Searching for the Flower Lady of Zhongshan Park

"I walked back to the hotel, trailing dead flowers as I went ... shedding petals on the floor beneath me ..."
Ti Gong

Australian author Linda Neil

I recently had the privilege of hosting the award ceremony for Shanghai’s fifth Get-together Short Story Competition, which every two years invites foreigners to share their creative stories about their experiences here. This gave me the chance to read many of the hundreds of entries, but one really struck a chord: The Flower Lady of Zhongshan Park by Australian writer Linda Neil.

Linda is not just a published author; she’s also a songwriter, classical violinist, documentary producer, and so much more. “I’ve been writing since I was a little girl,” she told me as I nagged her with questions. “As I got older, writing was a way to understand myself and the world around me.” She definitely has a flair for explaining, in human terms and through very human encounters, our crazy and diverse world. Her second book, “All is Given: A Memoir in Song,” is a collection of short travel stories, “from Shanghai to Paris, London to Mongolia, which presents the collection as akin to an album of love songs that celebrates encounters between people of different cultures.”

It was her simple yet touching Shanghai encounters with a lady selling flowers at Zhongshan Park that gave me a glimpse into her world. 

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“I walked back to the hotel, trailing dead flowers as I went ... shedding petals on the floor beneath me ...”

That short story, “The Flower Lady of Zhongshan Park,” details the happenstances she shared with a woman selling flowers near Linda’s hotel seven years ago, and the impact those moments had on her memory of this huge city. It won second place in the competition. “I still didn’t know the name of my flower lady, which was what I called her in emails back home,” one of my favorite passages of the story reads. “She didn’t know my name either. Perhaps to her I was the flower lady too. And though we communicated mostly through the silent international language of gesture and mime, over a short space of time, in this city full of strangers, she became something constant and familiar.”

Even though the two speak different tongues and have a hard time communicating verbally, they experience a deep yet fleeting connection that has lived on in Linda’s work. “That was why it was so important to celebrate her in the short story, to honor her and our brief, poignant connection,” Linda explained. “So that no matter where she or I are in the world, and even if our paths never cross again, she will always be there selling flowers outside Zhongshan Park Station.”

So naturally, after being taken in by the Flower Lady of Zhongshan Park, I desperately wanted to know if Linda would go in search of the Flower Lady again while she was back in Shanghai receiving her award. Linda told me before the ceremony that she would definitely go back to see if their paths might, indeed, cross again. “It’s been so long. I hope I can find the spot again!” she laughed. I hoped so too. 

A few days passed, and I got an email from Linda. She was already back in Australia but, to my amazement, she had written a new short story about her return to Zhongshan Park in search of the friend she made all those years ago, the friend who had ultimately, and unknowingly, brought her back to this city. 

“I returned to Zhongshan Park inspired, in part, by one of the questions you first asked me — so, a team effort,” she wrote in the email. What an honor! 

For the next few minutes I was enthralled by Linda’s new adventure, and desperate to know how it ended. I have to report, though, that she didn’t find her flower lady. She did, however, meet some new characters who were standing in her place, unaware of the significance of that particular place for Linda. 

“When I finally got to the area where we used to laugh together, the only people there were a uniformed guard and a young woman in colorful clothes holding an advertising placard. On the ground at her feet, the broken skin of a pink balloon and some glitter,” the sequel read. 

“I shook my head, laughed. She nodded hers, laughed too. I pointed down at the shattered balloon at her feet, raised my eyebrows. What happened? She jabbed the air above her head. Poof!

After a few more silent interactions, Linda left Zhongshan Park. But she wasn’t sad about failing to find her old friend. 

“I looked out the window as we headed back to the hotel and whispered to her in gratitude, for her memory which had brought me here, and for this new memory that I would carry back home: Xiexie. Xiexie. Thank you. Thank you.”

And I want to thank Linda, too, as well as all the other writers who shared their Shanghai stories with the judges, and with the rest of us. 

I look forward to the glimpses I might have the joy to experience in 2020 when the competition comes around again. 

Read Linda's story now

You can click here to read Linda's short story, The Flower Lady of Zhongshan Park. Enjoy!

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