About This Blog

Night in Shanghai

February 28th, 2015 | No Comments

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 | 1 Comment

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.

Saved from the junk

October 15th, 2014 | No Comments

Art Deco carvings

Art Deco carvings

Having spent many weekends in the old markets a few years ago, I often looked at pieces that most people thought should go straight for the junkyard. Many of these objects are worn out and have not been cared much for, so people where often amazed of what I would actually buy. I had bought think in a derelict state sometime but I have never actually collected anything from the junk.

This changed last week to the total surprise of the old ladies living in my lane. Our old neighbour decided to clean her home and pilled a number of items that were surely directed to rubbish bin. I noticed a particular piece and got it as a gift after some discussion. What actually attracted my attention was the front carving shown in the picture left. This piece of wood is actually the door of a small shelve, that used to sit on the top of a bigger piece of furniture. The style of the carving is clearly art deco, typical 1930’s Shanghai. Since the area I live in was a wealthy place at that time, it probably comes from the neighbourhood, maybe even the original furniture of the house. What is sure is that it was stored outside for a long time, and that our neighbour had had it since she lived here, meaning for decades. She was really surprised when I collected it, I probably thought I wanted to burn it or something like that.

Before and after

Before and after, right and left

After a deep cleaning, some sanding and work on the wood, the original style appeared clearly again. Having barely recovered from the surprise of seeing me collecting this piece from the junk, my neighbour are now seeing a laowai doing some handy work, as I decided to do the job myself. I am sure I have become the topic of conversation for a full week. It took me a while to find the various tools and products needed and it’s still a work in progress. At the end, it should make a nice little Art Deco shelve to store CD and other small items. The kind of things that will fetch a high price in the fancy antique stores of the city.

Art Deco in France

October 4th, 2014 | 2 Comments

Having long been in love with Art Deco, I have also been asked and wondered why Art Deco is not so recognized in France, my own country and the birthplace of the style. Numerous Art Deco supporting societies first started in the USA and have now extended all over the World, but barely exist in France.  Out of the dozens of association members, only 2 are in France:
The Association Society of Saint-Quentin. Both Saint-Quentin and closeby Reims were devastated during WWI. They were both rebuilt in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Art Deco architecture was in fashion and both formed the French Art Deco city association. As far as I know, they are the only member. Few pictures from my trip to Reims in 2012 are available at the following location
- The Perpignan Art Deco Association, that was founded in… April 2014.
I thoroughly search in both the French and English internet, but they seem to be the only ones so far.

ICADS (International Coalition of Art Deco Societies – www.icads.info) organises an Art Deco World Congress every 2 years. The next one will be in Shanghai in 2015 (see post World Art Deco congress ) for more details.

This lack of enthusiasm for Art Deco in France, and probably in Europe (the only other member of ICADS in Europe is in London) may seem difficult to understand for lovers of the period. My long time in France this summer allowed me to explore this issue. Art Deco is definitely undervalued in France, here are some of the reasons why:

IMG_2390 copy

Batiment Art Deco à Amboise

- There are many other old buildings in France and Europe
Art Deco spread around the world along with industrialisation. For many countries, in particular the USA or Australia, it was the time of cities creation and expansion. Long neglected (like Miami’s Art Deco hotels that only where looked after in the 90’s), Art Deco buildings are often now the oldest buildings in town, making them valuable.
In Europe, they are most often not the oldest buildings by far. The best example is this neglected Art Deco Cafe in Amboise, a renaissance town where surely little time is spent of modern buildings as opposed to 16th century relics next to it.

Art Deco is not that old. The first major Art Deco exhibition in Paris just took place.
The first major art deco exhibition took place in Paris in the beginning of 2014 (see post about the exhibition). There are other museums in France about it, but they are also not that old.

Major building were built out of city centers.
Being a late architecture style, Art Deco was often the style of developments in the suburbs of the cities that where expending at the time. In Paris it is mostly found in outside districts or in close suburbs. Another example is Villeurbanne’s gratte-ciel district that was in the middle of nowhere when it was built.

Gratte-Ciel, public housing in Villeurbanne

Gratte-Ciel, public housing in Villeurbanne

- Architecture of the utilities. Many hospitals, barracks and other administration buildings
Coming at a time of major construction of public buildings, art deco was often used public use and public housing buildings in France, as opposed to earlier styles used for palaces and stylish buildings. This is different from other parts of the World.

It’s “so common”.
The 1920’s and 30’s were a period of intense construction in France, so many example can be found from this period. Not all are really art deco though and not all have great architectural value.

 

With time passing and interest abroad, Art Deco seems to attract more and more interest in France. The first Paris-based exhibition about this truly first global style will certainly help to create attention to it. Hopefully more fellow French will get interested in it and create Art Deco societies and maybe Art Deco festival equalling the famous one in Napier, new Zealand.

Sasha’s bar

August 18th, 2014 | No Comments

Sasha’s

Shasha’s, the bar and restaurant at the corner of Heng Shan Lu and Dong Ping Lu, was one of the first bar I visited in Shanghai, along with the now defunct Face Bar (see post “Timelessness” and “Intercontinental Ruijin“).  This was for the reopening of the bar after renovation… in January 2004. Although this time is now long gone, I still find myself coming to Sasha’s on a regular basis. It is now pretty much forgotten, but the original bar was really proud to be the former house of the famous Soong family (see post “The soong sisters”). There is even a painting (supposedly) of the family in the main room. I don’t think that anybody looks at this poster anymore. In any case, the Soong family story was mostly a marketing stunt, i.e. the story of the three sisters who took very different path in life with one (Soong Qinling) marrying Sun Yat Sen, and then becoming one of the communist party icon, one (Soong Mayling) marrying communist party enemy, Chiang Kai Shek and the third one (Soong Ailing) mostly famous because her husband ruined China as finance minister as well as filling his own pockets ludicrously. It was a great story to tell that the building that is now Sasha’s was once the family home, but it mostly fake.

The Soong family lived in Nanchi (now part of Yangpu district) and mostly in Hongkou. This is where Charly Soon printed Bibles during the day, and republican propaganda for his friend Sun Yat Sen during the night… before 1911. The methodist Soong family attended the church in HongKou district, off Zhapu Road, very close to what became known as little Tokyo, where Chiang Kai Shek and Soong Mayling Sasha’s building was only built in the early 30’s, once Chiang Kai Shek (now married with Soong Ailing), had recovered control of large parts of China as well as the money and might to build it in the French Concession, as well as building his own house next door. Similarly, Shasha’s building is supposed to be old, but there is not much old in it. The interior has suffered numerous “ruinovation”, so none of the original probably remains. Futhermore, the 1980’s renovation added a third floor, totally changing the shape from the original 1930’s design from spanish architect Alberado Lafuente (See post of Lafuente’s story). The attic (where I sometimes gave conferences about Old Shanghai history) is a new construction that did not exist back then, though I had to admit if fits nicely with the building. Despite all this, today’s Sasha’s has become a Shanghai institution. Long passed is the time when Sasha’s was one of the few terraces in town and the venue is not really fashionable anymore, but there are always customers. It is not the new kid on the block, but it is always there, and has been for a long time. As opposed to the early days of expat only attendance, the place is now crowed with a good mix of people, locals, newly arrived expats and old timers like me, making it really an interesting crowd. It’s a bit of melting pot really. In a city that is known for permanent change, a little bit of permanence is really welcome. This makes it and anchor of the nightlife, a place that has always been there and (hopefully) always will be.

Shanghai’s Art Deco Master

May 2nd, 2014 | No Comments

Art Deco master 001

Book cover

Like a number of those before on Shanghailander.net this book review is a biased one.  Just like “Peace at the Cathay“or “Promenades dans l’ancienne concession Française“, the book was written by friends of mine, in that case Spencer Dodington & Charles Lagrange. Furthermore, I was actually involved in the project itself, though only for a tiny bit. In any case, this books really fills a hole in Old Shanghai studies.

Having lived in Shanghai for about 10 years, and discovering its history and architecture, I long dreamed that somebody put as much efforts into studying work of  French architecture firm “Leonard, Vesseyre & Kruze”, as that was the case for British firm Palmer & Turner and Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec. It took a team of a Belgian and an American authors to actually deliver in-depth study of the French firm. LVK was a major influence of the architectural style of Old Shanghai and this books truly highlight this heritage, focusing on the life of principal architect Paul Vesseyre.

Thanks to enormous archive research, in-depth knowledge of Shanghai and access to the archives of the Vesseyre family, the authors give a precise account of the early life of the architect, as well as his voyage to Shanghai. Just like contemporay Laszlo Hudec, Paull Vesseyre architecture studies were interrupted by WW1. He then returned to France, taking part of rebuilding one of main French Art Deco cities, Reims before sent by French construction firm Brossard & Mopin to Tianjin, and then Shanghai. He met Alexandre Leonard there, and both created firm Leonard & Vesseyre architects in 1922. Their debut work was the new building of the Cercle Sportif Français on Rue Mercier, today’s Okura Garden Hotel on Maoming Lu. This major work became an anchor of the French Concession and insured the success of the company and both men personal wealth.

Leonard & Vesseyre created most of the modern buildings in the French concession. They worked for the Catholic Church, the municipality and most prolifically for the French developer FONCIM. Major pieces include Béarn and Gascogne apartments on Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai Lu), the Dauphine and the Boissezon apartments. LV&K was also the designer of the series of neo-normandy style houses aroung Jian Guo Lu and Gao An Lu (see portrait of an old neighbour and further posts on this topic), as well as many buildings in that neighborhood. All of them  and many more are analysed in the book, making it an essential piece of the knowledge and understanding of Old Shanghai. The book is currently only available in English, published by Earnshaw book. A French version in under preparation.

1925, when Art Deco dazzled the World

April 25th, 2014 | No Comments

Exhibition Poster

Exhibition Poster

Last blog post was written about an exhibition of Paris 1930’s art in Shanghai, this blog post is about another exhibition about Art Deco that took place recently in Paris. It is actually long overdue, as the exhibition closed its doors in early March. My long stay in France, gave me the opportunity to see it in Palais de Chaillot (itself an Art Deco master piece) in Paris.

This was the last major exhibition in Paris about Art Deco since 1975, and the 50 years celebration of the “Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs” of 1925, from which the Art Deco expression comes. It was designed to commemorate the birth of Art Deco, as well as to show how French Art Deco expended to the World. The new style from the 1920’s, with it’s geometrical and very lean design was a revolution, breaking for the overcrowd of ornaments of the Art Nouveau style. Long before being called Art Deco, it had become the symbol of modernity, celebrating liberation from the madness of WWI. This period is called in French “Les années folles (the crazy years)”, showing the energy and creativity of the period. Being still at that time the World Center for fashion and design, Paris was the center for the creation of this new style before it took off and spread all over the world. Strangely enough, Art Deco style was not considered much valuable for a long time in France, as the country has many much older pieces available. With the years passing, it seems to be in fashion again.

1925 Exhibition Poster

The exhibition was an essential display to understand how this new style invaded all forms of art from architecture and interior design to textile, fragrance, automobile, ships design. In the boiling cultural mix of 1920’s Paris, many people got inspired from it. Ideas and fashion spread fast in the artistic community, with such famous figures as painter Tamara de Lempicka, dancer Josephine Baker, fashion designer Coco Chanel as well as Lalique (whose glass decorations were used for the Cathay Hotel, Peace Hotel today). The new style also greatly influenced the design of large cruse ships, symbol of modernity and travel way before today’s airliners (see post 2 months in rationnaire for details).

I brought back the exhibition catalog (available in French only… how French can that be), but it would be way to large to share here. Searching the internet, I found a nice video about the exhibit that will give the feeling for it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsV5cg2Y19M

The exhibition did not stop at showing Art Deco in France. Although it really does not leave much space for Art Deco in America or in the British Empire (like Art Deco wonders like Napier, New Zealand or Mumbai) the exhibition showed the development of Art Deco in the French colonies. Besides great Art Deco in North Africa and Indochina, I was nicely surprised to find a pavillion dedicated to Shanghai. It mostly focused the work of French architect firm Leonard, Vesseyre and Kruz (more about them soon) forgetting others like Hudec but it was really nice to find a small piece of our city in the exhibition.

Paris Art Deco comes to Shanghai

March 22nd, 2014 | No Comments

Exhibition annoucementVisiting Boulogne’s 1930’s museum 2 years ago was fascinating. Coming from Shanghai Art Deco, the origins of the art movement became so clear by comparing both cities art from the same period. The most amazing discovery was surely to find out that Sun Yat Sen’s mausoleum satute in Nanjing was created by French sculptor Paul Landowski, who also crafted world famous statue of Christ in Rio. (Click here to read the full story, with post “From Boulogne to Nanjing”)

Little did I imagine that the same exhibition would actually come to Shanghai only a year and half later. Thanks to long term Shanghailander Philippe Cinquini, part of the collection was brought to Shanghai including studies for the statue of the father of modern China. The exhibition is displayed in the Shanghai Art Museum (former China pavillon at Shanghai Expo 2010) and has been extended til end of May . For details, follow the link to Shanghai Art Museum exhibition page . (reservation in advance compulsory).