Five-Minute Memoir: Tash Aw recalls the relentless pace of life in Shanghai


Life in Shanghai was beginning to get me down. I could feel myself tiring, feeling breathless from the pollution and breaking out in a nagging cough. The fresh autumn breeze gave way to a bitter winter chill that seeped into my bones, making my joints ache.

Late one evening I plugged in a second electric heater and blew the fuse at 2am; I spent the whole of the next day in bed, fully dressed but still shivering under my meager duvet. Soon I was spending entire days in bed, unable to face the vastness of the crazy metropolis outside.

I had moved to Shanghai some weeks earlier to research, and my arrival could not have been more exciting: the glittering skyscrapers of Pudong contrasted beautifully with the old-fashioned poise of the boulevards of Xuhui and Luwan, thickly-lined with plane trees; my days were filled with a combination of steady writing and fascinating walks, my evenings a never-ending round of social outings with friends keen to show me their favourite restaurants. Baby lobster in a hole-in-a-wall one night, Sichuan hotpot the next – the city seemed endlessly fascinating, full of possibility.

But soon the reality of life in one of the world's biggest cities began to feel crushing. Getting a taxi at rush hour was nothing short of all-out warfare – I once hailed a cab and opened the door only for a glamorous young Shanghainese woman to jump in ahead of me. I got stranded in People's Square metro station on Monday morning, unable to move for the weight of people around me. The weather turned snowy, and in the mornings my windows would be dripping with condensation.

I lived on the top floor of an Art Deco block on the edge of Suzhou Creek. The faded grandeur of its lobby was still evident, but elsewhere, the building had undergone extensive remodelling over the years; someone explained to me that most of its inhabitants had once worked in a missiles factory. I was never able to verify this information, but the average age of the residents was easily over 70 – leathery-faced old men and women with smokers' voices who gathered in the courtyard every evening for communal exercises performed to rousing patriotic songs.

At first I tried to engage them in conversation, but few were willing to speak to me. I couldn't speak or understand the local dialect, which, in the close-knit world of that building, immediately marked me out as an outsider. I wasn't unhappy with this situation: they lived their lives, I lived mine. But as the relentless pace of life in Shanghai began to bear down on me, I started to notice the unwelcoming stares of my neighbours as I walked down the corridor to my studio. I felt like an intruder in their world, and one day I heard someone say "laowai" – foreigner – as I hurried to my door. It was a term I had always associated with white people. Suddenly I felt like a total, genuine alien.

With the weather taking a turn for the worse – it was -3C in the daytime and snowing constantly – I stopped going out. I had enough instant noodles and bottled water to last me a while and I didn't want to have to engage with what I saw as a hostile city. The mere act of walking to the staircase would have involved going past a whole row of old men and women who would only stare at me and pass comment, so I barricaded myself indoors. Once there was a banging on the door in the middle of the afternoon, when I was half-asleep; a man barked something in Shanghainese and I assumed it was someone from the electricity board, so I ignored him.

After a few days, when I had nothing left to eat or drink, I simply had to venture out. I put on my coat and pulled my woolly hat over my ears and brow, shielding myself against the unfriendliness to come. But when I opened my door I stopped: sitting on the door mat was a blue plastic bag. Inside it there were a few oranges and a packet of biscuits – seaweed flavour. A hand-written note in shaky handwriting said, 'Hope you are OK, your door has been closed for many days'. I looked around, but everyone ignored me as usual. Eventually I managed to ask the elderly lady who lived in the room opposite if she knew about the oranges and biscuits, but she merely smiled and replied in Shanghainese that she had no idea.

As the winter gave way to spring and I regained my affection for Shanghai, I continued to enquire as to the origin of the oranges. I never found out who left them for me, and my neighbours continued to be as nonchalant as ever about my presence. And yet, every time I did catch someone's eye, it seemed to me that those once-hostile faces now regarded me with kindness and – if I'm not imagining it – even some affection.

Tash Aw's latest novel, 'Five Star Billionaire', is published by Fourth Estate