On Shanghai’s Bund in ’81

During May of 1981 I received a surprisingly flip response when I asked my Chinese escort in Beijing, “Is it all right for me to walk outside after dark?”

He tersely replied, “Oh yes. You won’t get mugged in Beijing like you would in Washington, D.C.”

Thus later that week when the same individual dropped me off at the Peace Hotel on Shanghai’s Bund, I assumed that the same situation prevailed and after dinner went out alone for a walk along the riverside.

I was amidst thousands of people, men and women, virtually all dressed alike in their shapeless unadorned single-color cotton suits slowly walking aimlessly and quietly in the dark. A few dim street lamps and only one neon sign was visible. That bit of modernization, located across the Whangpoo River, simply advertised, Sanyo. Otherwise there was only faint moonlight.

The scene caused me to think that for the locals, being outside when the weather was fairly decent had to be preferable to what I observed in Beijing. There from my hotel-room window, I could see into a sparsely furnished tenement room that was without curtains and shades and that was lighted by only one dim bulb hanging from a wire. Suddenly my reverie was interrupted by a young Chinese man blocking my path, “May I speak English with you?”

In the next instant I was besieged on all sides by others pressing close upon me and the following thoughts flashed through my mind: “I am being mugged. Do what the detectives in the TV Barney Miller series advised. Give them everything they want and walk away with your life.”

An instant afterwards I realized that the shoving was for position; the crowd of people was that intent upon hearing English being spoken! There was one father holding his son up so that the child could hear better. I pressed backwards against the crowd until I was against the seawall. With no one breathing down my collar I felt a bit at ease despite being confronted at night by at least thirty anxious people.

After another moment, during which the initiator exhibited some frustration because of the impositions by many others, I finally responded, “Yes. I would be pleased to speak English with you.”

Then the young man suddenly pointed a finger so that it was just six inches from my nose and said, “Do you have a credit card?”

To say that I was surprised would be an understatement and I responded with a simple, “Yes.”

“May I see it?”

Still following the advice of Barny Miller’s cynical New York City detectives, I handed the card over and the young man studied it as best as he could in the moonlight. Then someone reached over his shoulder and took it from him.

My interrogator then asked as my card disappeared into the crowd and with his finger again pointing at my nose, “Why do they let you have a credit card?”

I then explained how banks acquired money from fees and interest charges.

Next the young man with everyone else straining to understand asked, “You go to jail if you don’t pay, don’t you?”

Incredibly, there I was after nine in the evening in the middle of a Chinese crowd that I suspect with one exception, didn’t understand a word of my explanation of an individual’s credit rating.

After listening conscientiously the young English-speaking man said, “But then if you don’t pay you go to jail, don’t you?

That put the ball back on my side of the net. A bit wearily and still with my back to the wall on Shanghai’s Bund, I described how a bank would employ a dunning agency and what a dunning agency was.

Suddenly my credit card, that had been passed around in the crowd as if it was a magic amulet that could grant better lives, was returned to me by an anonymous hand. The crowd parted so as to allow me to leave and then coalesced around the Chinese English speaker.


Copyright © 2006 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo

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