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Sunday, Feb. 06, 2005 - 2:45 a.m.

It is early morning in Shanghai's French Quarter and a little boy holds onto to his mother's hand as they walk through one of the narrow alleys that run behind the rows and rows of squat brick houses. The sun has barely risen over the tops of their walls, its weak yellow light still cold to the skin. They pass other women going to market, and the boy's mother wishes them good morning. The boy looks at the women, each with the loop of a rattan basket slung over a forearm, swaying slightly in time with each footstep. Autumn is leaving and the air begins to develop a whiteness, possibly from all the individual visible breaths of the city's inhabitants. The mother and the boy turn into another alley and there is an old man slowly pushing a wooden cart towards them. Douhua jiang, douhua jiang, he calls out. His has been selling soya bean milk every morning in this neighbourhood for twenty years, and all the children who lived here grew up hearing the sound of his voice. Three years from now, the boy and his mother will emigrate to Hong Kong in the year 1962 and he will spend the rest of his life in a new city missing the cadence of the old soyabean-milk-seller's voice. The pattern of inflections in the Shanghainese dialect is complex and inimitable. A young woman opens the wooden double doors of her house and calls to the old man. She brings him two large porcelain bowls and he scoops the thin white fluid into them with a wooden cup ladle. She gives him two small coins and then carries the two full bowls carefully across the short distance to her house. Once she stubbed her toe against a raised cobblestone tile and fell, breaking one of the bowls. She cried and was scolded by her mother, but the bowl was eventually restored by another old man in the neighbourhood, one who repaired cracked porcelain using homemade glue and tightly tied bits of string. When the old soyabean-milk-seller dies, the neighbourhood and all its silent houses will have lost something - the old man's sonorous, song-like voice calling out over an autumn morning.

In the afternoon after her shift at the factory, the boy's mother will walk the bridge across the dirty, rubbish-strewn canal, dodge two roads of rushing bicycles and arrive at grandfather's house. There she will go through the daily ritual of asking grandfather if the boy has been good, and if the answer is yes, she reveals the hidden hand behind her back and gives the boy a stick of hardened, red caramel candy. The boy has made an art of licking it slowly, determined to make the candy last the entire journey home. His hands are always sticky with caramel by the time he enters the house. They pass by streets where roadside stalls serve large bowls of scalding noodles to crowded wooden tables, and the empty house where a writer once lived before he was branded an intellectual and arrested. The mother and the boy will always stop momentarily in an alley, behind the large building where the Shanghai Philharmonic rehearsed. There, the sound of violins and pianos lightly escape open windows for an audience of two. Once a week, the mother gets off from work early and instead of bringing the boy straight home, she brings him to the workers' cinema. He never understands any of the propaganda films, but suspects that there is some kind of magical device animating the flashing, moving images on the screen. The boy will grow up in Hongkong, never attend film school, work for a television company, and spend the rest of his life making some of the most artful films in the history of cinema. There will be one interview he gives, when the interviewer asks him about his early years in Shanghai. He will think about the question for a while, and reply that he has good memories of Shanghai. Then he will talk about the alleys he and his mother travelled through, the sound of the Shanghai Philharmonic, and he will come back to the alleys, the alleys where he first learnt to think of stories in the language of images, the narrow cobble-stoned alleys of memory, where the lives of real people are lived.

note: based on Time Magazine interview of Wong Kar Wai dated 24/5/2000


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