Chris Ruffle has worked in China since 1983. He has written “A Decent Bottle of Wine in China” (Earnshaw Books) and contributed to “My Thirty Years in China” and “Letters from China” (Alain Charles).
Good. The boat was at the wharf, so he wouldn’t need to wait long. He flipped the plastic entry token into a basket and hurried down the broad gangplank, coat flapping. Actually he was not in a rush. He rarely was these days; business was quiet. It’s just that he did not want the gate to slam shut right in front of his face. The muddy river slid unappetisingly beneath the gaps in the rusted steel. The surface was slippy so his manly stride became an undignified waddle. Still, better that than a pratfall before the eyes of those already aboard. Carefully minding the gap, he climbed aboard.
It was rush-hour in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, but the crowd on the ferry was thin. A two-decade building boom had added several rival bridges and tunnels to nudge the old ferry towards obsolescence. Growing wealth had also bought a surge in car ownership – a warmer and more convenient transport alternative on this cool evening in early spring. He remembered his first ride on this ferry thirty years before. It had been packed with people pushing bicycles or motorbikes, many of them heavily-laden. Once he had seen a pig strapped to the handlebars. Now his fellow travellers seemed mostly to be local tourists. They were not the cap-wearing, flag-following tourists of yore; this too had changed. These ones, dressed in sports-leisure clothes, lined the top deck, taking pictures of each other and the East bank’s towering skyscrapers. After a few minutes, the lady in a New York Yankees cap lost interest in her surroundings, re-inserted her earphones and started flicking through her WeChat messages. Emboldened, he took his own unsteady photo.
On his first trip, he had only taken the ferry to take a picture of the famous colonial architecture along the West bank. He had stayed on the boat when it turned around – there had been nothing on the East side of the river worth getting off for. This photograph, now rather faded, was still pinned above his desk. The old 1920’s skyline that it showed was now lost, dwarfed by the work of a new generation of empire builders and their architects.
At least the ferry still smelled the same; a hint of the sea above the engine oil and an ammonia-based cleaning fluid. Also unchanged was the practised ease with which the blue-clad crew member unlooped the rope from its stanchion and cast off into the stream. The propellers suddenly churned against the tide and he pressed his hand against a cabin window to steady himself. He caught his own reflection and was startled to see how much he stood out, in his grey suit, long, frayed raincoat and dark glasses. “Daddy, look, it’s an old foreigner.” The child was quickly shushed by the father and distracted with something more interesting – a passing barge heaped with sand.
He could have taken a taxi, of course, but his office looked right across at the club where the lecture was taking place. Even considering the ferry’s leisurely pace, the taxi would not have been any quicker, having tunnel traffic to contend with. Also, after a day at his desk, staring at a computer, he fancied a walk in the almost fresh air. A heron slowly laboured overhead. The return of bird life meant that the government’s attempts to clean up the river must finally be bearing fruit. You wouldn’t want to fall in, though.
One developer had thought it was a good idea to convert the whole side of his gold-mirrored edifice into a giant LED screen. This had already been turned on, although the sun was still setting in a pinkish glow over the Bund. The 40-storey high, pixilated advertising sporadically declared “I heart SH”. As the boat passed mid-river, he could make out the old clock tower above the Customs House, which showed that it was almost VI o’clock. Plenty of time. He opened his briefcase just to double-check that he had brought the invitation. The title of this evening’s talk, to be held above the Prada showroom, was “The Death of American Capitalism”. In his guise as “hedge fund manager” he would certainly be in a position to play the devil’s advocate. It would be good for an argument.
The sound of the engines suddenly cut, as the pilot used the speed of the current to slew around and approach the landing-stage side on. There were more people waiting on this side. They pressed up against the bars of the gate impatiently, watching the passengers embark, passengers who had just come from where they wanted to go. As a ferry veteran, he knew where the door started to open, so was first off, striding towards his date with dialectics and a glass of red wine.