One Last Sunrise
– a story and a review of Amouage Journey
The Peace Hotel, The Bund, Shanghai, late July 1937
He could never remember afterwards how long he stood at the French doors watching the sky above the Bund and over the China Sea bloom from its dark midnight blue to the paler, opalescent, star-flecked hues of gold and violet of impending sunrise. This would be his final sunrise in Shanghai, the last time he would stand by this balcony with this view of a future he could scarcely have imagined on the mean, narrow alleys of Kowloon where everything began so long ago.
How could he have known in that other life, when all he had been was the second son of a simple woodcarver from an endless line of artisans, Cantonese who came to Kowloon hoping to find better, richer, more prosperous lives than their hallowed ancestors?
Look at me now, Father, he thought to himself as the sky above the Bund grew ever lighter, look at me now with my flawlessly tailored suit and my movie star haircut in Shanghai’s most elegant hotel, watch me walk out the door of this hotel suite with my expensive suitcases, watch me as I walk up the gangplank to the SS Aurora with my first-class passage to Valparaiso and onward to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, see me as I leave this old and tired and uncertain world behind with my new name and my new life shining all its unknown and very modern promise in front of me.
He had come so very far from his old Wong Tai Sin of Kowloon self, today would go farther still, for today would be the day he left his old self and old Shanghai behind. Already, rumors and not so idle talk flowered in the teahouses behind Nanjing Road, already people pointed their fingers and their fears towards the Japanese in Manchuria, and it was time to leave his past and his cares behind him while he still could.
Big Earned Du would kill him as mercilessly as only he knew if he ever discovered how his affable, mild-mannered ‘left-hand-man’ had been skimming a quarter-inch off the books of four of his night clubs on Nanjing Road for over three years. If he knew how Left Hand Man scrubbed his loot and his conscience as sparkling squeaky-clean as any Chinese laundry at the baccarat tables of a very private gambling club in the French concession, a club not even the renowned Du Yuesheng, who ruled all of Shanghai and most of its vices with an iron hand in a silken glove would ever dream existed. He wouldn’t know about the many deposits to an account at the American Express offices or the other accounts at Rothschild’s Bank, have no inkling of the thousands of American dollars sewn into the lining of his steamer trunk as a safety measure.
Above and beyond all things else, Big Eared Du would never, ever know about his left hand man’s reasons or rhyme, or just how much the favorite torch singer of Ciro’s nightclub had been responsible for it all. She was the one who cooked up the plan along with her friend, she showed him how to cover his tracks, she taught him to feign Eastern inscrutability as his weapon to hide what his own, darker netherworld of Shanghai should never, ever know.
Or was it rather… that even an woodcarver’s son from Kowloon could leap free of all conventions and expectations, could come at the world roaring like the dragon of his birth year with all his Oriental fire, spice and essence?
Was it that a man like himself, so underestimated, overlooked and unappreciated could throw all tradition, convention and propriety to the wind for a woman who would have made his prim and proper family recoil in horror?
She was a thoroughly modern, audacious blonde South American contralto who sang Cole Porter and George Gershwin for the smart set at Ciro’s. She was the toast of Shanghai and a favorite of his boss, and yet – in a town that knew every secret and every vice everyone wanted to conceal, not even the boss suspected she belonged to his left-hand-man, although it would be far truer to say this: Big Eared Du’s left-hand-man belonged to her.
He had seen enough Hollywood movies to know that a man such as he, a woodcarver’s son from the wrong part of Hong Kong, Chinese to his core despite the Western clothes and his Clark Gable hair cut, would never be a hero, would never get the girl, never be anything else but a cardboard villain in a celluloid cliché of a Shanghai that was its own kind of outrageous fiction everywhere else but here.
Today, he was about to disprove all of them. He got the girl. He had the getaway. He had the promise of a new life ahead under the new name printed on his impeccably British passport, a passport that opened all the doors not even Big Eared Du could knock down.
He stepped out into the first rays of the rising sun. As he breathed in the morning, he breathed in his old self, the Bund and even Shanghai deep into his lungs and pores one last time in this one last sunrise, to say his bold goodbye to all he had been and a bolder hello to all he would become.
The bold, green bite of bergamot and a hint of the orange blossom perfumes she so loved all wrapped up tight within a dim sum totality of Shanghai spice and fire, the waft of burning incense and juniper berries from a passing temple on his way, the rich scent of tobacco from his cigarette case, a faraway musky bitter smell of leather as a portent of what lay ahead on another side of the world where Du would never think to look.
It was too late for regrets and second thoughts. He breathed everything in with all it promised this one last sunrise, held it deep within his heart, his senses and his lungs before he exhaled it back out over the Bund and the city, right before he made a wish on his birth dragon that whatever his future in a faraway land might hold, it would be a journey and a new beginning to a life the left-hand-man would never have dared imagine.
Yet a life the John Lee of his new passport – audacious, modern, a cosmopolitan man of the future – in his Uruguayan exile would never once have a single cause to regret.
Notes for Amouage Journey Man: Bergamot, Szechuan pepper, cardamom, neroli, juniper, incense, geraniol, tobacco leaves, tonka bean, cypriol, leather, musk.
A Soft Goodbye
The French Concession, later that morning
“Are you sure you’ve packed everything you want to bring?”
She turned away from her view of the tree-lined boulevard toward the voice and the question.
One of China’s most illustrious faces laughed back at her as she indicated all the self-evident chaos of impending departure.
“Well, my clothes, obviously, jewelry, silks, presents for my brother and his wife, a few mementos… I’ve arranged with Lin to have the opium bed, the screen and the cabinet shipped tomorrow, but of course, I’ll be gone by then.”
It was time to close the chapter on her five years in Shanghai.
Five years as a runaway bride from an arranged marriage and a daring escape with her dowry to keep her, only in Shanghai, a purloined dowry and a pretty face was never enough for anything she ever wanted to do.
In Shanghai, what you were and what you had mattered far less than who you knew.
Yet luck had surely been on her side that night four years ago when China’s reigning celluloid Butterfly paid a visit to Ciro’s and introduced herself simply as Hu. That night, a burgeoning friendship was born between the chanteuse with her broken, halting Shanghainese and the celebrated movie star, a friendship that weathered all the storms two women with such vastly different backgrounds could create between them.
Even so, before the movie star, before the nightclub singer, before their respective histories even, they were simply two women and two instant friends, no more and never less.
She came to Hu and poured out her heart when she found herself eyeing the dashing stranger at Ciro’s who came every night with Du and eyed her right back, she told her friend everything there was to tell of seeming chance meetings on Nanjing Road and later clandestine dinners on her Sundays off in humble Nanshi restaurants where Du was never welcomed and she was not known, where no one would think to look and fewer would care to question the presence of the courteous, immaculate Chinese gentleman and the laughing blonde chanteuse.
She had never been one to give her heart away lightly, always kept her distance with a smile when those audaciously modern Shanghai dandies tried to dazzle her with promises as florid and enticing as their extravagant backstage bouquets.
Her left hand man was far more bold for being so discreet, for surprising her with the other, secret Shanghai she had come to know and to love through him.
One hot August night he presented her with a small, delicate sprig of blooming osmanthus and told her to breathe it in, all the way in, when somehow, all she loved about this mythical, mad city of contradictions and mysteries and sins both real and imagined came wrapped around this glowing little flower the hue of a Shanghai sunset.
This was their secret, this sweetly scented flower that laughed its fruity, honeyed path through the teeming streets of Nanshi, past the spice merchants shops and the unexpected surprise of a jasmine bursting out of its pot on an apothecary’s counter and sharp, sunshine puffs of mimosa, when the whispers of a lacquered cedarwood cigarette box told her sotto voce what depths he contained, when that little sprig of osmanthus stole her last objections and her heart away and never gave them back.
She told Hu everything, told her own celluloid story of a romance that could never happen, should never happen, and Hu, as all true time-honored friends would do, began with her help to weave a story of how to make it possible, how to make it happen, how to make her own love-struck movie so infinitely much more real than any flickering black and white dream in the dark.
Away from all of this, away from Shanghai, over the oceans and far away back home to Montevideo, away from her best friend and an uncertain future that loomed like a storm cloud over the western horizon in Manchuria, but how uncertain could her future ever be going home with the man she loved, a man who gave her his priceless gift of a sprig of Shanghai osmanthus?
“Oh, Hu…” she turned away from the balcony with a pang in her heart, knowing this would be a farewell, and who knew when they would see each other again in these precarious times?
“Do you think?”
Hu laughed outright, a laugh that all of China loved, laughed to see the question in her best friend’s face.
“Do I think you will escape, do I think our mad plan will succeed, do I think you’ll get away with it?” and four years of secrets shared laughed their own champagne bubbles beneath her words, “In Shanghai, everything is possible!” Hu walked to the balcony and reached out. She plucked a small sprig of osmanthus from the bush that bloomed in its porcelain pot on the balcony and tucked it firmly into her friend’s lapel beneath a jade brooch.
“I don’t believe. I know! It’s time to go – your ship sails in an hour!”
They hugged with all their history between them, hugged as hard as best friends would, before Hu marched her to the door and said:
“Now go with the Gods, darling. Go home – and say your soft goodbye to Shanghai.”
Notes for Amouage Journey Woman: Apricot, osmanthus, nutmeg, cardamom, jasmine sambac, mimosa, honey, cedar, tobacco, saffron, vanilla, cypriol, musk.
Created by Alberto Morillas and Pierre Negrin in collaboration with Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong. .
Image of Amouage Journey courtesy of Amouage. Used by permission.
Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of Amouage. I thank the Very August Personage from the bottom of my storyteller’s heart for making this review so incredibly hard to write yet such an endless joy to research.
Also thanks to Ms. Hare, who
kicked/shamed/double-dared me to finish it. Or else.