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Closing the Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco

November 22nd, 2015 | 2 Comments

WCAD 001The World Congress on Art Deco in Shanghai had been years in the making (see post Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco from 2012) and turned out to be a great event. Most of the organisation and preparation was done by Patrick Cranley (See article from New York Times about him) and his wife Tina, who are also running the Historic Shanghai association. The organisation was supported by an army of volunteers, including myself.

The World Congress on Art Deco is promoted by the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies. Started in Miami in 1991, it has grown into a worldwide organisation promoting awarness and preservation of Art Deco architecture and history. The Shanghai Congress brought together people from several cities in the USA and Australia, as well as France, Hungary, and South America. After two congresses in South America (Rio in 2011 and Havanna in 2013), the first congress in Asia really makes the organisation global. For a week, Shanghai was the center of attention for Art Deco lovers and the best place to exchange ideas about. Although originated from France with the Exposition des Art Decoratifs of 1925, it was so far mostly celebrated in the US as well as Australia / New Zealand. After South America picking , it is now the time of Europe as Art Deco societies are emerging in European cities, with Paris, Perpignan and Budapest being represented at the congress.
Besides the social aspect, the congress was really a place for discussion on Art Deco from various places. Conferences took place every morning with tours every afternoon, so workload was pretty tough for the ones attending every bit of it.

IMG_2770WCAD 002Being in charge of taking care of the French speaking delegates, we managed to make a small gathering of the French speaking Art Deco delegates. This unplanned event happened at the Cercle Sportif Français (today’s Okura hotel) after the presentation and dinner in the Art Deco ballroom. We took a detour on the old terrace that used to be an open air dance hall and went for a drink. As it should be with French events, it was full of discussion, drinks and Joie de vivre. Art Deco started in 1925 in Paris, so we all dream of making a 2025 Art Deco Congress in Paris to celebrate the 100 years of the exhibition, and maybe one more in another French Art Deco city before that. Lot’s of work in the planning.

WCAD 003From a Shanghai perspective, the real success of the congress was to bring together the largest panel of people interested in Old Shanghai ever. Old Shanghai fanatics all know about each other more or less, but this was a unique opportunity to have most of us together in one place and exchange about our favorite topic. The list was really impressive, including “Old Shanghai rediscoverer” Tess Johnston, Bund and Cathay hotel specialist Peter Hibbard, Shanghai Art Deco architect Spencer Doddington, French Concession specialist Charles Lagrange, Haipai researcher and author of “Shanghai Style” Lynn Pann as well as Shanghai White Russian specialists Katya Knyazeva were among the speakers, and I am surely forgetting some of them. Art Deco Shanghai furniture (and some previously unseen Art Deco Shanghai carpets) where on display, helping to look at Art Deco on various crafts.

The really surprising and maybe most interesting part was to see conferences on topics related to Shanghai, but about which little is known here. They included research about Old Shanghai Department stores on Nanking Road (including Wing On), tracking and giving great details about their roots back to Australia’s department stores. Another great surprise was research about Old Shanghai Chinese architect, including Liu Jipiao, who designed the China pavillon at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 and organised the 1st West Lake exhibition in Hangzhou in 1929, modeled after the Paris one. It also included a presentation of Old Shanghai architect Poy Gum Lee, who designed the Chinese YMCA building (today Metropolo hotel on people square) and later continued his career in New York’s China town.

WCAD 004The World Congress on Art Deco could not be over without an Art Deco closing party, that took place at the Art Deco masterpiece, the Sassoon House, host of the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel). This was the opportunity to celebrate in style and to say goodbye to the Art Deco community. See you in Cleveland in 2017 for the next World Congress on Art Deco!

Sticking windows

September 7th, 2015 | 3 Comments

old windows

Putty and knife

Living in an old Shanghai house is not only about choosing a place to stay, it is also a life experience and even a life style. An apartment in an old house is often the only renovated part of the house, or with different owners, renovation has been made a different times for each renovated apartment. In any case, only the inside in renovated, as the outside and common area remains in the care (or rather lack of) of the local government office. So if the whole building needs maintenance, one cannot do it alone, but needs to wait for the officials to come in. Anyway, the neighbours often have no money to pay for repair and cannot be bothered to do anything but the quickest and cheapest fix possible. With lane houses, the situation is a little better, but if the neighbour does not repair his roof, sooner or later your roof will also be damaged.

Maintenance in China is often an issue, and maintenance of Shanghai old houses is no exception. First of all, it is clear than in Chinese culture, new is better than old and fixing is useless. Even the definition of restoration and protection of old building is totally different. Most Europeans, French in particular, have the romantic idea that trying to keep old buildings and preserving as much old parts as possible is best. Needless to say that I fully subscribe to this idea. For most Chinese though, renovation mostly means rebuilding something the old way… from scratch. The renovated  are old… but new. This typically done with old chinese temples remade from scratch, of for Old Shanghai buildings that are ruinovated to be modernized while keeping only the old outside (see post Plaza 353 ruinovation for a great example).

For old Shanghai houses, people who were allocated these apartments for free were also told that soon they would live in bright modern buildings instead of this horrible place. This often took place two or more generations ago, with many people still living in the same place. In the meantime, only the very minimum maintenance was every made… since soon people would move to a better place (soon sometimes lasted for decades… and is not always over yet). With so little maintenance, it is often amazing to see how well these old shags (as people thing they are) have resisted against time. Many 10 to 15 years old building in today’s Shanghai are in much worst status that those old ladies. Too be fair, I found the very same attitude in Central and Eastern Europe when I lived there… for the same reason.

My 1936 built flat is no exception. It requires maintenance… and I understand it. Having lived there for 10 years, my landlord still finds amazing that I like this old house more than his brand new other apartment. The flat is still in good condition, but any suggestion of improvement or anything more than what is urgent is most time received as a ridiculous idea of laowai. Although I told him many times, I don’t think he comprehends the fact that I have lived in and owned apartments much older than this place… and in a much better state of repair overall.

As the quality of his repairs has always been very low, I decided to take one matter into my own hands: window reglazing. The trip to the small neighbouring hardware shop was amazing, as I had no idea how to call window putty in Chinese. I started to explain that I needed glue for the window, but not the new silicon gel one, the old version. We really did not get anywhere until I found a putty knife and made the connection. I was surely the very first laowai to buy this kind of equipment here. Fortunately, window glazing is something I have done before… about 30 years ago in the family countryside house. I never thought I would use this skill again, surely not half way across the planet. Sure enough, the techniques applied in Shanghai in the 1930’s, are very similar to the ones in Europe around the same time. I spent a few hours fixing the windows, with the great satisfaction to have made life at home better and shown to my landlord than I can do as well if not better than him.


Midnight in Peking

August 31st, 2015 | 1 Comment

Book cover in Australian edition

Book cover in Australian edition

Journalist and author Paul French is one of the most knowledgeable person about Shanghai. Although he now has gone back to the UK, he spent years in the city commenting about both the old and modern side of it. He is the author of The Old Shanghai A to Z (See link to my post on the book), the definitive guide about street names in Old Shanghai. It was then surprising to read a book from him about Beijing. Unsurprisingly though, Midnight in Peking tells a story that happened in Beijing in 1937, in the foreign legation or it surroundings. The atmosphere of old colonial China is very much the background of the story, very similar to the atmosphere in Shanghai at the same time.

The book is focused on the horrible murder of 19 years old Pamela Werner. Her body was found on 8th January 1937, as the bottom of the fox tower, Dongbianmen today. Daughter of a former British diplomat that was one of the best sinologist at the time, her death was the center of the media attention for a while. Unfortunately, international politics and Japanese troops surrounding the city did not help to solve the case. It is also clear that although some effort was made to find the murderer, a lot of energy was spent by well placed people to make sure that the guilty ones were never to answer their crimes.

As in previous books, French had a lot of research into the matter, including archives from the UK diplomatic services as well as other countries. The original inquiry was made by DCI Dennis, the chief of the Tianjin Municipal police, and inspector Han from the Beijing police. Nobody, apart from them and the victim’s father, had any interest in the police finding the murderer. The whole British diplomatic circle was focusing on protecting the honor of Britain and its privileges, be it by protecting the worst of its citizen. As the inquiry starts to raise questions, they are moved away to make sure they don’t find anything. It becomes obvious that the local little clique wants nothing of its secrets revealed, some of them really being horrible.

Where the body was found

Where the body was found

The book is also a dive in the badlands of Beijing, a territory next to the foreign legations that was controlled by nobody, where about anything was going on. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, human abuse and worse, all of it was flourishing at a time when nobody was sure of anything about the future. Japanese armies were coming and some people were left alone, satisfying their vices in the most sordid ways. It is also a place where the top and the scum of the foreign community mixed together. Every city has a dark side, but Beijing badlands were darker than most.

Midnight in Peking is the tale of a period, that was the end of a world. Atmosphere was surely very similar in the Shanghai badlands, after Japanese invasion a few months later. The book takes us straight to it, just like a crime novel and also helps solving one of the great murders of Old China. A great read for Old Shanghai fans.

Shaving time

August 24th, 2015 | 3 Comments

On the edge

On the edge

Although they now have mostly disappeared, barbershops were a central point in men’s life until WWII, including in old Shanghai. Until the early 20th century, a single blade razor was the only razor available. It was quite dangerous and required to be really skillful to get a clean shave. With a double edge safety razor invented by Gilette in 1904, shaving got easier but still required quite a skill to cut a good shave without cutting oneself. This kind of razors became popular in the 1920’s and 30’s, allowing people to shave themselves every day and reducing the business for barbershops.

Barbershops were men only stores, offering services such a shaving, hair styling and other beauty treatment. They were also a a great place to socialize and have chat with friends while getting shaved or groomed. Barbershops were a social institution, as men had to go several times a week to keep a clean shave. For some, in particular business men, they were part of the daily routine, at a time when business was conducted over letters and telegram (see post Lost in transmission), much slower than today’s emails and mobile phones. It’s easy to imagine men in Old Shanghai going to the barbershop to get a clean shave on their way to the business district of the Bund.

There was surely many barbershops then as this kind business does not need much infrastructure. People would come and get a shave or an haircut, not appointment. As the time needed is much shorter than for women hairdressers sessions, one just had to come and wait for his turn to get serviced while drink tea or water and chatting to other patrons. The shaving process would normally include the nice hot towels applied on the face of the patron before starting the actual shaving.

Having seen this many times in movies, I tried to get a proper shave in Shanghai. Barbershops have long disappeared and it took a while before finding a proper man barber ready to cut my beard the old way. The shop I found (on the internet), is located in the same building as the paramount dance room (see post Paramount suicide for more details), whose upper floors are (again) in ruinovation. It is one of those state owned hair dressers that now tend to disappear in favour of the fancy private ones. Actual location is 230 Yu Yuan Lu. I’m not sure this always been a barber shop, but being a state owned one in an historic building, it is very possible. In any case, the barber has been shaving men for many years and he did an excellent job.

FullSizeRenderAfter the shave, I searched in an Old Shanghai phone book, I found only two barbershop with a phone line… in 1938. They were probably the most prosperous as having a phone line was not cheap at the time. I took me a while to realise that one of them “Parlow Barber Shop” was actually located in the same place than the place I went, 230 Yu Yuen Road. In Chinese it is cold Bei Le barbershop, just like Bei Le Men, the Paramount theater that was located in that building. The phone number has changed and “Marcel Waving” are not fashionable anymore, but this place is still a nice old fashion barber shop. I will be going again for a time travel and a shave at the same time.

I also looked up the second adress in the phone book. The Nanking barbershop was located at number 734-6 Bubbling Well Road. Today’s 734 Nanjing Xi lu is also a state owned hairdresser. In Shanghai, some things never change.




August 17th, 2015 | 1 Comment


Book cover

I have been a fan of James Ellroy’s crime novel for years, reading his original “LA quartet” (the black dahlia, The big nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) in the early 90’s at publication. Although not set in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I am so fascinated by, they felt close enough. Ellroy’s novel are often more about the atmosphere and characters than about finding the actual murderer. I recently found latest Ellroy’s novel in a travel bookstore and could not resist reading it, particularly as the central period is getting even closer to my interest.

Perfidia, is located in Los Angeles (as always with Ellroy), during the last day of December 1941. It starts on 5th December 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this is not mentioned in the book, the Japanese army invaded the Shanghai International Settlement on the very same date. This episode is the center of the Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. The Japanese invasion of China, in particular Nanjing massacres are often quoted in the book though Shanghai is not. In any case, the parallel with Shanghai history at the same time makes is an interesting read from a Shanghai perspective. Perfidia is also a song from 1939 that was very fashionable at the time. Becoming a hit in the US, it was also surely heard and played in Shanghai clubs then.

The central murder in the novel is of a Japanese family and a lot of the novel is focused on the reprisals and subsequent internment of Japanese American from early 1942. As always in Ellroy novels, there are many subplots and numerous characters of whom life and action are crisscrossing with unpredictable consequences. International politics and espionage are the new notes added to the usual complexity and dark ambiance.. Characters are never black or white, good or bad, but all of it mixed. The tone is dark and pessimistic, with a general background of corruption in US politics in general, and in LA police in particular.

James Ellroy’s LA often makes me think about the books and information I have read about old Shanghai. Corruption was massive, along with lawlessness, prostitution, gambling and drugs. People all tried to make money as fast as possible in any way they could, often ending up badly. There are not many winners in Ellroy’s novels, but all fight hard for it. The way Ellroy intertwines real life characters and his own fiction is magnificent, giving a real lesson in LA gangster and police history. The same thing with Old Shanghai characters has been tried before, but never really succeeded. I often wish that Ellroy would switch his focus from LA crime history to Old Shanghai. A James Ellroy novel taking place in Old Shanghai would be a perfect match between those two dark universes.

Citron, Art Deco Café

March 15th, 2015 | 1 Comment

Art Déco Café entrance

Art Déco Café entrance

Art Deco and life in Shanghai being two of my favorite topics, I could not miss the Art Deco design of new CITRON Café on Fumin Lu. I had noticed it while it was still under construction, so I could not stop visiting as soon as I could. The façade of CITRON is very much inspired from Art Deco theaters in the USA, this was a real teaser for me.

Art Deco mirror

Art Deco mirror

Designers have played with the Art Deco codes, giving the place a special feeling. They have added many details, including a large mirror with wrought iron decor (see picture), brick wall (surely not the real wall but still nice) and a large wall painting that is very much 1920’s inspired. They even use Art Deco inspired cutlery, so there was some serious attention to details. The whole inside is themed after the 1930’s Orient Express train, so I am not exactly sure why the place is called Citron… but in Shanghai not everything can always be explained.

Just like in the Orient Express

Just like in the Orient Express

This is a nice design effort, though a little bit of a patchwork. Being in an Art Deco city, I was also expecting some reference to Shanghai own Art Deco, particularly in a location in the former French Concession… but there is not such thing in Citron.

Although still in soft opening, the food was simple but very well done. Particular note for the coffee that was really good. With a great central location, next to other famous establishments, I am sure they will attract many people. Add it a nice Art Deco theme and you can expect to find me there on a regular basis. This is the perfect place to prepare for the World Art Deco Congress in Shanghai in November.

Citron can be found at 291 Fumin Lu, at the cross with Changle Lu


Night in Shanghai

February 28th, 2015 | 1 Comment

Night in Shanghai book cover

Book cover

Historical novels are a great way to get transported to the past. I have not had much time for my own research about Old Shanghai recently, but I still can find time for reading books about it. Having read a number of novels about Old Shanghai, like “The master of rain” or “Last seen in Shanghai”, “Night in Shanghai”was soon as on my list.

The novel takes an original point of view from the start as the main character is black American jazz player Thomas Greene, who ends up playing in the Royal, one of the Shanghai dance club. Jazz was the music of Old Shanghai and the city had many jazz bands. The most famous were brought from the USA, recruited by agents and sent all the way to China to play in the large ball rooms such as the Canidrome in the French Concession or the Paramount in the International Settlement. The story of these jazz band players has often been overlooked, making the novel stand out by choosing this main character.

Nicole Mones is a specialist on China and has clearly spent a lot of research on Old Shanghai. Historical facts are accurate and many secondary characters in the story were actual people. The book is the a great way to discover little known Russian composer “Aaron Avshalomov”, British envoy to help fixing China’s economy “Sir Frederick Leith-Ross” and many more. Old Shanghai nightlife is really well rendered, as well as the darkening atmosphere on the city coming with the Japanese invasion. Secondary characters, including crime lord Du Yuesheng are also coming to life in a very credible way.

Unfortunately, historical facts and characters often seem to have been added as matter of teaching the reader with little connection to the actual story. The flow of the novel is regularly obstructed by side plots and details that were surely very enjoyable to research and write about but add little to the action. In a same fashion, food and music are described in great details, but lacking explanation, feeling or taste. Moreover, characters tend to explain to each other points that would have been obvious for them in the historical context, seemingly as an explanation to the reader, making them sometimes really weird.

The central line of the novel, the love story between Thomas Greene and Song Yuhua seems over simplistic and not really believable. Characters regularly get an easy escape from trouble, and seem to be passing through dreadful events such as war and crimes without being really affected by them. Although I enjoy the historical research a lot, I have to admit that the story telling does not match it. Readers interested in Shanghai history will surely enjoy it, but other may be disappointed by the lack of depth and feeling of the novel.

Mr Loo, the novel of an Asian art dealer

November 16th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Lenain's book cover

Lenain’s book cover

Old Shanghai was often the paradise for adventurers, due to the civil war raging in China at the time as well as lawlessness and multiple jurisdictions creating many places to hide. It attracted many shady characters, some of them becoming real stars of the city. Although he was born in ZheJiang province and was coming back to Shanghai regularly for his business, Mr Loo was not really part of the Shanghai as he lived mostly in Paris and New York. Nevertheless, his story is so fascinating and linked to China in the Republic time that it deserves to be part of this blog. It is the topic of Geraldine Lenain’s book, “Mr Loo, le roman d’un marchand d’art asiatique”, Mr Loo the novel of an Asian art dealer.

CT Loo was born in a poor family in Zhejiang but became the trusted companion of Zhang JinJiang , sent as 3rd secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Paris in 1902 and took CT Loo to Paris. This changed Loo’s life forever. Zhang also opened an antic store, that was soon in the hands of CT Loo. Having learned the trade in a few years, he left on his own to create his own company. He later one opened a company in New York, organising a triangular trade of antic from China to Europe and then the USA, but he kept the relationship going with Zhang JinJiang while became of powerful part of Chiang Kai Shek Republican government. He exported large quantities of major Chinese historic art work to the West thanks to his powerful connection in the republican administration. In the process, he made the World discover Chinese ancient art including bronzes, carved jades, stone sculptures and paintings at a time when little was know about it in the West. He help build the Chinese and Asian collections of numerous world class museums, including Paris Musée Guimet, London British Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum and many others in the USA.

One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum

One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum

His personal life was really bizarre, marrying, his lover’s daughter while keeping the relationship running with both of them and having 4 daughters later on. He kept his life in China, France and the USA disconnect, having nearly three parallel lives and keeping the secret to each other most of the time. The real dark side of him is that he organised the export of China historical treasures, through his connection in the Europe, USA and the Chinese administration. Though he claims that he never organised the theft from original locations, he clearly played a major role in the process. One of the most well known example are the two sculptures of the Taizong horses, ordered by early Tang dynasty emperor Taizong in the 7th Century with 4 of the 6 horses exhibited in Xian and the 2 remaining sold by CT Loo to the Penn Museum in Philadephia. For this he is still hated in China and considered a traitor. At the same time, most of the pieces he exported have been saved from later destruction during China recent history.

Geraldine Lenain’s biography of CT Loo as a very enjoyable read, carrying us through CT Loo work, his twisted personal life and historical events of the time. Though CT Loo was a real character, his life sometimes feels like a novel. The book was written in French. For more details in English, follow this link to the excellent FT article on the book and its writer. There is no English translation of the book so far, though I am sure it will come.


Modern Shanghai history, 10 years of Bar Rouge

November 10th, 2014 | 2 Comments

Bar Rouge 10th birthday

Bar Rouge 10th birthday

This blog was originally started to talk about Shanghai both Old and Modern. Only a few posts about modern Shanghai were published as my attention was fully taken by Shanghai history, but the similarities between Old and today’s Shanghai have often come back to me. With nearly 11 years of life in the city, some of the stories from my arrival are becoming themselves part of Shanghai history. The 10th anniversary of Bar Rouge is one of them.

Although I was not at the actual opening ceremony, Bar Rouge was a very special place for me in the years 2005 and 2006. I even wrote one of my early blog post about it (click here for post: Decadence on the Bund), along with a post about now gone Lounge 18 (click her for post: Dancing in the Bank). Bar Rouge at that time was the place to be, the meeting point for a crowd of party people gathering every weekend for dancing away the night. It created friendships and meeting that are still strong today. I have not been a regular for years, but it still seems to have this strong party atmosphere  every time I go there.

Still going strong after 10 years

Still going strong after 10 years

Attending the 10th anniversary of Bar Rouge was also a time to remember all those years that went away at Shanghai speed. Just like we read about the club Delanos, Cyro’s and Paramount in Old Shanghai, people now hear about the stories of Bar Rouge early years and the rebirth of Shanghai night life. There are even people making sociology studies about what was essentially our life. After having searched and studied so much about Shanghai history, parts of my own life starts to become part of it from the point of view of the new generations. Maybe one days people will use this blog as the base of their own research into Shanghai then history.

Classic cars on the Bund

October 26th, 2014 | No Comments

1920's Packard on the Bund

1920’s Packard on the Bund

The very special history of China and Shanghai has been essential at preserving 1920’s and 1930’s architecture, making Shanghai one the world Art Deco hotspot (with the World Art Deco congress coming to Shanghai in 2015). As late as the 1990’s, most original Shanghai buildings had remained pretty much untouched. With clever restoration, the remaining ones have taken back a new life as private mansion, company’s headquarters or bars and restaurants. Old Shanghai dresses have also been coming back, either as part of classic parties (see pictures for my own 40’s birthday party in 2012) or as part of today’s fashion brand such as Shanghai Tang. The only thing really missing is classic cars, as most of them were either taken by owners when they left Shanghai, or destroyed during the war or later. Bringing classic cars back in Shanghai is the aim of the Bund Classic event, for one weekend at least.

BundClassic started in 2013 and the 2014 edition was really nice, under a fantastic weather. As the only classic car event in mainland China, it attracted collectors and classic cars admirers. It was a unique opportunity to actually see cars from Bund building’s  period on this location. Due to Chinese regulations on old cars, they could do not really be driven (apart from a short parade), but the photo opportunities were great.

Not all cars were pre WW2, but a few of them really looked just at the right place in front the former British Consulate building. I particularly like the beige Packard that looked pretty much like 1920’s pictures of the Bund, before the Cathay Hotel (Peace hotel today) was built. I am not sure this actual make was ever on the Bund, but it clearly had close cousins right here.

Hudson Terraplane

Hudson Terraplane

The 1930’s Terraplane coupé was also just in the right place. It is clear that this particular make was imported in Shanghai, as the brand was really popular in the 1930’s in America. Coupé were also seen in Shanghai, a symbol of money and modernity for the youth of rich Shanghainese. I also liked the French Traction Avant, which was surely imported to China, at least for the administration of the ” Concession Française de Changhai”. Although the one on display was red and white, the original color for this model was black only, until the 1950’s.

shanghai-girlThis short trip to Shanghai glorious past was really enjoyable, sometimes feeling straight out old Shanghai movies or Beverly Jackson’s book ” Shanghai girl gets all dressed up”. Classic cars collection seems to a be trend amongst China’s superrich, so more cars will surely being brought in. However, there is little hope of ever seen one driving down the streets of the former French Concession as they are way too old to be allowed on today’s roads.