When I was in Shanghai for the first time in 1985 you could still see little fishing villages here and there on the east bank of the River Huangpu. High-rise buildings were still a long way off. There was however a very first disco right in the middle of the Bund. A bunch of people had gathered in front of it to listen to the sounds escaping from the open first floor windows. An orchestra was playing, composed mainly of traditional Chinese instruments with percussion, bass and electric guitar on top. For the Chinese, entry was far too expensive, so they listened, open-mouthed, from the street. When I think of my first stay in Shanghai it was exactly these resonating, dispersing fanfares of strange sounding modernity that formed the sound of the city.
By the time of my second visit in 2001 Shanghai had made the leap across the river. On the 31st of December I travelled through a futuristic stretch of tunnel into night-time Pudong that acted like some kind of light installation with its ever-changing illuminated skyscrapers. I went to the Jin Mao Tower, at that time the third tallest building in the world. At midnight I wanted to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks from 400 meters up in the ‘Cloud 9’ bar. Very slowly I drank a beer and enjoyed the flickering performance of the high-rise buildings, bridges and urban motorways far below me. This time it was me who couldn’t really afford to stay there, at least not beyond one beer. And then suddenly… On the stroke of 10.30 the lights in the high-rise buildings all around me were extinguished and within a few seconds the whole town was in darkness. And of course, there were no New Year’s Eve fireworks. As I learned subsequently, Chinese New Year is only celebrated several weeks afterwards. For me the sound of the city was this strange stillness that occurred when the lights went out at 10.30; a stillness which you couldn’t really hear but could see much more clearly.
I have just learned that since then, even at night, there is no more silence in Shanghai. Seemingly the streets shake from the racing underground trains below and even when the cranes and sirens fall silent, you can still hear the escalators running and the air conditioning humming.
When I get to Shanghai for the third time in the autumn of 2018 I am going to walk straight through the town, straight on and on until the sounds become less frequent and less loud. Until I am suddenly quite alone somewhere on the edge of town. When I take fright because I can no longer hear my own steps, I shall pause. Then I’ll be standing in a meadow, maybe in a small park, in front of me a lake, perhaps just a pond. Someone is standing on the opposite bank. I have to screw up my eyes. And now I recognize… A woman in a white dress is standing there. I wave to her and she waves back. Did I just dream this? No, she is still waving. Of course, I walk around the lake and now it is so still that I can hear my heart beating. I walk as cautiously as only I can, but my heart beats don’t get any quieter. What a din still reigns in this city even out here!