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A night in Shanghai: The dream hoppers, street roamers and a sunflower

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JUNE 21, 2018

“Drink slowly. Tonight’s gonna be a long night,” I said to Z, who was lighting up another cigarette in front of me.

I had known him since he was one of my travel buddies for the road trip in Iceland. I guess our friendship truly began when I taught him how to light a cigarette in Akureyri. We hadn’t met since that trip, and it’d been half a year. We happened to both decide to come to meet friends in Shanghai this past weekend.

We got one of the tall bar tables outside of the Refinery bar in the Xintiandi area. He looked pretty much the same — except for his braided hair and the four new tattoos he got in Paris and Suzhou. He had ironically become a heavier smoker than me, offering me his more expensive Chinese cigarettes generously while I timidly pulled out my Marlboro ones.

We’d only met once before, but that night he felt like an old friend from the past to me. He just finished studying abroad in Paris, while I was about to go studying abroad in Amsterdam. He told me that unlike in America, being a 20-year-old in Europe meant that your host family would keep filling your glass with red wine for dinner every night. “Man, that’s the dream,” I said, laughing and seeing before my eyes an imaginary European libertine carelessly exposed to human passion and weaknesses. I swung my hand to dispel the myth. We talked about random things — school life, family life, our common friends, his girlfriend — and then went inside to watch the World Cup and cheer for Iceland. It was the night when Lionel Messi squandered his penalty kick and Iceland secured a historic draw versus Argentina.


Later, two of my high school best friends, A and S, came to find us. We went to a strict, isolated boarding school far away from home and, in some sense, pulled through a suffocating period of life together. We often joked that college meant that each of us was released from a four-year sentence. We hadn’t met since graduation. But even after a whole year, they still felt like close friends whom I’d just seen yesterday.

Before coming to Shanghai, a Berkeley friend of mine had asked me to go clubbing with her and people from West Coast schools. So I asked Z, A and S to come with me as well. We headed to the Fusion club together around midnight.

Just like at any other big club in China, the clubbing scene at Fusion was like a gaudy parody crowded with involuntary actors off the center stage. The music was just loud enough to cover up the affected scenes of tight-dressed drunk girls falling off and jumping on tables awkwardly and elbowing people below on the heads. Unfortunately, the lychee-flavored vodka was way too sweet to be effective. My body was intoxicated with all the crazy headbanging, while my mind remained sober after shots. I uncomfortably pushed away from the hand of a stranger that was searching for the other side of my waist. Later, Z texted me — “About to go meet my other friends in Dada Bar. Wanna go to round 2?”

A and I left with Z, while S chose to stay in the arms of a Korean guy she had just met in the club. Before hopping into our taxi, we saw a drunk young man asking for 99 roses from a crippled old woman trying to sell the five roses in her hand. “I will wait here for you for 20 minutes,” he mumbled deliriously. Then he called a girl to declare his love while the old woman slowly went away to get those Schrödinger’s roses she had promised. We never got to know whether the young man was teasing the old woman or whether the old woman was teasing the drunk young man.

It was about 2 a.m., and we hopped off the taxi right in front of Dada bar. Z’s two friends were outside taking a cigarette break, slightly drunk. Both the guy and the girl were wearing baggy, dark green Hawaiian shirts and loose shorts. The girl had her hair cut to the ears and wore big silver-rimmed glasses that reminded me of Keith Haring’s somehow. They mixed British English, Chinese and French together when they spoke. Z said earlier in the taxi that the guy and the girl were friends with benefits in Paris.


“I thought you were with a guy when you told me you were watching FIFA with a friend,” the guy teased in Chinese while putting a cigarette on his ear. Z chuckled, while I let out a big laugh and responded, “Well, I guess you can treat me as half a guy.”

Then we went into the small underground bar. The girl dragged me by my arm to the front and started swaying her whole body like seaweed dancing in the current. The featured DJ was from Los Angeles, but the music was a terrible, unpredictable mix of pop music and South American and perhaps African dance songs in a robot dance music style. I started dancing wildly too, even though from the corner of my eye I saw a guard wearing all black staring in my direction with a solemn expression. He later walked over to tell the guy to stop bumping against the glass in front of the DJ table. A asked me to go for another shot. We were both mentally exhausted by the wacky music and decided to go to another bar. I texted Z right after we got into a taxi and asked him if he’d like to come with us. He agreed, so I rushed out to get him, and we hopped into the taxi together for the next bar.

Monkey Champagne at 3 a.m. was relatively empty, left with a few tables of people drinking beer and chilling. We smuggled some snacks into the bar and ordered glasses of pure vodka. The red neon light on the wall flashed more slowly as I drank more.


Z called another friend who happened to be in the area to come join us. He was a nice and tall French gentleman who insisted on using cash — while we all went out without cash and used WeChat to pay for everything in China. He had worked as an engineer in both Paris and Shanghai. We played the liar’s dice drinking game until all glasses of vodka were empty. Then the French guy carelessly pulled out a stack of pink 100-yuan bills and asked in his drunk French-accented English if we wanted more drinks.

A and I didn’t want to drink anymore. So she and I put down the glasses and went to the inner room for loud music and dance. It was past 4 a.m., and nobody was dancing anymore. Only two tables remained, around which a few people were sitting and sipping their beer quietly, as if in a trance. The two of us started moving our bodies shamelessly, and the whole scene looked like a comedic story one would tell with deadpan humor.

A tall middle-aged Chinese man came to ask us to join him for some drinks. We said, “Maybe later,” and then left. Z and his French friend were smoking cigarettes outside. As I walked out to join them, I realized that the sky was lighting up a little. An old lady walked toward us and started selling the fresh flowers in her hand. Just as my friends and I were turning our heads to avoid her, the French guy took out his cash again and bought a sunflower. He then looked at me, smiled and handed the sunflower to me.

“Let’s find a place to watch the sunrise!” someone suggested, and we all agreed excitedly. So we all hopped in a taxi to go back to the Xintiandi area near my hotel. But it was a cloudy day. The French guy said he had friends waiting for him at Fusion club, so we walked him there and waved goodbye.


At last, the three of us roamed the streets under the last bit of blue shadow of a long night. The birds started singing. The chill night air started turning warm. The mascara smudged and smeared into dark rings around my eyes. We walked and walked, sleepless and restless. Just as the sun slowly began to rise, the dreamlike sunflower lowered its head to greet its imminent demise.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected].

JUNE 21, 2018