top of page


by Ellen Chai


Somehow everything comes with an expiry date. Swordfish expires. Meat sauce expires. Even cling-film expires. Is there anything in the world which doesn’t?

(Cop 223 in Chungking Express)


That was all she dreamed about: escape.

(Travis in Paris, Texas)

* * *

Imagine: a cityscape, soaked in luminous neon, brimming with seductive reverie.


There, in an unassuming corner shop, a lovelorn cop buys canned pineapple slices expiring on May 1st—his birthday, as well as the one-month mark of his breakup.


There, in a smoky late-night bar, he becomes smitten with a trench coat-clad, blonde-wigged mystery woman, her sins hazily shrouded behind dark sunglasses.


There, in a warren of dingy corridors and down-market shops, she weaves in and out, a chaotic swirl of colors and loose morals.


There, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, a pixie-haired, bright-eyed snack bar girl swings and shakes her hips to “California Dreamin’.”


There, she loses herself in the rhythm.

* * *

I dreamed about escaping there.


There: an uncanny fever dream of a cinematic space, a quintessential East Asian metropolis.


Before I left for Shanghai, I imagined the city as a hodgepodge of what I’d seen in Chinese art-house films, from Wong Kar-wai’s frenetically paced concrete jungle cuts to Tsai Ming-liang’s languid portrayals of lost souls in urban spaces (never mind the fact that Wong’s films are set in Hong Kong and Tsai’s in Taipei).


At the time, Shanghai was a sort of illusory longing, a montage, a city of spectacle. It was a one-way ticket to escape the dreariness of post-grad anomie.


* * *


Shanghai. 上海. City upon the sea.


City as porous threshold, permeable membrane, soft, sluicing tidal motion. On the waterfront, an enveloping haze of something blurred, indistinct, like thick plumes of swirling opium, or a scrim of smog, or floating ocean-mist. The visual texture—of a slow, languorous blur—does not last. It becomes ruptured, displaced, buried in the ashes of time. In its place, the relentless gallop of fast cuts and hyperlapse footage, of shimmering lights and structures sprouting like superterranean rhizomes.


Only the porosity remains.


* * *


Growing up Chinese American and deeply uncomfortable in the middle-class, right-leaning Chinese immigrant communities wherein I was raised, my relationship to my homeland has been one of entwined estrangement and curiosity. There was so much that I found repellent: the whip-cracking “Tiger Mother” parenting style, an unwavering belief in American meritocracy (or general meritocracy among Chinese nationals), problematic ideas about other minorities, a corrosive blind faith in hierarchy ethics and crushing the individual spirit into myriad pinpricks of snuffed out light.


These were also values that I internalized in the past, and ones that I reflexively wrench myself away from in the present (though not without feeling the unbearable weight of a collective phantom limb; the weight of years upon years of unlearning and relearning and countless identity crises). And yet, in the past few years, I’ve felt a mounting urge to peer through the cracks and seams of my cultural in-betweenness; to unearth vestiges of a repressed history and piece together a portrait in fragments.


To be fair, my curiosity was still specific and limited, orbiting around the collisions of my own identity: queer, woman, messily Chinese. I wanted to know, on a more intimate level, the history and livelihoods of others like me—those who exist on the margins of Chinese society.


I wrote a paper exploring the intermingling forces of globalization and urbanization on the emergence of same-sex identity in contemporary queer China.  


Upon hearing that I had a job offer in Shanghai, I scoured the Internet for leads on artsy-queer groups and events.


I installed LesPark—a mainland China-based lesbian dating and social media app.


I connected with a non-binary Chinese-Australian reporter for Sixth Tone on OKCupid (whom I ended up meeting just twice).


I read ravenously about a Shanghai-based underground queer film collective.


In a word: I was hungry—for adventure, for enchantment, for a moveable feast of floating roots.


* * *


When I arrived in Shanghai, my cousin Wen and his girlfriend were waiting at the Pudong International Airport. Wen is apparently a smart, successful, well-adjusted neurologist at a Shanghai hospital (following my father’s footsteps in the medical field) and has been at the top of his class since grade school. As such, Wen has always been a staple topic of conversation with my parents. Throughout my childhood, Wen was, at turns, a begrudging object of envy, a far-flung role model, and the veritable incarnation of a box I’d spend the rest of my life trying to escape.


Wen and his girlfriend were affable, helping me out with my bags, navigating the clusterfuck that is masses of people and baffling bilingual signs, asking me if I need anything else, anything at all (Chinese hospitality knows no bounds). We joined the others in a long taxi queue, eventually getting into a taxi van (called a mianbao che, or “bread-shaped car,” because of its loaf-like appearance. It’s amusing how literal Chinese language is).


As we passed wide swathes of factories and warehouses and identical high-rise residential villas, fast approaching the gleaming lights of the futuristic skyline (or, in the Western imagination, the embodiment of techno-orientalist cyberpunk), it dawned on me why slow cinema may have such a distinct appeal for many East Asian filmmakers.


In the words of Tsai Ming-liang, slowness is a “conscious act of rebellion”: a counter-reaction to being swallowed up by the vertiginous speed. Slowness recalibrates the temporal folds—from the compressed time of neoliberalism in overdrive to the meditative, dilated time that restores a sense of duration.


Just thirty years ago, Pudong—the part of the city east of the Huangpu River—consisted mainly of sparsely populated stretches of farmland, oft-disparaged as evidence of China’s backwardness. Now, as the crown jewel of the country’s breakneck economic development, the former boondocks is vociferously touted by state media as a testament to “China’s success story.”


When one looks closer, it becomes hard to miss the deserted construction sites, the abandoned malls, the barren roads, the eerie sense of ghostly emptiness pervading the cityscape.


Perhaps this is what Tsai means: slowness as a means of preservation in celluloid, of hearing the spectral echoes amidst the rumble of jackhammers.


* * *

One of the first things I discovered about myself in Shanghai is that the city has awakened my inner flâneuse. Every morning, on my off days, I’d get up early and amble down the streets, following the curves of winding alleys, watching elderly Shanghainese hang their laundry on clotheslines outside their lane house apartments, listening to the rustle of leaves in the London plane trees flanking the boulevards, quickly overlaid by the whir of mopeds.


The city, too, is a remarkable study in contrasts, from the well-preserved Art Deco edifices with Chinese-influenced pagoda-style roofs and lattice windows, to the Tudor-style homes along cobbled lanes, to the neoclassical buildings along the waterfront promenade. Much of the city’s European-style architecture harkens back to the decadent thirties, when Shanghai was a raucous, quasi-colonial port city divided into international settlements.  


Locals say that Shanghai is unlike anywhere else in China, or the world, for that matter. To be “Shanghainese” means to be conferred rarefied urban sensibilities, elevated above the country bumpkins, or mere peasants (as China was an agrarian society, the term is used completely un-ironically here). Shanghai glistens, glimmers, gleams as a beacon of exotic allure, with the apt, if dated, sobriquet, “Paris of the Orient.”


And yet, I often wonder how much of that allure emanates from an internalized colonialism (but then, what of the pejorative “foreign devils”?) and how much of it is simply entrenched regionalism.


I can’t explain, either, the sheer joy of wandering aimlessly in the serpentine streets, smitten with the architectural mélange, feeling a budding sense of pride in my adopted hometown.


* * *


During my first month in Shanghai, the Modern Art Base (a newish gallery in the city’s burgeoning contemporary art scene) hosted the first mainland solo exhibition of the Chinese photographer Ren Hang. Titled “Beauty Without Beards,” the exhibition featured nude all-male subjects (though shying away from full-frontal nudity and exposed genitals)—luminous in their youthful exuberance, organically surreal in the juxtaposition of animal and floral motifs.


The exhibition was, in essence, a memorial to the controversial erotic photographer, who committed suicide earlier in the year by jumping off his 28th floor apartment in Beijing.


* * *


I remember posting a collection of his photos on Facebook in commemoration, enraptured by the colors, tones, and textures of their radiant sensuality. Twining milk-white limbs, lipstick on penises, snakes draped over models’ faces, a young woman’s undaunted gaze from behind an iridescent peacock.


These were infinitely beautiful to me: infinitely real, vulnerable, naked.


And one notices, too, that despite being painstakingly choreographed, there’s a sense of freewheeling spontaneity in the composition.


The body, unraveling, coalescing with the natural landscape.


The body, contorted, as malleable as clay.


The body, nude, unflinchingly nude.  


And, as such, infinitely fragile.


* * *


I’ll admit that, back in the States, I hadn’t engaged much with the art or LGBTQ scene. I was certainly a self-professed art enthusiast and comfortably, openly queer, so it was more a matter of (1) I felt too bogged down in schoolwork (yes, I was once a perpetually stressed-out, self-pitying pre-med) and (2) I never felt at ease in mainstream white-centric corporate pride spaces (and mistakenly assumed that most, if not all, spaces embodied that dynamic).


Coming to Shanghai was, thus, an awakening in terms of fully immersing myself in those spaces, refracted through the lens of a vastly different culture. There’s a certain kind of youthful, resilient dynamism in the Shanghai queer scene—subtly subversive rumblings below the surface of authoritarian repression.


* * *


My initiation began one cool autumn evening, when I decided to attend the opening ceremony of the inaugural Shanghai Queer Film Festival. The film festival was a weeklong series of screenings of queer films and short films (pan-Asian and international), panel discussions, and filmmaking workshops. In a country where freedom of assembly in the form of mass social campaigns and political protest is threadbare, film is widely regarded as a platform to spark vital dialogue and foster a sense of solidarity.


As I walked into the screening hall, quietly, not knowing a soul, I felt an instant wave of warmth and kinship, of collective belonging, transcending borders, boundaries, and cultures. The audience exuded chic, badass individualism, even (or especially) in their appearance. There were men in braids and Buddy Holly glasses, debonair androgynous women with punky clothes and roguish grins, freaks and fags and dykes and queers—my crowd.


Before the screening started, a woman in a short pixie cut sitting beside me asked if I could watch her stuff when she used the bathroom (I presumed this was a tentative conversation starter of sorts). When she returned, she said her name was Lia and that this was her second week in Shanghai. She’s French-Cambodian, studies urban design, and spent a year in Seoul. I think I’d like to settle in Seoul, but Shanghai…it’s a fascinating city. I’ve always been attracted to East Asian cities. Can’t really explain it, but there’s just this delirious insomniac quality that I love, she said. She continued, My parents were Cambodian refugees. France is my home, but I guess home is a pretty fluid concept for people like us.


Interestingly—and refreshingly—enough, the documentaries shown at the opening ceremony explored these diasporic resonances. Orientations and Re:Orientations by Richard Fung (who was at the festival in person) featured a series of interviews with pan-Asian-Canadian lesbians and gay men (the first documentary released in 1984, and the second—revisiting seven of the original participants after thirty years—in 2016). They spoke boldly and poignantly about their experiences navigating the intersections of their identities, whether in boarding schools, gay bars, or activist spaces.


* * *


At the end of Re:Orientations, a modern dancer reinterprets a sequence by Pei Lim, an Asian-Canadian dancer and AIDS activist who appeared in the first documentary and died of AIDS before the filming of the second.


The dancer’s face is concealed behind a white mask as he dances, struggling with the rope that binds him, swinging and flinging it off his body.


He twirls and spins, takes off his mask, hurls it to the ground.


Finally, he rises up to face us, whiteness shattered.  


* * *


I visited my first lesbian bar with a Chinese friend named Stacy, a recent Beijing transplant. The bar was a dimly lit, divey joint with variegated bras hanging off the ceiling and Georgia O’Keeffe-esque flower vagina paintings (granted, they were on the less subtle end) on the exposed brick walls.


The bartender ushered us to a table for two. We each ordered a bottle of Tsingtao as Stacy gave me the lowdown on Chinese lesbian culture. The masculine women with short hair, they’re called T’s, they’re like the butches of the relationship, she said. And the feminine women are called P’s, they like to be spoiled. And if you don’t fit into either category, you’re an H! I asked, What about you? I’m a T, she laughed, don’t let my appearance fool you. Stacy said that after coming out to her parents years ago, they were so furious that they sent her away to university in Norway (surely a blessing in disguise). She briefly dated a Norwegian guy, but it just didn’t make sense to her. Upon returning to China, her parents seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that their daughter is a dyed-in-the-wool lesbian.


As more and more people started flowing in, the bartender consolidated our table with the one beside us. There were four Chinese women, who seemed to be separate pairs of friends. We began with introductions: two of the women--Yue and Jing--were here for the first time. Yue is a married woman (with a toddler son) from a small city in the southeastern province of Fujian. To her, coming to Shanghai was an absolutely liberating experience. Jing, a Shanghai native, had only recently come to terms with her sexuality and was equally new to the scene.


The other two women—bespectacled, bookish-looking, oddly edgy-androgynous—have been long-time lurkers. One of the women, who called herself Apple (and no, I didn’t ask), is an architecture professor at Tongji University, and the other, MJ, is a former literature major especially fond of indie rock, art cinema, and Susan Sontag.


The party (officially) got started when the walls began reverberating with the pulsing, rhythmic beats of 80s pop hits. In a drunken haze, people clambered out of their seats and onto the dance floor, jumping up and down with their hands in the air. Women weaved intricately in and out of each other, grinning with the secret knowledge that, in this moment, they were indomitable, buzzing with irrepressible energy, cradled in the womb of a queer fantasia.


As the crowd went wild, MJ and I attempted to converse through yelling matches over the noise. Before long, Yue and Jing sprung onto the dance floor and dragged a petrified me along.  


And, well—I came, I saw, and I still can’t dance.


* * *


Soon afterward, I met my Shanghai lover.


Yvonne is several years older; an enchanting, sophisticated Shanghai native with a rollicking sense of humor, who attended art school and works as a designer. Her life has been one of grievous misfortune (having been raised by a poor single mother since her father passed away when she was twelve) combined with extraordinary fortitude.


To my friends, she was known simply as “Mooncake Lady.”


Right before the Mid-Autumn Festival, Yvonne gave me a box of mooncakes. One evening, after having dinner together, she insisted on walking me home. We walked at length in the dark, the cityscape illuminated by the twinkling amber lights of surrounding high-rises. You know, I began, I don’t think I’ve ever been homesick here, maybe because I never really felt at home back in the States. She nodded, with an achingly tender look in her eyes. It’s hard for me to say all this in Chinese, I continued, but it’s just the feeling of being adrift, and feeling like anywhere could be my home.


* * *


Upon returning to my apartment, I could see the full moon rising over the horizon just outside my window. It looked much bigger and brighter than usual—the rosy-fingered moon that surpasses all stars. While taking a bite into the mooncake’s flaky crust, I thought about how, in Chinese mythology, mooncakes are symbols of perfect harmony and togetherness, of blissful reunion. They are supposedly an offering to Chang’e, the Lady on the Moon. As the legend goes, she swallowed the elixir pill of life (given to her by her husband for safekeeping) before a wicked apprentice could snatch it away. Drifting toward the heavens, she sought refuge on the moon to be close to her husband on earth.


Exiled, home must be within the sweet nothings whispered over the ebb and flow of tides.     


* * *


As one of my friends in the States noted, Yvonne was a sort of “Caring Ambassador,” guiding my fingers to trace the inflections of my mother tongue and culture, steeping me in warm, affectionate undulations, unspooling threads of hidden narratives, opening my eyes to the city—her home—as infinite possibility.


Once, very early on, she decided to take me to a private movie theatre: a cozy rentable room, tastefully decorated, with subdued lighting and a lush leather sofa-cum-bed for two. As the lights dimmed and the door clicked shut, Yvonne turned toward me and said, There’s a movie I think you’d appreciate, or at least find meaningful. She went on, It speaks to various kinds of displacement. You’ll see what I mean.


In the opening: a buoyant dance sequence set to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West.” Whether it’s to celebrate the eve of the millennium Chinese New Year or the Communist Party’s fifty-year anniversary, we’re not entirely sure, but the sense of freedom is exhilarating.


She takes a sip of her fruity cocktail and hands me a glass. Our fingers brush, fleetingly.


* * *


Caught in a love triangle, Tao, the ingénue heroine and small-town beauty, chooses the suave capitalist Jingsheng over the poor coal miner Liang. Their relationship frays, tears apart, all kinds of fissures exposed, as Tao ends up back in the small mining town while Jingsheng is in Shanghai with their seven-year-old son Dollar. Dollar visits his mother in her hometown, a shoddy place. On the slow train ride back to Shanghai, Tao gives her son a set of keys to her home. You’ll always be welcome here.


* * *


She hums along to Sally Yeh’s nostalgic Cantopop ballad “Take Care,” the melody saturating the parting scene. I look at the screen. I look at her. I don’t know what to do with my hands.


* * *


By the time Dollar is in college in Melbourne, Jingsheng has become a stinking rich, gun-toting nutcase. They communicate via Google Translate. A troubled soul sick of life in a gilded cage, Dollar drops out of college and falls in love with his Chinese language teacher, an elegant older Hong Kong woman. He shows her the keys. They decide to return.


* * *


She wraps her arm around me. I nestle my head against her shoulder. Touch by touch, kiss by kiss, the sensation lingers, the night dissolves.


* * *


(Together) We will go our way
(Together) We will leave someday
(Together) Your hand in my hand
(Together) We will make our plans
(Together) We will fly so high
(Together) Tell all our friends good-bye
(Together) We will start life new
(Together) This is what we'll do


* * *


In February of the following year, Yvonne and I traveled to Hong Kong. Yvonne had been to Hong Kong before with her ex-girlfriend (an insatiable shopaholic, so they barely saw the non-harsh-fluorescent-of-mall-interiors light of day), but knew I was intrigued by the city and was personally curious to explore in greater depth herself.


My impressions of Hong Kong at the time were largely shaped by Wong Kar-wai films. Wong immortalized the city as a bustling, multicultural crossroads—a neon-sheathed kaleidoscope of urban loneliness and heartsick yearning. Hong Kong, thus, was something of a simulacrum that lay outside the real world—a certain filmic landscape much like Shanghai before I set foot on the physical terrain.


Such fantasies are not merely interchangeable ciphers.


For Hong Kong, they are a dangerous act of erasure.  


* * *


To understand Hong Kong is to situate it as a battleground of competing nationalisms (British colonialism vs. the Chinese Communist Party after the 1997 handover); as a borrowed place robbed of its own identity; and as a space of disappearance wherein its culture emerged only by a sense of its imminent disappearance (and, in a more literal sense, in the gradual erosion of its democratic freedoms by the Chinese regime).  


To understand Hong Kong is to know how it feels to be submerged in the waters of finitude and mortality, and still try to push back the tidal surge with a cavalcade of umbrellas.


Yet, for me, to understand Hong Kong meant to experience the city from the perspective of an outsider, silently imploding from the anxiety of being seen as the wrong kind of Other (read: mainland Chinese).


* * *


There, wandering in the graffiti-painted streets of Sheung Wan, the night markets of Mong Kok, the cafes and bookstores and galleries of Soho, I felt a strange, gnawing tension in speaking Mandarin to Yvonne. Annoyed that we couldn’t converse in English, I tried (lamely) to compensate by asking for directions in a mouthful of unaccented English. Relentlessly, I beckoned to be seen as American, as the “redeeming” half of my hyphenated identity, and not as a “backward locust” (as mainlanders are sometimes referred to by Hong Kong locals). During lunch at a Thai restaurant overlooking the harbor, I cried out of nowhere.  


* * *


When we returned to our hotel room that night, I crawled into bed without looking at Yvonne. She was obviously hurt and confused, and kept blaming herself for some inscrutable misdeed. I’m really sorry, I began to explain, it’s just...identity issues. I didn’t like the way they looked at us. She was quiet for a moment and then said, It’s complicated...and it must be hard hovering between two worlds when you don’t belong to either, and kissed me goodnight.


* * *


I cannot say with certainty when my Shanghai spell was broken, but there was a steady accumulation of disillusioning occurrences, both personal and collective. In my first year, I was simply starry-eyed, spellbound, wet-behind-the-ears; and for good reason: Shanghai is an intoxicating nexus of glamour and mystique, a seeming exception to the time-worn “China as authoritarian gloom and doom” narrative.


But: peel back the layers of constructed fantasy, pierce through the mirage, shatter the hall of mirrors, and what’s left is silence—the sense of an ending; of cultural amnesia.


* * *


Among the things that have occurred:


A close friend of mine—a Shanghai local who works at an independent news media company—was jobless for a month during a government-enforced shutdown of the news site in order to bowdlerize it of any semblance of dissent (their critique on the mass evictions of working-class migrant neighborhoods in Beijing was apparently a little too strident, a little too how-dare-they-speak-the-truth).


Chinese friends on WeChat (China’s most popular messaging app) have devised incredibly clever and sophisticated methods to bypass censorship (from discussion of the Jasic protests in Shenzhen, to the burgeoning #MeToo movement in China, to critiques of the Chinese Communist Party), with symbols like rice bunny emoticons (“me too” is pronounced as mi tu, meaning “rice bunny” in Chinese), long screenshots of articles that have been taken down, asterisks between sensitive characters and words, et cetera.


At the “Crossroads in Cultural Studies” conference in Shanghai (where Judith Butler was rumored to have attended and Lawrence Grossberg was the keynote speaker), many of the academic books and journals could not be sold or distributed because they might contain politically sensitive content.


People who look Uyghur (a Muslim ethnic minority group) are frequently detained by police in subway and train stations. While I was apartment hunting, a real estate agent said that one of the landlords had decided to indiscriminately evict all the Uyghur residents. Not to mention the one million interned in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang province.


Rural-urban migrants, known as the “floating population,” eke out a piss-poor living and often work several jobs without any benefits, protections, or household registration status.


* * *


If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.

(Cop 223 in Chungking Express)


* * *


When I told Yvonne I would most likely be returning to the States next year, she said she wanted to make the rest of my time in Shanghai as fulfilling as possible.  


* * *


In Chinese, the word for fulfilling is guo yin. 过瘾. To satisfy a craving.


* * *


Dear Yvonne,


I think I know the meaning of guo yin now—to roam the streets of this beautiful, savage city together, laughing and crying and spilling our impossible dreams and desires, or simply being quiet, observational, aware that we are on the cusp of something infinitely strange and mutable. Perhaps you, so acquainted with the intimate geographies of the city, already know: in a map of fleeting contours, we cling to the shadow of the caressing hand, the shine of sweat on skin, the whispered secrets into hollows and gaps. Perhaps you already know, too, that each time you kiss my forehead in the morning, and stroke and blow dry my hair with such nimble tenderness while I’m sitting in bed, and bring me baskets of fruit or those white chocolate biscuits your uncle brought from Japan, and make me ginger jujube tea when I’m sick, and whisk me off to art galleries or nude spas or underground live houses, and listen to me and accept me and miss me and hold me and cradle me to sleep, you are etched into my heart. And yet—above all—you understand that I am a nomadic passenger. That my innermost language is the language of migrating bodies.


* * *


I think of the ending scene of Chungking Express, where the snack bar girl eventually goes to California and leaves her love interest a boarding pass (dated a year later) scribbled on a napkin. Mistaking it for rubbish, he tosses it, changes his mind, retrieves it, straightens out the wrinkles. When the snack bar girl, now flight attendant, returns to find him a year later, he asks if anyone would accept his old boarding pass. She offers to draw him a new one. He says he’ll go wherever she wants to take him.

Ellen Chai.jpg

Ellen Chai is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and currently lives in Shanghai. Her writing has appeared in Queen Mob's Teahouse, Luna Luna Magazine, and Prairie Margins.


If you enjoy Nat. Brut and consider yourself a reader of the magazine, please consider donating to us! We are a fledgling non-profit on a shoe-string budget, and our staff is 100% volunteer (all of us!). Every dollar you give goes directly back into the operations of the magazine. Consider giving today!

bottom of page