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.