Notes on a French City

by Nathan James Thomas

In 1849, the French government decided it would rather like a slice of Shanghai to call its own.

This was standard practice for European governments in China at the time, so the local authorities were not surprised.

China complied, and so the French Concession came to be.

Scarcely 100 years later, France itself was at the mercy of marauding foreigners, and the pro-Japanese Vichy government handed over the district to the puppet government of China.

70 years on, today’s Former French Concession still stands distinct from the rest of Shanghai.

Despite China’s rapacious appetite for construction, it has remained largely free of the hideous apartment blocks and overpasses that gobble up most of the skyline.Here you can walk down treelined avenues and hear birds rather than jackhammers in the air around you.

Mixed in with birdsong and unceasing hum of the city you can also hear the foreign tongues of expats floating out of the numerous elegant cafes and bars.

Expat men sit often arm in arm with their Chinese partners, nearly always a foreign man with the local girl, and it’s practically always the local who picks up the foreigner’s language. At certain cafes during certain hours, you can observe what must surely be the unique phenomenon of a group of Chinese women and more or less Chinese looking children sitting together and chatting entirely in French.

Of course, we native English speakers are the worst offenders when it comes to demanding that others abandon with haste their native tongues and speak our language as soon as we enter the building.

In good English spirit I feel awfully guilty about this, and have a made a crack at picking up Mandarin Chinese.

Many expats are completely fluent Mandarin speakers who can haggle over the price of a pair of socks from a street vendor with the same ferocity as a Sichaunese farmer. Others have lived her for 10 years without uttering so much as a Sino-syllable. Both achievements to me seem equally impressive.

On some occasions my Mandarin can seem – to me at least – as fluent and flowing as the river that winds its way around the bund. At other times, particularly when hungover or preoccupied, it is the precise inversion of the cliche of the lost Chinaman in America.

Me entering a small tea stand:

“What do you want?”
“Say it again?”
“What do you want?”
“I want a milk tea.”
“Hot or cold?”
“I’m from New Zealand.”
“No. Hot or cold?”

Mercifully many of the locals speak English with confidence and panache, and can discuss Jazz and history – though never politics – until the stars come out. (Unfortunately, because of the smog, the stars never come out in China, so you may be in for a rather long chat!)

Beyond the confident expats and urbane Chinese businesspeople who are the natural denizens of the French Concession, there are others who are just as important to the scene.

There’s a man who sits on the quiet, leafy corner of Changshu street and Wuyuan road.

He’s there almost every morning. Sometimes I just miss him, but can see the evidence of his recent presence in the 4-5 empty cigarette packets and flecks of spittle on the stone slabs of the pavement.

Catch him and you’re in a spectacle both horrific and absurd.

He’ll be sitting there in a loose shirt, unbuttoned down to the chest, dirty trousers and black shoes.

At first he’ll unwrap one of the packets of cheap, Chinese cigarettes.

Next he’ll extract the cigarettes from the package until he holds about 10 in his hand.

He’ll then stuff all 10 cigarettes into his mouth and whip out a lighter.

Puffing like an olympic athlete he’ll ignite all 10 fags and sit there dousing his body in torrents of nicotine.

When the cigarettes are spent he’ll spit them onto the ground and busily set about repeating the process.

Eventually this carbon monoxide assault will send him into a seizure. He’ll lie back on the pavement, head jammed into the concrete, mouth chewing at the air.

After a while he’ll regain consciousness, stumble to his feet and wearily cross the street, pausing for a rest on the nearest ledge before ambling along on his way.

These strays are the inescapable elements of China. The most horrific exhibit themselves in touristy areas, busy crossings or crowded subway trains. Presenting the stumps of severed limbs or drugged out babies they’ll beg change off passers by. The locals often give generously.

In the French Concession characters like our cigarette smoker are not there to beg, but this is simply the manner of their existence.

I saw a lady in another part of the French concession sitting on the side of the road near a bus stop. She wasn’t waiting for a bus, but merely sitting. Next to her lay all of her worldly possessions. Shoes. Bags. Clothes. Wires and other mysterious devices, held together on either end of a long, wooden pole.

She had white grey hair and a deeply lined face, and stared wearily at the busy street before her. She was not of the scene, but by contrast to it showed the French Concession for perhaps what it really is. A clean, shining exception in a country where 500 million people are being told to leave their homes in the country side, and become consumers in big cities like Shanghai.

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