March 03, 2011
We moved to Shanghai on a wintry day in March, my husband and I and our two dogs. We arrived for a job, sight unseen, and bedded down in a swank hotel on the company’s dime while the dogs were quarantined and we went apartment hunting. The company had provided us a relocation specialist, whose job it was to pick us up at our hotel thirty minutes before scheduled and midway through our buffet breakfast, then hurry us into a waiting car where we would drive back and forth through the grey, freezing sleet answering questions like, “Do you think it is necessary that you have both dogs?”
We spent several days searching through a variety of spiritless and expensive flats, whose grandiosity came in two flavors: Opulent Court of the Sun King or Decadent Sultan of the Orient. Did we see ourselves as more marble-cupids-and-crystal-swans-type people? Or more carved-wooded-dragons-and-enamel-phoenixes? Either way, the agent was at our disposal. She did have some suggestions, though.
What all the apartment buildings had in common was that they were new. Stunningly new. Glossy and gleaming and in some cases, still wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding. When I mentioned that I might like to have a second look at one place, with carved wooden moldings and a cozy window seat, the agent spat, “But it’s five years old!” in much the tone you might use to say, “But it’s full of centipedes!”
I was thoroughly charmed by a small, modern nook furnished from floor to ceiling with IKEA products, all of which still bore their original price tags and labels, creating the effect of simply moving into an IKEA showroom. Even the posters on the wall were mounted in their original shrink-wrap, their non-committal BILD label obscuring the last few watercolor daffodils in the lower-right-hand corner.
In the end, we decided on an apartment on the 29th floor of the Century Metropolis building, a compound as endearing for its ample green spaces and generous views as its comic book name. The Chinese name of our building, optimistically, is “the Oriental Manhattan.” Our building is one of dozens in our compound, each housing thousands of residents in a ring of 30-story towers covered in bathroom tile under the easily-disproven assumption that tiles are “self-cleaning.”
The apartment came decorated in a style I like to think of as “Apathetic Modern.” It appeared as is someone got tired of carrying furniture down the hall about halfway through and thought, “Minimalism.” We had a glass dining room table, a quirkily asymmetrical end table, and the ugliest sofa you have ever seen. It may not have been lovely, but everything was gleaming new and clean. Not a spot anywhere. Everything worked, every time, no fuss, no bugs, nothing. New might not be much to look at, but it’s easy to live with.
Of course, there was some trouble. We would often come down to find a posted notice in the lobby that began, in English, “IMPORTANT MESSAGE! MUST READ!” and then followed with the body of the warning written exclusively in Chinese. The few signs we could decipher made casual mention of the risk of fireworks setting our balcony clotheslines on fire, of plummeting satellite dishes from the upper floors, and of the terrible poisons regularly sprayed throughout the building’s charming green spaces. Still, we had one easy year. Then everything, quite literally, came crashing down.
We had chosen a place in Xujiahui, a riotous commercial neighborhood southwest of the graceful old French concession and an ever-growing collection of shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and real estate offices. One street a few blocks from our apartment now runs real estate office-massage parlor-real estate office-massage parlor, right on down the avenue until it’s capped at last by a bank on the corner, a handy encapsulation of new Shanghai. We picked Xujiahui because of its proximity to the subway and more importantly, to the company shuttle stop that finds my husband every morning at seven sharp ready to be carried forty-five minutes southwest into the digital suburbs, to great swathes of land where Dell, Microsoft, and Intel are colonizing former rice paddies and steel mills. We came to know and love our neighborhood, from the combination barbecued duck and pirate DVD store across the street to the Abusive Flower Vendor who would hurl invective every evening at us, his best customers.
You can find our apartment compound just a tad west of the Xujiahui intersection, a collection of colossal steel towers and LEDS blinking out “Welcome to the Terrifying World of Tomorrow” in colored lights. You can have coffee at the Starbucks perched beside a giant glass sphere ringed in orange rope lights and look down on the manic Sunday shopping crowds who cover every inch of sidewalk, undeterred by snow, wind, or rain, to watch noisy demonstrations of various up-and-coming digital products. There is a constantly changing parade of live demos, video billboards, product pavilions, costumed mascots, and picketers. The first time I saw a line of shouting students marching through the crowds with picket signs hoisted over their shoulders, I thought I was witnessing a rare example of overt Chinese political protest. Turns out, the signs were advertising a sale on Hewlett Packard printers.
Almost all the buildings in Xujiahui are new or at least tricked out to pass as new. The pace of construction in Shanghai has already provoked a lot of breathless commentary in America and abroad but it’s still something you have to see to believe it. There are cranes and work crews everywhere, and the nights are lit up with the welding arcs that glimmer beneath my living room window at night. Everything is very thrown together, impromptu and impermanent. Contractors, developers, and speculators here know that whatever goes up today will come down tomorrow. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and boutiques may have less than a month between the opening party and the wrecking ball, so there’s not much point in squaring every nail. The expatriates here, too, their lives and commitments are rushed and temporary. For me, living in a furnished apartment had a temporary feeling. Why should I bother to clean the awful sofa when next month I might be gone, and the sofa, and maybe the whole tower, gone too? No, none of these things were exactly built for the ages, but after living in a lot of ragged places in the U.S. and elsewhere, I was getting used to sleek efficiency.
And then, like Cinderella after the ball, at the stroke of one year, everything fell apart. It was another March night, a year since we’d moved to Shanghai. I turned down my street, past the Abusive Flower Vendor’s cart. Tonight his daughter was manning the cart. She is sullen, but not abusive. I passed four or five security guards helping to wave a Lexus into a narrow parking space. I got to the door at the same time as a group of three maintenance workers in matching blue coveralls. They asked to be let in, but with my limited Chinese I couldn’t figure out why. Once inside they rushed to the bathroom and began busying themselves with my toilet.
“What are you doing?” I asked, and couldn’t understand the reply. “The toilet is not broken.”
I called my building manager and put him on the phone to translate.
“They’ve come,” he said, “to take your toilet.”
“To take my toilet?”
“Yes. They will try to bring it back in four hours. Maybe tomorrow.”
That was only the beginning of the problem. The weather turned warm, then hot. The air conditioner poured buckets of filthy water onto our ugly sofa.
I came home soon after to find the apartment dark and sweltering. The dogs were lying on the badly soiled sofa in pools of drool, the windows were covered over with mist, the flowers on the table wilting from their vase. The air conditioner wasn’t on. I was so upset to find my cool, orderly apartment turned suddenly steaming and primeval that I didn’t notice at first that nothing else was on either. No power. I called the building manager.
“Meiyou dian!” I exclaimed. “No electricity!”
An electrician came to the apartment, unlocked our wiring closet, and uncovered a jumble of dangerously inadequate wiring with several small smoking explosions in the switchbox. He hastily taped together a makeshift solution which he himself deemed “very dangerous!” and promised to return tomorrow with a safer one. We never saw him again.
The electricity would be a perennial problem, but not the only one. When the electricity worked, the water didn’t. For four days we were without hot water, and had to trek across the town to shower at the newer home of a gracious friend. The drains didn’t drain. The water cooler developed a steady, pooling leak. A friend put one too many coats on our coat rack at a house party and the whole tower came tumbling down, scattering splinters of wood into every corner. The kitchen door wouldn’t open; the closet door wouldn’t close. One early morning we awoke to a crash as the dining room light fixture exploded in heat and came shattering down onto the glass table below. The clothesline fell. My built-in desk began a process of slow collapse, punctuated by the occasional outburst. When I pulled open a drawer to get a pen, the bottom of the drawer fell out. The bathroom was overrun with mildew. Mosquitoes bred in the shower drains and circled the house while we slept. The bank of elevators that served our tower began to rear, plummet, and stall. We kept track of which elevators that week were safe and which iffy, but we used the iffy ones, too, just the same. Then it was winter again and the heater didn’t work. We wore knit hats to bed. Now I understood what the agent meant: everything was old. Maybe it would be better to just tear it down and start again?
At least Cinderella was recycling. When midnight had come and gone, she lost her coach but at least she gained back a pumpkin. After two and a half years in China we moved away: where did all my shattered light fixtures and soiled sofa cushions end up? Is my compound still there? There are still plenty of investors in Shanghai, developers, speculators, and residents who haven’t had their midnight moment yet. Not everyone has noticed the expiration date stamped on the city, on its exuberance, on the wild life there. Be warned, new renters, and maybe invest in a space heater now.