Instead of bamboo groves gracing streams or willows draping their tendrils into ponds, we have European villas with clean façades, elegant balconies, rows of cypress, and cleanly cut lawns lined with immaculate flower beds. The Old Chinese City still has temples and gardens, but the rest of Shanghai kneels before the gods of trade, wealth, industry, and sin. The city has godowns where goods are loaded and unloaded, courses for greyhound and horse racing, countless movie palaces, and clubs for dancing, drinking, and having sex.
Shanghai is home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords, and the Chin family.
Our puller takes us down alleys just wide enough for pedestrians, rickshaws, and wheelbarrows outfitted with benches for transporting paying customers before turning onto Bubbling Well Road. He trots onto the elegant boulevard, unafraid of the purring Chevrolets, Daimlers, and Isotta-Fraschinis that hurtle past. At a stoplight, beggar children shoot into the traffic to surround our rickshaw and pull at our clothes. Each block brings us the smells of death and decay, ginger and roast duck, French perfume and incense. The loud voices of native Shanghainese, the steady click-click of the abacus, and the rattle of rickshaws rolling through the streets are the background sounds that tell me this is home.
At the border between the International Settlement and the French Concession, the rickshaw boy stops. We pay him, cross the street, step around a dead baby left on the sidewalk, find another rickshaw puller who has a license for the French Concession, and tell him Z.G.’s address off the Avenue Lafayette.
This puller is even dirtier and sweatier than the last. His tattered shirt barely hides the skeletal protuberances that have become his body. He hesitates before daring his way onto Avenue Joffre. It’s a French name, but the street is the center of life for White Russians. Signs in Cyrillic hang overhead. We breathe in the smells of fresh bread and cakes from the Russian bakeries. Already the sounds of music and dancing pour from clubs. As we near Z.G.’s apartment, the neighborhood changes yet again. We pass Seeking Happiness Lane, home to more than 150 brothels. From this street many of Shanghai’s Famous Flowers—the city’s most talented prostitutes—are elected and featured on the covers of magazines each year.
Our puller lets us out, and we pay him. As we walk up the rickety stairs to the third floor of Z.G.’s apartment building, I pouf the curls around my ears with my fingertips, run my lips together to smooth my lipstick, and adjust my cheongsam so that the bias-cut silk falls perfectly over my hips. When he opens the door, I’m struck again by how handsome Z.G. is: a thick mop of unruly black hair, a slight frame, big, round wire-rimmed glasses, and an intensity to his gaze and demeanor that speaks of late nights, artistic temperament, and political fervor. I may be tall, but he’s taller still. It’s one of the many things I love about him.
“What you’re wearing is perfect,” he enthuses. “Come! Come!”
We never know exactly what he has planned for our sitting. Young women getting ready to dive into a pool, play mini golf, or pull back a bow to send an arrow across the sky have been extremely popular lately. Being fit and healthy is an ideal. Who best to raise China’s sons? The answer: a woman who can play tennis, drive a car, smoke a cigarette, and still look as approachable, sophisticated, and beddable as possible. Will Z.G. ask us to pretend we’re about to go out for an afternoon of tea dancing? Or will he compose something entirely fictional, requiring us to change into rented costumes? Will May be Mulan, the great woman warrior, brought back to life to promote Parrot wine? Will I be painted as the fictional maiden Du Liniang from The Peony Pavilion to extol the merits of Lux toilet soap?
He leads us to a scene he’s set up: a cozy corner with an overstuffed chair, an intricately carved Chinese screen, and a ceramic pot decorated in a never-ending knot pattern from which some sprigs of blooming plum give the illusion of outdoor freshness.
“Today we’re selling My Dear cigarettes,” Z.G. announces. “May, I’d like you in the chair.” Once she sits down, he stands back and stares at her intently. I love Z.G. for the gentleness and sensitivity he shows my sister. She’s young after all, and what we’re doing isn’t exactly something most well-bred girls do. “More relaxed,” he directs, “like you’ve been out all night and want to share a secret with your friend.”
After positioning May, he calls me over. He puts his hands on my hips and twists my body until I perch on the backrest of May’s chair.
“I love your long lines and the length of your limbs,” he says, as he brings my arm forward so that my weight rests on my hand while I balance over May. His fingers spread mine, separating the pinkie from the rest. His hand lingers for a moment, and then he edges back to look at his composition. Satisfied, he gives us cigarettes. “Now, Pearl, lean toward May as though you just lit your cigarette from the tip of hers.”
I do as I’m told. He steps forward one last time to move a tendril of hair from May’s cheek and tilt her chin so that the light will dance on her cheekbones. I may be the one Z.G. likes to paint and touch—and how forbidden that feels—but May’s face sells everything from matches to carburetors.