Black Ghosts of Shanghai (Shanghai Friendship Store: Chapter 6)

Shanghai Street scene

This novel chronicles the experiences of a small foreign community living in Shanghai in the 1980s, when memories of the Cultural Revolution were still fresh. This period was the heyday of China’s state-run Friendship Stores, which sold Western goods and souvenirs to tourists, foreign residents, and diplomats. Nowadays, only a few of these stores remain.

The acquaintance

“I’m so happy you’ve come!” Irini cried the time I first accepted her invitation to visit. Her kisses on both cheeks might have seemed falsely effusive had they not been paired with the light in her eyes and the energy in her outstretched arms.

“She must feel so alone, as one of the only Greek-speaking people in Shanghai,” I thought, before being distracted by Irini’s twin songbirds, bonsai plants, and puffy-eyed goldfish — the latest acquisitions to her chinoiserie.

“Irini, you’re too much. I can’t believe this gorgeous room!” I gasped, remembering how I’d weighed for days the expenditure of 30 yuan on one scroll painting. The confidence that Irini’s free-spending telegraphed somehow made me feel happier and more optimistic.

“Yes, this place is a pure caption! Irini has actually managed to create a very exorbitant atmosphere!” From a far corner, a very dark-skinned young man spoke with an African accent. He was staring up at a colorful folk painting of plump Chinese babies that Irini had glued to her ceiling.

“Heppie, I want to present Oruambo. He’s come all the way from Fudao University to visit,” Irini said, rolling her eyes as she introduced him. “Oruambo, this is Hepzibah from the United State, but she is called Heppie.”

I looked Oruambo in the face, crisscrossed with scarifications and bearing traces of morose loneliness that his pleasantries could not hide. His facial markings probably drew cold stares from the same Chinese who pulled my hair and pinched my arms on Why High Road.

“It would be my pleasure to travel one hour by bicycle if Irini wishes to see me,” Oruambo said. Irini flinched, looking irked that he’d given her away. She’d invited him.  For the rest of my visit, she scarcely looked at Oruambo again, as if he were but another decoration in her room. Instead, she talked to me about her unhappy family in Greece, her alcoholic father, and the young Greek seaman with whom she’d broken her engagement before coming to Shanghai.

Irini was on bad terms with her father, she said, who drank a lot and treated her abusively. Yet she spoke of him with a smile, as if holding her father at arm’s length, as a grotesque curio unveiled for my amusement. So that’s her reason for coming here, I thought. A fairly recent arrival myself, I was already aware that China in 1982 was possibly the worst place to come to erase sad memories. But Irini seemed happy enough — and friendly enough, at least to everyone except Oruambo.

African exchange student in China 1980s

African foreign Exchange student with traditional African clothing in China in the 1980s. (Image: Susan Ruel)

“Oruambo, you able to talk pidgin?” I said, surprising him by using the English-based patois I’d learned while on a Fulbright in Gambia. Some version of this lingua franca was spoken throughout Anglophone West Africa. I felt an obligation to look into Oruambo’s reddened eyes and acknowledge his humanity. I wondered if he was the same lonely, disgruntled African student I’d spotted on my first day in Shanghai, the one who’d dashed an ashtray to the floor in the hotel bar. (We foreigners called the place the Snake Pit.) I hadn’t gotten a very good look at that guy.

“Do you know Faisal, a Somali medical student at your university?” I asked. Through not-so-subtle inquiries around town, I’d found out the name of my ex-boyfriend’s look-alike in Shanghai and was probing for more information on him. Already I’d confided in Irini about my crush on Faisal, who could have been separated at birth from Louis Gichuke, a Kenyan graduate student at the University of Iowa. Our breakup had driven me to Shanghai. And at this stage of my lonely obsession, I was not above dropping hints of my interest in Faisal that might somehow get back to him — a sign of weakness that I noted with alarm.

“Actually, I have very few African friends and no Chinese friends at all,” Oruambo responded.

“I’ve been told that it’s almost impossible to have a real Chinese friend who isn’t just using you or spying on you. And if you do have a real Chinese friend, you’ll only get him in trouble!”

Oruambo nodded tiredly as if this were a topic he’d exhausted long ago. It was freshened only by being discussed with a new foreign woman. The phone rang, and Irini answered it in German, a language I barely understand. Meanwhile, Oruambo talked about Chinese “friends.” Like so many conversations among foreigners in Shanghai, it had the tone of a set speech delivered many times before, as if there were no more subjects to talk about than there were ballroom dance steps to dance.

“I met a Chinese chap in one of my classes, and I axed him to call on me in my dormitory. When he came, we drank tea and played table tennis. We watched a football match in the television room. The very next day, mind you, my lingdao were already inviting me to have a ‘negotiation’ in the Foreign Affairs Office. They axed me the purpose of my visit with Xu Yigong. I said he was my friend. They answered, ‘If you care to have a Chinese friend, we will send one round to you weekly.’”

Here, Oruambo tittered as only an African can, making a scratchy, percussive sound in his throat that connoted laughter.

“And to God and Nabby, a fellow appeared every Wednesday afternoon to collect me to play badminton or just to sit in my room, touching my short-wave radio and my fridge, to see if they are real! Staring for one hour at every photo in my photo album, the way Chinese do. Finally, I axed him to stop coming to me. Oh, yeah, this is Chinese friendship-o!”

The Chinese make palaver

Silence reigned as I looked away from the shadows in Oruambo’s resigned face. I listened to Irini offering her sympathy in German to whoever had phoned. Apparently, the Maoming Hotel operator spent one hour putting Garda through to 17 wrong numbers before her call to Irini went through. Here in Shanghai, complaining was an art form and a way of life. Swapping grievances with fellow foreigners helped keep us sane. Or it was a sure route to madness?  I turned back to Oruambo.

“Two classmates from Yemen were beaten by a crowd of 500 Chinese at my university last week,” he said. I tried to feign a certain lack of interest while also pumping him for details that I could try to confirm later.  It sounded like the sort of incident that I could report on to Feldman in his Beijing news bureau. According to the arrangements we’d made, I would smuggle this information to him in the form of a friendly letter, a cryptic missive written like routine correspondence, and signed with my grandmother’s name, Teresa Fahey.

“I was in my room studying all night, but I heard Chinese shouting hei guai, or ‘black ghosts!’  That is what they like to call us!” Oruambo continued. “It seems they mistook two Yemenese boys for Africans. They were shouting that foreign students take their good food. We take their milk and beef, but the Chinese are forbidden to buy these things, even if they have money.

“The fighting started on a bus back to my school. The Yemenese annoyed a Chinese girl collecting bus tickets. They gave her a cotton ration coupon instead of a bus chit, just for a joke, mind you. By the time the vehicle reached Fudao University, the entire load alighted with the two Yemenese. More Chinese gathered at the school gate. The two boys tried to take refuge in the gate room, but the Chinese followed them. They shouted and picked up chairs to beat the boys. The school guard stood watching for one-half hour before he called the Gonganju.”

“Gonganju?”

“Police.”

“But how can a crowd of 500 people beat up two guys?” I asked.

“Chinese fighting is not like fighting in other countries,” Oruambo explained. “Have you seen Chinese make palaver in the street? In most countries, people try to separate the two fighters. Lord have mercy! Here they line up one by one to have a kick at the man who is losing. I tell you, what we are living here in Shanghai is not life-o!” He laughed bitterly.

“But we must separate the people from their government!” Irini interjected. She had hung up the phone, having invited her close friend Garda (in German) to come over as soon as possible. Despite her charm, Irini had already irritated a number of other “experts” by warmly defending the Chinese in general and her students, in particular. She had her own list of petty grievances, though.

Irini stood by impatiently, waiting for Garda to arrive and toying with a broken eggshell that was painted with flowers and birds and mounted on a carved wooden stand. The servants had smashed the eggshell, then pretended they hadn’t. Irini had also returned to her hotel room after classes one day and found a dirty nail file and a Chinese magazine in her bed.

African foreign Student in China

African foreign Student in China of the 1980s. (Image: Susan Ruel)

When she’d confronted the “fu wu yuan” (Engl. “waiter”), they said, “You have plenty of friends. One of them must have left this in your bed,” and leered at her like she were Jezebel, a role she relished. So even Irini had her own troubles in Shanghai.  Thereafter, she forbade the “fu wu yuan” (Engl. “waiter”) access to her room, vowing to clean it herself.

When Irini told Esperanza about the painted eggshell they’d broken, Esperanza cried, “Birds and flowers! Flowers and birds! That’s all these effing people have painted for 3,000 years, and we must bow down to their creative genius!”

“I’ve got to be going, Irini,” I said. “Thank you for the coffee and the peaches! I barely survived my first two days in this place, before my interpreter helped me to buy some instant coffee and powdered milk.  What a luxury to drink the real thing! And I love what you’ve done with your room. It’s the best one I’ve seen here at the hotel.” Then I stopped short when I noticed she looked puzzled, maybe even offended by my candor. “It’s great to have another woman to talk to. That’s what I miss most about living in this ghetto!” I added.

As I was leaving, Irini coldly asked Oruambo to leave, too. She said she felt tired and needed sleep. I suspected that since Garda would soon be arriving, Irini didn’t want to be found alone in her room with Oruambo. Maybe she figured that he was acceptable in my presence since she knew I’d lived in Africa and was obsessed with the Somali med student, Faisal. Irini might be a closet racist, I surmised. She all but idolized the Chinese but seemed to look down on Africans. In any case, Oruambo seemed hurt at being asked to go away, like a child about to cry.

One hour later, I was drafting a note to Feldman that happened to mention the racial unrest at Fudao University. Irini phoned my room. Chuckling conspiratorily, she said, “Thanks for helping me get rid of him! He is becoming a nuisance! Promise that you will let me hide in your room next time.”

I felt she was being unkind to Oruambo, yet I appreciated her friendship, or at least her friendliness. Few other foreigners made much of an effort to get in touch, and I was feeling a bit mystified by the unwritten rules of socializing in Shanghai. I was becoming more of a loner than ever and couldn’t quite figure out why.

With pleasure, I accepted Irini’s invitation to accompany her, Garda, and a French expert named Angelique on a weekend trip later that Fall. Our plan was to visit the ancient city of Suzhou, not far away.

‘She done craze’

Young and healthy, I’d gone years without once taking an afternoon nap, as my students and the Chinese faculty did each day after lunch. Now, back in my hotel room every evening after classes, I’d close my eyes for a moment and find myself drifting off to sleep. In a waking dream that recurred almost daily, my mind’s eye would conjure up the sick brown, dirty lavender, or putrid, muddy, gold colors of goods sold on Why High Road, not far from my hotel. These, I imagined, were the real colors of China’s desolate soul. I dreamed often about a soiled, hunkering shape, crouched in the fetal position, a half-formed, worm-eaten being that let out a muted moan. But what did I really know about China, apart from these bad dreams, my students, and the souvenirs sold to foreigners in Friendship Stores?

During my first few days in Shanghai, without even being fully conscious of it, I’d quietly panicked like a skin diver cut off from oxygen. I couldn’t seem to relax and make myself at home. A couple of months passed, and I still felt as though I’d just arrived. Inside the hotel complex was the only place I could make myself at all comfortable.

I compared these feelings of estrangement with the joyful certainty I’d sensed almost on arrival in West Africa: this is where I was meant to be. Every few weeks in Gambia, I felt as though I were falling through a trap door to a new level of perception that reshuffled my prior notions and increased my understanding.  But in Shanghai, time seemed to have stopped, and I couldn’t quite get my bearings.

Lou Gichuke, my Kenyan ex-boyfriend back in Iowa, often used to say that “bluffing,” or feigning prosperity and happiness (at least in public), was an essential African ritual — their answer to China’s fixation with “face-saving.”

In Shanghai, I looked back with shame and embarrassment at how aggrieved I’d felt on those rare occasions when I felt slighted by Gambians. My chilly reception in China made me nostalgic for how warm, informal, and welcoming the Africans had been, by contrast.

And when I considered what insecure lives they all led, surrounded by squalor and destitution and with little hope for the future, I no longer wondered why the West Africans I’d known (if friendlier) were ultimately just as fatalistic as the Chinese. Their fortunes were entirely in the hands of God.

In Gambia I’d scared myself by sometimes bursting into tears in public, upset by some particularly jarring tremor of culture shock. One evening, I went to see an American film in a Banjul cinema. Back home, the story of a young woman out to enjoy every pleasure the sexual revolution had to offer probably wouldn’t have made that much impression on me. But emerging from that film at midnight in Gambia, I felt disturbed by the vision it painted of an America awash in debauchery and drugs. African moviegoers generally make their feelings known by shouting comments during the course of a film. I felt ashamed of the scorn and contempt they heaped on this character and her self-indulgence.

Then I heard the laughter of a barefoot little girl who was standing near a hog-foot vendor, begging for coins. She couldn’t have been older than 10, yet the cynical, world-weary note in her mad laugh chilled me. I watched for a few minutes, and her laughing went on, like the cry of a dead soul.  Peering at her face in the darkness, I saw that her eyes were blinded by congenital syphilis. They looked like cowrie shells. I asked the hog-foot vendor why she was laughing.

“She done craze,” he said in pidgin, without a hint of sentiment. The little girl’s laugh seemed to express every nuance in the futility of existence. I started crying and had to be taken home in a taxi.

Kisses, Maria of Portugal

In Shanghai, a deadly torpor settled over my body and spirit. I looked around at the downtrodden multitudes, whose cheap, uniform, faded blue clothing made me think of hospital gowns. The whole city somehow seemed at times like a giant, open-air mental hospital. Yet, no matter how piteous the stories I heard, I couldn’t weep. I felt almost as emotionally numb as the rest of the population. Nearly all had been devastated by the psychological Chernobyl they called the Cultural Revolution.

In the biggest city on earth, my circle of friends dwindled to a tiny faction. And whenever I contemplated the problem of my loneliness, either quitting abruptly and going home or continuing to keep to myself felt like the only reasonable courses of action.

Through friendships, I wasn’t finding the intimacy I needed, unless it was with people like Song Weirong, whose motives for befriending me were almost embarrassingly obvious. Potential friends either wanted nothing from me, so I never heard from them, or what they wanted was all too obvious, so I shrank from them to avoid being used. At least that’s how it felt then. A love relationship might be the solution to this dilemma, I reasoned. It seemed like the only way to give and take from someone who genuinely cared.

I sat in my hotel room in the evenings and confronted once again, in a new context, the absence of children’s voices and human connectedness that had been missing from my life since I’d first left my parent’s home for college. I thought of Faisal incessantly but avoided places where I might see him. I remembered Lou Gichuke’s cruelty and attributed the same hardheartedness to his look-alike.

In this condition, I fell into a pact against loneliness with a Cameroonian medical student named Gérard. I can’t even recall now how we met, although we “dated” for several weeks, I think. The main thing I remember about Gérard is the tense knot of muscles between his slightly protruding eyes. The night we “broke up,” I stared at that knot and realized that it must have been Gérard (not Oruambo) who smashed the ashtray to the floor during my first visit to the Snake Pit.

One day on campus, the authorities handed me a letter postmarked Iowa City. Ripping it open, I found a mysterious typed note from an anonymous stranger. Its writer hinted at our obscure relationship by volunteering that she was watering my plants until I returned. The line: “Did you know your friend Sharon has moved into a condom?” was probably just a humorous attempt to impersonate a foreign speaker of English.  Uneasily, I decided this letter must have come from a demented neighbor who heard that I’d gone to China. Somehow this person must have gotten my address and decided to unnerve me by writing.

When I mentioned this strange letter to Esperanza, she regaled me with anecdotes about mail with pages missing or pieces of other people’s letters mixed in. Esperanza said that once her interpreter accidentally made mention of a detail from one of her father’s notes. He reminded her that her father asked her to buy him a pair of size 42 socks.

I heard through the grapevine that Maria, the Portuguese expert, had received an enigmatic telegram from herself, signed with the complimentary closing: KISSES, MARIA OF PORTUGAL, a title she had never adopted. I decided that my letter must be a fabrication, or maybe it was intended for someone else.

A few days went by, and I took another look at it. With a jolt I realized that it had been typed with my typewriter, a machine that I’d entrusted to my old roommate Liu in grad student housing. A savvy Shanghainese, Liu knew my correspondence was being opened and read, and she was paranoid about divulging her identity or even her last name. I should probably be more circumspect about the short notes I was mailing to Feldman and his news bureau in Beijing, I thought. Already I’d dropped him a line describing the interracial brawl at Fudao University. Next time I’d better be more careful.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Black Ghosts of Shanghai is a continuation of previous chapters excerpted from Shanghai Friendship Store, a novel by Susan Ruel. If you haven’t yet done so, please read:

  • Chapter 1: A Chinese Eleanor Rigby — Part 1 and Part 2

About the author:

ChinaSusan 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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