They came marching down the street in droves, white-gloved young men in rows two by two, limbs swinging stiffly like animate nutcrackers, forest-green uniforms fastened with golden buttons and studded with Communist-red epaulettes. Their blank expressions conveyed indifference and projected authority; their black-leather belts, cinched tightly around the tops of their skinny hips, made some of their butts look comically large for such slender frames.
In Shanghai, every night these batallions of soldiers are dispatched to Nanjing Road, a commercial corridor running from The Bund, down to People’s Park, and on past Jing’an Park. It’s pedestrianised from Henan Middle Road, on the eastern-most end, to Xizang Middle Road on the west, a stretch just wide enough to alleviate most fears of death by stampede, should one occur, though Mao save us all if it did.
By this I mean to say that in the event of a human stampede on pedestrianised Nanjing, one could theoretically find enough room to escape the onslaught of rampaging flesh. Probably. This is one of the most densely packed shopping strips in one of the world’s most densely populated cities; it’s like peak season at Disney World all day, every day, the key difference being that there are likely far fewer pedos stalking Nanjing.
The nutcracker soldiers do not bother with pedestrianised Nanjing, though smaller units of four to five officers, heavily armed with weapons that look like toys that look like the real thing, do patrol the area, waiting like warheads. No, it’s the three long blocks between The Bund and Henan Middle Road where you’ll find our stoic heroes, from late afternoon to mid-evening, fulfilling their roles as human turnstiles and gates; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gund might say they form a fuckin’ wall.
As the waves of humanity flow like spawning salmon back and forth between the showy Bund and pedestrianised Nanjing, narrow sidewalks insufficiently bear the load, pushing the legions off into a street open to motorized vehicles. The solution for keeping the humans out of (most of) the street–and the street would be overrun, without question, and there would be nightly fatalities–is to bring in the reserves, line ’em up shoulder-to-shoulder, in some places, on either side of the street, about two feet off the sidewalk. The unspoken rule is do not cross them, because just look at those stern, expressionless faces and those starchy uniforms and is his butt really that big?
At the intersections–at Sichuan Middle Road, and Jiangxi Middle Road, and Henan Middle Road–on the blow of a captain’s whistle the young men with the excellent posture peel back like warming Shrinky Dinks, closing the gates, stopping in silence the flow of humans as the east-west sides of the traffic lights burn red. Another whistle, when the light turns green, and the soldier gates march open. It’s a remarkably effective system, all things considered, those things being thousands and thousands and thousands of people uncomfortably stuffed into sidewalks like kids into Martin Prince’s pool.
On my first visit to Shanghai nearly two years ago, when we didn’t make it to Nanjing Road, I often wondered where the 25-million plus Shanghai populants were hiding, because to me the streets felt manageable, the crowds no worse than those in places like Tokyo or Bangkok. This time around I stayed in a hotel on Nanjing, and this time around, I sure as hell found a helluva lot of those people.