Confucius says, "Isn't it wonderful to receive old friends from afar?" The past few days have been filled with visits from old friends and colleagues from abroad. First James Farrer, my colleague and dear friend, and my co-conspirator in the writing of our new book Shanghai Nightscapes, who teaches sociology at Sophia University, and his wife Gracia, who also teaches sociology at Waseda University, and their daughter Sage flew over here from Tokyo where they live and work. Though it wasn't an easy decision for them to leave their home town, they felt they needed to get away from the city and get some perspective on what is happening there, especially for the sake of their seven-year old daughter. Although the nuclear radiation threat from the Fukushima Daiichi plant seems to be under control, needless to say there was a great deal of anxiety there last week following the earthquake, especially among foreigners, which anybody who follows the news would know already. We hung out with the Farrers over the weekend and helped them unwind.
We spent a lot of time over the weekend at the Shanghai Lit Fest. On Saturday James and I caught a wonderful talk by one of Shanghai's most distinguished present-day authors, Lynn Pan, who gave a riveting biographical account of the life of one of Old Shanghai's most distinguished authors, Zhang Ailing (also known as Eileen Chang). Joining her for the talk was David Der-wei Wang, a distinguished professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. David was one of my dissertation advisors at Columbia, so it was a great opportunity for me to see him again, hear him recount the tragic story of Zhang Ailing's life, and catch up with him after all these years. On Sunday, the Lit Fest held a children's day featuring books and performances for kids, so we brought our daughters Sage and Sarah and they had a blast.
Yesterday another friend was in town: Brodie Paul, an Australian-Hong Konger-Englishman (or something to that effect) who I knew in Shanghai back in the late 1990s. After marrying a lovely woman named Lucy, Brodie ended up moving to Queensland Australia where he's been raising two daughters and working for the government there. Brodie is an Old Shanghai aficionado, which is what connected us in the first place.
We began the day by meeting for coffee with Tess Johnston, one of the Shanghai foreign community's most revered residents and a living repository of encyclopedic knowledge on Old Shanghai's colonial architecture and society. Brodie had first introduced me to Tess back in 1996 when I was just starting my dissertation research in Shanghai for what eventually became my first book, Shanghai's Dancing World
. While sipping our coffees at the Portman Starbucks, who should walk in but Lynn Pan. After chatting a while with these two distinguished authors about life in Shanghai then and now, we parted ways.
Brodie and I then drove over to the newly built Waldorf Astoria hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels on the Bund. They have a famous Long Bar there, which was once reputed to be the longest bar in Asia. It used to be a British taipan's club, which meant no women and no Chinese and pretty much nobody outside of a small circle of British and American businessmen, journalists and so forth. In other words, the Long Bar is a distinguished bastion of Old Shanghai style colonialism, racism, and sexism. The club died with the death of Old Shanghai in the wake of the Communist Revolution of 1949. Since then the building had been rededicated to other purposes. Believe it or not, the space of the Long Bar was being used to house Shanghai's first Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1990s. But as of 2010 it's once again a fantastically long bar, completely renovated and restored and open to all who have wallets big enough to buy the 88-rmb cocktails on their menu.
After enjoying a drink or two at the bar we bumped into Peter Hibbard in the hotel lobby. Peter is a locally based Old Shanghai expert hailing from merry England, who wrote the definitive guidebook to the Bund. What's remarkable about our encounter is that a few minutes prior to meeting Peter, I was telling Brodie (who was carrying Peter's book on the Bund) that had I known he wanted to tour the Bund I would have tried to arrange for Peter to join us. There's the power of positive thinking for you.
We joined Peter and his colleague Kim for a brief tour of the Royal Asiatic Society Library located on the third floor of the main hall of the Waldorf Astoria. Peter is president of that society, which explains why he was there in the first place. Then we had lunch with Peter at a nearby Cantonese restaurant and swapped stories about life in Shanghai in the pre-Liberation years and in the 1980s when we first traveled here. To complicate matters, we were also with another Peter, an old friend of Brodie's from Germany who has been living and working here in Shanghai for 19 years.
After lunch, we parted ways with Peter Hibbard and headed over to the Bund. We paid a visit to the famous M on the Bund where we enjoyed a turkish coffee and turkish delights. Then Brodie decided he wanted to climb to the dome of the famous Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Building, so we took a set of side stairs up to the top of the building, where a Chinese guard intercepted us on the rooftop. After some convincing by Brodie, the guard let us into the dome, which is in disrepair and disuse, but he told us they are planning to renovate it soon and turn it into a fancy new private club for bankers.
After satiating Brodie's inquisitive lust for adventure for the time being, we moved on to the Peace Hotel jazz bar, where we caught a bit of the first Chinese old man's jazz band (there are apparently three of these bands contracted to play at that bar) then to Brodie's hotel room in the Astor House Hotel, a famous old hotel (Shanghai's oldest foreign-run hotel) with a wonderful view overlooking the Bund. After pouring us all a shot of LaPhroaig, one of my favorite brands of Scotch, Brodie insisted that we go with him to the rooftop of that hotel as well.
Then we cabbed it into town to have a late dinner at El Willy, a Spanish tapas restaurant, followed by a stroll through the old French Concession over to a cafe called YY, where owner Kenny Tang entertained us for a while in his own inimitable style. Kenny and Brodie are good old friends from that period in the 1990s when only a few hundred foreigners lived in Shanghai and everyone in that scene knew each other. In our forthcoming book Shanghai Nightscapes, James and I discuss the rise and fall of the infamous YY's dance club which once occupied the basement space of the cafe. Brodie and I went down to visit and reminisce about those days of glory, and I left him there snug as a bug on a rug, dozing for a spell on one of the lounge sofas where countless drinks and other fluids had once been spilled in the early frenzied days of Shanghai's clubbing culture.