Tangled yarns from London's passers-through

014 : Denis Wong at the bus stop on Baise Lu, in front of the brothel, next to the Kedi, Xuhui
Born in 1980 in New York City, Denis Wong currently works as teacher, editor, pretend writer. Why Shanghai? A guess, maybe. He digs the following Shanghai bits: the woman that fixes his bicycle on the corner of the street, RMB 3 breakfast dumplings, the ridiculous neon lights, Chinese people, near-death collisions with scooters. He is, however, a bit miffed by stinky tofu, the aftereffects of RMB 3 breakfast dumplings, “Hello!”, old white man/young Chinese girl, polished facades. For more info on Denis Wong you should send an email.

image: D Wong

“The pages are half-soaked in noodle water, the edges of the letters blurred. ”

At the intersection of Baise Lu and Longchuan Lu, a line of yesterday’s noodle water ebbs away from an overturned vat, leaving an oily sheen on the sidewalk. Bits of food-like particles ride the thin skin of the opaque surface. I step aside to avoid the snaking, encroaching fluid and accidentally bump into an old grandma.

Duibuqi,”[1] I offer with a raised hand. She doesn’t look up. 

I am waiting for the 824 bus to Xujiahui[2], or maybe a cab to Taikang Lu[3] – it depends on which arrives first. I wave at yet another taxi, this one a rusted maroon, a three-star cab if the lights are real.[4] It passes by.

I have a break-up with my Mandarin tutor waiting for me in Xujiahui. It really isn’t her, it’s me. My slow, awkward tongue refuses to make progress. She’s too nice to say how awful I sound, but I can tell by the crinkle above her nose when my tones fall flat. 

A 973 bus approaches, kicking up dust along the way. People get off, others replace them in a jumble. Grandma stays alongside me. 

On Taikang Lu, on the second floor of the Japanese café, Evelyn is probably sipping a cup of green tea. She’ll refuse offers for a second cup, her Midwestern politeness taking hold. Instead, she’ll order edamame, which she’ll carefully peel, taking care not to damage the beans. She is fresh, smiling maybe. By now, three days into her visit, the jetlag will have been left behind, lost somewhere between continents in the Pacific. 

I haven’t seen her yet. Obligations. Work. Mandarin lessons that need to be cancelled. 

It has been almost a year. Seven months longer than I promised. In fall, her internship at Tufts will begin, followed by residency.

I run my thumb along the folded corner of my new contract: two years.

A wailing screech interrupts my thoughts. It’s the 824. As the bus exhales, the center door slides open, revealing a wall of compressed bodies. Two men jostle past me and sidle into cracks within the foundation. I balance one foot on the edge, my toes curling inside my shoe. The ticket collector screams in Shanghainese and the shoving intensifies. With elbows angled inward, I dig for my metro card. There’s a nudge near my right kidney. Slight at first, then harder, insistent. It’s grandma, burrowing. 

“Hey, wait,” I say, in English, and this time, she does look up. Her dark, sunken eyes regard me for two long seconds, and then, with a firm thrust, she pushes me out the door and back onto the street. 

The bus pulls away, trailing exhaust. 

As I dust off, I see my contract lying on the sidewalk. The pages are half-soaked in noodle water, the edges of the letters blurred. 

I rest my index finger on the first page, and give it a gentle pull. The pages wrinkle, and a small tear appears.

referenced works

  1. Duibuqi (对不起 in Simplified Chinese, 對不起 in Traditional Chinese) is Mandarin for “sorry”. ‘Dui’ means ‘face’, ‘bu’ is a negation marker, and ‘qi’ means ‘raise’; thus, the phrase literally translates into “I am facing you, but cannot raise my head [to meet your eyes].”

  2. Xujiahui is a largely commercial area in west downtown Shanghai. The name, which literally translates to ‘the Xu family’s junction’, refers to the family of Xu Guangqi, a Chinese bureaucrat, scientist, mathematician and translator during the Ming Dynasty. Xu wrote a seminal text, Nong Zheng Quan Shu (Complete Treastise on Agriculture), on farming in China, and also translated several classic western texts (including part of Euclid’s Elements) into Chinese, as well as Confucian texts from Chinese to Latin. Most of Xujiahui today once belonged to Xu’s family, who donated large plots of land to the Catholic Church, including St. Ignatius Cathedral. The core of Xujiahui centres around a massive four-street intersection (Hongqiao, Huashan, Zhaojiabang and Caoxi Bei roads). This dizzying, overwhelming junction is home to nine office towers, six shopping malls, three supermarkets and one of the busiest metro stations in Shanghai, which is soon to see three subway lines running through it.

  3. Taikang Lu is a street in the French Concession area of Shanghai, but is also used to refer to the development right off the street (down Lane 210), where a cozy, labyrinthine tangle of back alleys house galleries, restaurants, cafes, bars, boutiques and artists’ studios. Formerly a residential area like any other, Taikang Lu’s redevelopment began in the late 90s, when a four-storey candy factory was converted into artists’ studios. In recent years, local residents have protested the increasingly rapid pace of development—and gentrification—of Taikang Lu, now an immensely popular tourist area.

  4. Taxis in Shanghai all display their driver’s photograph, license number, and star rating on the dashboards. The number of stars indicates the driver’s experience and amount of positive feedback, and a driver can have between zero and five stars. The more stars, the longer the driver has been in the business and, theoretically, the better he or she knows the city.

location information

  • Name: the bus stop on Baise Lu, in front of the brothel, next to the Kedi
  • Address: Baise Lu, near Longchuan Lu
  • Time of story: Morning
  • Latitude: 31.143682
  • Longitude: 121.435511
  • Map: Google Maps


  1. Tiina [1] in Finland thinks: Great work!
    You made me miss Shanghai and the constant pulsation of energy I feel whenever I visit the city.
    Its a place where you can feel the heartbeat of the city beating in sync with yours…


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