Shanghai prides itself on certain things: being China’s most outward-looking and welcoming city; its world-beating, ever changing skyline; for reasons unfathomable, stinky tofu. But a surprising badge of honour came up during a lesson last year.
‘上海有四个季节,’ Reading Teacher bellowed one afternoon. Or, once I’d scrambled to use my online dictionary and match up the translation with the pictures on her powerpoint presentation, ‘Shanghai has 4 seasons’.
This might seem like a relatively innocuous claim, especially to a British person; the four seasons and rigid dates we have set in place for their transition is the fuel for most of our conversations and social media broadcasts. But here I was in November, wearing only a T-Shirt and looking out of the window at a blazing sun: it sure didn’t feel like Autumn to me.
Of all the journeys I’ve been on in Shanghai, perhaps the most revealing has been my voyage of discovery with the city and its seasons. Now that I’ve come full circle here, I can reveal my findings.
Duration: 3.5 months
When we arrived, winter in Shanghai was a terrifying legend, fast approaching like that superstorm in The Day After Tomorrow. People spoke of this unbearable frozen mist that would get inside your clothes and chill you from the inside out. People said they knew people who had actually left Shanghai because they couldn’t stand another winter.
In reality, winter is the most normcore of Shanghai’s seasons. It started at the end of November and ended in the middle of March, thereby conforming to my British expectation of its duration. It also didn’t seem that cold; granted I spent a large chunk of December in the UK and over 2 weeks of January/February in south-east Asia, where it most certainly was not winter, but it wasn’t like people died in my absence. Or that the pipes froze, which people told us absolutely 100% would happen. I’ll blame this on the melodramatic people I chose to speak to about the weather, and not at all on the devastating and hyper-accelerated impact of climate change lalalalalala.
Duration: 10-14 days
You know how, in early February, you see a snowdrop, or a crocus, or even a daffodil and post a picture of it to Instagram with the caption Spring is coming!!! <flower emojis>? And then, in late February there’s a clear day, but unlike the January clear days, so crisp and fragile, it carries the slightest warmth and that barely perceptible scent of Spring? And you can’t Instagram it because nobody’s bothered to invent a way to publish smells on social media? That doesn’t happen here.
It’s cold and then it’s hot. I swear, I haven’t worn my spring jacket once here. Literally, one day I woke up and looked outside, then packed all of our winter coats away. The sudden appearance of the sun prompts some turbophotosynthesis in the city’s trees. It’s a glorious sight; explosions of pink – so many different shades of pink – and the fragile greens of brand new leaves. Of course, as with our own spring, blossom is fleeting and before you’ve even really noticed it, it’s gone.
In the former French concession, where every street is lined with trees, spring happened the quickest. Blossom was coming and going everywhere else in the city, but the trees here remained barren. My university is tucked into the very furthest corner of the area, so I walk through it most days and I swear, overnight, every tree burst into leaf. No blossom, just full-on, massive green. Magical.
Duration: a shade under 8 months
Yesterday it was 32 degrees. Today it is absolutely pouring down, but it’s still 26 degrees. This is the pleasant part of summer, when the novelty of it being hot enough to go out in shorts and t-shirt, but not so hot that you immediately develop an all-over sheen of swear, still thrills.
Soon it will become pretty unbearable, I think. When Roland arrived here at the start of August it was regularly pushing 40 degrees; the kind of heat in which it is too hot to go outside. But what this heat gives is the most amazing evenings, when the city has soaked up the sun’s rays and leaches their scent into the dark streets. And Shanghai is a city that takes advantage of its hot evenings; there are rooftop bars on every street, large terraces and streetside dining areas for those not ready to accept the embrace of the air conditioner. It’s one of the things I’ll miss most about this city.
Duration: 6 hours
I waited and waited for it. There were trees everywhere, and the leaves would turn, and I would be walking through fire and it would be brilliant.
Autumn is my favourite season. I yearn for its colours, its coziness, its comfort. I truly feel like I know a place when I see it in autumn, because that’s how I will best remember it: Hawarden, London, Edinburgh, Liverpool; for all of these homes it is an autumnal scene that first springs to mind and creates that little pocket of yearning inside me.
So imagine this: one day I was walking to the tube and noticed little bursts of activity along the street. It could have been anything: new street vendors; people protecting some kittens from the traffic; motorists and cyclists having fist fights. But what it was, was people (official people, I should add) literally cutting the leaf-filled branches off the trees. I have not felt controlled by China in my time here, but this act of enforcing winter really took the biscuit. Luckily, we went to Seoul and got our fill of autumn there.
One strange thing I noticed, especially in the parks during spring, was the some trees did seem to have an autumnal aura about them. The leaves weren’t specifically red and gold, but maybe had the slightest tint to them, and some were dropping to the ground. And this beside trees in the full, shameless flamboyance of full blossom. And even more, nestled between, trees that had long since shed their petals and welcomes their leaves.
It made me think about Reading Teacher when she so proudly boasted of Shanghai’s four seasons. Maybe they do have them, but not when I expect them, or for as long as I want them. Maybe they just have them all at once.