There are places that draw you in and invite you to steep in remembrances of things past, the ones that gently and delightfully trick you into thinking that time has not touched it. And then there are those that make you feel the way you would when you are reunited with a good old friend — with many stories between you, alongside a history, both of you essentially the same people but at the same time, also thankfully not. You meet, and then you must part again, to get on with your lives. And each time you walk away from that encounter you realize that time spent together has made each of you better, or so it feels that way.
It is my third time in Shanghai, this particular trip coming on the heels of a two-week streak rigid with a schedule so packed it made me feel I barely had time to exhale. I will not detail what I did, lest I bore you with the mundane in my work routine, but early flights and long road trips peppered with many meetings in between, staying out under the heat of the sun for hours on end only to pop in air-conditioned cars at day’s end is a recipe for the kind of fatigue that always precedes the flu. Anyway. We land in Shanghai, a group of five; it is both work and pleasure that bring us here — the latter because we are celebrating with a group of about a hundred a milestone in the life of a man, Frank Yih, who has done so much for the district I represent, Leyte IV, after it took a beating from typhoon Yolanda. My throat hurts, I am on paracetamol and absurd doses of vitamin C round the clock, but I am happy in my heart to be here, even if only for two nights.
Come to think of it, the trips I have taken to Shanghai have always been much too short. The first was memorable and beautiful, with company both gentle and genteel. We visited beautiful homes owned by kin of our host, ate the most delicious meals and homemade ice cream. We took long walks along gorgeous tree-lined streets and trekked into little shops with beautiful, handmade items for sale. I bought two trays, both of which I still have — one that holds candles and books on a console at home, the other on the desk in my office. They are square, colored red and green each, the middle portion embedded with a porcelain tile that has been hand-painted with flowers. Lovely. I wish I had time to make something like that. And then there was this shop called Shanghai Trio, apparently run by a French and Shanghainese duo, offering beautifully-crafted pouches, linens, cushion covers, bags, wallets. I remember getting several fabric wallets, and a travel-organizer of sorts that I still have not used to this day. It is made of beautiful fabric, the front and inside portion in prints that, although not matching, work unexpectedly well in that way you know can only be born from the design sensibilities of someone with really good, brave taste. It sits in a drawer in my closet, a thing of beauty I wish not to mar with wash and wear, something that obviously will happen once I start using them. I cannot bear to use them flippantly just yet. But I will get there. Someday.
My second time in Shanghai was with Avon. I was, again, nursing the flu at that time but that trip, short as it was, proved to be very therapeutic for me. I remember a beautiful dinner where everyone was well-dressed. It was cold outside, so cold that the short walk we had to take from the hotel to the lovely restaurant that served delicious soup and dumplings made us shiver. I was in a black wool dress with a mandarin collar, and very high heels. I remember half-running because I could not wait to escape the cold night. After dinner I called the concierge to send up a masseuse and in my beautiful hotel room with a stunning view of the city (I forget the name, although I do recall it was quite new at that time), I had the best massage a body as tired as mine at that time could ever have. The masseuse was this kind-faced very young lady who said I was very tired (but then I already knew that) and that her massage would take out the toxins and stress such that I would feel brand new the next day. She was right. I woke up feeling refreshed, my cheeks pink from sound slumber I so direly needed.
That day we visited the Avon center where we toured laboratories and tried on creams and potions, appreciating all the more how each product had been backed with research to ensure its potency and efficacy.
That evening, I was sent to a room where a male and female duo did my hair and makeup for that evening’s affair. They curled my hair lightly, lined my eyes sexily, rubbed color on my lips with a lipbrush, after which I slipped into a slinky silver gown. It all felt very grand. There was dinner and music and gorgeous flowers, toasts were made, photos were taken, numbers and stories exchanged. It was a beautiful night, a beautiful trip, a beautiful life.
The following day we had lunch in the mall across the hotel, I popped in one shop but I do not remember buying anything, and we took the plane home. It was short, and sweet.
This latest trip found me catching up on sleep most of the time. But on our first night there, I did manage to walk with the group along The Bund, beautiful as it is in the evening, lit by thousands of lights. There is something so nicely magical about the duo that is a skyline and the sea. It was doubly nice to have that as a backdrop while having an easy conversation with a person so big-hearted, so full of wisdom, that he makes the world feel like a better place just by being in it. We wandered into the lobby of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, and entered The Jazz Bar, which has been open since 1929. The place reminds me of the pubs I see in old movies — a dark wood ceiling, antique chandeliers hanging from them, graceful stone columns. There is a jazz band composed of middle-aged men in white tuxedoes. They hardly smile, but somehow you do not take offense at that; in fact, it strangely adds to the ambience. They stare stoically straight ahead as they play their grand instruments and the music is lovely. Loud in that small space but yes, truly lovely just the same. A beautiful girl in a white long dress cut close to the body walks to the middle of the room to take her place before the microphone. She has a beautiful voice and even if I do not understand a word she is singing as it is in the native dialect, I cannot take my eyes off her. She is perfect for the jazz band, perfect for the night, perfect for the song she has chosen to sing oh-so-beautifully. Oh, she makes me wish I knew how to sing. Mr. Yih interprets some of the lines for me “… there are many stories in a little town…a beautiful girl is like a flower, but flowers are a dream.” This very moment I understand why they call Shanghai the Paris of the East. Here in this club that feels like I have been transported back in time, I am reminded again of the old and the new, and like the most beautiful homes I have seen, how the right mix of both works wonderfully. Progressive as Shanghai is, there are still all these little pockets of spaces that straddle the old even as it celebrates the comforts and convenience of the new. This very moment, this very night, I am happy to be here, with the people I am with — sore throat, a tired mind, and all. As I sip a glass of my favorite tomato juice spiked with Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper, I am thankful for this time to, as I listen to the beautiful lady who sings songs with words I do not understand, be stoic. To guiltlessly stare into space and not have to explain to anyone what I am thinking. This is the rest I need, where I need not process more than the beautiful sounds made by the lady and the Old Jazz Band, and I can just soak in the beautiful feeling this place invites me to easily feel, like some familiar space stored in the memories in my mind.
There are places you can speak to others about, and already it is as if you had brought them with you. And then there are those that must be experienced first-hand. Shanghai falls under the latter category. I look forward to the time I can go back, if only to soak in more of that quiet magic it somehow always gives.