Hymn to Shanghai

SHANGHAI is terrible, terrible in her strange mixture of Eastern and Western vulgarity, in her superficial refinements, in her naked and unmasked worship of Mammon, in her emptiness, commonness, and bad taste. She is terrible in her denaturalized women, dehumanized coolies, devitalized newspapers, decapitalized banks, and denationalized creatures. She is terrible in her greatness as well as in her weakness, terrible in her monstrosities, 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 heads 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 inscrutability !

Thrice praise to the city renowned for her copper odor and her fat, oily bankers, with green-tinted skins and sticky fingers;

To the city of hugging flesh and dancing flesh, of flat-chested ladies fed on ginseng soup and doves’-nest congee, and still looking anæmic and weary of life, in spite of their ginseng 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 the 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 of thy monstrosities; in the muddy stream of human traffic on Nanking Road, muddier than the muddy fish in muddy Whangpoo, one thinketh of thy greatness also;

One thinketh of thy successful, pien-pienbellied merchants, and forgetteth whether they are Italian, French, Russian, English, or Chinese;

One thinketh of thy masseuses, naked dancers, Carlo Garcias, and thy Foochow Road singsong houses;

Of thy retired bandits and magistrates and generals, with tortoise-shell spectacles and roof-shaped moustaches, trying to court singsong girls with their loot, and finding their love repulsed and their sexual hunger still unappeased alter months of courtship;

Of the idiotic and half-witted sons of these retired bandits and generals, who help to rid them of their ill-begotten 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 heartbroken 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 dress mingle merrily and rub shoulders with yellow shop apprentices and gray dogs and pink-eyed rabbits;

Of thy nouveaux riches lost and giddy in the whirlpool 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 colors;

Of thy haughty, ungentlemanly foreigners, so haughty and ungentlemanly that one knows where they belong in their own countries — men with moderate heads, but stiff boots and strong calf muscles, who also make good use of their 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 these things and faileth to comprehend their whence or their whither.

O thou city that surpasseth our understanding! How impressive are thy 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 beggers are dishonest!