17th May 2022


19 minutes read

Noémi László

Shanghai Bitter

17th May 2022

19 minutes read

Bottled by a Transylvanian Hungarian in English

She stood with a half-emptied glass in one hand and an almost full glass in the other. A composed Chinese gentleman stepped in. He stepped out on the first floor. Ten minutes to eight and there she was, gin-and-tonicked and in love in the lobby, waiting for Zelda to solve the mess. Zelda needed to check out in order to check back in again and open the door to her room for Nina to take a shower. Nina had to wash off six hours spent over and under Shanghai ground and then take a cab to the airport at eight. The check-out, check-in move was a mystery they didn’t even try to understand. The entire business was far beyond their grasp, so like good children, they just did what they were told. Nobody told them to fall in love, though. That they had managed on their own. Zelda fancied a brave chieftain. Nina fell for a professional.

They were lost. But not in Shanghai.

There, they did quite well. Zelda said let’s go to the Jade Buddha temple. Nina took a deep breath and guided Zelda on a hundred-minute stroll to Jingan Temple. When they arrived, Zelda thanked Nina and explained she actually had wanted to see Jingan but had confused it with the other one, so she was glad Nina had confused it back. Their friendship was cemented under the chimes of coins thrown by Chinese visitors at a towering brass something in the main court. A heavy scent of religiously employed incense sticks floated in the air. Nina took snapshots of the brass something, she photographed some bells hanging from be-dragoned eaves, and another huge one hanging alone in a small worship hall. She took photos of irrelevant details, wearing her shame in a cute foxtail around her neck, but the brass was relevant. Brass being the colour of a familiar pair of eyes.

She stood with a lemongrass ginger negroni in one hand and her quivering heart in the other, telling Niko he was blocking her sun. Niko got the message and took his noble heart a few steps to the right to join a merry group celebrating an overwhelming victory in the battlefield of organizing international Shanghai literary events. Nina’s heart had swollen into a pig-sized balloon by then, only to be pierced by Tomas as he turned his back on the pig and walked away to welcome his Chinese publisher. Keeping her scattered pieces together was quite a challenge, so Nina emptied her glass and begged for yet another lemongrass ginger negroni at the bar. They were to celebrate James’ birthday due in under fifteen minutes. James didn’t like the bar at the top section of a skyscraper, part of the Shanghai skyline along the Bund. The next day, when they happened to view the skyline, Zelda told Nina the building looked like a Mexican ziggurat. Shame coated Nina in thick dark chocolate as she knew the word but had no idea what it meant. Despite their recently cemented friendship, chocolate prevented Nina from asking what exactly a ziggurat was. So they just stood there tired as hell among the Oriental crowd madly taking selfies, and watched the famous skyline with the bar that had failed to live up to James’ expectations. Its basic flaw was its lack of those shelves behind the bartender, packed with glittery bottles containing the world’s most valued beverages. Cruel designers had substituted windows for the shelves, putting a famous view where famous drinks should have been. The view consisted of a dark mist around glass slabs caught in nets of steel. It hardly made up for the lack of a homely display of reassuring drinks. It only highlighted the state-of-the-art precision with which someone had concocted a European bar lacking its very heart.

Nina stood with a tote in one hand and a dripping raincoat in the other, as Patrick delivered a fluffy art deco speech commemorating the glory days of the Shanghai Cathay Hotel, while standing under its eviscerated former shopping arcade. Trotting along the Bund in heavy rain turned out to be a rare privilege. Otherwise, Zelda never would have dared enter buildings that now housed national banks, high-end hotels and such serious institutions to look at mural paintings, mosaics and antique floorboards, she told Nina a week later in the same spot, which was in the sun for a change. Thanks to Patrick, they delved deep into the history of early twentieth century floors, plasters, balustrades. Envy grabbed at Nina’s throat as she watched Niko and Tomas take notes. Not that she had no notebook to jot stuff down. It simply didn’t occur to her.

She was a woman without a plan.

Shame slid down her throat, coiled its green body up inside her and flicked its tongue through her eyes. Hours before the story started, she was tired and calm, almost serene, bothered only by anger for being shown what foreigners had done in China and how well they’d done it. She was under the impression she came to China to meet the East. During their ten-day stay, the European travelers were introduced to almost each and every fabulous and plain building that foreigners had erected in Shanghai. Most of these buildings looked like buildings Nina passed in the downtown at home, with their winding staircases and rounded stairwell windows, green railings, grey plaster, blunt blocks and rounded lines. She could just as well have stayed home and admired terracotta floors inside cool, unlit entrance halls oozing a faint, moldy odor. She loved them. But she would never go all the way to China to admire them there too. She wanted to punch the spirited guide in a fit of disrespectful rage for stealing China from under her nose and swapping it for a faded Western empire. She was jet-lagged, the Bund sat under a blanket of fog, rain came down in heavy doses and she had no idea how soon she would get lost.

She stood with a glass of red wine in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other, waiting for Niamh to get back in her seat. Nina met Niamh and Matthew at a hotpot restaurant the day she almost died of a broken heart. They came over from England to establish academic ties with Shanghainese universities. Are you having your midlife crisis, Matthew asked. Nina told him she might be, without knowing it, as suited a woman without a plan. He said he was doing research on midlife crises after his own had suddenly kicked in and started giving him difficulty for no apparent reason. He was a professor of Italian who was fascinated with Dante. Their conversation started when Nina mentioned the dark forest midway in her life’s journey and something about straying from the path. All three of them were past their fortieth and enjoying their wine a tiny bit too much. A tiny bit too something was the theme that Wednesday. The group had visited a tiny bit too many tattered art deco buildings in the French Concession area, they ate a tiny bit too much for lunch again, Nina dressed up a tiny bit too much for the panel discussion at Sisiphe Bookshop, where they had crammed a tiny bit too many clever Chinese pupils in, and by the end of the day she missed Tomas a tiny bit too much while he seated himself at a distant table to entertain famous East-Western pen professionals. She had a tiny bit too much beer and Niko had a tiny bit too much beer and wine and beer and wine so he kissed her a tiny bit too much in the empty corridor after they had taken a midnight stroll back to the hotel. Shame burnt in timbers inside Nina’s skull as she inventoried her not being able to ward off a kiss she did not want and had not asked for. She had only wanted some fresh air and a good walk, but she was a tiny bit too friendly and open and, so it came to pass, she got a kiss from the wrong person. It was all just a tiny bit too much.

Nina stood with a camera in one hand and a map of Shanghai in the other, smack in the middle of People’s Square right outside Shanghai Museum. Oh no, the museum is closed on Monday, said an exhausted Zelda. The good part was they finally got to sit down to stretch their midlife legs. The bad part was they had spent almost two hours trying to get to the museum, and at least half of that time underground. It all happened at about four o’clock and looked like rush hour in its fullest. Finding their way around suddenly seemed more difficult than Nina had anticipated.

Shanghai laughed at her mental image of herself as a refined traveler.

All her previous accomplishments lay in ruins on the perfect grass around the visitor-free museum built to resemble an ancient Chinese teapot. So no more photographs of magnificent brass objects and mostly no nothing. With her new crushed self for their guide, they would be lucky if they got back to the hotel in time for Nina’s departure. Zelda’s mind was set on a bottle of red wine, so while they trotted in and out of metro stations, changed lines and went down side-streets in all the wrong directions, she rehearsed scenarios featuring the two of them toasting to the end of their difficult excursion, either in some intimate café or upstairs in her room. Along their sinuous walk directed by a confused Eastern European they came across no charming bistros, so Zelda considered buying a bottle of wine. When she found the wine, she realized there might not be a bottle-opener back at the hotel. It was difficult for Nina to imagine a Shanghai hotel without a bottle-opener but she was too exhausted with focusing and finding themselves on the map every other minute to be able to convince Zelda into buying the wine. When they made it back, no wine at hand, they ordered gin and tonics at the bar. The waitress wanted to know whether they would have the drinks in the lobby or upstairs in the room. They assured her they would be having their drinks in the lobby. In a short while they changed their minds and took the elevator, drinks in hand, up to Zelda’s room. Which wouldn’t open. So an angry Zelda darted off, leaving Nina with a G & T in either hand, on the fifth floor corridor, at half past seven. It was too much for her to bear. She changed her mind and walked to the elevator.

She stood with a palm-sized turquoise ocarina in one hand and a smaller black one in the other, inside an ocarina shop in Suzhou’s old district. A man seated on a high stool had been playing the ocarina outside the shop and they just had to go in. James stood mesmerized listening to the song which was, as it turned out, Irish. So the literary mariachi of Shanghai, as coined by Niko much to everyone’s merriment, talked James into singing the Irish song. He said he didn’t know the words. Zoe looked the words up on the Internet and put her phone under James’s nose. James sat on a high chair by the ocarina master and melted their hearts singing this song in the most resonant, gentle, manly voice they had ever heard. Should anyone be summoned as a witness to court to save James from ending up in hell, they should mention his eyes and his voice as evidence for the heavenly origin of his soul, merely locked inside a tormented body wrestling in the mud. With James, Nina was a kid in the company of a potentially wise friend.

Things felt peaceful and safe and complete.

His eyes were a space of suffering and distress flanked by placid strength which got all the more evident when he spoke. Shanghai throbbed in Nina’s ear as a mixture of nervous honking and the hum of James’ voice. They were in the most Chinese marketplace they had seen so far, no protruding skyscrapers in sight. They strolled around the ocarina shop, buying fans, magnets, baozi, silk scarves and tiny carvings in jade, chatting and smoking and taking silly group photos, following the meandering paths of the Happy Couple’s Garden to discover masterfully placed fragments of rock extracted from faraway riverbeds and moved at mighty great costs. They were sitting with dreamy eyes in a punt-like boat on the canal, listening to the worn Chinese woman pulling it sing an ancient song that made her sharp voice tremble with the dark timber of ages long lost.

She stood with her legs apart, holding her camera in two hands, taking a photograph of Zoe in flowing red in the parking lot outside the Shanghai Jing Jiang Hotel. Nina made Zoe lean against a jewel-like Ferrari, the same red as her asymmetric summer dress. Zoe did anything Nina dared ask her to. Nina liked Zoe’s face, clad in a constant victorious smile and her eyes set upon hilarious mischief. She had photographed Zoe in jeans and a top glowing in the sun with her back to the Oriental Pearl Tower, she got her wearing sunglasses and glowing with self-confidence, she got her with her short dark crop framed by a hole in a riverbed rock placed in the Happy Couple’s Garden, she got her standing tall in a tiny white mini dress inside a round, stone passage linking one garden space to another. Nina caught her, in reality, staring with sad eyes, hands dangling on either side of her in puppet-like passivity and she wondered how much of Zoe’s smile and perennially gay temper was actually genuine. Zoe did nevertheless flash her rascal-meets-femme-fatale smile in the Ferrari shot for Nina. Niko caught the pose, and as they stepped inside he whispered into her ear, Nina, you know you could use that photo to represent modern China. She looked at him, puzzled. She had only meant to picture the matching reds, and the funny pairing of tiny graceful Zoe and the oh so Western-fetish Ferrari, even if Shanghai was full of Ferraris, hypnotic lights and bars placed atop insane skyscrapers, too. You know, red, Niko said. The Chinese flag is red and China is red and you know, Niko and her, they both came from the red side of the iron fence. And then the wonderful paradox of the Ferrari and the sensuous, confident, radiant Chinese woman leaning against it dressed in red hit Nina. She told Niko she would gladly let him have the photograph.

She sat with a green matcha milk in one hand and her cellphone in the other waiting for Tomas to return to the table, in a canal-side teahouse in the old district of Suzhou. This happened at dusk, after several hours spent walking along narrow streets crammed between small, grey-roofed white houses, crossing bridges over a drained riverbed exposing its odorous entrails of stones, cables, rotten wood and plastic bottles. It was their day off, so when Nina found him bent over a huge map after lunch she asked if she could join. He said yes and she did and took photos of Chinese characters in various surroundings, of broken roof-tiles the color of lead, of dark casement windows whimsically arranged along whitewashed back walls, even of him as he was picking directions on his map. Directions were of no significance to Nina then, filled to the brim with sad delight, tailing Tomas from shop to shop as he hunted down gifts for his loved ones. By the end of a long walk dotted with stops inside minute shops selling clothes, jewelry, paper, tea and the like, they spotted this cozy looking teahouse terrace across the canal. They had both spent some time wandering about the place.

Nina went looking for the ladies’ room in the wrong direction, got lost in a maze

and was unable to return because they closed a glass door she had exited during her quest.

So she had to cross a courtyard and go through a gate, as there was no other way out in sight. She found herself in the street and had to walk back to the teahouse. On his own expedition, Tomas picked the right direction but he came upon a breathtaking exhibition in some remote part of the same building. They had talked about lots of things during the walk. Nina couldn’t remember a single word of it. That afternoon was a wide surface of undisturbed, dove-grey sea. Tomas must have had a view from above, as Nina floated underwater, eyes wide open and mouth shut, guarding the oxygen trapped in her lungs.

She stood with a black linen qipao in one hand and a tote in the other, wondering where to put the tote so she can try the Chinese dress on. The shop assistant lady instructed Nina to take her top and pants off and sent her behind a screen in the back right-hand corner of the dress shop barely big enough to have corners. Tomas stood a few steps away in stern determination to make her buy the qipao she had dreamed about the entire trip. It’s a very good idea, beautiful viking Zelda said, you do look like someone for this kind of dress. You see, she said, I wanted to buy one, too, but these Chinese women just looked at me in awe and produced all sorts of ugly loose dresses that would have made me look huge. So while Tomas examined this and that, here and there, Nina went through the qipaos on display everywhere. They were too small, too colorful, too flimsy, too silky, too blue, not one of them was black and sturdy enough for her. At one previous shop Tomas made her try on a pavement-grey one, trimmed in teal, but her European thighs were too wide for the delicate sheath. So she stood empty-handed and this was her last attempt as evening flew in along the canal and they were soon to return to the hotel. This one was black enough and linen enough and welcomed her lower body enough, but now the dress was too large. The Chinese woman shouted some angry words into her phone and the app told them the dress still needed a final wash to make it shrink. So then Nina asked how much and the lady told her. Nina said no way, she wasn’t buying any dress for that much, it was immoral. Tomas said they could try and haggle but for Nina there was no reasonable price to be reached from those heights. She told the Chinese woman this was a very nice dress for a rich lady, unfortunately not for her and she showed her with her right thumb and index finger how small she was financially, compared to the ideal owner of the targeted dress. As they left the shop she told Tomas she was absolutely against buying clothes for large amounts of money while in Shanghai exhausted old men pedaled in anguish on tricycles packed with mountains of plastic and cardboard, and children were starving in the wilderness.

She stood with her scribbled speech in one hand, the other hand on the pulpit, staring into Tomas’ eyes, at the German Embassy in Shanghai. He seemed to be a nice person, with a boyish crop of hair, a boyish smile, and boyishly crammed-together lower teeth. Nina kept wondering how this benign, tame creature had assembled one of the most impressive resumes in the entire group. A few days later she wondered how this towering literary soldier with features of steel, a strong will and fearless determination could sometimes flash the gentlest smile. It almost annoyed her. But for the moment she just stood there, dressed in black from head to toe, trembling with the joy of getting to share her thoughts.

Literature is an insane human endeavor, Nina read, intended to keep humans sane.

It is several sports; swimming, running, weightlifting, shooting, skating, skydiving and ping pong all rolled up in one ambitious act. To create using just words means to connect laser eyes with an icy mind, to keep a liquefied, acid heart in a titanium bottle and slowly pour it over the heads of the audience. It is throwing stones at one’s parents and ancestors, to build roads into the past for explorers to come. It is the most exciting and adventurous pastime one could ever think of. It is one’s own and everybody else’s, too. Nina’s body trembled, the paper trembled, her voice trembled but she eventually got the entire text out. Tomas smiled and clapped his hands. Others applauded. Nina was happy and hungry and tired. By the end of all the speeches they lined the European writers up and gave them scissors to cut through the thick red ribbon stretched out under their lined-up noses. The ribbon was weighed down in the middle by a huge dahlia-like bunch, that led to a joke about cutting the Gordian knot. Nina cut the ribbon and put the piece that ended up in her hand deep in her left pocket. Once home, she thought for a minute of throwing it away, but then she tied it to the stem of the white reading lamp on her desk. It connects the time of the opening to her time now, forming a single loop. It links time before Tomas to time after him, forming a single loop, while the empty center is her transparent, next-to-nothing time spent on another continent.


written by

Noémi László

More about the author


Shanghai Bitter by Noémi László
A young writer who has been invited to a book opening China explores the cultural backdrop of Shanghai while also pondering her motivations as an author.