By the time I get to our room, May has already pulled off her dress, leaving it in a limp heap on the floor. I shut the door behind me, enclosing us in our beautiful-girl world. We have matching four-poster twin beds with white linen canopies edged in blue and embroidered in a wisteria design. Most bedrooms in Shanghai have a beautiful-girl poster or calendar, but we have several. We model for beautiful-girl artists, and we’ve chosen our favorite images to hang on our walls: May seated on a sofa in a lime green silk jacket, holding a Hatamen cigarette in an ivory cigarette holder; me wrapped in ermine, my knees tucked up under my chin, staring at the viewer from a framed colonnade before a mythical lake selling Dr. Williams’ pink pills for pale people (who better to sell those pills than someone who has a naturally pink complexion?); and the two of us perched together in a stylish boudoir, each holding a fat baby son—the symbol of wealth and prosperity—and selling powdered baby milk to show we are modern mothers who use the best modern inventions for our modern offspring.
I cross the room and join May at the closet. This is when our day actually begins. Tonight we’ll sit for Z.G. Li, the best of the artists who specialize in beautiful-girl calendars, posters, and advertisements. Most families would be scandalized to have daughters who pose for artists and often stay out all night, and at first my parents were. But once we started making money, they didn’t mind. Baba took our earnings and invested them, saying that, when we meet our husbands, fall in love, and decide to get married, we’ll go to our husbands’ homes with money of our own.
We select complementary cheongsams to show harmony and style, while sending the message of freshness and ease that promises to bring spring happiness to all who use whatever product we’ll be selling. I choose a cheongsam of peach-colored silk with red piping. The dress is tailored so close to my body that the dressmaker cut the side slit daringly high to allow me to walk. Frogs fashioned from the same red piping fasten the dress at my neck, across my breasts, under my armpit, and down my right side. May pours herself into a cheongsam of pale yellow silk patterned in subtle white blossoms with red centers. Her piping and frogs are the same deep red as mine. Her stiff Mandarin collar rises so high it touches her ears; short sleeves accentuate the slimness of her arms. While May draws her eyebrows into the shape of young willow leaves—long, thin, and sleek—I dab white rice powder on my face to hide my rosy cheeks. Then we slip on red high heels and paint our lips red to match.
Recently we cut our long hair and got permanents. May now parts my hair down the middle and then slicks the curls behind my ears, where they puff out like black-petaled peonies. Then I comb her hair, letting the curls frame her face. We add pink crystal drop earrings, jade rings, and gold bracelets to complete our outfits. Our eyes meet in the mirror. From the posters on the walls, multiple images of us join May and me in the reflection. We hold that for a moment, taking in how pretty we look. We are twenty-one and eighteen. We are young, we are beautiful, and we live in the Paris of Asia.
We clatter back downstairs, call out hasty good-byes, and step into the Shanghai night. Our home is in the Hongkew district, just across Soochow Creek. We aren’t part of the official International Settlement, but we’re close enough to believe we’ll be protected from possible foreign invaders. We aren’t terribly rich, but then isn’t that always a matter of comparison? We’re just getting by, according to British, American, or Japanese measures, but we have a fortune by Chinese standards, although some of our countrymen in the city are wealthier than many foreigners combined. We are kaoteng Huajen—superior Chinese—who follow the religion of ch’ung yang: worshiping all things foreign, from the Westernization of our names to the love of movies, bacon, and cheese. As members of the bu-er-ch’iao-ya—bourgeois class—our family is prosperous enough that our seven servants take turns eating their meals on the front steps, letting the rickshaw pullers and beggars who pass know that those who work for the Chins have regular food to eat and a reliable roof over their heads.
We walk to the corner and bargain with several shirtless and shoeless rickshaw boys before settling on a good price. We climb in and sit side by side.
“Take us to the French Concession,” May orders.
The boy’s muscles contract with the effort of getting the rickshaw rolling. Soon he hits a comfortable trot and the momentum of the rickshaw eases the strain on his shoulders and back. There he is, pulling us like a beast of burden, but all I feel is freedom. During the day I use a parasol when I go shopping, visiting, or to tutor English. But at night I don’t have to worry about my skin. I sit up tall and take a deep breath. I glance at May. She’s so carefree that she recklessly lets her cheongsam flap in the breeze and open all the way up her thigh. She’s flirtatious, and she simply couldn’t live in a better city than Shanghai to exercise her skills, her laughter, her beautiful skin, her charming conversation.
We cross a bridge over Soochow Creek and then turn right, away from the Whangpoo River and its dank odors of oil, seaweed, coal, and sewage. I love Shanghai. It isn’t like other places in China. Instead of swallowtail roofs and glazed tiles, we have mo t’ien talou—magical big buildings—that reach into the sky. Instead of moon gates, spirit screens, intricate latticework windows, and red lacquer pillars, we have neoclassical edifices in granite decorated with art deco ironwork, geometric designs, and etched glass.