Shanghai’s Sweltering Summer

Shanghai has always had a reputation for hot and humid summers; after all, that’s why Western missionaries and businessmen used to take their families to mountain retreats like Moganshan during the season. But this summer has been unlike anything the missionaries ever experienced: Shanghai just ended its hottest July on record, with twenty-five days above 35℃ (95℉). Add in the humidity (high) and you have everything it takes to make me whiny and cranky. (Many apologies to all of you reading this who have had to put up with me over the past month.)

The two tiny air conditioners in my apartment labor mightily to keep up with the heat and humidity, but Shanghai Summer ’13 is no match for them. I’ve taken to spending hours at a stretch in the Starbucks down the street (which has wifi) and the KFC above the nearby subway station (cheap coffee + no wifi = I can get a lot of reading and writing done). When I’m not in air-conditioned comfort, the heat makes me do things that would normally never cross my mind. I’ve ridden the bus a single stop to avoid walking three blocks; I’ve ordered food delivery rather than venturing across the street to get dinner; I bought a Slurpee at 7-Eleven, seduced by the sight of many happy customers clutching the frozen treats (two or three slurps in, I decided that even hundred-degree temperatures couldn’t make me enjoy such cloying sweetness).

I’m not the only one who’s been overwhelmed by the heat: one of the most re-tweeted things I saw on Twitter last week was this photo of people sleeping on treadmills in a store that looks like a Carrefour or Wal-Mart. Grocery store and food delivery services have reported an increase in business as the temperature rose, and the whole city seems to be moving more slowly than usual. Women stroll down sidewalks wearing filmy dresses, pastel parasols raised to protect their skin from the sun, while many men saunter along with shirts rolled up over their stomachs to keep cool. Some wave fans at their faces, while others have damp washcloths draped over their necks or heads; virtually everyone holds a bottle of water.

It is really, really hot, in other words, though coming from Philadelphia, I’ve been impressed with how congenial everyone is despite the weather. In fact, it feels like the heat has fostered a sense of camaraderie in the city, particularly in the evenings. A couple of weeks ago, I read a 1998 New Yorker essay by Arthur Miller about hot summers in New York during the 1920s-30s and realized that his descriptions of life during an urban heat wave are still applicable to an old-fashioned neighborhood like mine in Shanghai today.

After the sun goes down, my neighborhood comes alive, as people leave their small, poorly ventilated apartments and congregate outside. The plaza of a large office building across the street is a particularly popular place to gather, and there are informal zones for different activities. In one corner, twenty or thirty middle-aged women practice a mixture of line dancing and slow aerobics, music blasting out from a portable radio hanging from a small tree. Dogs and their owners cluster in the zone next to the dancers, while on the other side of the plaza, children race around on scooters and roller skates, many of the boys gripping enormous Super-Soaker water guns. At another edge, there are people simply hanging out—young couples, older groups, individuals who bring a book or a cell phone to entertain themselves. I regularly see one sixtyish woman who settles herself in a folding bamboo chair with a glass jar of cloudy tea by her side as she watches television shows on her iPad, one of those clichéd but true pictures of the Chinese and foreign coexisting in the lives of many Shanghainese.

I would like it to be cooler. I can’t wait for it, in fact. But the historian part of me is also glad that I got to be here this summer—to walk across the plaza full of people every night and see what it’s like when hot weather doesn’t drive everyone indoors to their air-conditioned caves, but rather encourages them to go outside and spend time with each other. That’s something that has largely disappeared from the places I’ve lived in the U.S. (especially the suburban ones), and I’m sure that in Shanghai’s newer neighborhoods of high-rise apartment buildings, it’s also gone. When people talk about how the demolition of old neighborhoods can also alter or destroy social dynamics in the community, it’s this kind of interaction that they’re talking about. I expect that in five or ten or fifteen years, my block of low-rise apartment buildings will be razed and more modern, and expensive, high-rises built in their place. And when that happens, I imagine, I might come back one hot summer night and find the plaza empty and quiet, the streets surrounding it filled with nothing but the rumble of air conditioners.

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