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Shanghai, mistress of the world

Shanghai: Densely populated, frantic and unpredictable, offering pleasure and frustration in equal doses — just like a mistress.

I have been in Shanghai several days now and I am in awe of her (I’ve decided Shanghai is a lady) progressiveness, fast-tracked after the shift to a more business-friendly China. Note her skyline of towering skyscrapers; endless rows of international banks in the financial district; shops of the world’s biggest brands in technology, automobile and fashion in the commercial arteries. 

 Our tour guide Priscilla, a former schoolteacher born and raised here, told me: “You now, people say Shanghai is the mistress of the world; not the wife — the mistress!”

 Hmm. I have heard the saying, “Shanghai is the Paris of the East” and “the New York of the West,” but never the “Mistress of the World.” Is that really a compliment? Why would people want to call their city that? I didn’t get what she meant at first.

We carried on exploring the city for days. The beauty of the Bund — the boulevard bordering the river that bisects the city, strikes me. Some buildings that line it are centuries old — charming and regal in age, while others are as postmodern as alien spacecraft — cold and cutting edge. Yet somehow, the juxtaposition of old and new comes together as a unified picture of all that is alluring. I am swept away by historical districts such as the Yuyuan, which at 700 years old holds its own against the outcropping of 21st-century buildings, pergolas and shops with neon signs and ornamentations like the McDonald’s golden arches or the Starbucks mermaid. 

I am jolted, though — not but by the sight of clusters of posh residential condominiums on millionaire rows, but by the old-fashioned carved Chinese grandfather sitting just outside the gates of a compound on a wooden stool, whiling the afternoon away. The figure wears a loose white undershirt, simple khaki shorts, one leg crossed over the other in lowly repose. It makes me think: Grandpa here hasn’t realized how big a windfall he must have to be able afford a home around these parts; that statue was kitschy two centuries ago.

 Along with the never-ending awe Shanghai stirs up in me, I am increasingly agitated by just how busy she is, how crowded, how densely populated, how frantic, how fevered. Everywhere I look, everywhere I go, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder crowds (of course, the World Expo is still on until October). Just like Manhattan at rush hour, all one needs to do is stand on a sidewalk motionless and the manic crowd will sweep you away onto unknown destinations. The highways are the same: traffic is tangled at times and free-flowing at others, but never in predictable patterns. It reminds me of a woman’s many-changing moods.

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 Slowly, then, what Priscilla said began to make sense. Of course Shanghai is a mistress! Mistresses are known for their beauty and their skill in enticement and seduction. Why else would another woman’s husband fall for them? But they are also capricious and demanding. Volatile and full of guile.

 Shanghai, like a mistress, never wears just one face, one personality, one mood. She changes every few square meters you pass and as one district spills over into the next. She has multiple personality disorder: she is unstable, impossible to classify, quantify, or second-guess. She is forever unpredic-table. People at once love her, crave her, despise her, need her — men and women alike. 

She has a colorful past, a rich history of bedding and discarding colonizers, conquerors, merchants, and traders. She has turned to drugs and alcohol on occasion, fallen deeply enough to have fought the Opium Wars and traded silk and spices for booze.

 She can be quite difficult but boring she will never be. Mysterious, engaging, exciting and addicting: that’s her allure. You either love her or hate her, sometimes within the same breath; but whichever it is, you feel it with a burning passion — always to the extreme.

 Shanghai is an eastern courtesan with western sensibilities. She wears the traditional, form-fitting cheongsam of finest silk with side slits riding all the way up to the hipbone, but buys only French lingerie with intricate hand-tatted lace underneath.  She wears the most luxurious Italian stilettos that she just might throw at whoever miffs her. She swears like a New Yorker raised in the projects.  She spits over her shoulder, projectile-style, in a fit of anger — the tramp hiding in the proper lady, the epitome of contradiction. 

 I asked myself why, with all the bustle of commerce in Shanghai, all the international exposure she has had, all the worldwide attention she has been showered with, why hasn’t she found a proper bridegroom to make her an “honest woman” and transform her into a full-fledged lady with impeccable manners? 

 Why can’t daily life in Shanghai be more orderly, more organized? There is always pushing and shoving, screaming and cussing, impatience and stress rattling every person traversing her streets. Her restrooms smell like the dark underbellies that are her marketplaces and narrow alleyways.

 Then I figured it out. Because of the sheer number of people in love/lust with her and wanting to live with her, making an honest woman out of her is impossible. People can’t wait patiently in line because it takes too long; they might just never get where they want to go. They can’t speak in quiet “indoor” voices because the million others all speaking at the same time will drown them out.  They can’t respect personal space in public places because there simply isn’t any space. They must move offensively against the crowd, otherwise they will be swept away in the opposite direction. They can’t keep their restrooms clean because no matter how much they clean, the overwhelming number of users makes it all a Sisyphean task. It is useless.

 Shanghai will forever be the mistress of the world. Who would want to smooth out her few rough edges and make her boring and humdrum? Who would want to make her a garden-variety suburban housewife, subservient and dependent? Who would make her consistent and predictable? Maybe no one; maybe many. But Shanghai resists; she is kept but never owned. 

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Thank you for your letters. You may reach me at

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