Shanghai is a very noisy city. Taxis and buses constantly horn, people often speak loudly, advertising and various kind of music resonate all the time. It’s also not rare to hear the song of an air hammer a three o’clock in the morning, but if you look for it, you can find some pockets of quiet between the old buildings. The entrance of a lane can be on a busy street, but get through the door and it suddenly becomes much more quiet. Within ten or twenty meters, the traffic noise slowly disappears, giving away space for live noise of people talking with each other and households noises.
Lanes going through Shikumens are small narrow alleys serpenting between two-three level houses. The real gem is to find a lane leading to larger villas. Those often have gardens and trees, surrounded by a very special sound. The noise comes slowly from the sky, going crcrcrcr and taking everybody by surprise. It inflates and inflates and inflates until one cannot hear anything else for a while and then disappears on a slow descrendo. Silent regain the floor for a few minutes and the noise comes back again. Most of people living in newly built tower have never heard it.
This mysterious noise is the song of the cigalas. They are large insects, creating noise by vibrating their wings to attract females cigalas. This cigala’s “love song” is a typical noise of the old Shanghai. Along with intense heat and Spanish style old houses, it gives a strong Mediterranean feeling to old parts of the city. Cigalas are still a privilege of the old Shanghai, as they seem to prefer old trees. Trees in the new parks and residence gardens do not seem to have been found yet by the little animals… or maybe the traffic noise is covering the Cigalas song there. Sitting in my old house looking at the garden, I hear the cigalas song and suddenly feel miles away from China. This sound is for me like a trip on the Mediterranean, somewhere between Marseilles, Thesaloniki and Oran. Cigallas song is one of these little details that make summers in old Shanghai so special.