Shanghai, China's most exciting city, is changing at breakneck speed. That transformation, along with the hope, fear, greed and nostalgia that it engenders, is the stuff of novels.
Brian Castro is one author who draws inspiration from Shanghai. It's where his playboy father lived in the 1930s. The award-winning Australian writer's fictional autobiography, Shanghai Dancing, tells of his quest into his family's past.
"It was a mythical place for me, and it was a kind of dream world for him," says Castro, who was born in Hong Kong in 1953 to Eurasian parents.
Castro describes lavish parties on river piers where his great-great-grandfather showered money on rickshaw drivers who brought the guests.
"Can you imagine how obscene that is? But that was the kind of magical scenario I was brought up with," he says.
Castro's attempt to rediscover his father's world first brought him to Shanghai in 1994. But he says the scale of the transformation means is such that Shanghai feels like a completely different city, and he laments the lost worlds that will never reappear again.
That Shanghai is constantly changing also has led Castro to contemplate "transience, and how memory and forgetting works, and how cities sink and rise." For now, he sees Shanghai as ascending.
"It's like a star rising. It will take Hong Kong over in its pure industry and energy, yet at the same time, there's a lot of loss of the past," he says.
This sense of loss also looms large in the works of another, very different author. Born in Shanghai in 1953, Qiu Xiaolong now lives in St. Louis and writes detective thrillers set in his native city.
Qiu uses the city as a mirror to reflect the changes sweeping China, and how ordinary people, like his poetry-loving detective, Chief Inspector Chen, are caught in that transition.
Chen tries to change with the city, but can't help missing the old ways, author Qiu says. "He doesn't have a clear-cut answer whether this [change] is good or bad."
However, Qiu believes that the city's essence lies in its ability to embrace the new: "Shanghai in China is always … changing with new trends. I don't think that kind of essence is changing."
Mian Mian, whose work speaks to a younger generation of Chinese readers, acknowledges the debt she owes to growing up in Shanghai.
"Shanghai is the most open city in China," she says. "We're more brave … I'm very lucky to be Shanghainese if I want to be a modern writer."
The 36-year-old author's first novel, Candy, became an underground best-seller after Beijing banned it in 2000. The author is a reformed heroin addict, and her books venture into the seamier side of China's reform era, with a cast of characters including drug addicts, gangsters, slackers and artists.
Ten years ago, she described Shanghai as a "beautiful young bitch who loves money." She still characterizes the city as a "super-superficial" young female.
For Mian Mian, the mood of the city has changed in the past decade. In the 1990s, Shanghai was like a small town, where everyone knew everyone and people were positive about the future.
Now, she says, the country is changing too fast. "Everyone is pushing and running because of business."
Shanghai, too, is rushing headlong into the future, even as its inhabitants struggle to deal with the present. It's racing to become a showcase settlement, a paragon of modernity. And yet in building a new tomorrow, it risks forgetting, or even erasing, its own past.
Excerpts: Authors on Shanghai
Brian Castro, Qiu Xiaolong and Mian Mian write about Shanghai, the "Pearl of the Orient," from very different perspectives, focusing on different periods in the city's storied history. Excerpts, and readings from the authors, are below.
Brian Castro is an award-winning Australian writer who was born in Hong Kong in 1950. His book Shanghai Dancing is a fictionalized autobiography based on his family's history in 1930s Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau.
It's hard to track my father down. He stayed once at this hotel. ... the Peace, it's called now. As if anyone believes in it. No such person can live State Aspiration day in and out, except perhaps over at the mental ward beyond the tourist line where you can see them smiling back and forth, slippering dances between chain wire, exorcising their pain. Peace, peace. They are the blessed. I know them like my own heart.
But in my father's day it was the Cathay on the Bund. Filthy rich, a humidor of havanas in his breast pocket, he rented the penthouse suite three months at a time so he could watch his ships through opera glasses, noting them in leather-bound book as they ploughed through day and night. Night and day. His tune. Looking across the Soochow, he could check on his company steam yacht, wooden, gaff-rigged for show, his Sikh captain idling on deck polishing brass. This was his territory: an implausible wealth, built on treacle; his coolies waxing the floors of godowns with blood and sweat and polishing the ramps with bales of rice they dragged from end to end; he knew when to go legitimate. And then his son; and then his other son. One generation will always destroy something. You can count on that.
Qiu Xiaolong lives in St. Louis, but was born in Shanghai in 1953. His best-known series of books stars a Chinese detective, Chief Inspector Chen, who solves crimes that are often linked to corruption and official wrongdoing. (Related Story: Shanghai Detective Fiction Reflects a Changing China)
On the cool April breeze, a melody wafted over from the big clock atop Shanghai Customs building. Six thirty. It had played another tune during the Cultural Revolution: "The East is Red." Time flowed away like water.
In the early nineties, under Deng Xiaoping's economic reform, Shanghai had been changing dramatically. Across Zhongshan road, a long vista of magnificent buildings which had once housed the most prestigious Western companies in the early part of the century, and then the communist party institutions after 1950, were now welcoming back those Western companies in an effort to reclaim the Bund's status as China's Wall Street. Bund Park, too, had been changing, though he did not like some of the changes. For example, the postmodern concrete River Pavilion which stood like a monster beside him, slouching against the first gray of the morning, watching. So, too, had Chen changed, from a penniless student to a prominent chief inspector of police.
Mian Mian was born in Shanghai in 1970. A former heroin addict, her books describe the seamy side of China's reforms, with a cast of drifters and addicts. Her book Candy became a underground hit after it was banned in China, where she was described as a "poster child of spiritual pollution."
Shanghai is a female city. If it's raining at the weekends, the heavier the rain is, the more people will be in the club. And the longer the rain goes on, the better the party will be. Shanghai is a moody city. I like living here, because this place always makes me change my thoughts, and because many interesting people come and go, go and come. They all consider Shanghai to be a crazy place for a holiday, or a place from the future. Moreover, there're always people who want to meet me. It's fun for me that I can always find interesting people from among them. I don't need to go anywhere, yet I meet people from all over the world.