Touring with a legend

Touring Old Shanghai under the rain
Touring Old Shanghai under the rain

There are not many things that would make me wake up early morning Sunday in winter, walk under the pouring rain for 2 hours and keep a happy smile. Taking a tour of art deco buildings with Tess Johnston is just about the only thing that could create  this miracle. This Sunday was one of the few opportunities for such a tour, and I would not have missed it for anything.

Tess Johnston memoirs
Tess Johnston memoirs

Writer, history researcher and Old Shanghai story teller Tess Johnston first arrived in Shanghai in 1981, working for the US Consulate. She soon got the passion for Shanghai history and old buildings, and she eventually retired in Shanghai in 1996. Based on her research, she wrote books about Shanghai history and architecture, inventing the genre of Old Shanghai architecture books, with the first publication of “a last look”, with Chinese photographer Deke Ehr. The team has published many more of those including their latest “Shanghai Art Deco”. Her last books are 3 walking guides through Old Shanghai streets, along with her autobiography “Permanently temporary, from Berlin to Shanghai in half a century”.Tess also created Historic Shanghai, along with Patrick Cranley, which was organising this tour.

Art deco on Wanping Lu
A building I never noticed before, on Wanping Lu

Tess Johnston is probaly the most knowlegeable person alive about Old Shanghai and hearing her speaking about her favourite topic is always a priviledge. Having the opportunity to tour her own neighbourhood was something that is unforgettable. She practically knows every single building of Old Shanghai, including many that have since long disappeared and sees them with “the eyes of love, not the eyes of reality” as she pointed out in one of her speechs a few years ago. She is also in touch with many people who spent there youth in Shanghai and left in the 1940’s as she has been contacted by many people looking for their roots. Besides architecture, she also has collected stories about the people who lived in those buildings. I have been interested in this topic for years, but I still managed to get a few surprises along way and discover a few buildings that I never actually noticed. One of the funny and touching moment of the tour, was when asked when she came to Shanghai, Tess replied 1931 (her date of birth as well as the peak period of Old Shanghai). It felt just like the right answer as we were all feeling in a time travel. Despite the heavy rain and cold, the two hours of the tour passed really fast, just like a short trip back in Old Shanghai.

5 thoughts on “Touring with a legend”

  1. I believe I can speak for all Shanghailanders – those of us born and raised in Old Shanghai – how immensely grateful we are to Tess Johnston for researching and writing about “our” Shanghai during the three decades she has been living in the city.
    Thanks to photos taken by her and her photographer Deke Ehr, Art Deco buildings, apartment buildings, grandiose mansions and private residences which have been torn down, do exist in all their past glory in her numerous books. Tess knows “her” Shanghai, its history, including the former names of every street in the French Concession and the International Settlement.
    Her extensive collection of material on Shanghai – books, manuscripts, old photos – is available to those of us doing research. In addition, she is very generous with her time whenever we need answers to our questions on Old Shanghai which we pose personally to her or via email.
    Xie, xie, Tess

  2. You could not have picked a better person to spend two hours with than Tess Johnston! I’ve met, written to, and talked with her over my 18 years of research about my Shanghai Bob’s life there from 1940-1958. There is one piece of history I have not been able to find. Robert and many other kids went to a private school after 1949-1953 called Mrs. Cubbins. It was a tutor home with a gate person. I’ve met and interviewed 7 of those kids out of 18 but no one can recall the address. Any suggestions? Also I’m going to post several photos of these teenagers once I am told how and to whom I should address.

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