Saturday, February 21, 2009

Metropolis I

Big metropolises are a special world unto themselves, especially Asian metropolises where the forces of development, inequality and globalization come together. What does this do to the individual? I wanted to write a series of vignettes to explore this issue, but then days of self loathing got in the way. Inspiration comes and goes, and self doubt steps in to fill the remaining minutes and hours and days. Anyway I finished the first one of the series, based loosely on a conversation I had on the top floor of the Jinmao Tower. Comments welcome.

So many aspects to look at...


Clinking between cocktail glass and gold clad table, 85 stories above the city. We were laughing absurdly, carefree at the top of the world. For once the blur of speeding highways that took me from party to party, bar to bar wasn't an echo of bleeding loneliness. A wide-eyed companion was by my side and we moved at the speed of light, with the beat of the metropolis, hearts pulsating neon.

He looked out of 360 degree windows at the man made world glittering madly outside. The skyscrapers were alien giants winking lewdly back at us. "This view is amazing," he said. He was leaving in two days. "It's my favourite place here, and I wanted to show you." He turned to me with dark eyes holding something as other-worldly as the night outside.

I turned away. My absurdly expensive rings clinked against my absurdly expensive cocktail. "It's progress, and potential," I said turning the conversation to the abstract, "but pursuing potential is not the same as happiness."

His eyes refused to let go, "potential for what?" he asked.

And that's when I knew he really was an innocent who believed there was a difference. Potential for good, potential for evil.


In the spring of years ago I arrived - it was bitterly cold but bright. I was one of a great movement from countryside to city. The girls used to giggle, "maybe a rich city boy will fall in love with us." Our fertile, human hearts couldn't help receiving the seeds of spring.

But in the great seas and seas of human lives I soon realised I was just another dot. And in the crowded dormitories shared with ten other girls, snoring loudly after days of backbreaking work, I stared at the dark patches where paint had peeled and rust had come through on the bed posts.

I thought of my days in the countryside - escaping from school to steal oranges and dropping out at 16 with dreams of the city. My grandparents who lived with their illnesses because it was a choice between medical fees and eating. And I thought of the sister after me given away because she was a girl and there were already too many girls in the world.

And I knew I had nothing to offer.

But this machine of concrete limbs and fleshy heart pumped on, its metal mouth gaping open and hungry.


He was from a wealthy family, but he never talked about it as if he never cared. His mind was on other things and he threw away his birthright like handfuls of gold dust. I clutched my low cut designer dress - always successful - and the white gold necklace a gift from another man. All of it suddenly felt cheap. Like I had taken my
mother's heirloom to a pawnshop and got back two dirty notes.

"What happened to you?" he asked.

In all our previous 24 hours together he had asked questions, one after the other. Breathlessly curious it was all new to him, as if his imagination could devour all the night stars blazing. He thought he could uncover the truth about this convulsing human mass with just his open, searching heart. But it was he who brought humanity within him to our gaudily lit farce.

I tried to think of a plausible story. But what came out was the most impossible yarn, yearning to tell the truth.

"My family and I were moving to a better place, and we packed everything we owned on a boat," I fabricated, talking through layers and layers of years wasted and steps taken from that first spring.

"On the sea the boat sank, taking everything and all their lives. Except me. I survived on a tiny boat, just me between endless sky and endless sea."

The metropolis was waiting for me, always waking, arms and legs open. Every weekend a one night stand that I called paradise.

"When you have lost everything important, and still survived," I heard myself say through the giddyness of the height and the alcohol and the glittering madness, "you realise you never needed it in the first place."

He listened. He had no answers.

So eager was he to pose questions he never listened to the replies. That was the ephemeral nature of his being, his questions, and his passing through.

But he paused then.

And the heart of the machine missed a beat.