A Hymn to Shanghai | China Heritage Quarterly
A Hymn to Shanghai
Shanghai is terrible, very terrible. Shanghai is terrible in her strange mixture of eastern and western vulgarity, in her superficial refinements and in her naked and unmasked worship of Mammon, in her emptiness, commonness, and bad taste. She is terrible in her denaturalised women, denaturalised coolies, devitalised newspapers, decapitalized banks, and denationalized creatures. She is terrible in her greatness as well as her weakness, terrible in her perversities, and inanities, terrible in her joys and follies, and in her tears, bitterness and degradation, terrible in her vast immutable stone edifices that rear their head high on the Bund and in the abject huts of creatures subsisting on their discoveries from refuse cans. In fact, one might sing a hymn to the Great Terrible city in the following fashion.
O Great and Inscrutable City. Thrice praise to thy greatness and to thy
Thrice praise to the city renowned for her copper-odour and her fat, oily bankers, with green-tinted skins and sticky fingers;
To thy city of hugging flesh and dancing flesh, of flat-chested ladies fed on jin-sen soup and doves’-nest congee, and still looking anaemic and weary of life, in spite of their on jin-sen soup and doves’-nest congee.
To the city of eating flesh and sleeping flesh, of ladies with bamboo-shoot feet and willow waists, rouged faces and yellow teeth, cackling ‘He! He! He!’ like monkeys from their cradles to their graves;
To the city of running flesh and kowtowing flesh, of hotel boys with shining, slippery heads and slipperier manners, who minister to the fat, oily bankers with green-tinted skins and sticky fingers and to hugging flesh and dancing flesh with rouged cheeks and yellow teeth;
Great and Inscrutable art thou!
In the still hours of the night one conjureth up a picture on thy monstrosities: in the muddy stream of human traffic on Nanking Road, muddier than the muddy fish of the muddy Whangpoo, one thinketh of thy greatness also;
One thinketh of thy successful, pien-pien bellied merchants and forgetteth whether they are Italian, French, Russian, English or Chinese;
One thinketh of thy masseuses, naked dancer, Carlo Garcias, and thy Foochow Road sing-song houses;
Of thy retired tao-tai and tufei and magistrates and generals, with tortoise-shell spectacles and roof-shaped moustaches, trying to court sing-song girls with their loot, and find their love repulsed and their sexual hunger unappeased after months of courtship;
Of the idiotic and half-witted sons of these retired tao-tai and generals, who help to rid them of their ill-begotten gains and sin-smelling wealth;
Of thy wealthy, degenerate opium smokers who parade the streets in Packard eights, guarded by robust, well-fed, uniformed Russians;
Of thy Whangpoo daily receiving its quota of would-be suicides, of thy dancing-girls and heart-broken young men mingling with the muddy Whangpoo fish;
Of thy Majestic tea-balls, where vulgarity gathers to meet vulgarity and see how vulgarity dresses;
Of thy dog-races where white women in V-shaped evening dresses mingle merrily and run shoulders with yellow shop apprentices and grey dogs and pink-eyed rabbits;
Of thy nouveaux riches lost and giddy in the whirl-pool of parties and rides, millionaires who order the hotel-boys about like lieutenant-colonels and eat their soup with their knives;
Of thy nouveaux modernes, intoxicated by a few phrases of yang-ching-pang pidgin and never letting an opportunity slip for saying ‘many thanks’ and ‘excuse me’ to you;
Of thy girl students perched astride their baggage on the rickshaws with rolled socks and hats on which perch Robin Redbreasts and chrysanthemums of different colours;
Of thy haughty, ungentlemanly foreigners, so haughty and ungentlemanly that one knows where they belong in their own countries—men with a moderate head, but stiff boots and strong calf muscles—
Men who give large-sized tips and complain of exorbitant prices, who feel legitimately aggrieved and insulted when people fail to understand their native language;
One thinketh and wondereth of all these things and faileth to comprehend their whence or their wither.
O thou city that surpasseth our understanding! How impressive are they emptiness, and thy commonness, and thy bad taste!
Thou city of retired brigands, officials, and generals and cheats, infested with brigands, officials and generals and cheats who have not yet made their fortunes!
O thou the safest place in China to live in, where even thy beggars are dishonest!
Lin Yutang, The Little Critic: Essays, Satires and Sketches on China, 2 vols, Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1936.