Shanghailanders


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The following is from Juli Min’s Shanghailanders. Min is a writer and editor based in Shanghai. She studied Russian and comparative literature at Harvard University, and she holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson. She was the founding editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and served as its fiction editor from 2016 to 2023. Her first novel, Shanghailanders, is published by Spiegel & Grau (US) and Dialogue Books (UK).

Born with a Broken Heart

June 2037

I was born with a broken heart. One of the valves doesn’t close all the way shut and so blood is continuously leaking from one side to the other. I only found out about it a few years back, after I fainted while delivering packages in the rain. Rainy days are always the busiest for deliveries. Nobody wants to go out if the streets are flooding, and there’s always something that goes wrong: a package or an envelope soaks through, the food gets cold, the tarp covering you and your scooter starts to leak rainwater down your neck. People are also real assholes on rainy days. They’re hungrier and angrier than usual. They call more often to check on order status.

I fainted while running down the stairs of a six-story lane house on Wulumuqi Lu. The guy had ordered literally one bottle of water and one carrot. He opened his door a crack and took the bag, sunspotted arm clutching for the plastic like I was some kind of thief trying to get into his home. He slammed the door in my face. Not a word, not a murmur of thanks. I turned to head out for my next delivery. I was already running late.

I woke up on the landing between floors two and three. A granny was standing over me, holding a bag of wet garbage that was leaking onto my hand. It was either the stench of the garbage or the slime dripping into my palm that had woken me up. I vomited right away.

At the hospital the doctor told me I’d had a minor heart attack but that things were stable, and then he told me about the valve and asked if the condition was congenital. I didn’t know. I couldn’t say. I’d never had my heart checked. When I told the doctor that I was a delivery guy, he shook his head. “Is there anything else you can do?” he asked. “You’re so young; you’ve got your twenties ahead of you. Take some risks.” Maybe it was time to think about a career change. For my heart. When my mother visited me in the hospital a few days later, she told me that indeed there had been something going on with my heart when I was born. But I looked normal growing up, so she eventually forgot about it. We couldn’t afford regular health checks anyway. I told her I was going to give up deliveries. “Fine,” she said. She’d never been one to interfere with my life.

I wasn’t exactly telling the whole truth to the doctor. Yes, I had been doing deliveries since I was eighteen, in addition to driving a taxi at night. It was stressful. Customers were shits. The rainy days and hot summers were dreadful. But there was something else putting pressure on my heart that I hadn’t disclosed: I was involved in the night races.

The night races had been in the news a lot. Everyone knew about the masked drivers, but no one knew who they were. If I told the doctor that I was one of them, would he even believe me?

People had their theories. Stunt drivers for the movies, professional racers from Hong Kong, playboys competing for large sums of pocket money. They never guessed the real thing: a marketing ploy run by the car companies themselves, with racers plucked from the midnight garages on the edges of the city—where cabs went for off-hours maintenance and gas—and from private cars and delivery vans. Released CCTV footage of a Ferrari speeding through Shanghai in the early morning hours, slipping through a maze of streets like a silent eel, disappearing as if by magic . . . this was advertising gold to Ferrari. We made decent money racing their cars through the city. I’d saved a good chunk of change doing it, too. But the stress was getting to me. I found myself short of breath at the end of a race, almost passed out, heart going like crazy.

In the night races, the key was to know where the traffic police liked to park. And then you also had to know where all the CCTVs were posted. You had to keep the license plate covered, you had to—in essence—stay invisible. The city, of course, had its blind spots. Not many, and fewer and fewer as the years went on. But you could speed down a highway and squeeze into a series of no-name lanes, rolling soundlessly through on neutral, then slip into a garage, abandon the car, change your hat and jacket, and walk back out into the night.

Someone was always waiting at the designated parking spot, to wipe the car down from top to bottom. We wore gloves and masks. No identifying DNA whatsoever. Sales of that model would jump that year. Every young, rich kid in Shanghai would be driving one. Even the masks and hats we wore would spike in sales. The masked driver effect, they called it. We weren’t vigilantes, fighting crime. We were just professionals, selling cars.

But was it worth risking another heart attack? I called Li, my friend at the garage who had set me up with my first race. “I’m done,” I told him. “I’m out of the game.” I was decisive like that. I hung up the phone.

I quit deliveries and quit racing in one go and linked up with an agent who helped me get a private driving job. I enjoyed using my knowledge of the city’s streets and shortcuts. I took it easy—never sped up, never cut others off. I had always been happiest behind the wheel.

*

I learned how to drive in 2025, when the first self-driving cars were coming onto the market. All the car companies made proclamations: “2025 is the year of the self-driving car!” “Autonomous in 2025!” I was thirteen and I remember seeing all those statements in the news, feeling the urgency. My time was running out. See, I’d always wanted to drive. It was all those arcade racing games I played growing up; I was the best ranked in our neighborhood. It was the only thing I was ever any good at.

I spent a Saturday calling taxis, the cheapest option on all the apps. I made small trips along the Bund until I finally crawled into the back seat of a yellow Shanghai cab, old-school. Vinyl seat covers and seat belt buckles pushed deep into the seams, impossible to use. In front, beyond the scratched-up plastic barrier, sat an old man, his hands slack on the wheel. A stick shift. Next to him, a glass thermos of brown water with a layer of molted tea leaves floating on top.

“Nong hoa.” I threw some Shanghai dialect his way.

“Hello, young man,” he said back to me, in a downtown city accent, a mild and unhurried voice. He had a full head of white hair. He was wearing dress pants, ironed with sharp creases, a long-sleeved collared shirt. He was the kind of taxi driver I’d been waiting for.

I had him take me past the Bund to the other end of Suzhou Creek, to the shantytown, one of the last still standing back then. It was where I grew up, where I was born, and where I still sometimes visited our neighbor, old man Shi. (My parents had been given a new apartment in the city’s outskirts, in Jiading.)

The shanty was being razed. It was mostly gone except for a small section in the corner where old man Shi held out in protest. He had no water, no electricity, not even glass on his windows. Just a shell of a house with tarped-up squares in the winter. Shi parked his scooter under a large tree next to his home. He’d hung a hammock from the tree’s low branches and on sunny days he splayed out on it, shirtless. It was Shi who used to tell me stories about driving his truck across the country to deliver shipments of fruits and vegetables from one city to the next. He had a pack of trading cards with pictures of race cars on one side and facts about the cars on the other.

The razing was at a standstill because of him. The shanty was now, essentially, an open driving course. On our way there, I got to talking to the driver, Master Wang. I asked him how much he made for an hour driving around the city. Then I offered him the same if he’d spend an hour teaching me how to drive.

“How old are you, kid?”

I was tall and broad for my age. I told him I was sixteen. Master Wang took a good look at me in the rearview mirror, hands shifting gears all the while, and nodded.

We spent that hour driving loops around the razed neighborhood. We were driving over the Fengs’ old place. Then the Luos’. In the center had been the home of my childhood friend Ming Yi. He was now a line cook at a Western restaurant downtown. Old man Shi was away that afternoon. We drove circles around his house, and I looked into the empty doorway and windows.

I learned quickly. I loved being behind the wheel, controlling the route, seeing and then feeling the texture of the ground. Dirt bordered empty concrete foundation running up onto soft patches of grass. I loved the challenge of coordinating my feet and arms, the satisfying pushback of the stick as I shifted between gears.

Master Wang was getting ready to retire. I brokered a deal with him. I’d practice, get good, then drive his car all night, fill his gas, and give him 50 percent of the earnings. It was better than nothing, so he accepted.

I was just a kid—a stupid kid in an old night taxi, figuring out my driving style, learning about cars on my own. But no one calling a cheap taxi at three in the morning really looks at or questions the age of the driver. They’re too drunk, too tired, or too in love to notice.

*

Lately i haven’t been sleeping well. It started in the spring, when the family I’ve been driving for the past five years told me that their oldest daughter, Yumi, was preparing to move

to the States for school. I felt like a father to that kid sometimes, or maybe an uncle, or maybe an older brother, given that Yumi and I were only seven years apart. The dreams started around then, and then the sleepless nights.

In one recurring dream, Yumi follows me around on a bicycle. It’s the same bicycle her youngest sister used to have, the one I’d pack into the back of the van, along with her parents’ and sisters’ bikes. I’d take them to the elevated bike path in Pudong, which stretches along the river. There I’d park and watch the ferries going back and forth, until they called me to pick them up and take them back home. It was a pink bike, with streamers off the handles.

In the dream she is eighteen already, as she is in real life, but still riding that kid’s bike. And she is trailing behind me as I drive my old taxi. I watch her in my rearview mirror, but I have the feeling that I have to get away, get away fast. No matter how fast I go, though, I can’t shake her. She stares at me through the mirror. She bares her teeth. She points at me, screaming words that I cannot hear and cannot decipher. The dream ends. I always wake up drenched in sweat.

Worse than the dreams are the visions I’ve started having. These began soon after the dreams. Yumi’s face flashing in and out of my mind when I was in bed with Estelle. It got to the point where I couldn’t make love anymore. I couldn’t get things going right.

Estelle doesn’t care so much. We’ve been together for three years. An older woman I met online, forty but in great shape, running a makeup import business on her own. We see each other mostly on the weekends, usually at her place, in a former airplane hangar on the old docks of the North Bund that’s been sectioned off into expensive residences. Her apartment also serves as the warehouse for all her products. Huge walls, lofted bed, tall windows that she keeps half-closed most of the time because the sun would ruin all the bottles of lotion and toner and serum packed on shelves along the walls. She has everything you could imagine. The apartment is full of colors, like someone came in and spray-painted the room with a rainbow gun.

Her shippers come in once a day, at five in the evening, to box and label and prepare orders for automated pickup. In the mornings, Estelle makes videos of herself testing new products, applying makeup, experimenting with a hairdo. In the afternoons she does advertising, accounting, customer service. Estelle: capable, sexy, independent Estelle. Completely out of my league Estelle. My looks are the only thing I have going in my favor. And maybe the fact that I’m younger than her.

Estelle doesn’t want to marry, and she doesn’t want to have children. She just wants to grow her business. Lotions and bottles coming in, then going back out. Some time spent stacked and displayed on her shelves and then some time spent stacked on other women’s shelves.

I go sneaking out at night, after Estelle is asleep. The bottles are glistening, the moonlight streaming in, making everything glimmer. I can’t sleep well at her place. Too many things, too many colors, too many scents. I feel like my mind is swirling, sweeping along all the shiny, sparkling plastics and frosted glass and biodegradable packaging. It’s like they’re alive, trying to say something. A chorus of product—do they want to live, or do they want to die?

*

I stepped out into the heat of the hallway and down to the parking lot and into Master Wang’s cab. I was holding on to the car for him. He’d retired but still let me drive. I didn’t drive often; I didn’t really need the money. But from the little I made from the cab, I still gave him his cut. The car smelled like him: mothball-preserved clothes and black tea. The gray seats had been wiped down so many times, they were hard as plastic.

At night there were barely any drivers on the road. Most of the cars I saw were autodrivers, going at the maximum speed. I turned off my vacancy sign and kept my eyes open, watching out for them. It was easy to spot them. Autodrivers kept at a steady pace. I would accelerate toward them, pummeling ahead, foot heavy on the gas. I made a game of it. Speeding ahead, drifting to the left, to the right. Always, though, the cars would smoothly glide away, keeping about five meters’ distance between us, like we were magnets set to repel one another. I kept thinking, Maybe this time the car won’t work, the system will break down. The thought of a blip in the software kept me on edge. I liked moving the cars, like little pieces of a puzzle.

At some point, I started to close my eyes. Partly, I was tired. With the window cracked open, cool wind blasting onto my face, I looked out and saw a stretch of road ahead of me. I knew I could drive it for a few seconds if I kept my hands straight on the wheel. I did it once with my eyes closed, and then I kept doing it, for longer stretches. I saw in my mind’s eye my car speeding along the highway, the autodrivers making way for me. I became one of them, like a robot myself, like one of those cars. I had the sensation of melting into the street, into the city. In fact, everything around me was a liquid, liquefying, slow and thick, metallic, mercury.

I’d accelerate and get to where I was pressing the pedal of Master Wang’s taxi until it was flat against the floorboard. On the elevated highway I’d go as fast as I could, counting the seconds with my eyes closed. Sometimes I imagined drift, collision, floating off into the sky, taking flight.

*

Of course, Yumi had a boyfriend. A good-looking kid named Sven. They held hands in the car. I took them to the mall. To movies. To restaurants. When he was seventeen, his family bought him a black Mustang convertible, shipped over from the States at great expense, as he liked to remind everyone.

Sven was always wanting to go out, to party, to be with other people. Yumi was, as I saw it, nearly identical to her mother. Quiet, reserved, poised. Pretty, too. I knew she was studious, serious about her work. Yoko, the middle child, was like her father: science, math, robotics club on Wednesday nights. Then Kiko, bright, charming, theatrical; the dancer, the beloved.

Eko and Leo, the mother and father, seemed always to be teetering between one extreme and the other. Holding hands, Eko sitting on his lap at times, whispering to each other in French. I came close a few times to telling them to go and get a room. On other days, a cold silence. Both of them staring out their windows. Or arguing, one-sidedly mostly, from Leo, in forceful French—always French between those two. An occasional cutting remark from Eko, in a sharp tone she never used with anyone else.

I once bought a French language course, curious to see if I might be able to follow along. But the language, its complex grammar, its sounds, eluded me. Japanese—the language between Eko and her daughters, and the secret language among the daughters when they wanted to bar their father—I had a better chance at. It was similar to Shanghai dialect in sound, with some overlap of words from Chinese. I could tell Leo felt excluded when his family went off in the language, though to my knowledge, he’d never made an effort to learn it. When the three girls were alone, they spoke in English.

I started learning Japanese by reading manga. It became my diversion, the way I spent my nights when not driving the cab or staying at Estelle’s. I started out with shonen, studying the elementary kanji mixed with hanzi and parsing out, slowly, the story lines. Later, I graduated to seinen. Ghost in the Shell, Tokyo Ghoul.

I kept a notebook where I wrote down all the words I didn’t recognize. I watched the movie or TV versions of the manga afterward, pausing after each line of dialogue to repeat what was said:

“All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.”

“There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost.” “Can you offer me proof of your existence?”

*

Yumi and Sven came into the car. They were talking. I usually try to keep my eye on the road, but inevitably I end up listening.

It’s amazing what a driver learns. It’s like the passengers forget you’re there. They just keep talking. About themselves, one another, the staff. I have learned about every relationship between each of the family members, have learned the salaries and year-end bonuses of all the staff. I find I am the keeper of their secrets.

You’re together with them in the same small metal box. But you’ve got your seat; they’ve got theirs. You’ve got to keep your face forward. You can sneak peeks, but not too many. A perceptive rider will notice the eyes wavering back and forth, in and out the rearview mirror. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than meeting the gaze of your riders in that tiny window. Eyes on eyes, just the brows and the sockets and the tense, flickering balls, all magnified, curious, unwelcome.

You can’t keep looking, even if they’re having a good time and you also want to laugh and smile. You can’t keep looking, though the kids are cute, and then sweet, and then pretty. You can only say hello and take a passing glance at an outfit, a tight shirt, a painfully short skirt. Meet the young lady’s gaze in the mirror and you’re going to see she’s been staring. Why?

The reaction in your pants—you breathe calmly. It had better go down by the time you get to your destination, open the door, open the trunk. You think about the route. Can you take the extra turn, go slowly down the lane? Traffic on Nanjing East—perfect. Road conditions, work in progress—great, try to focus. By the time you arrive you’ve done it, you’ve deflated, you’ve settled back into your separate spaces.

Sven and Yumi were arguing. I felt instantly agitated. Whatever their little lovers’ quarrel was about, I was ready to be on Yumi’s defense. That was the hardest thing for me—when I knew the answer to a question they had, or when I was convinced that with just a single word I could help them understand each other. Still, I had to remain silent. It wasn’t my place to act as counselor between them.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Sven,” Yumi was saying. “What about your university acceptance? They could rescind it. What if you got a criminal record? Or, God forbid, jail time?”

“I’m not going to jail,” Sven said. “I’ve got diplomatic immunity.”

Sven’s father was the Russian ambassador to China. His mother, an incredibly tall Swedish woman, worked at an art gallery downtown. Yumi and Sven often went to openings there where they drank too much free wine and called me after hours to pick them up and take them home.

“O ̄baka,” Yumi said quietly to herself. “Anata wa honto ̄ni watashi o aishite inaiyone?” She knew full well that Sven didn’t understand. I wanted to tell her, I wanted to scream: No, Yumi, he doesn’t love you!

“You’re risking everything,” she said more loudly. “What about this summer? What about us?”

“You know what my dad always says about cutting me off after I’m in college,” Sven said. “Yumi, this way we can make it work. This way I can fly out to see you on school breaks. California to Boston. I can fly you out to Cali sometimes too.”

I knew it was over. Yumi was soft, like her mother. Their men got away with everything.

“When is it?”

“This weekend. A couple of people dropped out of the race, and Eric told me about it just yesterday. I can take a spot. It’s entry-level. If I place in the top two, there’s the prize money, but also I can go on to future races. It’s a whole thing. Imagine what I can make all summer.”

“And you’re driving your own car?”

“No, they provide the cars.”

“But how will you be able to drive someone else’s car?”

“I can drive a Mustang, same make.”

I listened to them from the front seat. My heart was beating wildly in my chest. Not only because I felt a sense of outrage on behalf of Yumi, who was not getting her way. But also because I felt that old stirring, the desire to race, blossoming in me again. It was addiction, I suppose, how some people feel about gambling.

I dropped them off at Yumi’s house and looked at the clock. I still had half an hour left before I had to pick up Kiko from her piano lesson. I called my friend Li on an encrypted line. I hadn’t talked to him in almost five years.

“So how’s the driver’s life?” he asked me.

“It’s slow,” I said.

“I bet. You got yourself one of those Buicks?”

“Mercedes.”

“Not bad. I’d like to see you do a burnout on one of those babies.”

“You still managing?”

Li acted as the go-between for the drivers and the car companies.

“You bet I am. There’s a race this weekend. You want in?

Amateur, wild card, a couple drivers dropped out last minute, afraid of the press. I’ve been poking around, looking for a backup. But, you know, I never would have thought about asking you.”

“Yeah, because I told you . . .”

“That you’d never race again.”

“But I’m interested. What’s the course?”

“You know I can’t say until the day of the race.”

“Right. Rules are the same, then? Prize money?”

“Rules are a little different. Things have changed since your last race, my friend. Cops are fewer since more autodrivers came onto the scene, but CCTVs are everywhere. Facial recognition is amazing. You’ve got to cover your entire face now. We’ll provide the suits.”

“So, better tech. The prize money?”

“The same, five hundred thousand, on top of the fifty.”

*

Racing always reminded me of the arcade games from my childhood, my friends crowding behind me because I was about to beat the high score, my previous high score. The arcade wasn’t really an arcade so much as a collection of three old games that had been thrown away and left to rot in the back corner of the shanty. We kids put a broken tin roof over the games and ran electricity through an extra-long extension cord we plugged in at Chen’s house. His mom would unplug it when she came home after work, screaming at us about wasting electricity and hitting us over the head with her rags.

I sometimes thought about life as a video game. Shanghai was the location, and I was slowly leveling up. I started out with the night taxi, figuring out how to drive, learning where everything was in this city. Then I got onto the delivery scooter, and every successful delivery within the time limit was a gold coin, a ping, an advance. Then, weaving in and out of the city traffic, getting the girls to school, to all their activities. The races, the big money, the thrill of doing something illegal. The next level, though?

What was the next level for me? A life with Estelle—surrounded by tubs and bottles of gels and creams?

There was only going forward. I’d heard from my friends recently that old man Shi had passed away in his empty house. It took two days for his body to be found. Construction on a new shopping mall had begun the next day. The shanty was gone now.

The night of the race, I drank coffee all evening to keep my energy up. I hadn’t slept well in months, but I knew that once I started driving my adrenaline would take over. I tried not to think of my heart. It was going to last as long as it was going to last. My palpitations had started to come back of late. The only thing that cured them was to keep my heart beating fast, so fast that it wouldn’t dare skip a beat. Driving at night, accelerating, that was the only thing that fixed things up. I pulled a hat low over my eyes and left my apartment, taking a winding route down into the subway, walking out at the densely crowded People’s Square station, and changing into another set of clothes in the public bathroom. When I exited the station, I was hit by a wall of humidity so thick I had to take a few breaths before moving. The sky had become a dark purple gray that could mean only one thing: an imminent downpour, heat lightning, flooded sewers, the works. I got into a small jitney on the back of a scooter and told the driver to step on it. We stopped in front of a warehouse on the North Bund. Inside, it was filled with shipping containers.

After a few handshakes I put on all my clothes and gear, got into the Ferrari, and turned her on. I sank into her seat and got acquainted with the machinery: adjusted the seat back and tweaked the rearview mirrors, felt the tension in her pedals, absorbed the weight of the wheel. She was beautiful—matte black, sleek, gorgeous. In camouflage, dark against the night. The other drivers were already in their cars, also black: a Porsche, a Lamborghini, and the Mustang. I saw the slight figure of a woman inside the Porsche, her delicate gloved fingers on the wheel. We were all fitted with intercom earbuds by our handlers. “In case you need to communicate,” Li said. “Cops, whatever.” Then, just before go time, Li bent down to my open window and said one thing: “Sanjia Port.” The wide warehouse door slid open.

I laughed. Sven would have no idea where that was. Just north of the airport, near a string of second-rate beach resorts, sand that had been reclaimed from the ocean. He’d spend a minute plugging the place into his GPS. I knew I’d head south along the river, and then take the spiraling road up to the Nanpu Bridge to pass across Pudong. I was already on my way.

I kept to the water, the river dark and smooth and luckily at low tide, the angry clouds above reflecting off the glass and metal office compounds on my right. The sky was a blur of motion; the buildings had become melting pillars of aluminum. I heard the roar of the Lambo just behind me, and the Porsche, the woman, was slightly ahead. Sven was behind all of us. We passed the Russian consulate general, and we all made our way to the Garden Bridge.

The Garden Bridge was three lanes wide, two heading south and one heading north. I was tailing the woman, and we got onto the bridge in the two south lanes. I was feeling good. The Lambo was edging forward in the north-facing lane, but an autodriver was coming straight on into its path. One of them would have to move aside. The autodriver was edging left and right, unsure what to do in the high-speed, narrow situation. Eventually its brakes turned on, stopping it before we passed. There was just enough room for the Lambo to squeeze through between us and the auto. But I heard a screech of metal and saw the Lambo spinning out and crashing into the side of the bridge. “Fuck, shit,” we heard over the intercom. I looked in my rearview mirror to watch it happen. And that’s when I saw Yumi.

She was standing on the pedestrian walkway on the opposite side of the wreck. I was confused. Had Sven told her to wait there, asked her to come out and support him? Or maybe she had come out on her own, waiting on the bridge for a glimpse of him, for a glimpse of the Mustang? What was she thinking? Was she OK? I had the urge to turn around, drive back onto the bridge, whip off my mask—even to open the door and pull her into the car. Maybe to take her home.

I wavered. Would I be doing it out of subservience to the family, my own goodwill, my affection for Yumi, something else? And then reason kicked in. How could Yumi even know the destination, much less our route? No. It couldn’t be her. I tore my eyes away from the mirror. It was just a girl, any girl. I resisted the urge to glance back at the bridge, growing farther and farther away by the second. Every flicker of the eye, every breath, every look back or to the side or around was energy that took you out of the race. The Porsche was pulling farther ahead. Sven was far behind. Maybe he’d slowed down on the bridge, thinking he’d seen her too, thinking he’d make up the time later. He didn’t know that you never got to make up the time later.

I pulled onto the wide avenue of the Bund. The Porsche tried to cut me off on the left and I moved right. She pulled away suddenly, and I saw that I was in line with a lion statue, one of many guarding the buildings along the road. I passed through the narrow opening between the lion and its building, slowing down.

Who did the woman think I was? Who was she? I would never know. She might be attractive. She might be old. She might be a private driver, like me. She could even be Estelle. What did I know about Estelle, anyway? We led our own lives, mostly, meeting on the weekends or in the evenings. Tonight, though, we drivers were all sexy, superhuman, in our masks and suits and cars.

I followed her past the imposing buildings of the Peninsula, the Roosevelt. Then a cop on motorcycle pulled out of the alley between the Fairmont and the Peace Hotel and banked right, following the Porsche. Change of plan—I pulled away from the water to head inland, onto Nanjing East, usually blocked off for pedestrians only. In my rearview mirror, the Huangpu receded, and I saw a flash of lightning in the reflection. Still, the rain held off.

I sped down the walkway, shifting gears. Past the shops, the neon signs, the lights, as the skyline of Pudong and the water receded in my rearview mirror. A few people were walking in pairs, pointing at me as I flashed by. A trio of young men, all in chef’s hats and white outfits, started cheering. A homeless man pulled out a phone to take photos. Old-fashioned red trolley cars were parked in the middle of the street. I weaved through them, for fun. At the end of the pedestrian walkway, I exited onto the Bund’s web of back streets. No sign of the Porsche, or of Sven.

Beyond the facade of the historic buildings are streets not snapped to a grid, streets crisscrossing like God threw a heap of soy-fried noodles onto the floor and mapped out Shanghai in their image. Just beyond the perfect veneer of the Bund, its banks and hotels, are the winding streets and alleyways rich with cheap restaurants. The city opens its mouth, yawning with a steaming savory night breath.

I pulled back onto the Bund and saw that something was different. Several race cars had joined us, though they were not black. They were yellow, red, and pink.

“What is this?” I asked into the intercom.

“It’s a joke,” said the woman’s voice, low and mean. “They want to be us.”

People had been waiting for another race for a long time. There had been, ever since we began, copycats, self-started races, put on by underground organizations, nothing with the complicated level of corporate sponsorship that we had. They were easily broken up, easily fined, detained, these people who didn’t know the right kind of masks to wear, didn’t know how to stay off the roads with multiple CCTVs. They did it for fun. Because they could. They liked the big boulevards with the bright lights and pedestrian traffic: Nanjing Lu, Wukang Lu, the Bund. We were bumping up against one such amateur race now.

A Maserati pulled up to my left and rolled down the window. “Jia you!” he shouted. I revved the engine and pulled away, the Porsche nowhere in sight. Another Ferrari pulled up on my right. The man pulled off his hat and screamed over the engines: “Who are you, man? Just tell me, between the two of us!” I waved him away. They were interfering; I was going to lose. “Fuck them, right!” he yelled, as I pulled ahead. “I got your back!”

A street race requires, above all, familiarity with the streets. So the best drivers would be delivery guys, private drivers, cab drivers. Young, rich guys with collector’s cars who drove pretty girls along crowded roads to restaurants in Xintiandi—these were not the competition.

I swerved by a few autodrivers. In my rearview mirror, Sven was catching up.

*

I heard the blast of a siren; there were police cars behind us, but they sounded far away. I was almost at the Nanpu Bridge. It would soon be over. And just like that, I switched into a feeling of clarity. Everything around me became sharper, brighter. It was as if time were slowing down and I could see everything with extreme focus.

I pulled into the left lane and then crossed over the double yellow line. I was now facing the oncoming traffic. At night the autodrivers were fast, speeding along the Bund. I went straight down the middle of the road. The cars veered off automatically to make room for me. I felt like a knife cutting through a leek, splitting it in half lengthwise as it flowered open. Like choreography.

Then I heard Sven’s voice on the intercom: “You’ve got to help, my car is going crazy!” He was flashing his lights at me from his lane. I watched from my rearview as the Mustang swerved left and right.

As the cars spread away from me, I imagined a world without Sven. Yumi without Sven. Without Yumi rubbing Sven’s hand under her thumb in the back seat of the van, without Yumi’s upcoming trip to Russia over the summer, the flights to California come fall. An eventual marriage. The hot and cold. She didn’t deserve that. I didn’t want to help him; I wanted to go for the money prize. But I also did not want him to be the one caught by the cops, to be known the world over as a masked driver, revealed.

I slowed down. I reversed back to his car, rolled down my window. “What’s wrong, kid?”

And without a word, Sven laughed and accelerated past me.

That little sneak. I went after him. My heart was in my teeth. No, it was beating in my eyes. I was so angry I could barely feel my hands on the wheel. I was so angry I was having an almost out-of-body experience. Instead of seeing him directly ahead of me, hearing his laughter on the intercom, I was seeing myself now from a distance. Like I was sitting once more in the old arcade, the wheel dismembered from the car, the street flashing between the driver’s view and bird’s-eye view.

I was taking Yumi to school on my first day of work. No, I was hitting delivery targets on my old scooter. No, I was thirteen years old again, learning how to drive. No, I was ten and beating my own high score. I could hear my friends cheering me on, screaming. I would do anything for the win. Old man Shi would be relaxing in his hammock, cigarette dangling from his lips, eyes closed as if in sleep, but when I came near, he’d say, “You’re number one, kid.”

I approached the Nanpu Bridge at 240 kilometers an hour. The thunder was loud and close now, its growl penetrating past the roar of the engine. The rain would come down at any moment, as fast and as dark as the close of a curtain, the show’s final act. It would hide us; it would protect us. I pulled the wheel sharply to the left, my car skidding with the effort, as I climbed up to where Sven was. I bumped his car, hard, and took us faster up the spiral of the road. Higher and higher, twisting up in a tight coil to the entrance of the bridge. In this state I felt I was spinning up forever, into the sky, into the clouds, ready to break. I closed my eyes for one second. Then another two. Every one of my movements was slow and precise. I was weightless, easy, one with the car, the street, the city.

__________________________________

From Shanghailanders by Juli Min. Reprinted with permission from Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2024.



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