The following excerpt from The Snake Pit (Chapter 3), from the novel The Shanghai Friendship Store by Susan Ruel. It is the continuation of the previous articles, A Floating Life (Chapter 2) and A Chinese Eleanor Rigby (Chapter 1).
It chronicles the experiences of a small foreign community living in Shanghai in the 1980s (the heyday of Friendship Stores). These state-owned stores used to be quite an exotic thing in China — one of the only places where foreigners traveling on business or a longer visit could buy souvenirs to take back home.
Friendship Stores appeared in the 1950s and sold Western items like peanut butter and Hershey bars, as well as prestige items like expensive Chinese art and crafts. Only people with foreign passports were allowed to shop there. Since these stores were then the only places where you could buy foreign goods, paying a bit more was a trade-off made gladly by shoppers, who cherished their purchases. Nowadays, however, only a few of these stores remain open, notably in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and these modern Friendship Stores even feature Western franchises like Starbucks, Baskin-Robbins, etc.
The Snake Pit
It’s a psychological truism that whatever you cross an ocean to escape will await you as you disembark. On my first day in Shanghai, I met, of all people, a guy who looked like he could be Lou Gichuke’s twin brother.
In the light of dawn, my spirits lifted. I found myself in what fellow foreigners would later tell me they call Phase One. This smiling giddiness precedes a steep plunge into culture shock and the experience (terrible for naïve Americans) of daily life in a totalitarian state. The morning began with the sound of hawking and spitting. From that day forward, the ritual of waking up in China would include a nation clearing its throat and spitting, to scare off the throat demons.
Little Huang arrived, and I handed her a fashion magazine to look at while I finished getting ready. She pored over every glossy page, staring at the photos for long minutes at a time. She paid me a nice compliment while I combed my hair, telling me that I looked like a “blonde film star.”
Going downstairs, we passed Jeffrey in the hallway. Shouting at the young men in white coats (whom everyone called fuwuyuan), he was threatening to break his contract and catch the next plane. Jeffrey was incensed that they’d broken their promise to guard his stuff. During his home leave, a Czech businessman inhabited Jeffrey’s hotel room filled with porcelain, books, and other possessions.
On my first day in Shanghai, little Huang and I walked from the Temple of the Jade Buddha in the Old City to the Industrial Exhibition, a heavyset Stalinistic building in the French Concession. Oblivious to the humid heat, I roamed the city like a woman enraptured. Leading me around, Little Huang kept using a tiny handkerchief to daintily dab at her sweating face.
Huaihai Lu, a major thoroughfare near my hotel, I immediately renamed Why High Road, as its name sounded to my ears. It was choked with bicycles, pedicabs, and street cleaners wearing surgical masks against the gutter dirt. In an alley, I watched an old woman smoke a brown cigarette while using her free hand to coax her grandson to eat. She made airplane motions, cajoling the baby to open his mouth to chopsticks.
While I looked at the infant, a crowd of 30 Chinese gradually encircled me. One pinched my arm, another pulled my hair, and someone fingered my summer dress. None actually smiled or made eye contact. I thought of how warmly and good-naturedly the Gambians had joked and laughed, shouting “white woman!” when I walked in Banjul.
By now, that first day has lost much of its sheen, shellacked over by a palimpsest of later, staler memories. But I remember grinning as if Shanghai in its joy, misery, and squalor were a panorama arranged for my amazement.
The Old City would become precious to me, with its green lake, teahouses, and narrow “blood alleys” that were suicidal to walk during the 1930s. Yu Garden contained filigreed white holes in the walls known as “living windows” that fashioned kinetic landscapes out of scenes glimpsed through them. The garden was heaped with convoluted rocks called “grandfather stones” because they’d been submerged in small, man-made lakes for 60 years or more. The place had once teemed with deer and peacocks. That day, it was mobbed with pale, sweaty Chinese tourists in cheap cotton clothes that resembled prison issue. A few stray foreigners, looking sullen and disconsolate, exuded an air of having been in China too long.
Those special moments
We ate xiaolongbao, the small gray steamed pork dumplings that Shanghainese adore, served in round wooden baskets. Green water from the filthy lake splashed the teahouse walls, and Little Huang munched. In the intense absorption of Chinese diners, I saw the same bliss I’d seen in Africans when they dance. Food, it seemed, was the music of China. On the sidewalks, elderly workers manned rickety tables, refilling cups of murky hot water. To keep Little Huang from drinking it, I bought her a glass or two of some frappe-like concoction, instead. She savored the treat, noting that it had once been available only to “landlords.”
At the Temple of the Jade Buddha, I gazed on the milky white idol made of stone hauled from Burma. Little Huang recounted how Party leader Zhou Enlai personally intervened to save this priceless artwork from being smashed to bits during the Cultural Revolution. I began noticing that the Cultural Revolution came up about as often in conversations as an inconsolable widow might mention her late husband. Wenhua Da Geming was an indelibly traumatic memory, stalking the Chinese the way a slaughtered albatross haunted the Ancient Mariner. They could only go so long without talking about it.
We stopped at the so-called Shanghai Friendship Store, and I noted that the fanciest emporium in this city — the erstwhile Paris of the East — was about as exclusive as a Chinese Sears store. Little Huang wasn’t allowed to enter unless accompanied by a foreigner. She wanted a certain tablecloth for her newlywed household, so I purchased it for her using foreign currency.
We walked along the Bund or waterfront, and I saw an African spin by on a bike, his head swathed in Walkman earphones. Africans came here to study medicine or engineering, Little Huang said. I remembered Mr. Lou’s racist exhortation: “Don’t go with blacks in China!” And Liu, thinking me a hopeless romantic, had warned: “There are many very bad boys in Shanghai! Watch out for those hooligans.”
Bevies of Chinese young men — they looked like boys, actually — called out “hullo” or made kissing noises. Little Huang suggested we open our umbrellas and hide beneath them, like parasols. A tall young man with strangely flat dark eyes spoke to me and gave his name as Chang. His annoying friend introduced himself as Song.
“Hullo. Are you American? We do not want to make jerks for ourselves, but I daresay I would like to practice my English,” Song said, with a falsetto giggle. Chang’s cool eyes behind thick glasses made me think of Lou Gichuke, as did most men of whom I took any notice. In fact, for months I had barely taken any notice of another man.
“Many foreigners I meet are fatuous and presumptuous,” Song said. “Others are fuddy-duddies, at least in my pathetic opinion,” he added, in hilariously arcane language. I’d soon recognize it as the hallmark of an archaic English reader widely available in Shanghai. “I am drawn to Americans inasmuch as they possess an air of freedom.”
We were all distracted by an unusually public display of affection on a nearby park bench. A young Chinese man had his hand halfway up the skirt of a girl whose face was buried against his chest. Her legs were stained with purple blotches, where iodine had been used to treat insect bites. Apparently, this bench was the only place the couple could go to be “alone.”
“People come here for love,” Chang said. “Even in winter, it is too exciting because they are hot with love.” I wondered if he were trying to seduce me with his seeming innocence.
Little Huang looked so disapproving that I joined her to gawk at a bare-chested stunt man. He was using brute strength to break thick wires wrapped around his chest. The crowds seemed to have all the time in the world to stare at such things, and at oddities like me.
We kept on walking and had nearly reached my hotel when the multitudes parted slightly. Blocking the sidewalk was a peasant in raggedy field hand’s pajamas and a coolie’s conical hat. He bent low in the most pitiful posture of supplication I’d ever seen, even among lepers in the Gambia. The “petitioner,” as Little Huang called him, prostrated himself as if before an emperor or a god.
Every goodbye is difficult
His dirty, wizened hands trembled as he caught the one-fen coins people tossed, along with ration coupons. His tale of woe was scrawled on battered cardboard, but Little Huang wouldn’t tell me what it said. I had no cash or film left on me. I pleaded with her to explain what we were seeing. After that, she seemed glad to be rid of me. The heel of her shoe broke off as we climbed the four flights up to my room, so I loaned her some sandals.
“I am sorry I must say goodbye to you now,” she said. “I must go to pay my family a visit.” She’d be back in the morning to take me to college.
It was 5 in the afternoon. I dreaded seeing her go and felt oddly reluctant to be left alone. What was happening to me? In Iowa, I’d spent months living in near-seclusion. Mercifully, the phone rang. It was Feldman, the IP bureau chief. I was slightly embarrassed at how pleased I felt.
He was visiting Shanghai and interested in the “antique business,” as he euphemistically put it. When I heard Feldman use doubletalk just to chat on the phone, I was glad that I’d bothered to lock up his name and address. He suggested we meet in the hotel lobby. Together we’d go to the “Snake Pit,” a café at the Maoming that was notorious as Shanghai’s only discotheque.
Outdoors, the bright sunlight of early evening still shone. We crossed the hotel grounds, passed a squadron of motorcycle police, and came upon what seemed like the entire hotel staff, amassed outside the West Wing. They were waiting to clap for ex-president Jimmy Carter, to welcome him to Shanghai. Feldman was in town to cover this visit. He wanted to brief me on the type of stories IP was looking for from Shanghai, where full-time foreign correspondents were allowed only for special events.
Feldman pointed to a sign outside the Snake Pit: This coffee shop is for the exclusive use of foreign visitors and overseas Chinese guests. “That means no local Chinese allowed,” he said. This odd regulation would be invoked within minutes of our entrance.
My eyes pierced the smoke and gloom to look upon a scene that was almost laughably sordid, like a parody of a den of iniquity. Long-haired merchant seamen and African students gulped beer at small tables overhung with blinking Christmas lights and multi-colored plastic pennants — the kind that decorates gas stations. A reggae song popular a few years earlier blared as Hong Kong businessmen and their consorts tried to prove they could dance.
Just as we sat down, a stocky, fair-haired young man with a thick Brooklyn accent entered the Snake Pit with a local Chinese friend. They got no more than 10 feet inside when a white-coated waiter approached them and said something that couldn’t be heard above the deafening sound system.
“If there are no Chinese allowed, chump, what the hell are you doin’ in here?” the American boomed, in a voice like Fred Flintstone. With one beefy arm, he lifted the waiter, lugged him across the floor, and deposited him outside. “This guy wants to practice English, and I’m in the mood to work out my jaws, so it’s a perfect arrangement,” the American yelled. For the time being at least, his Chinese friend would stay.
Next, the boisterous young man, whom Feldman said was widely known as Lennie, tangoed across the dance floor with a chic older woman wearing black leather pants and a China-bob wig. She treated the crowd to a brief flamenco performance, then sat down to read the palm of her escort, a much-younger Eurasian man. Feldman identified him as the son of the French consul to Shanghai.
“Hey, blood, what it is!” Lennie greeted a table of Africans, giving them high fives. In what sounded like Shanghai dialect, he made small talk with the waiters. Back home, Lennie would have seemed simply obnoxious, but in the stiff, stilted atmosphere of Chinese social occasions, his desperate need for attention livened things up and became almost endearing.
The small Snake Pit dance band was made up of elderly musicians who, Feldman explained, had seen better days as jazzmen in Shanghai during the 1940s. Coming back from a break, they set down their glasses of milk or hot water and played Love Me Tender as a dirge for trombone and electric guitar. It sounded like a New Orleans funeral procession en route to the graveyard.
Let’s be impressed
During this quieter interlude, Feldman and I covered a lot of ground. He instructed me to write him friendly personal letters about anything newsworthy that happened in Shanghai. I should sign these notes with a pseudonym we agreed on: TERESA FAHEY (my maternal grandmother, to whom my mother hadn’t spoken in years). If I typed up these letters and dropped them in different mailboxes each time, the authorities might never figure out who’d written them. It would be best to lock up my typewriter ribbons, though.
“I came out here to stir things up a bit,” Feldman said. A mask of ennui congealed on his gaunt features as he described what life was like for Western reporters in Beijing. He seemed willing to endure all manner of surveillance and frustration if only to live out his fantasy as a foreign correspondent in China. He could tell his grandchildren.
“Today I went by the Anqing Hotel telex machines. The API bureau chief was filing a two-take urgent on how Carter was accosted by a victim of the Cultural Revolution,” Feldman said. “It turns out a Chinese tried to hand him a letter and was dragged away. But API will try to make it the story of the century, sweep the logs, then roll it back in the next news cycle.”
I nodded, amused by Feldman’s lingo. Clearly, he enjoyed trying to impress me. We ordered hors d’oeuvres, and he abruptly blew up over a trifle, giving the first hint that his patience was frayed. When I asked for spring rolls, he insisted that I order something “typically Shanghainese, like xiaolongbao.” I told him to get whatever he thought best.
Accompanied by the dyspeptic band, a Chinese vocalist with shirttails hanging out was phonetically singing Don’t Let Them Know It’s the End of the World. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up at Lou Gichuke. His face wore a mild expression. He was a tall, regal east African, with skin the color of soldier’s fatigues. His glinting, yellowish eyes only looked cruel because they reminded me of Lou Gichuke’s eyes.
Stunned, I practically recoiled when he asked me to dance — and would regret my refusal for the next few months. He darted away more swiftly than a ghost, faster than Kimathi racing over the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
The sound system cranked up again and played a raucous funk jam. The Chinese waiters looked appalled. Lennie did an outrageous breakdance. “Your sister!” the waiters yelled, a cheer that Lennie had obviously taught them.
A lone African who’d been sitting alone morosely nursing a drink sprang forward suddenly. He smashed an ashtray to the floor and marched out, seething.
“Welcome to the Motherland… Land of the Mothers!” Lennie yelled after him.
A waiter lackadaisically swept up the glass.
“Let’s blow this pop stand,” Feldman said, after a few hushed moments. As we passed her table, I overheard a snippet of conversation from the striking older brunette in black. Fondling her young escort with bejeweled fingers, she was saying: “I am the first to come to China to teach Portuguese.”
To be continued…
About the author:
Susan Ruel has worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco, and Washington. A former journalism professor, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history. A Fulbright scholar in West Africa, she has served as an editorial consultant for the United Nations in New York and Nigeria. Since 2005, she has been writing and editing for healthcare non-profits in New York.
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