Monday, April 4, 2016

Ancient Literary Pursuits

Here in Shanghai, it's very slow going to get a solid internalized sense of the city. It's just too vast, and it's under such constant reconstruction. But some neighborhoods are beginning to settle in my mind.

It ain't New York though, where even after many years away I still sort-of know how to find out what's happening and where. Even with new neighborhoods popping up while old ones slide away. Features endure.

Here not so much. It's just damned difficult to know how people key in to what's playing at the oddly located theaters. It feels impossible to know how to tell the good from the corny. The movies are titled cryptically, good food has almost no relation to price, and there's a ton of mediocre everything, largely inside ostentatious shopping centers. Just as in the US earnest deskilled perpetual trainees in these places do their darndest to turn out the company specs. I wouldn't have a clue which newspaper to rely on for its reviews

I've hazarded into movies, into plays, and into exciting new venues hidden under crumbling exteriors, but it all happens randomly. A scalper, a poster which matches the scrolling text at the ticket office, a sign outside and memory intact enough to return that night for the show.

It's impossible to tell if a building is going up or coming down, and while sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes the tiniest little places seem to be undergoing construction so slowly that they're crumbling before they ever do open.

Well, one can always hop the subway and head toward the Bund and Nanjing Lu, as I did last night having no heart to do another circuit of places to eat around here in PuTuo. The Bund is where the stalwart architecture of colonial empire persists. Even though the actual quayside is utterly "improved" and the light-show ever changing, this is the place still familiar from 1986 when I formed my first and for thirty following years, only impressions.

That general area of city-central is over the top lit up and crowded with people from all over China and the world. There are amazingly good eateries back off the main street, even though they're collecting tourists and folks like me. I even vaguely enjoy the come-ons by comely young women probably just trying to catch my attention toward following their carrot held in front of my nose while I head off on an expensive path toward a good time which won't even be had in the end since I will have already had it.

I stay in my bubble, gawking and gaping, smiling vaguely to myself, but not even hearing the touts, which is apparently the only real way to stop them at hello. I play no dangerous games. OK, I play no games at all. OK, I'm really boring.

I never do enter the shopping centers really, since one is like another, but I was attracted by a large notice that on the sixth floor of one is a location for XinHua Books. So having somehow remembered, I entered that one after dinner a few blocks away, rounded the escalators, up and up, and always interested in who works here and who shops. People seem to find their way to what is good, by some strange word of mouth which I can't penetrate.

I think it must be like that time I followed the hillbilly back to his place in North Carolina on my motorcycle and people from the hills around just magically materialized, though they weren't connected electronically or even by phone in them thar hills. They were curious, and it sure wasn't population density which cued them in.

Probably just the language barrier here. Layers upon layers of cryptic usages updated perpetually so that one is always on the out with the ad copy, the internet slang, the ways that interests are piqued.

But one thing I do and have done for years upon years is check into book stores as though that is going to do the same osmotic magic to my dumbness that gets people to where they want to be.

So I'm there on the sixth floor and it's the toy department and there are some shoppers, but no signs of the book store. So, OK, the sign outside is probably already out of date and something else moved in here, and I just about head back down, but decide to do a circuit of the floor first and sure enough there off in the back corner with no distinguishing anything is "Book World."

I can't remember if it was written in Chinese or in English. I can't remember much of anything these days and that can be a blessing in disguise. But a whole new section opened up, as in what really does lurk behind those apparently abandoned windowless once-quite-modern decaying monstrosities on their upper floors with no way in that I can ever find. I should remember to ask some day.

My game is to see if I can make sense of the order of things, which is never quite ordered. But reliably in every Chinese bookstore I have ever visited there is a collection of the classics. Used to be in Toronto or New York City Chinatown, these were quite large and stunningly complete. I suspect that many literate Chinese wouldn't consider it a legitimate bookstore if these weren't there. This is my comfort, like comfort food, but books.

This particular "book world" had an odd sprawling open layout, and the shelves seemed sparse, and as far as I could tell there was no section for classics, and I thought well, sure this is throbbing tourist central, bright lights hot action street life, and so if the heart of the Chinese culture is going to meet its demise, it might as well be here.

Out back where you really couldn't believe that anyone could find it was a crowded Hunan restaurant, next to a shop which sold safes. I know you can find these places on all sorts of apps (which I can't trust, but I guess I should) of which I seem to have dozens, but still it feels mysterious.

Anyhow, not quite willing to give up I walked back through the open floor plan, and discovered an unmarked offshoot, and sure enough there lined along the glass fence which would have invited you to look out over the floor six escalator abyss if you could get near it, was the row of classics.

And a horrid stench. I was heading back to check the shelves to review familiar titles all in the approximate order or disorder of my own bookshelves, and this loutish fellow with perhaps a drunken smile or perhaps just a yokel face was up and walking, dizzy from unconsciousness, and there in front of my quarry was his mate, dead asleep on the fluorescent-lit shiny tile floor.

As an old man, I know that stench and scrub it away as often as I possibly can, but I had to get away from this. Not feet away were the usual well-coifed and bored attendants, the fuwuyuan, who weren't exactly jumping to my defense or shooing these fellows off.

Sure smells have a different valence in China, where even sometimes from your food there wafts a dark offputting evil back-alley kind of rot, but this was overpowering.

But you know I walked away satisfied. The classics were intact and far from despising people down on their luck, these two were indulged and even cared for. They were allowed to sleep in what was probably the quietest and least trafficked part of that neighborhood, nevermind the lights.

All over the city are exhortations for the sake of "culture." Literally "bright text," wenming culture enacted as civilization. In China civilization is the written word, the pattern underneath which is the human heart. "Be civilized and get closer to the urinal" (in China these are always shadowed by foul puddles as though every man is afraid to get too close). Be civilized, and don't cross against the red light. It's always a rhyme with a pun embedded. "One small step for you, a giant leap for civilization!"

There is such pride in this now, civic pride, Chinesey pride. Sure I hand out yuan to the beggars, but when they walk over to your outdoor table, it's still hard to shovel food from your plate into their tin cup as I've watched countless Chinese diners do.

Last night, I left embarrassing amounts of food on the table. It's hard to eat alone, unless you want to go to those ever-training mall places where they might have "set meals" prix-fixe kind of mdediocre faire.

Food is a social affair. It's hardly civilized to eat alone, and tucked away in the back where no-one down on any luck could find me, I can only hope they might have given away my leftovers to someone begging at the back door. If so, he will have had a wonderful and tasty meal.

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