The Cat of Century Ave

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 4. The Spirit of Place, Shanghai by Irina1 Comment

In the hedge that separates NYU Shanghai from its office building neighbor lives a little cat. I’ve seen this cat a couple of times while passing through to enter the building’s hidden 7/11 convenience store but only recently started sitting down and petting it. I’ve often seen her basking in the sun, enjoying the attention of NYU students and office workers alike. Though I wish I could take her home and make her mine, I can see that she belongs to everyone working and walking on Century Avenue.

She’s well taken care of despite being a stray. Some kind stranger always leaves a plate of cat food out and I’ve seen another leave an unwrapped sausage for her to snack on. I’ve seen a man come out and immediately smile at the sight of her, reaching out to call her “Mi Mi”, which I assume is his personal nickname for her, and another sitting close to her after a long day of work. I’ve come to realize that this beloved neighborhood cat has a way of bringing strangers together in a city that seems to be constantly changing and shifting.

It’s easy to feel singular and disparate on the streets of Shanghai, walking in the shadows of gleaming malls and skyscrapers. I find it difficult to imagine what the city must have looked like 50 years ago. The only hints I can find are in the architecture of repurposed spaces.

Many traditional spaces have been converted to shopping malls and food courts to accommodate for the people’s growing need for consumption. I visited the 1933 Slaughterhouse, expecting to find a mostly abandoned building free for me to take photos of its Gotham-Deco architecture. Instead, I found a mall complex complete with a fitness center, vape shop, and banquet hall. There were also plenty of other young people with cameras, all wanting to capture the look of an outfit contrasted against the slab concrete walls. There is barely any evidence that millions of cattle were actually slaughtered here in the Slaughterhouse at some point in pre-Communist Shanghai.

Indeed, many of Shanghai’s historical landmarks seem to capture the city’s essence: the combination of both modernity and commerciality with legacy and culture. Jing An temple, first built in 247 AD and restored in 2008, is surrounded by some of the biggest brand names in the world. The Yu Gardens, built in 1559, includes one of the largest tourist markets where you can find gold and jade as well as other more modern knick-knacks. The seduction of such modernity tends to overshadow the local people and their cultures, making it easy for us to neglect the everyday aspects of community life.

Durrell expresses that human beings are expressions of their landscape. While Shanghai’s landscape is one of vast changes and fast paces, I think the cat of Century Avenue reminds me that its people haven’t lost their kindness. As Durrell says, “…for underneath the purely superficial aspects of apparent change the old tide-lines remain”. The Shanghainese, though stereotypically involved in a materialistic world, are still in touch with their traditional values of courtesy and care. It is in this harmony of innovation and tradition that Shanghai exists.

This morning, an older woman saw me and my boyfriend playing with the cat on our morning coffee run. She spoke to us in Chinese, saying that she’s seen us playing with it and wondered if it was ours. Though I wish she was, I think she’s exactly where she needs to be, reminding us that there is still a friendly local community hidden under the layers of change.


  1. Hi Irina,
    I really liked this blog post because it reminded me of the stray cat that always wandered around my high school in Beijing, and also the cats that would sometimes dash across the stone paths in my neighborhood, always kept happy and fed by this women living somewhere at the other end of my building. I feel like these stray animals have somehow become an important part of our lives in Chinese, though I never really took not of it until I read this post. It definitely fosters a sense of community in a way that I haven’t really encountered elsewhere.
    I also found it interesting that you talk about the contrast between modernity and traditional spaces. Again, it’s something that I share in my experience of Beijing, and is especially important to me now as many of the more local and “base” spaces are being taken down (like markets and bar-populated alleyways next to more high-end shopping areas) because they are being labelled immoral and debauched. There is also often a sense of materialism associated with Shanghai in contrast to Beijing, which is often perceived to be more cultural and perhaps a little less modernized. It’s interesting to see you recognizing that materialism in the short time you’ve been there, but I’m also glad to find a reminder here that culture and tradition are still vibrant elements of the community there.

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