Coming to Shanghai from Europe today is a 10 hours airplane trip. Time difference and the long sitting make it tiring, but it still is quite a short trip. I even know people who go to Europe from Shanghai for less than 24 hours or just a long weekend. Travel between Shanghai and Europe in the 20’s or the 30’s was a much longer journey. Passengers would embark on the cruise in Europe and travel on it for about two months before reaching their final destination in Shanghai. It is certainly difficult to imagine nowadays what it meant to be on the sea for such a long time. Passengers would disembark along the way for sightseeing, while goods would flow in and out of the ship. From writings from this period, it is clear that such a trip was in itself a fabulous adventure.
The main French shipping line was “Messageries Maritimes”. Based in Marseille, they were sailing on the “ligne d’Extreme-Orient”. The company was one of the three major companies of the French Concession (along with “Banque de l’Indochine” and “Compagnie de tramways et d’eclairage electrique de Shanghai”). Its headquarters was located on the French Bund, next to the Consulate (today between Yannan Lu and JinLing lu) in a building that is now occupied by the Shanghai Archives. The current building was erected in 1936, replacing a previous one built in the 1870’s. Following a 1926 brochure of the company, the ships stopped at the following ports of call: “Marseilles, Port Said, Suez, Djibouti, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kobe, Yokohama. Singapore omitted on return voyages.” One of the ship traveling along this line was the Porthos, pictured above.
Recently I found a few more postcards of the inside of the Porthos and made some research about the ship (most information come from the website of Philippe Ramona). The Porthos had 112 passengers in first Class. It is clear from the pictures that this kind of travel was luxurious with great food served in a luxurious surrounding. Although the first class cabin was not as comfortable as a luxury hotel room it seems to have been still very convenient.
Second class travel don’t look so bad either with 96 passengers. The chairs of the dining room seem to attached to the ground, but this kind of travel was surely still comfortable. I don’t have pictures of the accomodation of the 90 3rd class passengers, but they were not the worst. Although its luxury was far from 1st class, it was still a world apart from the “rationnaire”, i.e “food ration” class. This was the lowest class which counted from 390 to 1000 passengers. I’m not sure how it looked like but people were clearly stacked on the top of each other for 2 months in the ship. 1st class travel was probably a great experience, but “rationnaire” travel was certainly much less fun and certainly not as glamorous as scenes from the movie Titanic. Long flight on today’s coach class are not always so comfortable, but at least they only last for 10 hours.