Pressure-and-Release: Writing Shanghai’s Rooftoppers

It made headlines around the world: The young man was doing pull-ups at the top of a skyscraper and let go. “Let go” might not be the right word: it implies intention. “Fell,” however, implies total accident. His arms gave out. He’d reached his limit. I don’t know, because I watched the video until that moment neared, and then couldn’t go on. It was snuff, I thought. To witness that moment would be to witness something horrible and real. His name was Wu Yongning. The tower was a 62-floor building in Changsha. He was performing stunts for a live-streaming challenge, reportedly to pay for his wedding and his mother’s medical bills. He was a rooftopper and he wasn’t the first to die.

Rooftopping footage began surfacing on the Chinese internet in the early to mid-2000s, the first wave coming mostly from Russia. I remember clicking on these videos as a middle schooler, drawn in by the sheer height conveyed by the nearly aerial vantage points, made uneasy by the danger implied in those hovering feet in the foreground, often standing on the narrowest of ledges or the rusty rings of TV towers while the city sprawled in architectural miniature below. Soon the trend caught on in Chinese cities. I could recognize the tubular, futuristic towers of Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai in the pictures, seen not from below but from somewhere near, somewhere high. Somewhere illegally trespassed, where danger intermingled with a sort of secret ownership.

When I began writing a novel about adolescence in Shanghai, I knew rooftopping would weave into its fabric. I didn’t personally know any rooftoppers, but the mentality that drove so many young men to take up rooftopping was everywhere around me. I’d attended Chinese public schools through eighth grade and knew of boys who were deemed “problem students,” who disappeared for days and nights into cybercafe binges, who drank and fought and, once kicked out, would never be seen again. In eighth grade, a boy came to class with a knife and threatened to kill a girl—they’d been secretly dating, the girl’s parents found out and accused him of rape, and he was subsequently expelled from school and evicted by his parents. He’d been living and working in the barracks of a construction site not too far from school. I remembered his hysteria and desperation, though the knife never fell. He’d collapsed and been pulled away. But I remember thinking that this is what it meant to fall off track in this country: There was only one prescribed way forward, and once you diverged from the path, you were abandoned at the margins of a society that sped ahead and never looked back.

This brewed a certain sense of abandon, a mindset of extremes, in China’s cutthroat economic hubs. There was a slang phrase in Chinese: pin le (拼了), meaning going all in. The term is related to the phrase pin ming( 拼命), means to try so very hard, to try desperately, literally, wagering your life. Construction workers and delivery workers died everyday in Shanghai. Students jumped from buildings, like they did in South Korea and Japan, a secret epidemic no one reported. The human wave in the metro at rush hour was so muscularly propulsive that the weak, pushed outwards, fell onto the tracks, fatalities of everyday commutes. Making it in China’s mid-aughts, in this age of rampant growth and frenzied opportunity, took a certain brinkmanship.

After the knife incident, our school authorities erected a tall metal fence around the perimeter of campus. We were enclosed, but we were already enclosed. My friend told me her cat had jumped from the balcony of her residential tower; it too had felt trapped. I visited her apartment once, to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula while her dad wasn’t home. Her balcony had an aerial view of our school—the red rubber tracks, flag pole with its fluttering five-star red flag, and all around, the gleaming metal fence.


I decided the rooftopping character in my novel, River East, River Westcover Shanghai's Rooftoppers, would be called Gao Xiaofan (高小凡). 高 means tall, 小 means small, 凡 means ordinary. He’s a classmate of the protagonist, a biracial girl named Alva. When not in school uniform, he wears a Chicago Bulls jersey and Nike sneakers. He likes basketball. His father is a migrant who works at a restaurant in Thumb Plaza. Gao is addicted to videogames and sometimes spends entire nights at cybercafes. His QQ handle is 笑傲江湖, The Smiling and Proud Wanderer, after the Jin Yong epic. He gets bad grades and will, at best, go to technical school. Then he discovers rooftopping.

In the rooftopping videos I watched, strong winds whip the rooftoppers’ clothes in a violent flap-flap-flap. Often you hear heavy breathing from the person recording. In a DW documentary, a Shanghainese young man called Jason scales a tower’s lightning rod conductor, and once at the very top, he lets go of any handholds, feet on a tiny grid, black baseball cap looking down at the dwarfed cityscape below. Only the most daring shots earn respect in the rooftopping community.

It’s to get the best picture for social media. It’s for the adrenaline. It’s to feel something. In this megacity-scape with seemingly no periphery, for those trapped within, it makes sense that the way for release is sometimes not out, but up. A rooftopper called Swaggy describes night descending on the Shanghai skyline, seen from a rooftop: “I am separated from the external world. With rooftopping, my rebellion and unhappiness are released.” But rooftopping as an act of pressure-and-release has also translated into recklessness for financial gain. The number of rooftoppers in China’s large urban centers has grown with the advent of social media platforms and live-streaming apps, with companies sponsoring rooftoppers with the largest platforms. These willing brushes with death have now become enmeshed in the same suffocating economic machine that they were once attempting to rise above.

Gao Xiaofan wants to move into a group apartment with other rooftoppers. He’s tired of depending on his parents, of grafting with the richer boys at school to play their Xbox. He joins a web forum called CityX and begins posting. He posts pictures of his red Nikes shuffling above the cityscape and wears a medical face mask to avoid recognition. Sometimes he shows his eyes, staring straight at the camera, and a strange light gleams in them. He is gaining followers, a steady trickle, and the higher the buildings he climbs, the more people tune in to his channel, waiting for the livestream, perhaps waiting for a fall, or at least aware of its omnipresent possibility.


I meet Xin at the basement food court of Meilongzhen Plaza, beneath the office tower where he works. We had known about each other for nearly all our lives, yet had never met in person. My mother had hired his mother as an ayi when I was 11. Ayi literally translates to  “aunt,” but was also the common term for household help. Xin’s mother came to our apartment five days a week to cook and clean for us. She was from Anhui, a round-cheeked woman with a radiant friendliness, and she often spoke of her son, Xin, back in the countryside: She missed him terribly, and only saw him once a year. Later, I’d heard Xin had come to Shanghai as a teen, and lived and worked at a factory manufacturing spare parts for Apple. He was a migrant youth while I’d gone on to boarding school and university in the U.S., and now I was interviewing him about life in Shanghai for my novel.

Xin was not a rooftopper. He told me about growing up in rural Anhui, surrounded by mountains and a single mountain road which his grandparents helped build. His mother left when he was five to make money, and he lived with his grandparents in the village. He went to two years of technical school after middle school where he learned to manufacture spare parts and left for Changshu at 17 to work at a factory. He lived in a dorm with two bunk beds to a room and group showers. The conditions were difficult. “All my friends left after two years,” he said, “but I am adaptable.” His mother suggested he come to Shanghai because there are more opportunities here. He found a job at a Taiwanese electronics factory. Life was oppressive and repetitive, he said, with 12-hour shifts from 8AM to 8PM, or vice versa. For a few years he lived in factory dorms with a boy from Changshu. Eventually, through my stepmother, he found an internship at a data analytics firm. He moved to a six-person group apartment in Jinqiao and still shares a room with a friend from the factory. I ask Xin what his favorite place in Shanghai is, and he says: “At home. Because it’s quiet there.” In answer to what the hardest part about living here is, he says: “The rhythm of life is too fast. Time passes by too fast in Shanghai. I’ve been here three years, but I still feel like a newcomer.” When we bid each other goodbye, I thank him for his time. “No,” he says. “I’ve taken up yours.”

During our late childhoods and teens, I saw Xin’s mother more than he did. She’s since moved south to start selling meat buns, and I still follow Xin on WeChat. He often posts pictures of nature on weekends, escapes from Shanghai that must entail long train rides or hours on highways. I think about how different our parallel existences are, me and my foreign passport, the middle-class Shanghainese neighborhoods I’d lived in, the iPhone that I’d purchased in the U.S. and that he, in an abstract interconnected chain, had helped make.

In my novel, Alva, the biracial teenage girl, begins attending the Shanghai American School and cosplaying the teenagers she’s seen on CW shows. She loses track of her friends from Chinese middle school, or rather their lives had forked into too different paths, though she does keep up with Gao’s exploits on CityX. The rooftopping videos make her stomach turn, but she also envies them. Her own recklessness—drinking booze from the corner market, getting shitfaced at clubs with other expat teens—feels wimpy in comparison. Walking alone around Shanghai at night, she imagines him watching from the highrises around her, everywhere and nowhere at once.


For the longest time, while writing about Gao, I couldn’t shake that video of Wu Yongning that I never finished watching. If I couldn’t watch it, perhaps I could write towards it, to understand its horror. I wrote chapters and chapters from Gao’s point of view that never made it into the final novel. In one draft, school authorities and his parents diagnose him with internet addiction and send him to a rehabilitation camp in Central China. These are real places, militaristic centers often run by con men and sham doctors to placate desperate parents, a shadow economy to the gaming boom. Electroconvulsive therapy is used there on children, shocks administered with horrifying results by people who are not medical professionals. In my novel, all of these horrors are discharged into Gao’s character. Then I threw those pages out. Is it part of the character’s backstory if these facts are no longer in the book, but live in my head? Ultimately, Gao takes up rooftopping, but a tremor sometimes runs through his right hand, a vestige of an earlier, cut electroshock scene from the internet camp.

I remember crying the day I made a decision about his character: It seemed clear what needed to happen. Alva could act reckless and stay alive because she’d always have an out; Gao did not. She needed to become clear-eyed about her privilege, about their disparate trajectories. She needed to stop seeing him as the Smiling and Proud Wanderer, a gamer with infinite lives, but as a real boy of flesh and blood. And yet, and yet. In moments of suspension, I picture the blinking green dot of Gao’s account. Just like I couldn’t finish Wu Yongning’s video, I couldn’t play god with my novel’s rooftopper. The dot blinks, the question remains open: If I don’t see the footage, in some crevice of alternate reality in my brain, it didn’t happen.

In recent years, the Chinese government has restricted the rabid building of skyscrapers in Chinese cities, and gargantuan housing tower complexes sit empty as ghost towns. During the pandemic, when Shanghai went under strict lockdown, the city’s tall residential towers were sealed off—and their residents sealed in—to enforce quarantine. By the time the country reopened and I visited my Chinese family, it had been years since I’d walked in the compound of my childhood. The middle school still has its metal fence. I asked if Xin still worked in Shanghai, at the data analytics firm. No, my stepmother told me. He’d left and become a full-time outdoors guide now, spending his time in nature. He’d always loved scaling mountains.

“Rooftopping on a roof in Hong Kong” by Mathieu Nonnenmacher is licensed under CC BY 4.0 International.

Aube Rey Lescure
is a French-Chinese-American writer who grew up between Shanghai, northern China, and the south of France. After receiving her B.A. from Yale University, she worked in foreign policy and has co-authored and translated two books on Chinese politics and economics. She was the 2019 Ivan Gold Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston, a Pauline Scheer Fellow at GrubStreet, a finalist for the 2018 Boston Public Library Writer-in-Residence program, and an artist-in-residence at the Studios of Key West and Willapa Bay AiR. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Guernica, Best American Essays 2022, Literary Hub, Electric Literature,The Florida Review online, WBUR, and more. She currently works as deputy editor at Off Assignment. Her debut novel, River East, River West, was published by William Morrow in January 2024.

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