London recalling

Shanghailanders like me are used to the mix of architecture that makes old Shanghai. Elements of various nations were taken to create buildings in the city and seeing faux-Tudor style next to Art Deco are quite common. All of them are reminders of the past and often much better than the present rows of unimaginative apartment buildings or ugly office towers.

It’s only when coming to European capitals that one suddenly realizes how Shanghai old buildings are most often imitating the style of the home or adoptive country of the one who built them. I remember taking a suburban train to Paris, and looking at houses from the 1910’s, 1920’s that look very much like the ones in my neighborhood in Shanghai’s French concession (see post “portrait of an old neighbour“). Similarly, Mexican or Spanish revival buildings are very similar to the ones found in California (see post “”Spanish revival architecture in Shanghai” and “California DreamingCalifornia Dreaming“), and German house on Xin Hua Lu are very much in the style.

Westminster Council House

I had a similar déjà vu feeling walking on Marelyborne road a few days ago. I ran into the Court of Westminster (picture) and could not miss the similarities with some of the Bund’s facades, in particular the customs building. The little tower on large buildings that I so much associate with Shanghai is just typical from British architecture from this period. The building even have the same flag poll with a Union Jack floating on it. It does not take much to imagine a Union Jack floating on every tower on the Bund like it floats on the one in the picture.

Walking around the area, I went to neighboring Regent’s Park. Regent College building does also look like some of the large mansions in old Shanghai. Similarly, some of the Lilong or Shi Ku Men houses have a lot in common with terraced houses in London or with row of houses in The Netherlands. They were also designed to maximise use of limited space and they tend to have a similar design of narrow front with deep rooms piled on the top of each other inside the building.

Old Shanghailanders only reproduced the architecture they were used to in their new home. Just like large columns and small towers represented power in t19th century London, it represented power in 19th century Shanghai on the Bund. With gray sky and brick or gray stone buildings, parts of London from this period feel like parts of Shanghai to me. People of the Empire really managed to re-create the illusion of their home countries far away from home… or Shanghai has become so much a part of myself that I see it everywhere I go.

The foreign Concession of… Suzhou

The colonial past of China and the western powers is quite well known. Most people have heard about Shanghai’s International Settlement and French Concession. Other known famous ports opened by the early treaties include Amoy (Xiamen), Tientsin (Tianjin), Tsingtau (Qindao) and Canton (Guangzhou). What is even less known is that the foreign presence extended to many more locations. The treaty of Nanjing and Tianjin opened the door to a limited number of cities but they were followed by many others, creating local foreign settlements and open ports well inside China.
Suzhou (spelled Soochow before 1949) is a very famous city in China. Center of the silk trade and intellectual gathering point, the city is also famous for its wonderful gardens. Through modernization in the last 20 years, the famous canals of the inner city have been filled up and very little remains from the old charm. For the foreign visitor, Suzhou is quite a disappointment as the century old reputation far exceeds today’s reality. I was recently visiting it, looking in despair at the raw of concrete buildings that makes Suzhou look like any second tier city in China. This is where local help came really handy, taking us to a further away part of the city. The “Chang men” only gets a few lines in the China Lonely Planet, but it’s surely worth a visit. This “Old street” in the canals is a breeze after Suzhou’s gray streets. It’s quite charming and has a bit to show including the last remains of the wall that used to surround the city in ancient times. The gate is next to a wide canal, probably connected to the Suzhou-Beijing grand canal that used to be one of the major trade route in China. Around this location we spotted a few old houses that looked definitely of foreign style.

Old house in Suzhou
Old house in Suzhou
Old house in Suzhou
Old house in Suzhou

I could not see any indication whatsoever and the houses where in a pretty bad state. Two of them stood next to the river besides a Chinese temple. One was made of gray bricks and dated (looking at the style) from the 1910’s or early 1920’s. It closely resembles some of the Shi Ku Men houses in Shanghai that I used in comparison for guessing the building’s age. The other house had a later style with stained windows like on houses in Shanghai, GuLanYu and Malacca. The building date on it stated 1931.

Temple in Suzhou
Temple in Suzhou
Comprador style building
Comprador style building

On the other side of the river, I spotted another old building. Although it has been quiet damaged by “renovation”, its original structure of gray and red bricks is still visible. I would say that this house is probably older, from late 19th century of early 20th. It resembles the first building originally constructed on the Bund in Shanghai, of which few examples still exist, in particular next to Xin Tian Di in Luwan District. Theses houses were typically trader’s that contained a large storage on the ground floor and living quarters as well as offices upstairs. This house is located next to the river bank with a concrete quay side, making loading and unloading easy. Foreign merchants and Chinese compradors would live around here, trading with local merchants. Goods would be shipped to Shanghai via the waterways to be loaded on boats onward to foreign destinations. Since Suzhou has long been a major silk center, most goods shipped from here must have been silk fabric and garments.
I did some research about Suzhou foreign concession that I heard of before. A Japanese concession treaty was signed in 1895. I also found mention of a foreign concession in 1896, but this was probably the same as the above mentioned. The foreign community probably gathered under the protection (at that time) of the Japanese. With a few foreign buildings in a location perfect for trade near to or just outside the city walls, it is highly possible that this area was the foreign concession in Suzhou. Looking at the dilapidated state of the building and the fast expansion of the city, most of what is left will have disappeared very soon. Another page of the history of foreign presence in China will then be erased.

Tarte aux pommes

Tarte_aux_pommesTarte aux pommes or apple pie is a traditional French dessert. My Mum used to make them often when I was a child, with apple or various other fruits. I missed tarte aux pommes since I left home until one day in 2001 when she taught me this family secret. It was far from home, in a flat in the center of Budapest and since then I have carried the recipe everywhere with me. Tarte aux pommes is one of these things I make when I want to please friends or I feel a little homesick. It’s easy and only takes about half an hour (with about 45 minutes cooking on the top) and it’s nearly impossible to miss.
Making this simple cake in an old house in Shanghai in the French Concession, I cannot stop thinking about the European families that used to live here many years ago. Tarte aux pommes was surely one children’s favorite dishes and I am sure some families taught there Chinese Ammah how to make it. It somehow feels like time has stopped and that we are still leaving in this time when European were ruling Shanghai, just for duration of a tarte aux pommes.

A tough old China hand

Book Cover
Book Cover

Although the French translation of “400 million customers” seems to have been a strong success Carl Crown did not gain long term fame in France. I never heard about him before coming to Shanghai. The discovery came while listening to the author of his biography (Paul French), last year at the Shanghai literary festival. Having heard about the famous Carl Crow map of Shanghai before I bought the book after French’s speech at Glamour bar.
Carl Crow was a very important figure of the old Shanghai, where he spent two periods of his life. He first started the China Press in Shanghai, a newspaper that was bringing an American voice to a scene dominated by the British North China Daily News. After moving to Japan, he became famous for being the first journalist to publish the “21 demands” from Japan to China in 1915.
Coming back to Shanghai in 1918 he created what became the prime foreign advertising firm in Shanghai, helping foreign companies to sell their products throughout China. Carl Crow Inc also maintained the first and largest advertising network in Eastern China, importing the concept of advertising and creating the famous Shanghai advertising posters with Chinese girls in QiPao. These posters have since become one of icon of old Shanghai. He also founded the Shanghai Evening Post in 1929, the Shanghai newspaper that mostly supported the Nationalist cause and the development of China. He finally left Shanghai on the last American refugee boat after the Japanese invasion of the settlement and finished his life in the US as a writer and adviser on Asian politics.
Carl Crow is the author of many books including “400 Million Customers“, “The Chinese are like that” and “Foreign Devils in the Flowery kingdom”. He crossed the path of Sun Ya Tsen, Chiang Kai Chek and his wife, Zhu En Lai, various Chinese warlords and many Shanghai known figures. He was part of the Shanghai publishing seen along with fellow Missourians such a Tom Millard and JP Powell.
It took me while to finish it, not by lack of interest but by lack of time. Paul French definitely spent an enormous amount of time to research it. He travelled extensively to the US, HongKong and other locations to pull together information, and the book really feels like a great study. As an Old Shanghai fanatic, I found in it many information that I missed, many cross references to things I had heard of and many points of high interest. Carl Crow’s life takes us to the tumultous Chinese’s history from the 30’s. At the same time, I sometimes felt that without all my prevous knowledge of these events and characters, I would probably have been lost a bit. “A tough Old China Hand” is a highly interesting book, but not one for the freshers in the Old Shanghai.

Snow in Shanghai

Sow in Old Shanghai
Snow in Old Shanghai

With latitude in the range of to Casablanca, Baghdad and New Orleans, Shanghai is much more associated with warm summer than cold winters. Harsh winters happened every few years. I saw a little bit of snow in January 2005, but it’s nothing compared to the snow in January 2008 (see pictures in my photo albums).

As you can see on the picture, snow in Shanghai is not a new thing. The postcard was written in December 1930, but the picture is from an earlier time. Peace hotel was not yet built when the picture was taken, so the picture is from before 1928. On this picture, Palace hotel still had it’s tower that were destroyed in August 1912 and rebuilt in 1998 (according to “The Bund” from Peter Hibbard). Railways track visible on the postcard were laid down in 1908, thus the picture is from the period between winter 1908-09 until 1911-12. I have not found yet the records of temperature for this period, but clearly one of those winter was really cold. I am not sure how frequent snow fell on Shanghai then, but it could have been quite rare since the picture was still in use 15 to 20 years later.

Cold in Shanghai at that time was surely not a problem for the rich foreigners and Chinese alike. Most western style houses were fitted with fireplaces. It must have been warm in then, much warmer than later. As I explained in another post (Freezing Shanghai), most Shanghai houses have no real heating, only air conditioners that are used to warm up some air. Fireplace heating can be found in a few bars in Shanghai and a few house have it, but most people just freeze. Snow was rare then, but the cold certainly did not spare the poors. The rickshaw pullers on the picture must have been freezing, right on the most expensive stretch on road in the city. Poorer houses must have been heating burning coal, like they still do in rural parts of China. Just like today, people were certainly wearing multiple layers of cloths to fight the wet cold.

Pictures of Shanghai under the snow are very rare. This is one of the reason I bought this one. Besides the glorious pictures of wide avenue, large villas and imposing building, this picture shows a Shanghai that is rarely seen. I recall seeing another postcard of Huang Pu park covered with snow, that would be directly opposite where this picture was taken. I have not found yet when was the winter in the early 10’s that saw so much snow… just some more research to do.

Shanghai is coming to you

I was reading a Shanghai based magazine recently, when I caught a full page advertising for Dragonfly Massage. I remember when Dragonfly started, or at least when the franchise had 2-3 shops. The surprise was that they now have many many more. Not only is there about 10 stores in Shanghai, but they also have a branch in Suzhou, a few in Beijing as well as Oslo (yes, in Norway) and soon opening in Dubai. If I am well informed, Dragonfly was originally started by Singaporeans but it’s a true Shanghai creation. Thriving business in the city certainly helped them to grow and they are on track to open in many world locations soon. I’m not sure if I will got Dubai or Oslo any time soon, but I can imaging the day I will be passing by a Dragonfly store somewhere in the world and not be surprised about it anymore.
Dragonfly may be the most visible Shanghai franchise taking over China before going worldwide, but they are not the only one. I was recently having lunch at two of the most well known restaurant – Cafe in Shanghai i.e. Wagas and Element Fresh. When I arrived in Shanghai in early 2004, both stores were amongst the very few foreign cafes in the in the business district of Nanjing XI Lu. Both stored opened less than one year before. They now have about 10 stores each, with locations in Beijing and probably plans for other cities in China. They are the kind of franchise I could see soon in Hong Kong or Singapore and later in New York or London. Then, I will be able to say "I used to go to their first store in Shanghai, right when they started". This will probably sound like "I was a friend of Colonel Sander’s" or that "I used to get my coffee from the original Starbucks in Seattle".
Services chain are not alone in this, I know at least two design firms of Shanghai that have opened stores abroad, Jooi Design and Shanghai Trio. I cannot count in the famous Shanghai Tang… as it is a Hong Kong brand. They both were opened by expat ladies who got relocated to a new place where they continued distribution of their Shanghai created brand. These circumstances certainly helped… but I was so proud last time I went to Budapest, to walk into the Jooi Design store and say "I usually go to the store in Shanghai". You should have seen the face of the local sales girl, she could barely believe it. Another example is my friends from Phonepha / The French Tailor, shipping suits and shirts all over the world.
These are times when I am proud to be a Shanghai expat (even a little bit of a Shanghailander). This is when I strongly identify with my host city. It surely helps that the franchises I mentioned were created and mostly frequented by foreigners like me. I am also thrilled when I see a add for Haier in France, a Great Wall car dealership in Romania, or can get cash at an ATM in Brussels with my Union Pay Card. But the Shanghai franchises are so much closer to my heart. When I see them expending, I somewhat feel like I took part in their growth. Not only Shanghai welcomes all kind of chains and products from all over the world. Its local firms expend in China and the rest of the world. With the Shanghai touch reaching out to the world, Shanghai is really becoming a world city.


Tian Tang Kou
Tian Tang Kou

Blood brothers had a such a great trailer, it was impossible to miss. It promised it all, Chinese Shanghai gangsters, 1920’s decor, a beautiful singer girl that all man are dreaming of, shotguns fight and old cars… and the movie delivers. To add a little bit of flavor to it, I went to watch it in the historical Cathay theater on the old Avenue Joffre (nowadays Huai Hai Lu).

Tian Tang Kou (Paradise’s door), or Blood brothers in English, is a traditional gangster movie. 2 young guys from the the village are taken in town by an older brother. They first struggle with low jobs, such as pulling rickshaws until they get introduced to the boss gang. As small bits of the big organization, they get protected by it and not getting anywhere, until they get a bigger mission which is the turning point. They have to choose between going away or getting really big trouble within the gang and through it to get introduced to the big boss. Climbing in the organization bring them benefits and honors, but also dilemma. Ultimatelty, the older brother kills the boss of the city gangs, and take his place. The movie finishes with a grand gun fight scene, where the evil boss gets killed by the younger one, who just goes back to his home in the countryside, leaving the city behind him.

Despite massive marketing, Tian Tang Kou was not a big success in China. It’s really a pitty, as the movie really recreates the 1920’s-30’s Shanghai atmosphere. It has a good plot, great decors and costums. The special effects are also excellent, but the best is probably the whole atmosphere of the movie. There has been movies and TV series about gangsters in old Shanghai, but this one is probably the best and certainly the more thoroughly researched. It’s great fun to watch for all old Shanghai lovers.

Yellow Mountains

As in today’s Shanghai, many foreign residents of the old Shanghai rarely left the sprawling city. As the small frontier port transformed into Asia largest megalopolis, time needed to reach the countryside became longer and longer. Furthermore, warlords fighting, civil war, bandits and finally Japanese invasion did not help making trips outside the city any easier.
The ones adventurous enough to leave the protection of the foreign settlements could reach quite a few interesting sights. Just like today, Hangzhou’s lake, Suzhou’s garden and pagodas and Qingdao’s beaches were high on the list. HuangShan (the yellow mountain) was also within reach. Travellers would take the overnight train and climb the mountains by foot, just like some people still do today. Carl Crow, the famous advertising agent used to do it quite often.
I recently went to Huang Shan and few things have changed… although there is not a cable car most things are carried up there by people and the mountains are still the same. More photos are available following this link.

The Master of Rain

Book Cover
Book Cover

Field is a young English officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police, freshly arrived from Yorkshire. Through his uncle high in the Shanghai establishment, he is very quickly introduced to both the high Shanghai society, and the less glamorous parts of the megalopolis. The master of Rain is a crime novel based in Shanghai 1927, centered around the resolution of furious murders of  Russian prostitutes. Field tries is best to solve the murder, along with his newly found friend, the American detective Capresi. They are surrounded by a fallen White Russian noble turned into serving men (Natasha Medvedev) and the Taipan of one of the largest trade house (Charles Lewis), all of it under the shadow of the king of Shanghai’s mafia.

Although I bought this book without knowing anything about it, I have loved every page. Tom Bradby was the foreign correspondent for a British TV in China. Based in Hong Kong, he clearly used a lot of time and efforts to research and recreate the old Shanghai in his novel. Characters have the right tone and locations in the city have been thoroughly researched. Only Shanghai experts will notice a few omissions, or inventions but they never deviate too far from documented history. Action flows at a fast pace making this book a real page turner.

Though enjoying the book tremendously, I have to admit that the universe created by Tom Bradby has a lot of sight, but very few sounds, smell or taste. It fails a little to immerse us in the (noisy) streets of Shanghai. There is a also a little too much indulgence in making the characters meet various historical figure (such a Borodin) without any need for the actual story. The actual plot is sometimes bizarre and the book leaves many questions unanswered, which is a bit disappointing for a crime novel. Finally, the sexual serial crime at the center of the novel seems a little odd in the 1930’s.

Nevertheless, The Master of Rain is a great introduction to the old Shanghai, recreating the Paris of the East and illustrating the high life of a few as well as the hard life of many. As a quick introduction to the Old Shanghai, it comes highly recommended.

Majesty up the street

42nd street poster
42nd street poster

Majestic Theater is one of the old Shanghai survivors. The outside of the building does not look much anymore. The façade has been not been cleaned or repainted for a long time, and various advertising and neon lights have been added to it without any concern to the original design. In contrast, the inside is a great example of Art Deco theatre architecture. The entrance hall is probably in the original state, with high windows and a grand staircase. The inside of the theater with large waves and parallel lines is also an art deco showcase. There is little decoration inside, apart from the architecture and it’s quite refreshing compared to other old buildings in Shanghai. In any case, I hope that nobody will try to “renovate” the interior by adding some mint green, peach yellow or bright blue to it like in other places.

World famous musicals have started to come to Shanghai few years ago. “Phantom of the Opera”, “The Lion King” and this year “Mamma Mia”, all of them stayed in town for one to two months. They all came to Shanghai Grand theater on People Square (in the middle of the horse race track of the old Shanghai), the pearl of the modern Shanghai. 42nd street the musical probably had a lesser budget and a tighter production. Instead of a long stay in Shanghai, they went on a tour to Chinese major cities. Majestic theater was chosen for Shanghai and it was a great choice.

42nd street is the stage adaptation of a famous musical movie from 1933. Although the play itself is from the 80’s, it was modeled after the 30’s and the result is amazing. The dancing, the singing and tap dancing create magic and transport us back to the 1930’s. It is a real Broadway show that is worth every penny of it.The show was great and the art deco location added a lot to the atmosphere. 1930’s décor were art deco styled and they fitted the Majestic theater perfectly. The magic of the show mixed with the magic of the old Shanghai. 42nd street is also a simpler kind of show relying mostly on the dancers and the small orchestra traveling with them as opposed to a massive production. All of it made it a great evening during and after the show. Even after leaving the theater, Bubbling Well road (today Nanjing Xi Lu) had the air of the old Shanghai for a moment, before getting in a taxi a going back to Frenchtown. If the taxi had been a 1930’s car the illusion would have been perfect.

Update 2010

Shanghai Majestic Theater has been renovated for the Shanghai Expo 2010. Nice paint job outside, no more terrible posters covering it… and no ruinovation of the inside. Enjoy this art deco wonder!


Explore Shanghai in a sidecar: