River Papers: A Memory Zuihitsu
I am American, but I lived in China for eight years, in Shanghai and Kunming. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan, a mountainous province that is home to the China side of the Old Silk Road and where the people often said:
Tiān gāo, huángdì yuan
Heaven is high and the emperor is far away
My time in Yunnan was memorable but brief. The lion’s share of those years in China was lived in Shanghai. Shanghai, 上海 (Above Sea; Upon the Sea): a city that is both sinking and flooding – expected to be underwater by 2050.
I write this from California where fires of a season like no other in history are still burning and lockdown orders are the strictest since spring.
their pure notes carry far.
as dry, fasting leaves
Chirr after chirr,
as if in unison.
But each perches
on its one branch,
—Xue Tao (薛涛, c770–832)
“You’re out of storage space and will soon be unable to send or receive emails. Manage files to free up space or purchase….”
I click “Manage” and find that my drive is mostly empty. It’s the decade’s worth of emails – over ten thousand of them – that are taking up all of this ~space~.
I open up “CHINA” on the hunt for quick fix deletables. Inside is a sub-folder called “SH_Financial”– a cascade of obsolete Shanghai market minutiae. Perfect. Trash. Delete from trash. Gone forever. But making so little room. I scroll on and land at “SH_River Pigs”. I remember that, of course I do, but what did the me of then save? I suddenly had to know.
Every news wire report, email, HR notice, US Embassy warning, news article and text message about the Shanghai River Pigs – including a spreadsheet of airfares to the cities with people with whom I could stay in a pinch – is found therein. I’d forgotten what a tense few weeks that had been. Now I can remember—in detail.
where you set
your foot just now
giving way to this,
(Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος, c. 535 – c. 475 BC, fl. 500 BC)
On Monday, March 11, 2013, I wake to a phone screen full of messages:
Jack: OMG @-@
Ben: Holy fucking pig hell in the Huangpu
Lina: ~@~ ~@~ ~@~
Meimei: so many ded piggy did u see? [sic]
Coco: `@` :0 It is real?
Theo: Merde, cochon cochonnerie. Don’t shower!
The morning VPN is always slow to start but I won’t need it to find out roughly what’s happening. The daily newsletter from chinaSMACK, a blog that translates trending Chinese news and social media posts, is already waiting to break the story in my censored bubble.
I use bottled water to wash my face and brush my teeth – wise to do anyway – and depart for work, where at least there will be more bottled water and a faster VPN.
Usually, the office foyer is merely the space between elevator and meeting room, there to showcase the company logo and serve as a post for Yue Xing, the savvy Beijinger receptionist with nerves of steel. But this is no usual day. Elevator doors open to a space resembling the airport gate of a canceled flight: the long, blood-red, plastic, kiosk bows under the weight of the elbows of strange people, some are yelling at Xiao Hong, the office manager.
The office itself is aflutter too, the typical professional hellos are terse huffs, the tension palpable at the espresso machine. I scurry back to my desk and spend the day pretending to work while clicking through chats full of gifs, articles, banter – all about the dead pigs, the virus they’ve been infected with, the likelihood of water supply contamination, the safety of whiskey, the desire to board the next flight out of mainland China.
—Huangpu is only 22% of water source so that’s only 22% dead from a shower 🙂
–Allegedly… who knows how much pig is falling on our heads!
–They insist that water quality is within “government-set standards.”
What exactly are those standards?
–If on par with air quality we’re done for
–Yeah, are we going to start seeing people drop dead in a week or two or today?
Lunch. The people in the foyer, we learn, were redirected attendees of a party that the event department of our company had planned. Their champagne brunch on a Huangpu river boat will not be happening today and they are pissed.
Tuesday. Same bottled water routine, straight to office.
“Shanghai reported having pulled 5,916 dead pigs out of the Huangpu river, which cuts through China’s commercial hub and creates its waterfront Bund district, the local government said in a statement late Tuesday.”
“Shanghai officials retrieved 5,916 pigs from the city’s Huangpu River, which is also the source of tap water for the city’s 23 million residents. The WSJ’s James Areddy tells us why the government says the city’s drinking water is safe.”
The exactness of the numbers is at once a relief and suspicious, as are the assurances that the water is “safe” and “normal” for the exact same reasons: all is explained in the exact same order, by multiple people, multiple times per day, from every China-based news agency (and the foreign ones directly quoting them).
By evening, all of the bottled water sections of my neighborhood stores have been ransacked. At the time, I lived in the foreigner-dense area of Jing-An and wondered about the perspectives that the locals might offer.
Thursday. Same bottled water routine, straight to office, call Shanghai Coco.
The majority of Chinese people I’d meet in Shanghai had a given Chinese name and a chosen English name; some chosen because they resembled their given Chinese name. For example, Yue Xing’s English name was Eugene; not a common name for a female but the effect, she explained, was that she was more likely to answer to it, her family would remember it, and more importantly, foreigners would eventually learn her Chinese name and call her by that.
Then there were the fun ones: Bacon, Cloud, Gleam, Spirit, Flower, GoStop, Star, Alpha, Happy, Apple, and Magic; I’d met at least one of each.
There were also the popular ones and Coco seemed to be all the rage. In 2013, there were five Cocos in my orbit: Jazz Coco (a singer), Café Coco (a barkeep), Coco Dave (Dave’s girlfriend), Travel Coco (the company travel agent) and Shanghai Coco (my Shanghainese co-worker).
Shanghai Coco is a sharp twenty-something with a streak of mordant humor. She is also my desk-mate who happens to be on leave for an elective procedure known as the “double eyelid surgery” popular among the young ladies of China to eliminate the characteristically Asian “folded lid”.
We catch up by phone and she promises to share each day’s “interesting” stories. Some are peppered with posts about being tough and proud, some feature the “best” (most liked) river pig “jokes” of the day:
Beijinger: “We Beijingers are the most fortunate, we can open the window and have free cigarettes.”
Shanghainese: “That’s nothing, we turn on our faucets and have pork chop soup!”
Shanghai Coco cracks one herself about this month being the perfect time for this “river pig business” since she’s been instructed to avoid the shower while her post-op eyelids heal. She posts a photo of herself with crooked sunglasses over eye bandages, her hands on her ears and her mouth full of noodles. A take on the three wise monkeys, yes, but is she pretending to vomit or just really enjoying some noodles? Perhaps both. In any case, her post is a hit, thousands of likes.
A story gaining even more momentum this week is about the controversial posts of Pan Ting, a Taiwanese poet turned activist:
Outspoken poet Pan Ting was detained by police and banned from Weibo after she published on March 14, 2013 for her 50,000 followers a call for an organized walk along the Huangpu River [zh], although she mentioned that it was meant as a “pure stroll” without any banners or slogans.
Soon after, local police visited her home. Pan was forced to hand in all her communication devices and “drink tea” with police, a term used to describe interrogations by police about a person’s online activities.
Many of Shanghai Coco’s links also reiterate the silver lining of the pig-filled river; that each pig carcass in the river is one less poisonous pig in the food supply:
Villagers have told state media that pig dumping is on the rise following police campaigns against the illicit trade of pork products harvested from diseased pigs that were illegally sold, instead of being properly disposed.
For the first few weeks, news agencies, domestic and foreign, continue to publish various chunks of the official statements from the Shanghai government, parroting the insistence that daily carcass counts are going down and the water supply is safe. By March 29, the count is 16,000 and statements like “dead pigs rotting in China’s water supply” are front page material.
The crackdown on black market traders, overcrowding and deformities due to the pig farming boom, oil spills, sludge dumps, the porcine circovirus and a hybridizing bird flu, are among the speculated causes of what came to be known as “The Huangpu River dead pigs incident”. The true causes and the actual aftermath, including the effects on the water supply, the greater environment, and the humans exposed, and the final carcass count, remain inconclusive.
In the end, the dead pigs are fished out and the Huangpu river flows on.
I delete nothing from the “SH_River Pigs” folder and scroll on.
“The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.”
–Kamo no Chōmei
(鴨 長明, 1153 or 1155–1216)
After weeks of passing each other in the same cluster of lane houses off of Wulumuqi lu, we start nodding hello, and then chatting. Walking side by side I realize how tiny she is – also how talkative and pushy, laughing often, usually at her own quips.
Back then, my Chinese was impeccable—for a minute or two; only for the things I said often to survive: hello; please; thank you; I’m sorry; how much?; too much; no thank you; right turn; left turn; stop here; please hurry; what?; when?; where?; why?; I cannot; why not?; yes; no; I want/don’t want; can you please?; what’s your name?; where are you from?; I am American; I don’t understand; I don’t know; I am so sorry, please forgive me; I don’t have money; numbers, colors, foods, streets, some countries; a few sayings: the level of an advanced toddler.
I’m stammering to answer the Mei Mei I have just met; she quickly says with an Aussie lilt: “No worries,” and asks again in nearly perfect English: “How long you lived here, for how much time?” “Three years,” I lie (it was closer to four on that day). “Not long! Your Chinese is very good!” “Bùduì” (not so) I say; “Bú taì haô, hên zāo kāo” (not quite good, it’s quite bad) she mutters. My face must have given away that I understood because she jumps at me with: “But that’s OK! You don’t need. How else can we keep secret! Chinese people love secret – oh but SHHH! Hahaha!”
Born in Anhui, adjacent to Shanghai and one of the poorest provinces in China, Mei Mei’s family could not afford an English tutor, much less a foreign school or a trip to Australia. But her local library had Australian English language learning cassette tapes from the 1980s that young Mei Mei listened to until they would not play anymore.
It is Mei Mei who alerts me of the correct name of our neighborhood. “Former,” she interjects one day, “it’s the Former French Concession.” “Oh,” I say. “Or, FFC, but that sounds like KFC so maybe better to say all,” she says, cracking herself up.
The “MeiMei_RiverBar” folder includes a collection of low-res flip-phone photos of us on the town. Again, nothing to delete but much to revisit. The series follows us from the dark River Bar, an old lighthouse on the Huangpu with 2 for 1 Tuesdays; then to a blurry taxi; to a streetlamp-streaked road; a tree-lined sky; and then to a stoop near an alldays convenient store. I remember now….
It is the kind of Shanghai day in August that hints at a storm but won’t quite budge—the air, thick and balmy and still; the heavy sky a flat creamy orange until the sun finally goes down, but the stubborn heat stays, and will, until a downpour.
After the River Bar, we are supposed to be eating cold noodles, instead we are looking at wedding rings. Mei Mei helps to confirm I’m not crazy; she knows the place too, ate there two weeks ago. Now, it is a jewelry shop.
In photos we pose tragic with the gleam that ate our noodle house: a window full of disembodied hands aglow with bright stones on each finger; our mouths turned down in comic horror.
As we gaze at the brightness, Mei Mei says, “Ya, ok, but I’m still hungry,” as though to break the spell of light that might otherwise consume us.
We head east, deeper into the Former French Concession and decide to seek food along the trusty bustle of Wulumuqi lu. The cicadas, with their round, metallic-black bodies, are most populous this time of year, and their song is the buzz of a miniature chainsaw, rising and falling as though a madman is hacking at the trees but not cutting anything, just up there, revving.
As we walk to where street dumplings might be, a crescendo of chainsaw ripples under the canopy of French-planted plane trees and clouds of yellow moths swarm by the high street lamps, some engulfed by the bright green of leaves.
After dumplings it is late. We don’t want to go home but everything is closed except for convenience stores. Mei Mei suggests we grab beers and sit on some steps in a good spot she knows. We buy two beers, cigarettes and a lighter at the alldays and make our way down a smaller, dimly lit street off of Huai Hai lu.
The concrete steps are damp, so we stand. My fingers trace the intricate filigreed wood of the façade when Mei Mei tells its story: This was an old teahouse that many prominent pre-Cultural Revolution intellectuals frequented in the early 1900s. It was not protected by historical status but older people in the neighborhood worked to save it, painting banners and tugging on whatever guanxi strings they could. In the end, the battle to save the teahouse was lost and the building came down, but the signature, antique, hand-carved wooden lattice was spared and repurposed as a façade for this shiny red bank with a 24-hour ATM.
We are speculating that the band of local elders that had protested the destruction of the teahouse was infiltrated by 被喝茶 “tea talks” – perhaps at the very teahouse they were working to save, perhaps right where we are standing – when Mei Mei’s phone rings.
As Mei Mei takes her call, I think of our evening: we started at an old lighthouse converted into a bar; tried to eat at a noodle house that had turned into a jewelry shop; now we stand at an old teahouse made into a bank—across the way is an old library now a café—and in every direction, the old mansions refurbished into embassies for Iran, France, Russia, the US…. After establishing which country is where, we open our warm bottles of beer with the lighter and sip at the foam. The cicadas buzz and we raise our bottles—ganbei.
We’ve all heard of the tremendous speed of change in China, the “breakneck” quality if it; leaving so little time to consider much before the demolition, the bank transfer, the pouring of concrete, the sweep of the measure that will impact hundreds of thousands of (fill-in-the-blank); and no time for those on the ground to ready themselves, assess what has happened.
So, that which is spared, like this façade of carved wood, carries more; as if with each demolition the city shifts on its haunches, and the remaining oldest parts bear the increased weight of significance, of history, and are that much more storied.
So it seemed.
When I departed China in 2014, most storefronts in that pocket of the Former French Concession had changed, some multiple times over—including our stoop at the 24-hour ATM with the façade of carved wood.
Today, only the embassies remain—and the trees.