Those Crazy Shanghai Nights

Flash fiction by Josh Stenberg


Peng was at the door. The famous dumplings were in Shanghai, somewhere, and they weren’t going to eat themselves. The rest of the troops, already assembled, were milling and photographing each other with wall posters of tourist meccas far away, with clocks in the lobby.

I took it as a special favour when Mona Kwan wanted to have her picture taken with me. This was the girl I was trying to sleep with at the time – there was always one back then. Back then? I like to pretend now my life has become more complex. I remember I had an elaborate plan to hive her off from the group, look at that building or mmm, doesn’t that barbeque smell good. We would get lost by accident on purpose. It was nice that our Hong Kong cell phones were out of service here. We could disappear, properly, the way people used to. For once, the theoretical romance of travel might spill over into real life.

As a consequence of this obsession I have no recollection of the famous dumplings. I remember only that Mona would not play footsie with me at the table. Another girl squealed and eyed me incorrectly, and by noon the prospect of me-and-Mona seemed antique.

After lunch we went through the tourist brimstone of Nanjing Road and down to the Bund. I am German, at least in theory, and so the word suggested to me some kind of union. Sprachbund. Bundesland. An omen for me and Mona. Amorous union on the bund. I intimated this to Mona, obliquely, but Peng said the word came from an Indian language. I told Mona that Peng was doubtful.

Mona complained that the Bund was not like in the pictures. Mona wanted to know where the Communist Party had been founded. Mona did not overhear the suggestive remarks I made about the Pearl Tower. It was tiring. Things refused to catch on, though there was a general feeling that we should be caught up in something momentous, that we were in Shanghai, a city monstrous, exciting, savage, liberating.

My mind laboured on small, extrinsic questions. Could one eat the candied haws? Was this where that deathly stampede had occurred, only six months ago? Yet here we were, and the children had tiny little pinwheels again, and a battery-operated dog barked with its perfidious green eyes.

I tried to take Mona’s hand, but this only caused her to swivel wildly away and drop her bag in confusion. A woman smiled and helped to pick it up. The shock of contact required Mona to initiate new distance. Mona looked away, at the river, and asked me if I thought the water smelled. I said I thought it seemed OK. She had been to Shanghai a few years earlier, almost as a child. She began to compare the two fugitive moments, almost urgently, as if the words could ward something off. The water’s better now. They’ve really cleaned the river up. Pudong, over there, that all used to be just sand. A lot of tourists go up the Pearl Tower, but I guess not us. They say you have to leave room for regret, haha.

After that we came off the Bund and began to walk down Fuzhou Road. We were halfway to People’s Square subway station before Mona missed her phone. Of course it had been the Samaritan woman who had removed it from the bag as she had returned it. And me, also. I was automatically at fault; I just reeked of guilt. Peng got all sanctimonious about how Mona ought to have been more careful, he had told us all along about the dangers of the Bund. To let a stranger touch her bag – madness. I tried to expiate my guilt, to steer it into solidarity and consolation. I cast myself as the sensitive man, to lean on, cry on, sleep with.

Mona took it very hard. She only nipped at the renowned noodles we slurped for dinner and refused to go back to the Bund, which the rest of the group now wanted to see in lights. She took the idea as a personal affront. She bickered with Peng and the other girls. The Bund – was that all there was to Shanghai? Were we so boring? To go twice to the same place?

I saw my chance. I agreed with her violently, escorted her away, listened to her recurrent whine, sent her up to the room, bought some watery beer at the closest convenience store and carried it back up. But when I got there she was demure, hunkering on the chair rather than the bed, her arms circling her knees – she did not understand that sorrow has to be drowned. She wouldn’t drink, but did not object to watching me guzzle. She did not understand how much I grieved for her cell phone. She did not see that I was ready to shoulder her tragedy. She was only sorry for herself. When I was drunk or faking it she said that if I really felt like keeping her company and protecting her, like I claimed, I could sleep on the floor by her bed. This had a loathsome smell about it, but I heroically acquiesced.

Thankfully, the fact that I spent the night in the room did not go unnoticed. There was some gratifying snickering, lisping, sibilance in our group the next day, over more dumplings, eternal dumplings. Mona was too despondent to care, she kept talking about pictures she had stored in her phone, now lost forever, lost to the criminal element, to the mainland, to poor folks from the countryside – irrecoverable, unsaved, lost like we are not used to losing things. When I went home, I told all my buddies how the girls wouldn’t leave me alone. What could a guy do? That’s just how wild and crazy Shanghai was.

Josh Stenberg is an Asia-based writer whose work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. He has translated two volumes of Su Tong’s fiction and edited Irina’s Hat: New Short Stories from China