I lived didn’t have a name, but the name of the village Heyang 鹤阳 refers to the gracious, strong and auspicious crane bird. This is the place where I have been happiest in China – the most at peace, close to mountains and blue skies, feeling completely free (apart from visa stress and closed borders) and discovering the way of tea.
Shanghai is not a City of Eternal Spring like Kunming, but I have arrived in the right season and I’m waiting for the perfect moment to tie my martenitsa to a flowery branch. The streets in my neighbourhood are picturesque and green, lined by London plane trees. It is a tree commonly associated with France and popular with city planners since they were used to line the Parisian boulevards Hausmann designed in the 19th century. It is the French who brought the tree to Shanghai when they governed the so-called French Concession from 1849 to 1943. Today, it is a bustling and gentrified part of the city with the picturesque Art Deco villas and the trees still standing.
The people I meet
After two weeks on Changle Lu I can tell I will be happy here too. I’ve met with a lot of friends already – old Kunming friends and Dali neighbours who now either live in Shanghai or visit regularly, an ex-colleague from Amsterdam and tea friends Vincent Liu (who I until now only knew through his My Tea Pal app and tea club), and tea friend Sergey (founder of MoyChay tea club in Amsterdam and other locations). A warm bath in what is otherwise a chilly week. Shanghai has been overcast and a bit wet since I arrived. With a sunny exception during last weekend, when my neighbourhood was filled with daytrippers enjoying the spring blossom.
It is a neighbourhood full of cafes, restaurants, small boutiques, designer stores, coffee joints and influencers. Lots and lots of influencers. Chinese online life is mostly experienced through short videos on platforms such as Douyin (known as TikTok in the west). These often combine entertainment with shopping. In the weekend the narrow pavements of the French Concession are full of young people striking poses and live-streaming as they are walking around. I already feel enough of a local to get a bit annoyed by the vapid posing. I would love to do another KISS event here – Situationism as an antidote to the mass consumerism.
I’m not immune, of course. I’ve rediscovered Taobao. This shopping platform is the Chinese Amazon, but better. After the influencer crowds, the second biggest cohort of street traffic is undoubtedly the delivery drivers. They navigate the streets (and pavements) like kamikazes on their ebikes. They know how to find me – at the back of my little lane, through my downstairs neighbours’ kitchen, and up two dark and narrow flights of stairs.
I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit. Most people on the street are of course more like me . On their way to work or school, preoccupied with the stuff of everyday life. People here look a bit different from Yunnan. They are generally tall and well-dressed city folks. Most are ethnically Han Chinese as compared to the diversity of the many minorities of Yunnan. But, there is also the old man with the bell who collects cardboard for recycling, the Disney-tuned water truck in the morning, the fish monger cleaning out her shop in the afternoon, the umbrella seller at the entrance of my metro station.
The city has come back to life after the long and extremely strict lockdowns last year. This left a lot of people traumatized – sometimes hungry, often angry and financially struggling. On the bustling streets you don’t feel it or see it. In conversation with people who lived here during the lockdown it is apparent just how much it has impacted everyone. I dearly hope that this spring signals relief and new energy and opportunities.
If I can make it here
Shanghai feels a bit like New York. When it rains it feels more like scene out of Blade Runner. People rushing along, the blinking lights of advertising screens reflected in puddles below, skyscrapers disappearing into the clouds above. The energy of this big buzzing exciting mass of people, all of them having a proper go at making it in the big city. With 26 million inhabitants it is the third-biggest city in the world, after Tokyo and New Delhi. Carl Crow shared his experiences of living as an entrepreneur in Shanghai in the early 20th century in his book Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom. It is still a very good read.
I’m also working very hard. It takes some adjusting to get back into the 9-5 rhythm after my free and easy freelance years. I’m getting the hang of it and after 5pm and in the weekend, the city is mine. Today, a Wednesday, the city is also mine. It is Qingming festival, the Chinese All Souls’ Day. I have the day off and using it to relax and reflect on my first two weeks here. This morning I was leisurely drinking tea and writing at my little tea table. I can hear the Street of Eternal Happiness faintly humming at the end of my lane. Cardboard Man came by, dinging his bell. One of my neighbours is sweeping the lane. It’s peaceful. Domweg gelukkig, as the famous Dutch poem says.