A tale of Old Shanghai, fluid identities, and the unreliability of memory
My grandmother made a wish on her eightieth birthday. She wanted to go to Shanghai, and she wanted me to come with her. I was already on my summer break, and I’ve always liked reading novels about Old Shanghai, so I jumped at the chance to help her make her birthday wish come true. I had heard from my mother that my grandmother had never really traveled. In the 1960s and ’70s, she had stewed at home for years on end, not even crossing the threshold, unless someone dragged her out.
“She’s had a hard life, your grandmother. Treat her well.” My mother had repeated this to me since I was a child. She said it again before the trip, too, and handed me 1,000 yuan in cash. She told me to take care not to lose it. After I bought the train tickets, the rest of the money would be enough to cover our expenses. I promised to look after the money. “Look after your grandmother,” she added. “Make conversation with her on the way there. You were always her favorite.”
“That sounds exhausting,” I said. “Sometimes I get tired of talking. Sometimes she gets tired.” My mother didn’t seem to understand what I meant. “Grandma never explains anything fully,” I said. “I like to ask her about how things used to be, but she always brushes me off and says she doesn’t remember or that she forgot the details.”
“Silly child,” my mother said with a chuckle. “She’s an old woman. It’s normal for someone her age not to remember things perfectly.”
I was used to that kind of conversation. Like my grandmother’s unreliable memory, my mother’s recollection was not always sharp. Their memories seemed to be recorded in invisible ink. They went rooting through their minds like someone trying to turn up a lost key or a button, but they never seemed to find it. I was tired of arguing with them. I went and put the money away.
That was in 1995. With 1,000 yuan, I could have bought over 100 music tapes. A few days later, I got on the train with my Walkman, two mixtapes of English songs, a suitcase with my clothes in it, and my grandmother. That was a good way to travel: in the last car on the train, seated across from my grandmother, with not many other passengers. As we pulled out, the shores of Lake Taihu running alongside us seemed to sing along with ABBA in my headphones: “You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life...”
But I could tell my grandmother didn’t appreciate it, so I took my headphones off.
“That’s better,” she said. “You’ll have to talk to me.” She sipped water from her enamel cup and smiled. As I grew up, I started to fantasize about what my grandmother’s smile concealed. Even for a woman that had lived to her age, that had earned every one of her white hairs and wrinkles, there was still elegance in her expression, as if God had paid extra close attention to her in particular. The first time that I had seen a picture from her younger years was during her 70th birthday party when my mother unveiled a photo album she had prepared for the occasion.
In most of the pictures, Grandma was already middle-aged. Her wedding picture was the exception. According to convention, she was dressed in a white gown and holding a bouquet of flowers. The beauty of that stranger in the black-and-white photo made me gasp the first time I saw it. I wondered why my grandfather wasn’t in the picture. When I noticed the picture had been torn in half, I asked my grandmother about it. She snatched it away from me.
From that moment on, I liked asking my grandmother about the old days, even if she was never particularly talkative. She had the habit of treating essay questions as fill-in-the-blanks or multiple-choice. Sometimes I would babble out a multi-part question to which her only response would be a terse “yes” or “no.” Her second retirement from her job teaching at a middle school gave me more time to quiz her, though, since she had returned to her old ways, spending most of her time at home. I asked her questions with as much enthusiasm as I questioned my English tutor.
When I asked about her first retirement, she said something like this: “I figured I was lucky to retire early but it ended up causing me trouble.” I had no idea why she returned to work. I couldn’t figure out what was behind her abrupt and final retirement the second time. I recalled that the principal had shown up to try to convince her to take another graduating class.
My grandmother’s moods were inexplicable. Now, she suddenly wanted me to talk to her, and it didn’t matter about what. Seeing that I wasn’t going to make the first move, she said, “Do you know why I didn’t ask your mother to come along on this trip to Shanghai?”
“Because you love to spoil me, Grandma,” I said.
“The first time I went to Shanghai,” she said, “I was about the same age you are now.”
“Your mother isn’t a young woman anymore,” my grandmother said. “It wouldn’t be right to give this kind of responsibility to her.” I thought she was exaggerating a bit. My mother was perfectly capable of taking someone on a trip to Shanghai. Seeing my expression, she waved off any dissent. “She couldn’t do it. This is a task for you.”
That word—“task”—made me even more confused. My grandmother went on: “Next semester, you will start working on your dissertation.”
“Right,” I said.
“The last time we talked, you said you wanted to research women writers in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941—the ‘lone island’ period, when the city was cut off from the rest of the country—and you needed to go to the library for materials.”
“You took a long time getting around to that, Grandma,” I said. “This trip is to work on my dissertation?”
She laughed and spun the mug one half-turn clockwise in her hand. “I want to give you a task,” she said.
“What is it?”
“You’re going to be doing your own research,” my grandmother said, “but I want you to help me look into someone.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
“The name isn’t important,” she said. “Even if I gave it to you, it wouldn’t help.” I was annoyed by her evasiveness again, but she insisted: “I’m only telling the truth. The name isn’t important.”
“How am I going to find the person?”
“The story of a person’s life is what matters,” she said. “Take me as an example. Say you want to look up your grandma... You would have to know that she was sent to Shanghai by her father to study at your age.”
“And then what?” I asked.
“That was her job,” my grandmother said. “If she could have studied in Nanjing just as easily, why did she go to Shanghai?”
“Right,” I said. “So why did you? Why are you asking me?”
She was silent. She seemed to feel as if her words had been lost on me. In the awkward pause that followed, we both became absorbed in sipping our water. Her angry expression might have given observers the impression she was gathering her strength, like a boxer in their corner between rounds.
“Well,” my grandmother finally said, “what I mean is, it’s normal for people to move around in troubled times. You need a bit of flexibility. You need to be able to sense where to go after profit and when to avoid trouble.”
I got her meaning. I knew when to avoid trouble, too, so I elected not to bicker with her. “What happened after you got to Shanghai?” I asked
She thought for a moment, then said, “It was the most wonderful time in my life. I met your grandfather in Shanghai and married him.” Her recollection trailed off. Her gaze dropped slightly. She studied the slogan written on the enamel cup. The train kept clattering along.
I suddenly remembered the date of my mother’s birthday, so I made a conjecture that completely contradicted our family history as it was usually told. This time she didn’t blame me for interrupting her story. “Right,” she confirmed. “Your mother was born in Shanghai. Her older sister was born there, too.” She refused to answer any questions arising from these facts. She hoped I would focus on the task of looking up the person she was talking about.
It was her best friend, who had been a movie star in Old Shanghai. She had made 13 features, starred in five plays, and shot a number of print advertisements that had appeared in magazines. In a time when most people in artistic and literary circles were generally not particularly well educated, she stood out for having a university diploma.
She had studied at two famous schools in Nanjing and Shanghai. At the University of Nanking, she studied in the Chinese department, taking lectures from a famous professor who forced girls to sit at the back of the hall. He was contemptuous of the pretty, made-up female students, who he suspected of trying to disrupt the studious atmosphere. “He picked on her in particular,” my grandmother said. She scowled as if the professor from many years ago was sitting across from her on the train.
As my grandmother recalled, her friend didn’t care much for her studies at the university. “All she cared about was joining the drama society,” she said. “All she cared about were The Lady of the Camellias and Romeo and Juliet. Not only did she not concentrate on her studies, she was always showing up late for lectures. The professor’s solution to ‘problem students’ like her was to ask them questions that he knew they couldn’t answer. He wanted to make them look bad.”
The professor’s scheme failed, though, Grandma explained, as it led to all of the male students routinely turning around to look at the women. The rarefied atmosphere that he cultivated was destroyed. Whenever he asked a question, all the young men turned. It was a Pavlovian response: They all shifted in their seats to look at the back of the hall. Even before the females heard their names, they would respond, too, flushing like a shiny red apple.
“She studied in Nanjing for a year,” my grandmother said, “then dropped out. Her father sent her to Kwang Hua University in Shanghai. That’s where I was going to school, too. We ended up in the same dormitory. We were roommates.”
“It sounds like her dad was pretty powerful,” I said.
“I think he was in business,” my grandmother said. “Maybe he was in politics. I’m not really sure.”
“You never asked her?”
“I asked her,” my grandmother said, “but she never gave me a straight answer.” Her knowledge of her roommate came mostly from reading newspapers and magazines after she got into pictures. Her life was always a riddle. Nobody was sure of the facts. There was no agreed-upon version of her biography.
“You want me to figure out her life story?” I asked my grandmother.
“That would be useless,” she said. “There’s nothing to figure out.”
“Then what is it you want me to find?”
“Don’t worry,” my grandmother said. “Listen...back then, in our university days, we both liked going to the movies. We liked songs from movies, too.” They would go to see the same movie two or three times, she explained, mostly for the songs. Once they memorized the tune and the lyrics, they would practice singing them. Back then, there wasn’t pop music, at least in the sense we understand it now, but the songs sung in the movies by stars like Zhou Xuan, Bai Hong, and Yao Li served as the soundtrack of the era (Zhou Xuan was the only name I recognized).
My grandmother’s friend usually paid for their tickets. The matter of learning songs from movies was more significant than I at first assumed: In those days, movie songs were intended first and foremost to serve the film, and only later might they be set down on a 78 rpm record. The records were popular, fashionable items, but being able to sing the latest songs before they made it to wax meant that you were on the cutting edge.
Their fashionable friendship did not end when they graduated. They shared an apartment together on the second floor of a building on Avenue Edward VII. On the same floor as them was the apartment of a married couple, who had gained some fame in the local movie business, and the office of a physician. The physician, a lithe man in his twenties, who wore gold-rimmed spectacles, had earned his doctorate in France.
As my grandmother began narrating the story of the movie star couple and the fate of the wife, who had abruptly retired from the limelight, she paused, cleared her throat, and took a sip of water. “They say that she was coming home from the studio one night,” my grandmother began again, “and was scared by a cat darting across her path. That’s when she stopped acting. She had physical complaints that changed from day to day, so she was always rushing off next door to see the doctor. As time went by, we started to figure out what was going on. Her husband found out, too. He carried out his own investigation and caught them at the Great Eastern Hotel.”
I leaned back against the dark green covering of the hard seats. “What are you telling me a story like that for?” I asked.
“It’s the same kind of thing you’d find in all those Eileen Chang novels you read,” she countered.
“Huh,” I said.
“So,” she continued, “once they got divorced, she took up with the doctor. The husband was furious and quit the industry, too. He went into business and moved to Wuhan.”
“I thought he was going to seduce this friend of yours,” I said, “then groom her as a starlet.”
“She became a dancing girl,” my grandmother said. “She was forced into it. She needed to support her family.”
This was the sort of perfunctory explanation that she always gave. How was it possible that the friend, a university student with a father who was either in business or politics, was suddenly forced to become a dancing girl?
“It’s a fact,” my grandmother said. “She told me that her family was having problems. She had to support them. It was a Hua Mulan kind of situation.”
“What year was this?”
“It was the fall of 1937,” my grandmother said. “The Battle of Shanghai had just ended. The Japanese were occupying half of Shanghai.”
“People in Shanghai were still dancing? I mean, they still needed to employ dancing girls?”
“In the French Concession, the dancers were still dancing,” my grandmother said, “the racehorses were still running, and the famous dancing girls still made headlines in the gossip columns.”
“Ah,” I said. I couldn’t hold it back, and my grandmother caught the contemptuous tone of it, as well as my disdainful expression.
“There was a magazine back then,” my grandmother said, “Elastic Girls. It was about the dance halls and the girls paid to dance in them.” She explained that the title of the magazine was a play on words: the Chinese word for “elastic” or “flexible”—tanxing—sounds like “dancing.”
“What were you doing for work back then?” I asked.
“I got a job at the school after I graduated,” she answered.
“You were a teacher in the feudal era, back before Liberation?”
“This was before I got married,” my grandmother said. “I was a teaching assistant at my old college. I never even told your mother about this.” Before my shock faded, she returned to her friend’s story: “She was so beautiful! As soon as she got on at the Paramount Hotel, she was one of the biggest stars in Shanghai.”
“She couldn’t have been more beautiful than you,” I ventured.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” my grandmother said.
I thought back to the old, ripped-in-half picture I had seen 10 years before in the photo album. I took the chance to bring it up again, but she made no reply. I asked her why my grandfather wasn’t in the picture.
“That’s what you want to know, huh?” she said. “Wait until I see him on the other side... I’ll come back to you in a dream and explain.” I started to grumble about her never giving me the full story, but she cut me off: “It’s the truth. Before we left Shanghai, your grandfather burned up most of our stuff.”
“Was there a fire in the apartment?” I asked.
“It was in a tub,” she said, and extended both hands, curved to form the rounded sides of the vessel. “He burned up every picture, one by one...”
“After that, it was my magazines, then my records, my books...I told him to leave me one of the magazines. It had my friend’s picture on the cover—my best friend in the whole world...”
“So,” I said, “he gave you one picture and the magazine?”
“I saved the picture myself, without him knowing. But the magazine was out of the question. He burned it all up. Your grandfather was a cruel man.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. My grandmother seemed to have sunk into inertia. For a long time, she said nothing, then abruptly announced she was going to the bathroom. I was about to stand to go with her, but she waved me off, saying she didn’t need my help and I should keep an eye on the luggage. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something might happen to her on the way to the bathroom.
I’ve never met my grandfather. He passed away shortly after my mother started junior high. As she told it, he was transferred in 1957 to a farm in another part of the country. This was why my grandmother got into the habit of traveling during the Lunar New Year. She often went down to the farm to reunite with him over the holidays. Three times she had New Year’s Eve dinner on the farm. The fourth time she went was in August. That time, she took his remains home.
I had heard my grandmother talk about the time when she came to bring him home. She met another woman arriving at the farm to bring her own husband home too. “In that place,” she said, “you would always hear about the families of people on the farm and conversations about how such-and-such a person is a relative of whoever...” My grandmother paused. “I remember the sound of them crying...”
She heard a name that she recognized. It came from nowhere. Someone was calling it out, over and over again, and it distracted her from her pain for a second. “I turned my head to follow the sound. I knew that woman. I thought to myself, ‘So he is here, too.’ At that moment, really...I looked at that woman—just for a few seconds—and I felt my pain lessen. But then I cried, too, even harder than before. I thought to myself, ‘Not only is my husband gone, but so is this man—this man that I used to love, too.’”
I was a bit speechless at that moment, and it was a shame for my grandfather, as I had forgotten all about him and was thinking only of this other man my grandmother had loved. Back then, I was already in my third year of university, and I already had certain opinions about extramarital romance. It had come from all the books I was reading.
As I pondered my wicked thoughts, my grandmother corrected me. “I admired his talent. He was a famous musician in Old Shanghai. He wrote so many wonderful songs.”
“So, you were secretly in love with him?” I asked.
“Well,” my grandmother said, “I and your grandfather had not yet started dating. This other man—I liked his songs, so I had certain feelings for him.”
“Was he handsome?” I asked. But at that question, the time tunnel back to the feudal era had collapsed and was sealed up. After that, no matter what I asked or how I asked it, my grandmother avoided the subject.
From the family history that I pieced together from my mother and grandmother’s recollections, the musician of Old Shanghai seemed to be the only celebrity we knew, until just now when she shared with me the story of another star. I was thinking of questions to ask her when she came back from the bathroom, but she was a long time coming back. I started to worry about her again. Just as I was about to get up and check on her, I heard the door swing open. I saw her coming back, perfectly safely. I breathed a sigh of relief. It felt as if I was exhaling with the force of Yangtze flood waters, sweeping away all the questions on my mind.
It was my grandmother that spoke first this time. She quickly got back on track: “I don’t know how she did it—right to the peak of the volcano.” She explained that was the slang of the time, used in the papers: They would talk about a dancing girl going to the peak of the volcano. “Just picture a volcano erupting,” she said. “That’s what she did in Shanghai. It shocked the city.”
I could picture the volcano but I had a harder time imagining how a single dancing girl could have such an influence on a city. I took my grandmother’s word for it that it might have been because she was one of the few dancing girls that were university-educated. The patrons of the dance halls, especially those that didn’t care much for dancing with the girls as much as taking in the atmosphere, crowded into the Paramount to shout encouragement as she danced. Some people continued it in the papers, and stirred up even more excitement in their columns.
“There was a new magazine,” my grandmother said, “called the Fragrant Sea Pictorial, which suggested to her that she write something for them. She was surprised and tried to turn them down, saying she wasn’t a writer. The editors said it didn’t matter. They told her to submit some diary entries and they could run a regular column for her.”
The young dancer agreed. For two years, her emotional diary ran as a column. The next opportunity came from a budding film director that frequented the dance halls. She made her debut in his first film. He wanted to collaborate on an even more impressive project, but she declined. A few months later, the director was killed by unknown assassins on the way to dinner. Rumors had circulated on the streets that he was working for the Japanese. Nobody took responsibility for the murder at the time, but writers after the War of Resistance described it as the justified killing of a traitor. The starlet he launched did not find her career affected, however, and she continued to ascend the heights of the film industry.
By 1939, when she was at the peak of her fame, there were daily updates on her in the Shanghai papers. It was around then that she met and fell in love with a musician of the Bund, who had helped score one of her films. The affair had started when the musician took to the Evening News—my grandmother added that Zhou Xuan once came in second place in a singing contest hosted by the paper, long before she was famous—and published a letter to her, publicly declaring his love for her. He followed it up with something even more romantic: taking two copies of the issue that carried his letter, he rolled them up, filled them with red roses, and hand-delivered them.
She was moved by the gesture, of course. She confessed to my grandmother that she liked the musician but was put off by the fact that he was divorced and had two children. She didn’t want to be a stepmother to the kids. She made the difficult decision to reject him.
When a journalist from the Evening News went to interview her, she told him that love would never blossom between her and the musician. She advised him to get on with his life, as she would be doing. The journalist asked what she looked for in a partner. She answered that it was never a good idea for either a man or woman to marry a celebrity since they had too many opportunities to interact with people of the opposite sex.
After that chilly interview, there were even more men chasing after her. Capturing her attention was a challenge. The men took it as an honorable pursuit. But despite all of their efforts, she turned them down. “The impression she gave,” my grandmother said, “was of a woman fixated only on her career.” But then one day, seemingly from nowhere, the newspaper carried a headline announcing her engagement. The Bund was shaken by the news. My grandmother was shocked, too: She never expected her friend to conceal news like that from her—or that her fiancé would be the divorced movie star from Avenue Edward VII.
She had gone against all of her own stated rules for choosing a spouse. Close inspection, however, revealed what was behind the entire affair. The man had gone to Wuhan in 1937, returning to Shanghai in 1940, and he had ended up renting in the same apartment block. My grandmother and her friend lived on the second floor of No. 134 Zhaofeng Villa; her future fiancé moved in on the third floor. “It was a handsome, Western-style building,” my grandmother said, “but the feng shui was bad. It was close to No. 76 Jessfield Road.” That was the intelligence office of the Japanese collaborators. It gave the area a frightful reputation, but it kept the rent low. After the starlet got engaged, she announced her retirement. Her husband ran a trading company.
I assumed it was a large firm, but my grandmother said, “No, it was quite small. There were only a few employees.”
“Then why did she marry him?” I asked.
“I asked her that,” my grandmother said. “All she said was this: We’re the same kind of person.”
“What did she mean by that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said.
Perhaps it was only to my grandmother that the starlet offered such an explanation. But if even her best friend couldn’t understand, what hope was there of convincing other people? Back then, most people in Shanghai were speculating about her choice to “marry down.” Rumors were passed around by people that couldn’t understand the starlet’s marriage, and they were broadcast with even more enthusiasm by tabloid reporters. Many years later, I found a tabloid article in the archives of the Shanghai Library, which announced in the headline that a certain starlet was in the family way. In the article itself, the language was more direct, talking about how, “The actress’s belly is bulging more than one might expect from a couple that’s only recently tied the knot.”
This was a different version of events from the one related to me by my grandmother on the slow train to Shanghai. As she told it, the couple had gotten engaged in the winter of 1941, gotten married in the spring of 1942, and welcomed their first child into the world in the summer of 1943. After the wedding, she left my grandmother to move upstairs with her husband, and my grandmother remained, alone, on the second floor. After she was engaged to my grandfather, he moved in with her.
After she got married, the actress hired a maid, but she turned out not to be particularly competent. Her cooking wasn’t very good. One time, she nearly burned down the house while preparing dinner. If my grandmother hadn’t heard her yelling and come up to help, the fire might have spread. “If I wasn’t at home,” my grandmother said, “I wouldn’t have had any pictures or magazines left for your grandfather to burn in the basin. Any political crime that we were trying to hide would have been resolved long in advance.” She paused and offered a rare criticism of her friend: “She quit making movies, but she ended up being even busier. She was hardly ever at home. That first year, she swept in and out like a ghost. That’s not how a wife should be. Once she got pregnant, she settled down a bit.”
Life went on in the same way for many years after that. But then something happened to disrupt their lives. As the War of Resistance seemed on the verge of being won by the Chinese, the Japanese secret police burst into Zhaofeng Villa one night and took away the retired actress’s husband.
No announcement was made of the reasons for his arrest. The tabloid knew everything there was to know at the time, but a few weeks later, there was still no word on the former actor’s disappearance. Only one of the film magazines broached the story, noting with tact that his whereabouts were unknown. Every few days, my grandmother’s friend bundled up her child and went to the Japanese military police station at Yangshupu to visit her husband. A month after her husband’s arrest, the Japanese police came back to Zhaofeng Villa and took her away, too.
My grandmother looked on helplessly as her friend was dragged away. No word or expression was exchanged between the two women. When the police left, my grandmother ventured up to the third floor to investigate. “The strange thing,” she told me, “was that the baby was gone, and so was the maid.”
“Slow down, grandma. Let me get this straight...if the Japanese arrested her, then she must have been working against them. Was she working for one of the underground resistance groups?”
“It’s possible,” my grandmother said.
“But for which party?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Either is possible.”
These questions were debated in the press after the war ended. Everyone was in agreement that she must have worked in the underground. In the archives, I found an article written by the same journalist that had previously slandered the pregnant starlet, in which he said that so-and-so had “joined the sacred task of underground resistance under the direction of her husband.” She had been involved, the journalist said, in covertly gathering information on the Japanese to help the resistance. That was why the military police arrested the couple. They were tortured, but, cognizant of their duty to the resistance, refused to confess. The Japanese eventually released them on bail, after which they recuperated in the hospital.
I inferred from this that her husband must have been who she reported to, but my grandmother didn’t reveal that detail when she told the story on the train. She only remembered her friend returning to Zhaofeng Villa in June of 1945, along with her husband and child. The maid never returned.
“Did you ask her what happened?”
“I didn’t bother,” my grandmother said. “I figured, even if I asked, she wouldn’t tell me the truth. As soon as I saw her that day, she said to me, ‘I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.’ Later, I found out that the Japanese were keeping an eye on them. Every time they left the house, they had someone tailing them. She did her best not to get mixed up in anything. That went on until August, when the Japanese surrendered.”
After the War of Resistance was won, the former starlet became a changed woman. She regained all of her former prestige, and people were looking forward to her returning to the silver screen. At the same time, the film industry was short of people, but also running through personnel very quickly. A fearful mood hung in the air, with everyone looking to settle scores and expose wartime misdeeds. Many people in the industry had problematic pasts: Many had collaborated to make movies with the Japanese, and some were even more treacherous, going so far as to work on propaganda pictures that celebrated Japanese imperialism. To fully expose the wartime record of the film industry would mean liquidating most people in it.
Some, in their own defense, claimed that the Japanese had taken over the industry completely, so working with them was the only way to earn a living. Those people avoided being blacklisted once the war was over. But my grandmother’s friend was clean: She was one of the rare exceptions who had retired from film just before it was taken over by the Japanese. She became a hot commodity after the war. Added to that, she also had the honorable distinction of having worked for the resistance. She received many invitations to work but turned them all down.
A studio shooting a War of Resistance picture titled The Secret Agent wanted her as the lead. The director, the writer, and the studio head each paid visits to her. She politely declined. Her explanation was that her voice had never recovered its former glory after her torture at the hands of the Japanese. They told her that her voice was just as mellifluous as before. Her attitude was firm, however, and there was no way to convince her.
Without any new films, cinemas began running her older pictures again. Many of those films were period pieces, in which viewers began to notice certain rebellious subtexts, especially in her performance as Lin Chong’s wife in a story based on Outlaws of the Marsh. The newspapers called her “our resistance hero.” Without much in the way of fresh news, when the papers wrote about her life, they played up her seclusion, describing a life without much contact with the outside world. She stayed home, they said, looking after her children, a dutiful wife and adoring mother.
“I was the same,” my grandmother said. “I stayed home and looked after my kids. Sometimes, I would go upstairs to play mahjong with her.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“We sometimes went to the Xinya Restaurant for coffee, or took a stroll together, shopping...”
“Like every other housewife,” I observed.
“Right,” my grandmother said, “I lived a peaceful life for a few years.”
“She stayed in Shanghai?” I asked.
“She never left.”
“But shouldn’t she have gone to Nanjing with the Nationalist government?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” my grandmother said. “Lots of resistance agents had multiple identities. How do you know she wasn’t one of the comrades that penetrated deep into the enemy base?”
“Oh. And she never went back into the movies?”
“Never,” my grandmother said. “But I always felt like she didn’t want to be forgotten.”
My grandmother’s reason for saying this was that she had seen the retired starlet reading rumors about herself in the tabloids, and thought she took it with more serenity and tolerance than could be expected of most people. Actresses like Ruan Lingyu used to fall apart when they read about themselves in the paper, but my grandmother’s friend never let it get to her. When there was some particularly egregious slander, my grandmother would say to her friend, “They’re dragging your name through the mud! Why don’t you speak out? Talk to a journalist who can get your story out, or put an announcement in the paper.” But she never did those things. She let it go.
So, in the years after the war had been won, newspapers carried new rumors every few weeks, announcing that the former starlet was preparing to return to the silver screen, that she was writing a script, that she and her husband were making a movie about their capture, or that she was about to launch her own studio. These stories never came to anything.
“She enjoyed being a celebrity,” my grandmother said.
“She said that?” I asked.
“No, but I guess that was the case. We never talked about those sorts of things. But I read the articles she wrote after the war. She was always writing about what had happened to her in the business. If you read them, you would get the same feeling, that she enjoyed being famous.”
“Grandma,” I said, “I just realized you never even told me her name.”
She didn’t fob me off this time. Instead, she gave me three names. None of them were particularly memorable, though. They were all common names of the likes of Zhang Hong, Chen Fang, Liu Juan, that you couldn’t pick out in a crowd.
“How am I going to look her up in the archives under names like that?” I asked.
“I told you,” my grandmother said. “The name isn’t important. The story of a person’s life is what matters. Take what I’ve told you already and go through some of the old magazines. All I want is to find some pictures of her.”
“You just want pictures?”
“That’s right,” my grandmother said. “I hope you can find something in color.” She listed a few places to begin, like Elastic Girls, Spring Scenes, and some movie magazines.
“Alright,” I said, “we’ll spend a day at the library when we get to Shanghai.”
Her usual expression returned. She fell silent and sipped her water.
“Grandma,” I said, “did she go to Taiwan before Liberation?”
“She didn’t. She stayed in Shanghai.”
“Well,” I began, “then she...”
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said. She told me that the last time she had seen her friend was one summer night in 1951. Her friend told her that she was leaving Shanghai. My grandmother asked her where she was going. She wasn’t sure. The former starlet said she would take a trip with her husband to his hometown, but nothing had been decided after that. “I wrote down my address for her,” my grandmother said. “I told her I was going back to my husband’s hometown too. I reminded her to write me.”
After she took the address, her final request was for a picture of my grandmother. She went back into her apartment and found a wedding photo to give her. The next morning, her friend left Zhaofeng Villa. “I stayed in Shanghai for two more days with your grandpa, your aunt, and your mother. Then we went back to your grandpa’s hometown.”
“Did she write to you?”
“I lost touch with her after that,” my grandmother said. “I never heard from her again.”
The train entered the station. The click-click over the tracks slowed. The station sign drew closer and closer.
“She must have changed her name,” my grandmother said. “She must have taken a new identity—one with no history. For every identity she took on, there was a new name. She had so many identities: university student, dancing girl, starlet... She was always transforming herself.” She took a sip of water and looked out the window. The train stopped.
“Suzhou,” she said in a low voice.
“Yep, we’re in Suzhou.”
“Your grandpa’s hometown.”
It was summer that year. I rode the slow train to Shanghai with my grandmother. When we arrived, nothing went as I expected. I thought my grandmother would drag me to the library to search the archives, holding me hostage until my task was complete. I thought I would have to spend a few days rooting through documents from the time before Liberation. But that’s not what happened.
We drank tea. We went to the City God Temple. I will never forget sitting in a private room at the Green Tunnel Restaurant, drinking tieguanyin tea and eating delicacies, watching the people cross the zigzag bridge and the schools of fish swimming around the lake pavilion. That week in Shanghai was about pure enjoyment. When we passed some used bookstores on Sima Road, I asked whether or not we should try to find some old magazines, but my grandmother waved me off. “Now that I’ve given you your task,” she said, “there’s no hurry. Worry about that later. Your job now is to enjoy your time with me.”
As far as I know, that trip to Shanghai was the last long trip that my grandmother took. It was also the closest I had ever felt to her. Before that, our conversations had always been disrupted or moved off track by whatever was going on at home, but far from home, there was nothing to stand in the way. When people are far from home, secrets tend to bubble forth.
On a warm afternoon, my grandmother took me to visit Zhaofeng Villa. I was surprised to find that, unlike Jessfield Road, Avenue Edward VII, and Kwang Hua University, which had been consigned to the dustbin of history, its name remained unchanged. The Western-style facade and the covered lane were still there. Standing under Zhaofeng Villa, I heard many stories about my grandfather and grandmother’s relationship. Some of the details made me blush. Long after I left that place, some of the stories brought tears to my eyes.
My grandmother left Shanghai once again. A few years later, she passed away.
I was a graduate student in Shanghai then. I graduated a few months later and decided to stay in the city. I started a career and a family. We rented an apartment in Zhaofeng Villa. I put my grandparents’ wedding photo on the wall. It was shot horizontally and had been digitally restored. The original was a color photograph from a movie magazine pulled from the Shanghai Library archives. I hired an expert to scan, print, and mount it for me.
Speaking of that, I only managed to find it because of another magazine about dancing girls in Shanghai. It was just as my grandmother had told me that summer day, as the slow train pulled into the station, and the city of Shanghai entered my life for the first time. “If you really want to find it,” she said, “start from Elastic Girls.”
Young Chinese and foreign readers may equally be confused about “grandma’s” early life, as well as why she chose such a roundabout way of revealing the family’s secret history. Since 2021, I’ve been researching shidaiqu (时代曲), an early form of Chinese pop music. I’ve studied historical records and interviewed figures from that era as well as their descendants. In fact, many people have no idea about the achievements of the elders in their own family. The inspiration of the story came from that, as well as from a real female celebrity who was an undercover agent, but later disappeared from the public eye.
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Elastic Girls | Short Story is a story from our issue, “Small Town Saga.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.