The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Later, she would remember the crack in the building: a line splitting the cement, a body of veins crawling everywhere. It happened in slow motion. On a balcony two blocks away she watched the crumple of the Swan Hotel. Aortas feeding into arteries, capillaries branching off, slender, disappearing into the façade of the building. Carrying blood away from the heart.
The hollow, sickening boom of it sucking all air out of her lungs.
For a second Shanghai looks exactly the same, some haphazard perfection brimming out of the skyline. There is silence for a still moment, until the city rushes back to the clatter of horns, bulldozers, airplanes blazing across the eardrum. A gust of wind sweeps by, carrying a trace of gas, of combustion. There is a halo of dust around the hotel, and she watches it swarm upward and outward like a pack of locusts, expanding darkly into the sky.
She sees the sway of the building, pieces loosening, cement crumpling off of the sides, glass shattering and buckling. The entire structure begins to melt away, the bottom giving out, the floors sinking down. She watches the middle of the building sag, walls crushed between sky and street, windowpanes that shone bright being obliterated, a solid shape disintegrating in slow motion. The noise keeps pouring in, heavy and thudding, ceaselessly, pounding everything else out of her body, filling up her insides. She has to close her eyes but she can’t stop listening. The sound of stone against stone the only thing in her ear. It would not stop.
Later, standing on the same balcony, she would look down at the debris on the site and see a wound that refuses to heal.
He leaves work early, walks down thin strips of sidewalk, and meanders over the bridge, his hands tight-fisted at his sides. It is one of these spring afternoons when the skin begins to pucker in the sun, when the heat of summer hints at the back of the neck, and instead of driving home he forces himself onto slow-moving buses, lets himself be carried along by crowds and their murmurs, gives himself the luxury of time to notice the city around him, walking under the shadows of highrises. He looks up: the city is new and strange and the skyline startles him, the way it changes constantly, month by month. His memories are slightly skewed, an older print, already out-of-date; the last time he looked up there was the same city but different – emptier – stretches of sky.
The lobby of the Swan Hotel stretches cool and marbled, and he walks in nodding at the bell-hop, the receptionist, the maintenance worker moving a trolley of old bathroom fixtures out the door. The afternoon light saturates the carpet beneath his feet, exposing motes of dust, bleaching navy into a muddy blue. Up the stairs, the glass doors of the restaurant are half shut and streaked with a light layer of grease. Two waitresses shelling lima beans over tea and gossip jump up when he pushes through the door, chirping “Welcome, Mr. Li!” in his wake.
His father is already sitting in the corner, pouring over sketches with his glasses pressed up tight against his face. At the sound of Li Jing’s greeting he looks up and cocks his eyebrows, stretching his thin, angular face even longer.
“So it was you on the phone after all, not an imposter. Tell me,” Professor Li makes a show of looking at his watch. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure? How long has it been since you left work voluntarily at 5 o’clock in the afternoon?”
Li Jing shrugs but does not meet his father’s eyes. “Why not? I felt like a drink.”
Side by side, a subtle resemblance between father and son reveals itself in the same broadness of the shoulders, in the same bulging black eyes. But Professor Li is tall and skinny with a long, horse-like face and a pouf of white hair; his son is all compression, thick-bodied, with a broad nose and a locked jaw.
A waiter comes to stand behind their shoulders, angling a long stalk of bamboo with the tip sliced open to pour threads of tea into their cups. The two men tap the table with their index and middle fingers in thanks at the same time and lean back against their chairs, the younger man sighing, closing his eyes.
“Is everything well? You’ve been awfully quiet the last few days.”
Li Jing takes off his suit jacket and flings it over the back of his char; his pale blue shirt hugs his body, dark pools of sweat gather under the armpits.
“It’s just work,” he says. “I got impatient last week and jumped on something without confirming the tip. Ended up taking a pretty big loss – it’s been a rough week. Anyway, things are volatile in the domestic market right now. I really should have stayed with the American stocks. Their market’s booming, but still steady.”
“But American stocks are expensive, though, and isn’t Wall Street on a bull’s run? It’s going to have to come down at some point.”
Li Jing looks up from the menu in surprise.
“I keep up,” the professor shoots back at him, smug. “I drop by the English Department on campus and read the Herald Tribune when I get a chance, and sometimes when I’ve finished everything else, I glance through the financial pages.”
“It’ll be fine. I can handle it,” Li Jing wipes his forehead with his shirtsleeve and gestures with his chin, eager to change the subject. “What’s that? Did you get roped into judging another architectural competition?”
“A memorial this time. They’re going to build it in Hangzhou, by the lake. I wish they’d leave that area alone – it’s already overdeveloped. But if they insist on erecting something, I have to make sure that it won’t be completely hideous.”
“And you say I work too much? You’re the one that’s supposed to be retired.”
“You do work too much,” Professor Li gives Li Jing a slow, assessing look. “You should spend more time with Pang Pang and Meiling, Work isn’t everything, you know?”
“Before you know it, Pang Pang will be all grown up.” The professor closes his eyes, sighing loudly before shaking his head.
The restaurant manager sets a blue and white bowl on the table with a flourish. The inside of the bowl hisses, sounding an occasional wet plop against the porcelain. A waitress brings a tin box of long, skinny matches and takes the cover off of the bowl. The tiny curls of shrimp inside stir, their gray, translucent bodies thrashing in the liquid; some of them jump out of the alcohol and dive back in, their torsos shuddering, their antennas swishing in desperation.
The match tip strikes against the box and a small, red flame erupts, contracting and expanding in the manager’s hand. He dips his wrist, and the entire bowl of shrimp is now engulfed in crests of fire, orange and red and tinged with blue. The shrimp dance more desperately now, their shells burnt and crackling, their bodies tossed up through the fingers of the flame and tossed back down into the liquid. The smell of burning alcohol perfumes the air, sickly sweet; the shrimp sizzle and gasp, buzzing in the ear. The manager slides the cover back onto the bowl. The hiss of the fire snaps off into silence. Professor Li and Li Jing pick up their chopsticks, lean forward, but both draw back in surprise when a phone rings under the table.
“Do you mind if I take this? It’s business.” Li Jing flips open his cell phone and slides out of his chair without a response, already walking away.
“Should we wait for Mr. Li?” The restaurant manager bows at the waist.
“Business, business all the time,” Professor Li mutters under his breath. “I don’t understand it. He’s on that phone nonstop, nights and weekends. He’s working himself too hard.”
“I’m sorry, professor.”
“Never mind, never mind.”
“Let’s not wait. I’ll get started now.”
Inside the bowl the shrimp glow a lurid pink. Professor Li dips his chopsticks into the dish and draws slow circles in the liquid.
“Are you expecting Ms. Zhou and Pang Pang to join you this evening?”
“Not today,” Professor Li scans the room for a sign of Li Jing before wiping his hands and turning back to the sketches. “But that reminds me, we were supposed to pick up some dinner for them. No hurry, we’ll take it when we go: wintermelon with ham, a big container of seaweed soup, that spicy boiled beef, and some bok choy with mushrooms.”
“It’ll be waiting when you’re ready to leave.”
“And where are our other appetizers? Fried oysters? Scallion pancakes?”
The manager grimaces. “Many apologies, Professor. The gas stoves are being a bit temperamental, but we’ll have it fixed in no time. I’ll head back to the kitchen to check on your food now.”
The floor rumbles slightly. The manager takes a step and his long legs register a tremor on the ground. The professor finds a shrimp and breaks its neck with his teeth, sucking flesh out of the body, spitting its neoned shell onto the table.
The walls shaking.
The walls shaking again, wildly. Pieces of gold plaster from the ceiling explode and scatter, falling down onto tabletops, gold dust drifting onto plates of food. The lights flash once. Then darkness.
There are screams and gasps. Metallic clatters from the kitchen. People crawling under tables and rushing to press up against the walls. The walls shaking again.
A high pitched “Keep calm!” rattling out of the manager’s throat.
Then the air ripping apart the ground in uproar and a burst of sound unfurling against the eardrum so loud that there is no pitch, there is no shape, there is only sheer volume, only the black mouth of noise opening, gulping everything into its dark, cavernous belly. The noise swallows the building whole. There is no escaping it.
The ground shifting like a pre-historic animal. Fire in the kitchen stretching out its wings, flapping, frantic. Fissures mutate in the walls, mapping out an eventual collapse. Glass and metal utensils and shattered plates fly up from the tables. Smoke everywhere, the air in uproar. The sound of the initial explosion ricochets off the walls, grows smaller, fades away into silence. A stray car horn howls a lonely blast, and then the noise of the city rushes in from the broken windows like sandpaper across the eardrum.
Everything feels so still for a moment that the people in the restaurant are afraid to move a centimeter, then they let out their breaths, and whimpers and moans fill the dark room. They shuffle their feet and call out to each other. “Are you hurt?” “What happened?” They begin to grab the edges of tables, trying to stand up. A child cries out and his mother mumbles soothing sounds, her voice lilting. “It’s alright,” she says. But then another huge swath of noise crushes down, the floor sags, and they can feel something heavy pounding from above, rocking the foundation of the building, tearing apart the plaster.
Li Jing opens his eyes and the whole world is extinguished. There is noise everywhere, inside his skull, vibrating in his bones, everything shaking, the walls hysterical against his back. It smells like sulfur. He closes his eyes again – it’s sweet and heady, that smell, and the noise making everything oblivious and he wants to fall back to the ground and go under but he has to open his eyes, he has to keep his eyes open.
His eyelids feeling heavy, drawing closed. The floor beckoning with gravity, with rest. There is the noise, the smell, the darkness, and then pounding again, thudding rocks, jerking him awake. Everything hurts, but pain keeps him lucid, gives him a sharp edge to hold on to. His fingers find the wall and he pulls himself up to stand only to rise into a cloud of smoke, plaster raining into his hair. He lowers himself down to all fours, his hands roaming across rubble and broken glass. All he wants is just to find a way out.
A pale, muddy light comes in through the windows, but all it does is make visible the calligraphic tendrils of smoke in the air. When he squints he can see the outlines of bodies, denser than smoke and bent over, moving toward a door on the other side. He stays down but crawls with more speed, bumping into chairs and broken plates and hot, gelatinous soups and the edges of knives. Things keep raining down, hitting his head with dull thwacks, and he grabs a tablecloth, flinging porcelain and metal into the air, and drapes the pink polyester over his head to prevent debris from falling into his eyes. He looks up and there is a thin quiver of light thrown up against the walls, illuminating fissures that look like the geographical maps he studied in school. No neatly drawn political boundaries, just the twists and curves of rivers, mountain ranges.
The rivers begin to run over; the mountain ranges shift their thudding feet.
He crawls forward, glass slicing across his knees, dodging around chairs and table legs, trying to keep the door on the other side of the room in his sightline. Everything looks dreamy, with soft, painterly edges. The gilded ceiling, faintly visible through the smoke with its dull glow, is splitting apart, pieces shedding away, floating into the darkness like flakes of golden snow. He lets his eyes follow the drift of plaster, watches a flake of gold hover in the air for a second and then land on a strip of hair so pale it flares bright, having caught some of the light in the room.
Knees stumbling across glass, knees on fire, but he has to crawl faster, he has to get there now. He hauls himself over to his father’s body and cries out, but there is no response, not even a flicker across the face. He shakes the torso in front of him, feeling his own fingers sink into soft, silent flesh, shouting “Come on. Come on.” The building pulses hot and alive around them. The torso lies as still as driftwood.
Li Jing begins to drag his father towards the door, lifting him by the shoulders, pulling him across debris. Broken plates tear at his father’s clothes, splitting fabric, slashing past the surface of skin. He swings his father up into his arms and props him up, puts his own shoulder under a slackened armpit, lets the dead weight gather and fall into him, this gaping, empty face by his ear. If only he could tell whether there is a heartbeat or the sound of a breath being taken, but it is too loud, too dark, and he has to get going, he has to get them out of here. The light is dim, but he can hear shouts and sirens outside the door, the rumble of the building a constant underneath everything. He takes a short, fluttered breath and crouches down, flings his father over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold, and stands up straight into the smoke. His spine cringes at the extra weight, his eyelids are heavy and thick, the noise of the world comes stabbing into his ears like dull razors, but he holds on, his father’s body bent over his shoulder, and lurches toward the exit.
The sirens are louder now: there are several different ones looping into strange patterns as he staggers out of the door and onto the second floor lobby of the hotel. People with face masks holding stretchers rush toward him. He goes down on his knees and allows someone to take his father out of his arms. There are voices and smells and images in the blink of his eyes but it is as though his senses have been scrambled, the taste of smoky darkness imprinting itself on his tongue. Every noise bleeds together for a narcotic buzz, the hot air presses down on his skin like an iron, and there is a thumping inside his head, heavy beats hypnotizing him to sleep.
A bead of light shines across his eyelids, penetrating through skin. He opens his eyes, squints, and turns away in fear. “Baba…” he can barely open his jaws. His mouth is filled with ashes.
“He’s on one of the stretchers heading out of here. He’ll be taken to the hospital right now.” The flashlight wavers and drops away, the medic’s voice tumbles out. “You just passed out on me there. You alright now?”
“We have to get you out of here. Now, try to stand. I’ve got you.”
It is slow and dark going down the stairs but then he sees the brightness of day outside the glass doors, the sun casting a dazzling square into the hotel. His shoulders stretch out, his mind hollows, and a memory flickers to the surface, thin, unanchored: He sees himself as a boy, lying in a pool of orange light on a brown velvet coach, waiting for his father to come home. They lived in America then. It was the year after his mother died. Every day after school he’d get out of the bus at the top of the hill and walk down the slope, a latchkey kid coming home to rooms still filled with his mother’s things. Hours would pass, and he would eat leftovers from the restaurant for dinner, peer into living rooms across the courtyard to see televisions all lit up. Late at night every set of footsteps in the hall held possibilities, and he’d struggle to stay awake, but he always fell asleep on that couch with the light still on, still listening, still waiting for his dad to come home.
The sidewalks rumble and then they are still. Asphalt shivers under tires but then cars lurch forward, oblivious. The boom had been unmistakable, loud at first, a shock against the eardrums. But then it subsided, and from far away, it is easy to imagine that nothing had happened. Only if you listen carefully, close your eyes and stand still for a second, you can feel it, that dangerous bass line, so low-pitched that it hovers just beneath the threshold of hearing, the almost-silence of a building, disintegrating.
Shanghai, 1999, the end of spring. The city is covered in haze, the light gritty, the air corrupted. Noise from cornices and subways and construction crews and flea markets thrust upward, collecting in the atmosphere. The weather is still mild, but the sun glares down with a detached menace, sharpening its claws, waiting for July.
On the façade of the hotel the metallic swans glare through the smoke, their bodies adrift, desperate to hold on. The two sculptures hung huge and heavy on top of the main entrance, the curves of their pale necks meeting up to form a heart, their red beaks garish against the concrete backdrop. Glass and cement shatter. The swans dip their necks. A fissure splits the building, dividing it in two. The swans hang on, precarious, their bodies beginning to sink. One of them loosens its hold on the other, breaking the heart in between their necks, swinging its body downward with reckless velocity and swinging back the other way, its upside-down head like the pendulum of a clock, swerving through a wide arc just above the doorway. Now it is attached to its twin only by the white bulge of their bellies, and as it dangles and moves, gravity seduces it away from coherence. The swan pulls itself further and further away from the building, from the other swan. Metal stretches and groans. A swan lets go of its twin.
Six tons of steel crash into the marbled entranceway, bounces once, and comes back down again. The ground jolts in shock, the building leaps up and comes down again, disconcerted, crushing its already wobbly foundation. The walls shake epileptically, crumbling even faster, even more. The momentum of the building’s ruin gathers and accelerates, blowing out its beams as it crumples toward the ground.
Inside the lobby, the men trying to get out are down again, knocked into walls and pressed into the carpet. The medic rolls over on his stomach and covers his head. Li Jing lifts his neck and looks up. Later, he would remember the last thing he said before his body was pierced. It was the last bit of Chinese he would utter for a long, long time.
“Tiān Na.” The two syllables gasped out of his mouth. Good heavens.
A blur of glass whistling across air and bolting into his forehead.