A Tale of Two Cities
The true story of a story that never was (and the mysterious Ou Runyi)
Unless you’re very, very lucky, the first thing you write will never be published. So it proved with my first ever travel story, an ambitious write-up on an overnight train journey from Shanghai to Beijing (and back). It was written for my employer at the time, the national fortnightly listings magazine City Weekend, which, after a quick Wikipedia search, appears to have closed down in 2018. My British editor Jo Lusby, who soon went on to make her name at Penguin China by paying $100,000 (a bargain, it proved) for the English-language rights to Jiang Rong’s seminal novel Wolf Totem, had welcomed the pitch, but rightly felt the final product wasn’t quite the right fit.
I later pitched the story to Dan Washburn at Shanghaiist, who also turned it down (he went on to write an excellent book about golf in China - more gripping than it sounds), and then the story was lost in the ether for many years, as I moved onto other jobs and countries. A while back I was somehow reminded of it, and managed to track the draft down, saved in an old email address long discarded (perhaps part of our shared journey from Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail). It is now finally seeing the light of day - unedited from the original (and even including layout markup), which I wrote long ago in 2005.
In case you’re wondering about the byline, O. Runyi was my writing pseudonym. With a small team of just two editorial in the Shanghai office, plus the occasional labour of visiting interns, we often had to write multiple articles across the magazine - having a pen name helped hide that fact. ‘Ou Runyi’ was also the Chinese name given to me by a colleague - Ou coming from Ouzhou, meaning Europe, while Runyi had something to do with running water (my Chinese was never that great, but I’ve always gotten by).
Here’s a typically scathing restaurant review by Ou Runyi (it’s always easier to be more critical when you can hide behind another name), penned a few years later when he had moved onto a gig with Time Out Hong Kong (once bi-weekly, now just quarterly):
Feeling the need for something (anything) that we could write about without feeling disappointment, we summoned the waiter and sombrely asked for the banana tempura. At $90 it felt like an extravagance, but surely fried fruit coated in cinnamon and honey couldn’t be bland? The answer is: it wasn’t. The disappointment was: it tried too hard. Overly saccharine, we knocked back the last of our shōchū ($88) and requested the bill, which came to a mind-bogglingly overpriced $669. Financially shaken, but gluttons for punishment, we felt compelled to round off our meal with a visit to the fourth floor bar – we’ve always found a cold bottle of Asahi ($51) helps us forget. [this last sentence still rings true - Ed. 2020]
But enough about Mr Ou, here’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. I hope you enjoy it, exuberance, errors and all. Jo, if you’re reading this, here’s the City Weekend story that never was.
A Tale of Two Cities
Life is a journey. Everybody is on a voyage, destination unknown
By O. Runyi
Sometimes we become so focused and excited on where we are going to, that we neglect to pay attention to, or savor the traveling itself. But if you take a moment from your hectic rush, take time out and observe, you appreciate a world on the move. This is about taking the time out, in a train journey from Shanghai to Beijing, and back.
Shanghai Huo Che Zhan
The midday sun beats down on the open square as a lady hawks iced water to the thirsty crowds 'San kwai! Bin shui, san kwai!'. A beggar on crutches hobbles by, seeking a few mao to add to his jangling pocket of change, he looks like he has been doing the same route around the station for a long time. Three Chinese university students have to dodge out of the way as a couple of maniac cyclists hurl headlong across the fore-court, taking a shortcut across the open spaces.
Over the bustle of the assembled masses, the cries of the omnipresent ticket touts cannot be mistaken: 'Mai piao! Mai piao! Hengzhou! Suzhou! Wei! Ni dao nar li!'. Bemused by the scene, a young western couple strolls by, with backpacks full to the brim. It looks as if they have just stepped off a train from the hinterland and are taken aback by the tall buildings and sights of Shanghai. They are not alone.
Migrant workers are all about, some newly arrived, drawn to the bright lights with hopes of making it in the big city. Others are returning home, possibly disillusioned with false promise or perhaps just tired of the rat race. There is a sense of aimless wandering by drift less crowds. Two men walk by carrying home their latest purchase, electric desk fans, ironic in the cool weather.
Passersby wear their tourist cowboy hats with pride as the tout ladies open up their umbrellas in case of rain.
I am struck by the multitude of different shaped straw hats. There are the Marlboro cowboy hats like mine, pointy ones, round ones, some richly colored, some plain; brought from all across the middle kingdom. My presence as a temporary resident of the square has been noticed and I am greeted by shouts of 'Hello! Hello!' as I pass by with my notebook.
A Chinese man sporting the biggest 80s mullet I have ever seen walks past me, all I can think of is 'short on the sides, party in the back'.
A woman and youth walk nearby, scratching a living searching for empty plastic bottles. Oblivious to everything, office workers hurry by, heads down, taking a shortcut to lunch.
As afternoon approaches the middle part of the day, the sweat, noise, bustle, traffic, people and atmosphere all seem to be changing by the hour.
Well-dressed Shanghainese wait with the migrant workers, the occasional Laowai that arrives on the scene is as conspicuous as the Shanghai youth with their dyed orange locks. Their urban wear contrasts with the strictly practical wear of the migrants sat next to them.
The wandering touts glance anxiously over their shoulders, nervous that the police may turn up, the rest of us congregate around the lonely trees.
A woman wearing fancy dress and full-face visor totters west in high heels with a bamboo pole strung over her shoulder and two laden sacks. A well-dressed Laowai in blue shirt, chinos and shades, headed to the ticket office, intent on passage, doesn't even seem to notice those sat down.
It occurs to me that there is an incessant background whistling, my mind wanders as I imagine it to be over eager train attendants, police or perhaps a Brazilian band...
The beggars are completely browned after years of going from person to person, they display a toothy grin as they beg.
Cries of 'Jingcha!' ring out as the police cruise by in their custom golf buggy, aloof from the crowds. The touts rapidly disperse as the police bark orders. Once the police pass though, the touts reassemble for the afternoon debriefing. A young couple marshals the tout ladies and collects in the morning’s earnings. An argument ensues over how many tickets were sold to Changzhou. The young lady seems to be tough and savvy, after a short dressing down, the tickets for the afternoon are handed out, and the ladies sent back into the throng.
A group of Indians arrive for their train out of Shanghai, the father in traditional dress, his son in modern. They are Asians as well, but come from a world away from China.
Sunset on the station.
30 minutes until departure.
People are becoming anxious about the evening trains; everybody is checking and double-checking the time with everyone around them. In a dramatic signal that night has arrived, the lights burst on all over the station, illuminating the railway panorama.
Leaving it late to get onto the train, a mad rush ensues to get to the platform. The guard shouts in Chinese and English to 'Go, go!'. Two minutes later the last passenger jumps onboard.
Surveying his surroundings, one thing strikes Huadong University student Ivan Lough “this is without a doubt, the best train I have ever been on in China. I've seen some real horror rides like the time I did 15 hours in cattle class from Changzhou to Shanghai!”
It’s true, this train is class; the female attendants stride past in business power suits with headsets instead of radios. The carpets are patterned, and not with the stains of spilt noodles or tea, and like the Shanghai Maglev, LCD displays show the train speed and outside temperature. The dining car is more like a five star restaurant with the Chefs working behind Perspex glass.
It seems the government has spared no expense in making this line the best in the country, after all it is a direct alternative to flying for many weekend commuters between these two great metropolises. The fact that the trains were built in Shanghai though, has rubbed some people the wrong way, Alistair, a foreign student at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University remarks that ‘Beijingers are not amused!’
Beijing Huo Che Zhan
The train pulls into Beijing perfectly in synch with the timetable. Cries of 'Dao le!' come from the early risers, fellow passengers emerge bleary eyed and fresh faced as they step from the platform, as the hordes arrive from brash Shanghai.
Compared to the modern looking station down south, Beijing's is in a far more traditional style and the square is not nearly as big. Looking at the surrounding buildings, it's surprising just how small they are, where are the high-rises? The similar suspects can be spied in the square: map sellers, bottle collectors, rubbish diggers, cleaners and beggars. But these beggars seem more aggressive than in Shanghai, shouting out 'Wei Laowai!', is this a sign of things in the north?
A reassuring sight is the tour group with the mandatory flags and hats crowding around the exit. It's tempting to join in and you have to wonder if they would notice strangers in their midst?
The station bell signals the arrival of the hour.
A bottle-collecting lady with a deformed hand tries to improve the Chinese writing of those perched on the wall next to her. Zhang Xiu, the map seller seated next to her, starts working on his Chinese writing after admitting it needs work. When asked to write something, Li Fengqi, the street kid on the other side, puts his head down and says quietly that he can't read or write.
The incessant loudspeakers of Beijing have replaced the whistles of Shanghai.
Xiu shares stories as Fengqi rushes off to collect a bottle just discarded, everyone shares cigarettes in the early morning sun. It seems that on this level, people help each other in what ways they can.
The same hotel touts who were just chatting, rush members of the People’s Liberation Army visiting the capital, they seem a bit overwhelmed by the big city.
The sun rises in the sky, blurred by the smog and dust that blow in from the great deserts to the north, enveloping the capital in a sandy haze.
Around town people keep their distance, but on Tiananmen Square, local students are keen to practice English with foreigners. Looking on at the fluttering kites, Joe from Beijing University observed, ”Shanghai is too busy, too difficult. Beijing is better, more organized and open”, he's surprised to hear that most foreigners also prefer one city to the other.
The station emerges in the distance, emerging through the drizzly mist. It has been raining all afternoon and has been a miserable overcast day. Unexpectedly, a train station pub appears. It's sorely tempting to cross over the road and stop in for a swift pint of Guinness, but common sense intervenes.
Hanging around in the square, it seems that the rain has driven off much of the resident community. The remaining touts, beggars and rubbish speculators huddle under the massive eaves of the station, trying to keep dry.
The announcer booms through the public announcement system: ‘Train 21 for Shanghai is now boarding, all passengers please board!’ Most passengers ignore this.
The horrible weather has put a dampener on the whole proceedings. Even the touts are less vocal, with just muted cries of ‘Qingdao…’ and barely audible shouts of ‘Shanghai…’, the omnipresent beggars seem to have hidden themselves away .
A plastic bottle collector is guarding a large metal bin with his life, constantly opening it up to inspect the contents – even though no one goes anywhere near it. In a futile effort, he continually tries to wipe the surface dry from the incessant rain.
In a symbolic gesture, departing train passengers mingle and smoke while they still can outdoors, they all count down the minutes till departure.
With ten minutes left till the train is due to head south, the smokers finally decide to board. Fighting through the crowds, passengers push through the entrance and rush upstairs. Although the station clock makes no sound, there's a distinct tick, tock…
There’s no indication of which gate for the Shanghai train, those asking the station attendant are told ‘Gate 6, and hurry!’
The doors begin to shut to the train and people are still outside. Running, they pass carriages eight, seven, six and jump on at five. The guard on the platform knocks frantically on the door to get the attendant to open up, and they jump aboard. At 19.31 the train pulls out. It’s goodbye to Beijing and farewell to life at the station.