Here Be Dragons

by Diane Hope (United States of America)

Making a local connection China


A hellish squawking fills the air – a combination of demented guttural croaks and quacks, like Donald Duck with a bad hangover. If dragons existed they’d probably sound something like this. But you’d never expect to find them here: a stone’s throw from the giant feet of Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower, in a pocket park. I’ve set out to explore Shanghai with my ears instead of my eyes. Tourists throng around Pudong’s iconic monument to new China, but a short walk away I’ve got the place to myself. Standing carefully in the shelter of a small pagoda - the pathways around me are covered in bird shit which rains down with regularity – I enjoy the cackling pterodactyl-like cacophony floating from the trees. Searching out unique soundscapes, like Shanghai’s miniature modern dragons, can add a whole new dimension to familiar travel destinations - and reveal a whole world of new ones. Bypassing multi-story shopping malls I head next for the modest Wanshang bird and insect market. Stepping inside I’m plunged into air that pulsates with calls from hundreds of song birds and thousands of crickets. Then I take the metro to Lu Xun Park where any day of the week there’s free all-you-can-hear audio dim sum, from novices noodling on saxophones to accomplished erhu players. If you’re lucky you might even find a sheng. An ancient wind instrument that looks like the player’s taking a hit off a bong embellished with bicycle horns to produce weird wavering chords, that blend with bubbling bird song rising from the trees. To end my day of sonic exploration I drop in at the historic Peace Hotel to catch a set from a famously old jazz band (average age: 80). Avoiding the hefty cover charge, I linger in the palatial marbled lobby where the tunes drift like smoke along vast art deco hallways, evoking the city’s opium-fueled 1920s heyday. Walking back to my hotel the city traffic replete with buzzing electric bikes and scooters don’t sound like noise anymore. It morphs into a wave-like constantly evolving multi-track mix. As I cross the Yan’An freeway the tires of rush hour cars make loud double thuds on the overpass inches above by head – a giant pulse. I close my eyes and experience the heartbeat of this giant dragon of a city.