Allure of the former French concession marred by pests
By Emily Ford
IT'S Sunday evening. I'm at home watching a reality dating show on CCTV when my French friend Bernard calls me up in a panic.
"I 'ave a big probleme in my house," he says. "I'm a bit embarrassed to tell you about it actually."
Bernard lives in a beautiful old apartment located, of course, in the former French concession, which the French like to pretend they still own. Walk down Yongkang Lu on a Friday night and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Paris, only with fewer scarves and more dumplings.
I try to think what could be wrong with his house.
"What's the problem?" I ask.
Bernard begins rapidly to recount a story, the narrative of which I don't quite follow. "Then I saw it run across the floor," he finishes dramatically. "Across the floor."
"You mean like a rat?" I ask.
"Not 'like a rat'," Bernard says. "A rat. An actual rat."
"Oh God!" I say. "What are you going to do?"
Shanghai's old lane houses are full of charm, but prone to quirks from hot water that turns cold mid-shower to draughts and, according to one particularly tragic urban legend, deadly electrical faults.
Paying for charm
My Chinese friends don't understand why foreigners would want to live in a lane house when there are so many modern apartments to choose from, but it doesn't stop landlords from charging double to live there.
Bernard begins muttering something about the Ebola virus and how he is a grown man and should not be afraid of such a small creature.
"I've been 'earing a scrabbling noise above the ceiling for three years, but I told myself it was a cat," he says in distress. "Then I saw it run across the floor."
In London the perennial problem is mice living under every floorboard, although everyone pretends they don't. But rats seem like another class of trouble.
"I 'ave to call the estate agent," he says. "I cannot live here."
A few days later I visit Bernard who is staying in to watch out for the rat, which he has christened Johnny. He has installed extra lights to scare Johnny away and the room is so bright I have to squint. There is a vaguely chemical smell coming from the anti-rat spray on the surfaces. But there are no vermin visible.
"I wouldn't sit there," Bernard says as I head for the sofa. "Some poison might fall down from the ceiling."
When the estate agent arrives, he gives the impression of having many better things to do than to spend time looking for a rat.
"Are you sure it was a rat?" he asks sceptically.
Bernard thinks Johnny is coming in through a hole behind the oven. But the estate agent is sure there is no hole.
He knows this, he says, because last year he changed the gas pipe.
Bernard decides to take out the oven to prove his point, which involves sawing apart the worktop. Behind the oven is a gaping hole, which could conceivably be used by rats as a doorway. In addition, the gas pipe is dated 2005. "Replace every two years," it says. "We're in China," the estate agent says defensively. "It's not the same as France. And you have a very good deal on your rent."
After a week of staying in there is still no sign of Johnny, but the estate agent has agreed to put in extra insulation to cover up any holes.
"I actually have a lot to thank Johnny for," Bernard says. For someone who claims to be scared of rats, he appears strangely attached to this rodent. "It's been a week since I've heard him," he says forlornly. "I wonder if he's still alive."