Concrete edition of The Shanghai Literary Review. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The urban landscape of China changes day by day. More concrete, less green, ever more people moving from the countryside into overcrowded cities. Skyscrapers grow tall, taller, tallest. The idea alone dazzles the eye.

But what of the people on the ground? I wonder if it’s possible to live in China and still feel it moving. Concrete is a special edition of The Shanghai Literary Review that looks at life in the cities of China. By using a combination of memoir with black and white photography, we learn about a place and its beholder.

There are two ways to enter Concrete. If you’re geographically oriented, take the map inside as your guide.  Or just read Concrete cover to cover and pick your favorites. Here are mine.

“the bureaucrats’ daughters” by lynn zhao

There are many hidden lives inside of China but none more mysterious to me than those of insiders. Lynn Zhao writes of growing up in Beijing on Wan Shou Lu, a place of privilege where

nearly every retired national leader had a second home

As a young child, Zhao is blissfully unaware of how very different her life is from that of “ordinary” Chinese. Mr. Wang, her father’s personal driver, takes Zhao to school every day. After school, she plays in the homes of her best friends, Xin and Jiajia.

Xin lived in the biggest compound with two spacious swimming pools, two public baths, and several convenience stores. […] Xin’s grandparents had both joined the Red Army long before the Chinese Communist Party had established themselves. Surely, they deserved to be rewarded in some way.

But as Zhao grows older, her mother cautions Zhao against taking on airs.

“We’re just commoners,” she would say. “You should never talk to anybody as if you come a privileged background. People in our society can be very ill-spirited nowadays. You have no idea what they might do to you.”

Our society, in Zhao’s world, meant all those on the outside. Insiders like Zhao were people who worked for the government or state-owned companies like her parents, family friends and neighbors.

They were safe and innocent.

“falling city” by nina powles

Shanghai is my favorite Chinese city and Eileen Chang is one of my favorite writers. How could I not fall in love with “Falling City”, an ode to both? The title is a nod to Chang’s collection, Love in a Fallen City. Nina Powles intersperses her own contemporary observations with the city Eileen Chang would have known.

10. The women in Chang’s stories are rarely likable. They are selfish, bored, cruel, petty, trapped in stuffy apartments and unhappy marriages. Shanghai is an easy place to feel trapped, with the spring rain that pours for days and the summer humidity that suffocates and saps energy. They call it mèn (闷), a colloquial word for humid that can also mean bored, depressed or tightly sealed. The character is made of a heart 心 inside a door 门.

Like Zhao, Powles is returning to when, as a teenager, her family lived in Shanghai. She needs to retrace her steps. To mark the march of time.

5. Things that had changed: the crossings have lights now, the American diner has been pulled down, yellow flowers have been planted in the middle of the road. Things that haven’t changed: the hotel where my parents and I used to get yum cha on Sundays, plane trees wrapped in purple stars that light up at dusk.

A deep sense of nostalgia permeates the Shanghai-based essays in Concrete. Or perhaps I’m projecting. To me, Shanghai is disorienting, disquieting. Is it a prank as Alex Gobin calls it in “Shiny Spaceship”? Or a form of insomnia as in Jane Wang’s “Shanghai: The Person and the Place”? I think it’s all part of the Shanghai Mind.

“dalian, liaoning” by erik wennermark

Shanghai isn’t the only city in China morphing at warp speed. Erik Wennermark captures the checkered history of “Dalian, Lianoning”.

The British called the foundling city Port Arthur, the Chinese Lüshun, the Japanese Ryojun. It expanded up the peninsula, the Russians swept in and called it Dalniy, rubbing their chapped-red hands together as they gleefully surveyed the ice-free harbor. They laid the train tracks to frigid Harbin, linked the Trans-Siberian railway, and constructed the city square. […] The Japanese came next and stayed for decades. Dalniy became Dairen. They left behind an affection for trams and a legacy of brutal massacre. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were turned to ash and the Russians returned, Soviet this time.

History seems irrelevant in modern Dalian. Wennermark is a nomad and his only link to his current city of residence is Dungeons and Dragons.

We meet once a week to eat potato chips in flavors like Numb and Spicy Hot Pot, Italian Red Meat, and Mexico Tomato Chicken. We fight kobolds and ogres and occasionally let slip one or two sincere observations about life. I keep it a secret from my D&D comrades that I suspect I won’t stay in Dalian for long, not because I don’t like it, it’s okay, but because I don’t stay anywhere for long.

The nomadic life is another theme that recurs. It seems that virtually all the contributors to Concrete, essayists and photographers alike, have lived many lives. Some, like Wennermark, face the future: the next city, the next job, the need to move on. Others face home.

“in which we open the box marked home to find eternity inside” by shan xiao yue

Home is not a concrete place for Shan Xiao Yue. When she left Harbin, she was a young child. Now she returns to see her birthplace through the eyes of a poet.

as a child I knew china as a silken language, in fine, restrained lines of poetry, in stories told by my mother. I knew the waters of the songhua were brocade, that to startle the tide was to awaken a dragon. […] I rode in the basket of a bicycle, closing my eyes as my mother seared peppercorns in oil, I tasted china, burning when I bit down.

Shan sees her mother all over Harbin but that, too, is an illusion. This is a meditation on the sacred, a reckoning with the past and an elegy, all in one.

the window of my bedroom in harbin has two sash bars that cross to form the character for field. on the 42nd floor, urbanity flattens onward, onward, building complexes as multiple as the lushest grasslands, lights glimmering like yellow seeds, the concrete swells in mid-july heat and grows.

Like many of the contributors to Concrete, Shan returns to China in search of something. The silken language of her childhood or the slang of a dongbeiren, a local girl. Shan finds this and far more.

home filled to the brim and spilling over, a world of one’s own creation. the alleyways slowly coated in aluminum. the single smoking tower disappears as other smoking towers rise in adjacency. the river slicked over. the people multiplied. signature after signature pile up and rooftops are lifted from houses.

In the end, Concrete took me back to a China I could taste and touch, if only in my dreams.