Many years ago on a business trip, I flew in low over Chicago on a small commercial twin-engine plane late at night and was dazzled by a carpet of lights from horizon to horizon that is still a vivid memory.
Now our night flight is approaching Shanghai and I press my face to the window, anxious for the first glimpse of the city. Wow, Shanghai!—images of Terry and the Pirates sailing on a Chinese junk out of the Yangtze into the East China Sea, the sultry and mysterious Dragon Lady with her skirt slit up to her hip gazing at me over her ivory cigarette holder hissing, “Yes, American, I have ways to make you talk.”
Mention the Yangtze River to most Chinese and, surprisingly, they have no idea what you are talking about. The Yangtze is the name of only a tiny section that early missionaries wrongly applied to the entire river, the Chang Jiang, the third largest river in the world, yet most in the West have never heard of the correct name.
But all I see is blackness. Maybe we are too high, maybe it is cloudy, but, no, I can make out indistinct shapes of buildings rushing by, then feel our wheels touch down.
The city is almost entirely dark, nothing like those in America.
Traveling from the airport to the hotel, I see that lights are on only where necessary, despite the streets crowded with people moving silently in the dark. Away from the downtown area, the stores resemble rows of townhouse garages. The shopkeepers roll up the doors in the morning and start their business, all in one room. No windows, no doorways, and, at night, light from only a small bare bulb. Most are local noodle shops with a few people gathered around a table in the darkness. Others are bicycle and scooter repair shops, also dark. A few hair styling shops are better lit.
When they do light something, they go all out. The Shanghai and Hong Kong harbor skylines are so spectacularly lit they are important tourist sites, even for the Chinese. They are often shown in travel magazines, but the majority of the cities are more what I imagined sixty-five years ago as I sat on our living room floor in front of our Philco console listening to the 15-minute afternoon radio serial, Terry and the Pirates, brought to me by Quaker Puffed Rice, the Cereal Shot from Guns.
Marion Sweet as the Dragon Lady and Shanghai Harbor