Ode to a radiant city in the best of times

By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-14 06:30

Early winter is the best of times in Shanghai.

The radiant sunlight, diffused by the morning mist, casts a golden glow that softens the harsh city skyline of angular office towers and square tenement blocks. A crisp cold breeze that refreshes without an icy sting blows away the soggy air that clung to body and soul in the long, hot summer. Falling leaves from the Chinese parasol trees that line both sides of Hengshan Road and many other city streets dance in the wind like pale-yellow butterflies.

This is the time for city folk to ignore such everyday irritants as clogged streets, dirty pavements and the crowded subway. Even highly stressed taxi drivers, who must continue to put up with the ever-present traffic jams, seem to assume a more pleasant demeanour.

Children dressed in colourful sweaters and fancy sneakers play loudly in the alleys criss-crossing rows and rows of dilapidated three- or four-storey houses that are characteristic of the old city district. There, ladies in pyjamas in a wide variety of colours and patterns sit on stools chatting while waiting for their laundry to dry as it hangs from posts sticking out of balconies and windows.

But despite the Chinese penchant for festivities, there was no celebration to mark Li Dong, or the beginning of winter, on the lunar calendar, which fell last Tuesday, November 7, this year.

That was a truly beautiful day in Shanghai. I had a long lunch by myself sitting in the sun on the deck of a restaurant near my office.

The vivid impressions of the change in season, made more dramatic by the unpredictable Shanghai weather, were etched on my mind like the scenery sculpted on the Grecian urn that inspired the immortal poem by John Keats (1795-1821), one of the greatest English poets. "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a celebration of eternal beauty and love, has been a refuge into which I withdrew to seek comfort and solace whenever I was lonely or scared.

When I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s, everything appeared to be in transition. A noted economist once said that nobody in Hong Kong made plans for more than five years. We were conditioned to strive for instant gratification in our jobs and our lives.

Such a myopic mentality has been largely glossed over by our economic success. For that, Hong Kong people have earned the reputation of being practical and adaptable. But in reality, many of us have lost our sense of mission in life in our maddening pursuit of short-term gains and sensuous pleasures, which can prove to be ultimately dissatisfying.

We have been living a life in transition, with little care and respect for things of lasting value. Vulgarity has become the mainstream, as indicated by the triumph of cowardly journalism in some of our mass-circulation newspapers and magazines.

Broken marriages are commonplace and the city's bars and karaoke clubs are packed with young people every night drinking away their unbearable feelings of loss and emptiness.

For those of us bored by frequent wild parties and constant bar-hopping, the following verses from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" can be most enlightening:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Or when we feel troubled by unfulfilled desires, perhaps we should learn to appreciate the beauty and romance of the following verses.

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

On the eve of leaving Shanghai for a new assignment elsewhere, I hope I can absorb as many images of the city from this time of year so that I can compose my own ode in my mind in the years to come.

Email: jamesleung@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 11/14/2006 page4)

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