On May 27, 1949, the People’s Liberation Army completed their conquest of Shanghai, the storied city by the Huangpu River, and the celebrated Pearl of the Orient. As the last remnants of the Nationalist Army fled into the hinterlands, the citizens of the largest and wealthiest city in China wondered about their uncertain future, including my grandfather. It didn’t take long for the Communist Revolutionaries to implement their ambitious, nation-wide re-working of industry, wealth distribution, and class distinctions. My grandfather, part of the city’s merchant sector, witnessed friends and colleagues stripped of their wealth and assets, driven to suicide out of shame and humiliation at the hands of their own workers. Seeing the writing on the wall, he arranged for his family to escape to the the British colony of Hong Kong, over 700 miles to the south.
Unfortunately, only his two oldest daughters were given permission to travel with him out of the city. The rest of the family, his wife and his four younger daughters, including my mom, had no choice but to remain in Shanghai on their own. For years, my grandmother would go out every day and beg for passage to Hong Kong from the authorities, while my mom and my aunts prayed furiously for her safety back home. To their great relief, the daily excursions eventually paid off, and, after a too-long separation, the family was finally reunited in a small apartment in 1950s Kowloon.
The last time I was in Shanghai was at the end of 2011, when I rang in the New Year with a group of 13 friends from Hong Kong. The packed schedule and the relative inflexibility of group travel made it difficult to steal away and track down my mom’s childhood neighbourhood. This time around, though, with just the two of us, I was intent on catching a glimpse into my mom’s past, distant as it was from her life in Hong Kong, and doubly so from her current life in suburban Toronto. In addition to my own family connection to the city, though, was another link that was much more in the present: Ashley’s sister and her husband, Joanne and Joe, had moved to Shanghai after their wedding in Xiamen back in April. We had talked about visiting them on and off throughout the summer, before setting aside a weekend in October to fly in together with Ashley’s parents.
We stayed at THE ONE Executive Suites Shanghai, located in the Jing’an District, just a short 15-20 minute walk from Joanne and Joe’s apartment along Nanjing Road. Joanne had relocated to the city earlier in the year for Joe’s work, and she quickly found a job herself within weeks of the move. They hadn’t lived in the same city since attending college in California together in the mid 2000s, and their wedding a few months prior was the culmination of years of long distance dating. By the time we arrived, they were reasonably settled in and eager to show us around their new city.
Throughout the weekend, they took us around to a few of their favourite cafés and restaurants, including 滴水洞, or Di Shui Dong, a shop specializing in the hot spices and rich colours of Hunan cuisine, on our first night. The next morning, we strolled over to Sumerian Coffee, a café that has quickly earned itself the reputation of having the best coffee in the city, if not the country. After grabbing our drinks, we sat back in green upholstered chairs around our light wooden table, sipping on iced coffees as the autumn breezes and sunshine poured in through its beautiful blue windows. Brunch was at the nearby Commune Social, a tapas restaurant opened by the same group behind 22 Ships in Hong Kong. The food was decent enough, from a man who normally isn’t impressed by the little Spanish dishes, but the red brick courtyard and interiors (formerly an old police station) made for a very pleasant dining environment.
Ashley and Joanne’s parents were in town as well, as much to see their daughter and son-in-law as to catch up with old friends. There was a time in Hong Kong when a university degree and a willingness to work hard went a long way in getting one’s foot in the door, whether in the colonial civil service or at a local office of a multinational firm. Throughout their decades of service and employment, many of that generation’s best and brightest contributed to, and benefited from, the rising economic tides of Hong Kong, and elsewhere in the region. As that generation approaches retirement now, overseas reunions are becoming the norm, especially in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, and Singapore. We had dinner one night with one such group of family friends, all native Hong Kong-ers who spend large parts of the year in Shanghai. Ashley’s parents had befriended them during their own expat years in Taipei in the 1980s, before relocating to Denver at the end of the decade.
Denver was supposed to be the last stop, but any plans for a retirement in the Rockies was disrupted by an unexpected transfer back to Hong Kong in 1997. Soon after returning to the newly reincorporated Chinese territory, Ashley’s dad was involved in setting up the Asia office for an American firm, requiring him to connect with industry professionals and business partners from all over the region. Over the years, many have become friends to the family, and one based in Shanghai took us out on our last night in town to a Spanish restaurant called El Willy. The owner and the restaurant are mainstays in the local culinary scene, with bars and affiliated restaurants popping up all over town. I said it once before, and I’ll say it again, though: I am not a fan of tapas. Nevertheless, El Willy is as good as I’ve had, and their hits far outnumber their misses.
When we weren’t with family, Ashley and I made our way around the city on foot. The wide, leafy avenues and early autumn weather made for pleasant walks around the city’s quieter neighbourhoods, and it was almost tempting to imagine a life in Shanghai. Joanne had recommended spending an afternoon in the French Concession, a settlement north of the Old City ceded to the French from 1849 to 1943. In its heyday, coinciding with Shanghai’s glory days in the early 20th century, it was the most sought-after address in the city for foreigner and Chinese alike. Far from the crowded urban spaces of the Old City and the separate International Settlement, luxury homes and commercial spaces catering to the city’s movers and shakers dominated its tree-lined streets, while gangs and triads took advantage of the different legal jurisdictions to facilitate their criminal activities.
The decline of the settlement in the 1940s followed France’s defeat in World War II, and the Vichy regime gave up its Chinese concessions, including its Shanghai territory, in 1943. For much of the remainder of the 20th Century, the French Concession went largely untouched by the Communist government, but when developers began tearing down historic buildings in the 1980s and 1990s, it became a priority to preserve the former settlement and regulate further development. In recent years, a number of artisanal cafes and restaurants have opened up in the neighbourhood’s green spaces, including Farine Bakery. The celebrated French bakery takes its design cues from the archetypal Parisian bakery, and the mouthwatering aroma of fresh bread and coffee lingered in the air. We grabbed a coffee and a strawberry pastry at the end of our walk around the French Concession, taking a seat by the long, communal table outside to wait out the rest of the fading afternoon hours.
The Shanghai Natural History Museum had recently re-opened in a new space inside the Jing’an Sculpture Park, and Ashley and I decided to drop by one afternoon to have a look around. I’m not usually a fan of natural history museums, especially ones where taxidermy or other life-like creatures are involved – I also get physically uncomfortable looking at old clothes, and I suspect that there is a common root. For the most part, though, the museum was an enjoyable experience, some truly unfortunate taxidermy notwithstanding. The exhibits on prehistoric mammals in particular were some of the best I’d seen, and the massive Mamenchisaurus skeleton has to be seen to be believed. As an added bonus, most of the crowd had emptied out by the late afternoon, the groups of students and chaperones disappearing as evening approached, and Ashley and I had the run of the place until closing time.
Any visit to Shanghai is incomplete without at least one or two meals of xiaolongbao. As such, Ashley and I made a few visits to Jia Jia Tang Bao on Huanghe Road, a famous dumpling place mentioned in my last visit to the city in 2011. Fortunately for us, the waiting times were never too long, and we definitely indulged ourselves, ordering one basket each whenever we dropped by. The things are so simple, it seems like overkill to celebrate them, but they really are that good. Lightly perched on the wet bamboo strands holding the basket together, steam rising from the delicately folded tops like snow blowing off the side of a mountain, delicately holding the meat and fat broth within its secret chambers, fitting perfectly inside the human mouth – that’s a story worth telling.
Just a few streets down from Huanghe Road, we followed an address on Google Maps into a short hallway with an old tuck shop in the corner. The path opened out into a quiet neighbourhood further in, set back from the noise and crowds of the main road, and the sun seemed to shine a little brighter from the far side. Before we could make our way through, however, we were stopped by a pair of old women playing gatekeeper to the sanctuary within. Fortunately, their suspicion quickly turned into enthusiasm when Ashley explained that my mom had once lived in one of the houses beyond the gate. They volunteered to take us to the old house, warmly wrapping their arms around our shoulders as they guided us through the urban maze. We walked past alley after alley of townhouses, bamboo scaffolding covering the facades, the ladies muttering to themselves and asking passers-by for clarification. And then we were there. Green mailboxes on red brick foundations, the cement townhouse rising 3 or 4 stories into the air, even as it lay in the shadows of commercial towers just a few streets over – this was where it all began.
My grandfather would not find the same success in Hong Kong that he enjoyed in Shanghai. He was a product of an earlier time and a vastly different place, and starting over with a family of 6 was hard enough in itself. My mom tells stories of sleeping on the floor together with her sisters when they first arrived in Hong Kong, one of many refugee families fleeing the ravages of war and revolution in China. It’s a testament to the people of Hong Kong that, within a generation, those same families had turned their lives around in ways that nobody could have predicted. I remember my grandfather walking the quiet trails and parks around our home in suburban Toronto, and it’s hard to believe that he once jingled currencies from all over world in his pocket during the days when Shanghai truly was the Pearl of the Orient. He was there during the decadence of the colonial elites in their mansions and the triads prowling the nightclubs and gambling parlours, he was there for the brutal Japanese occupation and the uncertainty of the post-war years, and he was there when the city fell to the Communists, and the dream of the first Chinese Republic with it. Decades later, his daughters that huddled on bare floors together in Kowloon now live comfortable, middle-class lives in Canada and Australia, FaceTiming each other on their iPads and marathoning the Voice of China.
As a side note, the two oldest sisters, the daughters who were able to leave Shanghai with my grandfather before the rest of the family, ended up being the only ones to settle in Hong Kong. The four youngest sisters all left the colony, one by one, giving up one home for another a thousand miles away.