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December 12, 2011

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The flower lady of Zhongshan Park

EVERYONE passes the flower ladies in city parks but few give them much thought. Visiting Australian writer Linda Neil is drawn by the fragrance of jasmine to the flower lady of Zhongshan Park.

I arrived in Shanghai from a place where spring has now fully bloomed into summer and where the perfume of blossoming flowers fills the air.

Near my house in West End, an inner city suburb on the banks of the Brisbane River in Queensland, Australia, there are at this moment garden walls and fences covered in jasmine flowers, which carry an especially rich aroma that can seem to saturate the air on a warm summer evening.

I smelled the same smell one October night as I was walking along the footpath toward the hotel where I'm staying at Zhongshan Park.

The smell was at once so unexpected and so familiar that I had to stop.

I followed the scent and discovered behind a dividing hedge a small Chinese woman standing beside a bicycle adorned with flowers. The larger bouquets were arranged around the seat and frame of the bicycle, while the basket at the front was lined with smaller bunches of jasmine blossoms.

At first, the woman thought I'd be interested in the larger, more expensive blooms at the back - the long-stemmed lilies, the red and crimson carnations, or the pink and yellow roses.

So she laughed with genuine surprise when I suddenly leaned forward into the basket at the front of the bicycle, buried my face in the little bunches of jasmine and almost sang out with joy.

She giggled. I laughed as I emerged, my face tingling and bright.

She said something in Chinese; I answered in English.

I pointed at the jasmine.

"Duo shao qian?" I asked. How much?

Huh? she said, shrugging her shoulders quizzically.

"Duo shao qian?"

She laughed again - I suppose at my terrible Chinese pronunciation.

She said something. I imagined it was a price. I shook my head and held out my hands: I don't understand.

She repeated the same words and held up one finger, then five fingers.

I couldn't tell whether this meant fifty, fifteen or five yuan.

I responded by holding up ten and then five fingers.

She nodded laughing. I said: Fifteen?

She said: "Shi wu! Shi wu!"

I repeated her Chinese with my awful Australian accent: "Shi wu? Shi wu?"

She laughed so hard she had to bend over and slap her thigh.

Eventually, after much laughing and shrugging and slapping of thighs, the transaction was complete.

I went back to my room and put the jasmine in one of the drinking glasses from the kitchen and placed it on the ledge in front of the window.

Reminiscent perfume

Their perfume reminded me simultaneously of two places - the street where I live in Brisbane and the street where I now live in Shanghai.

I still buy flowers every few days. For a long time I didn't know the name of my flower lady - that's what I called her in e-mails back home. She didn't know my name either; perhaps to her I was the flower lady too.

The other night, over two months after I arrived, I finally learned through a Chinese friend who could translate our conversation that her surname is Hong.

I also learned she comes from Jiangxi Province and has sold flowers in Zhongshan Park every night, through all seasons and all weather, for six or seven years.

Sometimes she gets chased by the police, sometime business is slow, and the air icy, and often she has to change position several times a night, according to the flow of pedestrians.

But she also remembers, as I do, that whenever we have seen each over the past weeks and months, we have exchanged smiles or nodded to each to other as if somehow, despite never knowing each other's names, we have become friends.

I won't idealize her life; I imagine it is often very difficult.

But in this time when the stories of China in the media, both inside and outside of the country, concentrate so strongly on its economic growth, on its almost frantic push into modernity, it has been a beautiful sight to see the flower lady of Zhongshan Park cycling past me as I walk back home in the evening, her bicycle festooned with roses, lilies and carnations, her sleek black hair flapping softly in the breeze, as if she is the star of a music video that one day I would like to write and compose about Shanghai.

The night we were able to verbally communicate for the first time we both apologized to each other for not being able to speak or understand the other's language.

I told her I was taking Mandarin lessons and also that I had written a story about her. She shook her head and said it was too much for her, a humble flower lady, to be in my story.

I could smell the roses on her bicycle as I explained that she was as worthy of a story as anyone else and that she had been an important part of my life while I'd been in Shanghai.

I also told her, although I'm not sure if she understood, that perhaps the flowers she sold - of so many colors and shapes and perfumes - communicated with the same sometimes mysterious language of the heart that love songs do.

She nodded again and slapped her thigh. She told me she agreed with me wholeheartedly, that flowers were indeed like songs and that sometimes she could hear her bicycle singing as she rode it down the street.

At least I think that's what she said. It could have been a problem of translation, as so many things are between people of different cultures around the world.

But whether I misheard or not I like to think that perhaps my flower lady is a philosopher too, as many singers of love songs are - and that she would hear her bicycle singing as she cycled home alone late that night from one side of this brilliant, blossoming city to the other.

For the past two months Australian writer Linda Neil has been a writer-in-residence in Shanghai, sponsored by Asialink, Australia, as part of the International Writers Program hosted by the Shanghai Writers' Association.

It's been a rich and productive time. But Neil says the things that will stay with her will not only be the vibrant memories of this city and its people, but the tiny details of her daily life in the Zhongshan Park area where she has been living since she arrived in late September.

Neil is a songwriter and musician as well as a writer.

Her current long-term writing project is called "Singing Love Songs Around the World," which will be a book about the things, like music, that connect rather than divide people in these increasingly fractured times.

The chapters about China will be called, of course, "Singing Love Songs in China," and will be inspired largely by the months she has spent in Shanghai.

Early in her residency Neil wrote a story about how seemingly small events make for a rich travel experience.

Here is an abridged version of that story.


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