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

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all