This piece is a preview of FORM Vol. XXII, on departing from the duality that surrounds us. Vol. XXII will be available Thursday, April 18th at the Devil’s Krafthouse from 5-6:30pm.
There is no light at the pedestrian walk, so I hurry across, looking side-to-side for incoming motorists. The January wind bites at my cheek as I shrink into my coat and pick up a jog, dodging a grimacing deliveryman just as I reach the other side of the street.
The Bund is unusually busy this morning. Even past the 8 am rush hour, there is still a steady stream of cars scuttling down the street. The air smells of a mix of combustion, mist, and hard alkaline from the asphalt in the streets. Skyscrapers emerge on the horizon beyond the banks of Huangpu River as the curtain of fog slowly starts to lift: the Oriental Pearl Tower, World Financial Center, Jin Mao, IFC, Shanghai Tower. One after the other, they rise into the wan pillows of clouds above, as though they were heritage oaks competing for light. Even in this morning haze, their lustrous metallic exteriors still reflect a mix of sharp glares from sunbeams and the static LED lights from electronic billboards. I pause to watch the kaleidoscopic dance of light and shadow across the skyline. Between us, the vast expanse of river flows uneasily. Watching, wary.
A moped speeds past me, jolting me out of my reverie. Its tailing wind, while brushing gently across my face, carries with it a dense cacophony of voices, footsteps, wheels, and the low but heavy whirring of high-rise buildings that envelops me in a shroud of pure, unadulterated noise. I pick up my pace again and walk a couple of steps along the pavement before ducking into a narrow alleyway on my left, squeezing through some panelled gates with chipping green paint.
And like the first moment of diving into a pool, head under water, the noise dulls.
I’m standing in the middle of a tapered lane, one of the many connecting this threadbare traditional neighborhood, known in Chinese as “longtang.” The lanes are interconnected, forming a broad labyrinth along which stone apartment buildings from the early 20th century stand tall. Some even older ones are made of wood rather than stone, with splits and cracks in the timber that project a grandiosity despite its fragile appearance. Exposed gas pipes and electricity wires weave and wrap around the outside of the buildings, meandering between hanging clothes-lines of laundry. A black parka. A pair of jeans. A blanket with floral embroidery.
Then there’s a qipao, hanging almost directly above my head. The crimson color of its silk has been temporarily darkened from washing and the glassy threads that make up its intricate pattern of dragons and lilies glisten from some remnant beads of water. Momentarily, I see the outlines of two women, dressed in Cheongsam dresses of a matching Prussian blue, each holding a large feather fan. Their wrists, with each turn, radiates an Old Shanghai glamor that they must have taken care to wear on themselves.
I wander down the lane and turn right at the first splinter. The scene is a confusion of modern and antique. Two rows of terraced stone houses face each other with a medley of bikes, mopeds and motorcycles lined up outside. The windows on the ground floor of the buildings are lined with wooden shutters that, though brittle-looking, retain an ornate classicality and command the respect of any passerby. Most of the gates to the houses are flung open, daring the onlooker to trespass. Cautiously, I walk up to one of the houses and teeter on the edge of the premise. Behind a slightly opened front door, I glimpse a large unlit staircase ascending into darkness.
Someone bikes past behind me, and then it’s completely still. The silence is intoxicating.
Deeper and deeper into the neighborhood I roam, stopping and standing every few dozen steps or so. I find a ladder resting beside another gate—planks of wood held together by loose wires—and run my fingers over the haphazardly chopped edges. I forget about the risk of splinters and focus on how raw it is. Rough and boorish. But natural. I get a sudden urge to haul it over my shoulder and carry it outside of the longtang. I’d take it down to the river, bring it on to the ferry, and take it over to the other side of the river bank so that I could set it down right next to the skyscrapers. How pleasing it is to think about all of its coarseness touching the sleek monsters, grating and denting their polished gracefulness.
The very back end of the longtang is blocked off by a newly constructed wall. The crisp whiteness of its paint coat stick out perversely among the stone, wood and rusted metal in the rest of the neighborhood. It was erected when the other half of the neighborhood was torn down a little over two months ago, eaten away by a commercial development project. The wall creeps up so close to the last row of houses that the stretch of walkway in front of them can barely fit two people walking side by side.
I am overcome with claustrophobia. The bleach of the wall dizzies me and I cannot shake off the apprehension that it will engulf me whole. Frantically, I try to back out of the lane, almost staggering as I walk in reverse.
In the distance a man comes through a set of gates at the far end. He’s pushing a bike and a bag of groceries dangles from one of the handles. When he gets to the cramped walkway, he expertly angles the front wheel slightly to the left, so that when he gets on and tilts towards the right, the bike comes back to center. Deftly, he then extracts the bag of groceries and places it between his body and the handles, balancing on the bike. I watch, stunned, as he peddles towards me, squeezing between the wall and the houses, occasionally scraping against it. I move out of the way just as he reaches me, but I keep watching his back.
In the distance a car blares, and I remember the year, month, and day again.