I’m in a city of 14.50 million
souls. I know no-one
here. I’m a nano-human, a speck
in the smog. I make myself big
riding the subways with no-one
with light-coloured hair. No-one notices
the gweilo; the ghost-person, I think,
until I step into the deluge at Shanghai
Library, and a dark-haired
girl steps in time beside me, her umbrella
banishing the rain, her words, my ghostliness
“Where are you going?
Can I take you there?”
“They’re irresponsible”, my husband says, “sending you there on your own.“
“It’ll be fine. I’ll be careful”, I say. I have an unspoken list of no-go countries for work, but China’s not one of them; my 8-year-old self has waited a lifetime for this. From a young age through most of my teens my dreamscapes were exotic places far from my home in Africa, in particular, somewhere intoxicating called the Far East. There was no internet then to fuel my obsession, but on the first floor of 320 West Street in Durban was The Laughing Buddha, a numinous, sandalwood-scented haunt that spirited away my monthly allowance in exchange for all manner of Oriental treasures. These cluttered my bedroom, under the gaze of a multi-coloured fire-breathing dragon which I’d painted across one wall.
It doesn’t feel safe to breathe, but I walk 20 kilometres anyway in the first two days, a free weekend. Although I don’t speak Mandarin I can tell that my Birkenstocked feet cause a stir with the locals. It’s not the impoliteness of almost-bare sandalled feet (a breach of etiquette in the business world here) that bothers, but such nakedness in December’s Arctic temperatures. The choking sky, on the other hand, causes them no such obvious consternation. Its terrible grime settles on my tongue as I wander the incongruously Christmas-decorated Bund. Here, newlyweds pose against the toxic-veiled backdrop of the Pudong New Area, across the asthmatic-sounding Huangpu River, which appears to be drowning in water-traffic effluvia. Perhaps, for these young lovers, the scene evokes the romance of natural fog; reds, oranges and pinks stand out like the sun in Monet’s Impression Sunset. But what do they wreak, these pestilent airborne nano-particles that twinkle and dance, day after day, in the collective bloodstream and gene pool of Shanghai? The form is spellbinding; the content, deadly.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asks, “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though we had lost the will or vision to demand that which is good?” In the Yuyuan Gardens, a saltating Eurasian tree sparrow pays no attention to such questions as he eyes the fat, indolent Koi in the pond below. His offspring may well suffer the epigenetic consequences of his deadly flight paths, but he doesn’t know. What must it be like to live without the knowledge of the Human Condition?
The exquisite gardens evoke a nostalgia of childhood days spent poring over Ming and sumi-e paintings in library books, breathtaking scenes of Huangshan mountainscapes and the promise of something exquisite. Alongside a 400-year-old gingko tree, it feels safe to finally breathe great lungsful of air, although, on this cloudless day, the shapeshifting form of the Shanghai Tower smudged beyond the antique eaves of the garden wall is a reminder that there’s no true sanctuary. Later, the rain clears the putrid air, contaminates the groundwater.
It’s no secret that the government here is the archetype sinister Big Brother; visitors to the city are automatically registered with the police when they check into their accommodation, Facebook and Google are blocked, and television programs are frequently interrupted with replacements, as was the BBC News I was watching one morning when the subject turned to human rights. But, they can’t hide the noxious air out there.
Nor do they try: in the seven days I was in Shanghai, not a single day fell completely within the ‘Good’ range of the published Air Quality Index: all fell into the ‘Moderate’ range at some time during the day, three reached into the ‘Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups’ range, and two crept into the ‘Unhealthy’ range. Beijing fared much worse during the same period, with three of those days falling into the ‘Very Unhealthy’ range and not far off the ‘Hazardous’ range. A blue sky day never showed up.
In Gucheng Park, my footwear evokes explosive mirth from a pair of rugged-up workmen, as I watch chuckling toddlers fish for goldfish the size of their toes and joyful dancing couples relish their time outdoors in the far-from-fresh air. This is most of us, I think, focused on the minutiae of life, practising a kind of psychological sticking the fingers in the ears and singing, “la la la”. Today we, here in the park, want to be that sparrow, oblivious to the invisible deadly particulate matter, small enough to slip into our lungs and bloodstream with every breath we take. We want to eat the delectable charcoal-roasted food from vendors lining Fuyou Road, swirl one another around in the park until we’re dizzy, and laugh at silly things and the reflection of ourselves in others, to be mindless and pay no attention to the big questions at the end of a frenzied week surviving city life. After all, we are only human.
One school day in 1973, I came home to find graffiti sprayed across my dragon masterpiece: “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols!”, an adolescent brother flipping The Bird to an annoying baby sister. Devastation engulfed me, a maelstrom, my brother. How to undo the taint, the desecration? Only by going back to the drawing board. China’s task is comparably galactic: how to simultaneously protect the health and economy of cities, each with a population close to that of Australia’s, as blue sky days become ever rarer? They’re working on it; they don’t yet know the answer; but they know it’s as necessary to survival as the air we breathe.