Stepping Outside the Green Zone

Last week, our team of seven left Shanghai for a neighboring province to shoot our new swimwear collection. What would have been a totally uneventful day trip in any other time felt like an epic adventure for all of us setting foot outside of Shanghai since COVID-19 took over the global landscape.  The fact that Shanghai has been mostly back to normal for a month now – restaurants and bars open (and packed), shops and malls open (and packed) – conferred upon us the coveted Shanghai ‘green health code’ status allowing us to cross into another province. It felt like a privilege to be back on the road, even for the very non-essential task of taking photos of models by a lush swimming pool.
This invisible virus, with its comic pokey-burr corona, has managed to upend the lives of billions. Our senses are now layered so that things familiar are put through a parallel processing unit – is that elevator button I’ve touched for years now covered in virus? Is it safe to touch the spotless subway pole my kids used to swing on like monkeys? Having lived in Shanghai for over 15 years, I’ve been to the bamboo forests of Moganshan in just about every configuration: as a new-to-China newlywed, a lumbering pregnant woman, a mother hiking with a Baby Björn, with friends, with families, with my Girl Scout troop – you name it. But today I’m in a 22-seater bus careening up the mountain loaded with photographers and models wearing face masks, Aperol spritz fixings in the cooler. Starring out the window with fresh eyes at the alternating tea fields and feathered bamboo, I wonder if we’re finally coming around to appreciating the unappreciated during this previously unimaginable slowing down in our lives.
We arrive late at night and enjoy a feast of local delicacies prepared by the Ayi or ‘auntie’ – notably involving a lot of spring bamboo shoots. We’re staying overnight in the country retreat built from the well up by our long-time Shanghai friends, now stuck in Hong Kong since the borders to the Mainland closed. A few bottles of wine later, we’re looking over the printed-out photo images that have inspired us for tomorrow’s shoot. We’re trying to finesse the narrative of retreat and restoration between two girlfriends on break, glamouring up intentional isolation and quiet. Around 1am, most of us nod off while the photographer and his assistant stay up tinkering with their shiny, expensive looking equipment.
I’ve been a designer for over 25 years, and fashion shoots have historically been the bane of my existence. You’re afraid to miss directing THE shot, to leave an angle or garment unstoried, and therefore unsaleable. Always rushed, with too many cooks in the kitchen, I look at the most perfect magazine feature and immediately feel the chaos behind the scenes.  Even for an indoor studio shoot, with monitors serving up images in real-time, there is an air of improvisation. The model who can pull off a genuine laugh at nothing and conjure up her best day at the beach while in a basement studio is a true gem. As Itee put it, “A really good model doesn’t need to be told what to do.”
Luckily for us, we wake up to a hot, sunny morning and have two fabulous women ready to bring our swimwear to life. Our first stop is right up the hill from the house – Naked Castle. Originally built in 1910 by Scottish missionary Dr. Duncan Main, the European-style castle served as a summer retreat from steamy Shanghai. In 1926, Dr. Main retired to Scotland at age 71 and the castle served as a government bureau office and eventually as an inn. By 1960, the castle had fallen into such disrepair that it collapsed and was swallowed up by the forest. The ruins were discovered in 2007 by a lost mountain biker named Grant Horsfield, a South African native living in Shanghai. By 2017, he and his wife Delphine had reimagined the entire mountainside and built the castle we now arrived at by golf buggy.
Wednesday, April 29th – it’s two days before the official May national holiday, but the castle is already full of vacationers. We manage to shoot around the guests at the infinity pool hanging off the side of the mountaintop – no small feat.
Racing back and forth to change suits on an increasingly simmering veranda, Miya and Lili go about their poses undeterred by the splashing twins or a seemingly pointed cannonball plop. The mood is light and untethered – it’s been ages since we were out in the sun like this with other people – but time is tight and we briefly explore the grand foyer of the castle before packing up for our next location.
Naked Stables, the original mountain retreat created by Grant and Delphine, is completely opposite in vibe to the castle. Horses laze in the fields and children run around on a grassy lawn next to a long, rectangular pool as we pull up to the entrance. This time, the guard comes aboard our bus and checks our temperatures and green health codes, throwing us back to current times. We buggy up to a shaded pool nestled in the forest for our second act. The sun is high in the sky now, and everyone is getting peckish. Still, there are no guests at this pool and we have the place to ourselves to explore. The models and photographer fan out and descend the chilly pool steps, stirring up the surface and mock-splash each other. My gigantic sunglasses slip down my nose in the heat. I take a deep breath and feel grateful to be surrounded by trees and fresh summer air.
Soon we’re relaxing around a large table sampling the local Moganshan brew and iced lattes. A few Russian families have filled the adjacent tables; foreigners from all over convene here to get a change of scenery from the towers of Shanghai and Hangzhou. This is my favorite part of life in Shanghai – at our table alone we are two Ukrainians, two Chinese, one minority ‘Dongbeiren’ Chinese, an Indian and an American. Where else would that be the norm?
We arrive at our third and final destination after an unexpected delay caused by a bamboo truck blocking the one thru road. Painstakingly stacking each 10-meter bamboo pole by hand onto the transport in the late afternoon heat, the workers are clearly not impressed with a busload of models trying to pass. After an oven-like 45 minute wait, the truck moves on and we enter the gates of a gorgeous retreat nestled in a valley of tea fields. We’re so overheated from the bamboo debacle that we all fail the first temperature check. Ten minutes in the cool, tiled lobby brings us back down below 37C, the passing bar.
Here, we shoot indoors, in a gorgeous corner room overlooking the tea fields as the sun sets behind the hills. The quiet, intimate scene is exactly what we came for – the slow unpacking of a weekend bag, the considered thoughts entered into a journal, uninterrupted. For me, that’s the ultimate luxury: uninterrupted time. Quarantine has brought with it long stretches of time, with nowhere to be and few logistics to tend to. Since my children’s schools closed and my husband and I have been working from home, we’ve settled into long mornings around the kitchen table with bandwidth for those conversations that were never urgent enough to have.
It strikes me as funny that here we are playing out our vision of an ideal getaway, and instead of hiking freely through the bamboo forests, we’re drawn to capturing the small, genuinely pleasing moments, from brushing our teeth to sipping coffee, fresh out of the shower. Maybe we didn’t really need to leave Shanghai after all.
 

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