Shanghai Express

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June 8th 2009
Published: July 2nd 2009
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"You're in China, sir, where time and life have no meaning". Thus speaks the Eurasian warlord in the impossibly glamorous "Shanghai Express" (1932), as a cow halts the locomotive on its winding journey out of a Peking of hissing pistons, darting shadows, shouts and whistles. The film is shrouded in smoke: smoke from the train and, of course, smoke-as-sex from Marlene Dietrich as she announces "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily".

This is smoking at its most glamorous and dangerous: everything imbued with meaning: the ceremony of lighting up, (whilst holding her ex-lover's gaze, locked in deadly irony), the slow pensive drawing in of smoke, and finally a long exhalation followed by an accusatory silence. Then, Dietrich, all stylish furs and fluttering black feathers, performs a half turn and, moving across the carriage, loses interest (albeit only briefly) in toying with her victim.

75 years after the film, I find myself staring at Peking (now Beijing) railway station squatting in the evening heat - a giant neon birthday cake fizzing and flickering in a swirl of dust and dreams. An army of blackened peasants hunkers down on mats of cardboard with their sandwiches and their tea flasks, staring out from sun-scorched souls at an uncaring world. Touts and pickpockets move purposefully around the square; sweating western women totter under huge rucksacks like coolies bearing rice sacks. The farmers, patiently, line up in long onerous queues for hard class seats back to hard class lives. This is apartheid, China style.

Inside the station, a bedraggled woman screams and stamps at the information desk, supported by alternate grunts and yells from her husband. But the teenage police officer just giggles, nudges his colleague, then laughs some more. I quickly forget my question, looking up like a pilgrim in supplication at the train indicator boards flashing red above the escalators, as if in warning of the lurking dangers of Shanghai.

In the space of 27 minutes, four packed trains will glide out of Beijing towards Shanghai: Whore of the Orient. It is an exodus of biblical proportions - thousands fleeing the city like evacuees from an invading army. An impressive feat of organisation.

Down on the platform, a crisply uniformed steward shows me to a compartment containing three young Chinese. Clearly, on this journey there is to be no tea slurping, spitting or nut cracking; in fact, not one word is uttered for the whole of the 13-hour ride. Instead, my three companions are motionless on their bunks like actors in a tableau vivant. On one of the top beds a boy is plugged into an i-Pod, eyes shut, lost in a tinny Chinese love ballad.

On the opposite bunk, a woman lies in the recovery position like the victim of a street shoot out. The long black hair of this oriental Rapunzel dangles tantalising over the bed rail, swinging like a curtain with the rocking of the train. I stare at these swaying fronds like a cat watching knitting wool: tempted to leap forward and hang, pull - disrupting an oppressive reverie.

In the bed below, another woman (?) is a small parcel buried under a pile of blankets from which not even an ear, or a strand of hair, protrudes.

These days Beijing to Shanghai is just an overnight train ride - a journey much, much quicker than in 1932. But are we really saving time? Shanghai Lily may have needed three days to get to Shanghai but look what adventures that afforded her. A rekindled love affair, a hostage drama and an attack on the train by warlords. And all the while she out-smoked the locomotive.

My journey, in contrast, is uneventful. It would take quite an act of will to fall in love with any of my travelling companions, given that none of them moves a muscle for the whole 13 hours. The girl-as-parcel under the blankets has started to worry me. Is she alive? Is she even there, or has she disappeared from the train in the middle of the night? There are no scheduled stops, so only an attack by warlords or a cow on the line would give anyone a chance to leave, or indeed board the train in the depths of the night. Technology improves comfort, but eliminates mystery.

My doubts are dispelled as we glide into Shanghai and the three youngsters begin to stir and rise, as if from the grave. Then, without a word, they scurry off into the humid Shanghai dawn, gone but, strangely enough, not forgotten. In 1932 we would have been met by jostling porters, agents, spivs, perhaps the occasional Consul-General or a gangster's limousine. But today our arrival goes unheralded.

In a way nothing has happened, but really this has been an eventful journey - although only in the mind. It is also a journey I have no desire to end. Long after the train has stopped, I sit alone in the carriage, thinking of the ghost of Shanghai Lily: The White Flower of China.


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