The territory that formerly covered by Old Shanghai is today separated in several Shanghai districts. With a large share of the former French Concession on its territory, Xu Hui district has been the leading district for history preservation. I recently came across this article mentioning the renovation plan for this part of the city.
The article also mentions an exhibition about the revival on “old skills” related to construction, that were used to build these old houses. This exhibition looks interesting and I will surely visit it. It is really nice to see that after years of destruction or ruinovation, preservation has become a matter of interest.
At the same time, while those old skills have been lost in China and have now to be rediscovered, I cannot fail to notice that they are still available and used in Europe and other parts of the World. Several European countries, have been involved in restoration programs in Shanghai in the past. Maybe one does not need to look back for those skills to be “reacquired through the demolishing campaign on some damaged houses”… just ask other people involved in preserving similar skills elsewhere. I am sure they would be glad to help.
I have often heard or read that in Old Shanghai, the business district was in the International Settlement, and the higher class residential in the calmer streets of the French Concession. Although most of it has now disappeared, the International Settlement although had its select residential district. Bubbling Well (today Nanjing Xi lu), was originally a countryside road with large mansion along with their massive gardens on its side, including the former Majestic Hotel. In the 1920s and 1930s, these large properties were sold and new buildings were erected in a much denser fashion. The residential streets moved up North, along Avenue Road (today Beijing Xi Lu). Although this part of Jing An has been massively built over in the last 20 or 30 years, a few villas have resisted in this area, they include the Laszlo Hudec Hu Mansion (the Green house), the former Pei Mansion and a few houses around the corner of today Changde Lu and Beijing Xi Lu.
Another street further North with a number of large villas was the Western section of Wuding Lu, although very little information available about them. Large houses seem only to have been in that section of the street as opposed to the (now gone) shikumen and factories that lined the more Eastern section. This stretch of a few hundred meters really feels like other residential streets in the French Concession or around Yu Yuan Lu, making it a pleasant stroll. Although each house is a different style, they all seem to have been built in the 1930s. From a neighboring rooftop, I could see them all and noticed one in particular, an Art Deco mansion, behind a modern school building. Although I could only see part of it, I always thought this house was special.
I thought the design looked familiar, but did not really knew from where until seeing the rendering. The Yan Mansion designed by Poy Gum Lee and built in 1934, is actually the house I saw from the rooftop. This was further confirmed by an old picture, although original balconies have been glassed over and the ornamental doors and windows are long gone. Lastly, a map of the location was provided showing it located on “Wuting Road”, today’s Wuding lu.
Although there is no historic plate on the building, it is without a doubt, the Yan Mansion designed by Poy Gum Lee, located on today’s 932 Wuding lu. Unfortunately, most of the garden has been eaten by a new building masking it from the street. Being a school also makes it off limits for most people. Funny enough, the exhibition showed its blue print but did not show any current picture, nor mentioned that the building still stands. Hopefully, one day it will be recognized and protected. In the meantime, its current use should keep it standing for long.
Shanghai development was fueled by real-estate and construction. Just like in every big city, people moved house, bought and sold properties and remodeled them. There was also maintenance work, as well as upgrade to be done.
I recently noticed this ad in a 1937 Shanghai publication. I particularly like the “All works satisfactorily executed”. The company was surely a foreign one, located behind the Bund, on today’s Sichuan Middle Road, close to Fuzhou Lu. In such a central location, it must have been involved in building or maintaining the buildings of the business district of the International Settlement, though I did not find more information about. I tried to call 16077, but sadly this number does not exist anymore.
Searching for “Shanghai Grand” on the internet leads directly to a Hong Kong action movie from 1996 set in Shanghai. Much more interesting is the new book from Canadian travel writer and journalist Tara Grescoe, focusing on the life and relationships of New Yorker writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn during her stay in Shanghai in the 1930’s.
Many books have been written about Old Shanghai and not all of them are good or interesting. Although published in mid 2016, Shanghai Grand only came to the attention of Old Shanghai lovers based in Shanghai, when Grescoe presented his book during the 2017 M Literary festival in Shanghai. I have to admit that I was very skeptical about an Old Shanghai book written by an author mostly known for his work about public transports and World overfishing and who never spent more than a few weeks in Shanghai. The presentation itself was of high interest, while the book turns out to be one of the best written and best documented book about Shanghai in the 1930’s and some of its memorable characters.
Shanghai Grand tell the story of the most crazy years of foreign Shanghai, the late 1930’s. Emily (Mickey) Hahn arrived in Shanghai in 1935, and through chances and connection got quickly in touch with Sir Victor Sassoon and the highest class of foreign society. As free and adventurous women, she defied conventions with her interest of the Chinese Society, that was exposed to her through her liaison with Chinese Poet Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmei in modern PinYin, 邵洵美 in Chinese characters). The books centers on the love triangle between the three of them, while exploring Sir Victor Sassoon’s thoughts about the Shanghai political situation in those troubled times. 1930’s Shanghai was a booming city, but the party was abruptly interrupted by the Japanese invasion, Saturday 14th August 1937, that changed the city forever. Life conditions deteriorated rapidly and Emily (Mickey) Hahn left for Hong Kong, then taking a trip to Chongqing and write her first famous book, the Soong Sisters. She stayed in Hong Kong until repatriation in the US in 1943.
Instead of using local information and archives about the city, Grescoe focused on researching foreign based sources. He primarily used the hand written notebooks from Sir Victor Sassoon (now stored in a library in Dallas, Texas) that where previously unheard of by most people studying Old Shanghai. Another major source was writings by Emily (Mickey) Hahn for the New Yorker written during her time in Shanghai (1935 to 1939), her books written about China and the many letters she wrote back to her family as well as unpublished works, that Grescoe is probably the first person to have researched intensively.
Besides the main characters, Grescoe also cast a light on a few secondary characters that he managed to find new information about. Maurice “Two Guns” Cohen is definitely one of them as little was known about him apart from his work as body guard for Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Bernardine Szold-Fritz, who introduced Mickey Hahn to the Shanghai social life is also an exotic character. The background of Shao Xunmei is exposed thanks to his relatives who are still in Shanghai today. The background of the whole story, and nearly a character in itself it the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel) on the Bund.
While researching the book, Grescoe also received support from Old Shanghai experts like Peter Hibbard and Andrew Field, as well as actually meeting with numerous authors of books about Old Shanghai or the life of his central characters. He also used a number of books written by Shanghai foreigners about their life in the 1930’s, most of them being mostly unknown or really difficult to find. The body of data collected is enormous and a large part of the work was surely to compile it, summarize it and cross references. Thanks to great writing skills, the result is a highly readable book that will satisfy readers that are not familiar with Shanghai history. At the same time, the depth of the research is a treat for Old Shanghai connoisseurs as the author has spread details and references all along the book, making it a great start for further research.
I recently came across this amazing picture of flooded street of Shanghai in 1933.
Although considered as subtropical, Shanghai climate really has very different seasons with steep differences in temperature. Winter can be very cold, with snow (see post “Feeling like European winter” and “Snow in Shanghai” for more details). Summer are very hot and humid, giving an equatorial feeling to the city with Cicadas sound (See post “Shanghai heat“, and “Singing trees“). Another feature of Shanghai climate is tropical rain. As the city is not tropical enough to received massive rain all year around, like Hong Kong or Taipei, it always seems to be taken by surprise every time a typhoon hits the city.
Pictures in this article is taken from 11th November 1933 issue of French newspaper L’illustration. The caption is “One of the main streets of Shanghai after the typhoon”. French readers will notice that Shanghai is spelled “Changhaï” as it was spelled in French then. I have not been able to identify the street shown, but it looks very much like a large street in the Chinese city, as main Concessions streets in the 1930’s were already lined up with much higher stone building.
The pictures were actually taken during 20th September 1933 typhoon that flooded the city. It mentions that Chinese city wooden houses are very exposed to the typhoon, but the main body of the article is focused on the Jesuits weather forecast network based in Xu Jia Hui, collecting information from all over Asia to predict the weather. It is nowadays Shanghai weather forecast institute in Xu Jia Hui, still on the same location.
Once it was sure that a Typhoon was coming, the information was broadcasted by radio to ships at sea. The article also mention that canons shot were used at the harbor as the usual way of warning ships. Although it is not mentioned in the article, flags were probably raised on the Shanghai Bund Semaphore, also called Gutzlaff tower (see post “Best view on the French Bund” for more details). Flags were a usual way to give instructions and warning to ships at that time.
Shanghai sewage network has been upgraded in the last years, so flooding when a typhoon comes to the city do not seem to happen to that extend anymore. This is quite a recent development, as similar scenes were a regular feature in the former French Concession… as seen in enclosed picture taken in July 2009.
Shanghai has always been a city of fast paced life and constant change. One of the best example is the fate of grand hotel shooting star, the Majestic Hotel on Bubbling Well Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu). As seen on a 1932 map, the hotel was occupying an enormous plot, on what is today Nanjing Xi Lu, from Jiangning Lu all the way to Taixing lu.
The building and its park were originally the McBain residence, of a successful business man who represented Shell (among others) in China, and sold the property to Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels company.
Renovation and transformation of the building was given to Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente in 1924. The inside yard was covered to be converted into the dining room, modern sanitary and heating system was installed and the facade was covered with marble. The garden remained despite the addition of a winter garden and a massive ballroom that became the center of Shanghai Social life for the upper class for a few years.
Pictures of the winter garden shows the opulence of the place. The Majestic hotel was the best and most luxurious in Shanghai and one of the leading hotels in the World from it’s opening in 1924, being the jewel of the Hong Kong and Shanghai hotels company. The gigantic ballroom became the place where the most important official parties took place, including St Andrew’s and St George’s, the Washington and the Russian ball as it was the largest venue in Shanghai, able to host more than 1000 guests.
The ballroom was one of the main point where Shanghai dancing craze started, with a jazz band featuring, local stars such as Serge Ermoll and Whitey Smith. In 1927, the Majestic Ballroom was the location of a major event, the wedding of Chiang Kai Shek, the ruler of China then, and Song Meiling (See the Soong Sister for more information). In 1929, Hollywood star Douglas Fairbank and his wife Mary Pickford visited Shanghai and stayed at the Majestic, underlining its success on Shanghai scene.
With all its grandeur, the Majestic Hotel proved to big and too luxurious to be really profitable, and the hotel was sold to developers at the end of 1929. At the same period, the Cathay hotel (today’s Fairmont Peace Hotel) opened on the Bund. The Majestic hotel ballroom finally closed in 1931. The massive land was separated in several lots, including the one where Majestic Theater was built in 1941. The former location of the hotel is similar to the one of today’s Westgate Mall on Nanjing Xi lu.
Having lived for years on former Route Kaufmann (today Anting Lu), my daily routine took me to the Zhao Jia Bang lu metro station, at the intersection of Route Dufour (today Wulumuqi Nan Lu) and Route de Ziccawei (today Zhao Jia Bang Lu). This area is also the location of Shanghailander Cafe & bakery.
Having spent a lot of time in cafes in many places in the World, opening my own would surely be quite some fun. Although the name can be misleading, I have no link with this establishment, as a number of friends and readers have asked. Since I pass in front of this place nearly every day, I tried it and can recommend both the pastry and the coffee. The link with Old Shanghai does not stop with the Shanghailander name, as the Chinese name 聚付 is also significant, as it was the Chinese name of Route Dufour, former name of Wulumuqi Nan Lu.
Route Dufour was constructed between 1918 and 1921 and was named after a French employee of the Standard Oil who was killed in WWI. Most buildings in the bottom stretch of the street are not original, but they kept the right style. A notable building not far on the same street is the former Shanghai Nursing Home, that is now hidden in the trees and hosting many families. Much more visible is the Dufour apartment building, one of the lesser known Art Deco wonders of Shanghai.
The location of Shanghailander Cafe has only become popular for cafes and bars in the last few years, with the transformation of parts of the Former French Concession in a trendy area. Starting to be inhabited in the 1920s and 1930s, this area was residential and quiet, considered like the suburb of Shanghai. The proximity to the end of the French concession, the Zhao Jia Bang Creek (where the main road is now located) was surely not a good location for a cafe.
As show on this advertising for the long gone Jing An Cafe House, Cafe culture is nothing new to Shanghai, and coffe have spread everywhere in the last few years. When I wrote the post “Shanghai Coffee Culture” in 2010, Shanghai Coffee drinking was all about coffee chains and some old timers like Deda Cafe. In the meantime, independent coffee shops have opened up everywhere… and some have already disappeared (see Boona Cafe and Citron Cafe post for more details) in the fast pace of Shanghai business. In new Shanghai, cafes have become trendy again, just like in Old Shanghai.
Being in the subtropical zone, Shanghai weather varies strongly over the course of the year.
Summers tends to be very hot, with the back ground noise of cicadas (see post Singing trees and Shanghai heat), the damp atmosphere feeling more like tropical Saigon. On the opposite, winters are cold and damp (See post freezing Shanghai). While snow is rare (see post snow in Shanghai), the humidity makes living in the city really miserable for a few days. Mid-season between those Scylla and Charybdis are really nice, and best to visit Shanghai either in spring, or in Autumn.
Shanghai sub tropical sun light is very strong and a few sunny hours tend the change the city mood really fast. This is why most houses face South, as light coming directly inside the home will brightens up the dampest winter day. In the rare days of winter sunshine, lanes fill up with hanging clothes and bedding, the sun light being most effective to chase away bugs and humidity of the old houses.
Best days for me are also those blue sky days in winter, even better late winter or early spring. Winter time is a particularly great time to look at old architecture in the former concessions. While plane trees leafs provide a nice shadow in the summer, they tend to cover up low rise buildings from the 1920s and 30s. Winter see the leafs disappear and the buildings appearing clearly. It’s a great time to walk around, look at the buildings and take photographs. With the spring a few days away, buds will soon open before becoming leafs. They will recreate the charming green vault overlooking the streets, but will also cover Old Shanghai low rise buildings. With a few days to enjoy it, every day of blue sky is an opportunity to discover more about Old Shanghai, so just go out and look around before it’s too late… for this year.
The name of Casablanca is largely associated with the 1940s, thanks to Michael Curtiz’s movie from 1942. I had heard from friends that the city center had a number of Art Deco buildings and hotels, so this large port city became part of our Morocco trip, but nothing could prepare me for the shock of so much Art Deco in one place.
Shanghai and Casablanca have a number of interesting common points. They are both large port cities and subtropical, located slightly above the Tropic of Cancer. Although they have been used as ports for centuries, both cities were largely developed in the early part of the 20th century thanks to export of exotic goods from the hinterland to West colonial powers. This greatly influenced the architecture of both cities. All these similarities, give a strong sense of familiarity to a Shanghai visitor to Casablanca. Like new western district were build around Shanghai Old City while preserving it, Casablanca Western city was built next to the Old Medina, that is still inhabited. With a similar structure, history and timing, Casablanca and Shanghai shared a similar architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco.
Although numerous Shanghai Art Deco buildings remains in the city today, many have been demolished and the city center has changed a lot since the 1930s. What is fascinating with Casablanca, is that little has changed. Most of the 1920s to 1940s buildings are still in place, and Art Deco clearly flourished in Casablanca. In the central district, nearly every single building is a declination of the Art Deco style. French young artists and architects (like Majorelle) moved to Morocco and used the city to experiment with the then modern style. Local crafts were used to create unique pieces for the new style. In Shanghai, Chinese wood carving skills were in Art Deco furniture. In Casablanca, the most visible is the use of plaster and ceramic inherited from islamic art, to create exterior sculpture on buildings and mosaics.
Like in Shanghai, early 20th century heritage has been used but largely neglected for decades. Shanghai has its Historic Shanghai association, Casablanca has Casa Memoire. The association’s map was very useful for an overview of the best places to see, although the best is sometimes (just like in Shanghai), just off the beaten track.
Although Casablanca the movie was not fimed here, an American former diplomat has opened a real life version of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca. The bar definitely has the right atmosphere, an evocation of the 1930s or 40s, reminding me of Shanghai’s own M on the Bund. A great way to close this short stay in Casablanca.
Our short Morocco trip took us to Essaouira, a sea side resort that is famous for its constant climate all around the year. Before air travel, it was the cooling station for Marrakesh and Casablanca, just like Qingdao or Yantai were for Shanghai. Essaouira has a small and pretty Medina with narrow streets to protect from the wind (now protected as UNESCO heritage) and a few Art Deco buildings. The medina is surrounded by a city wall, originally designed by a disciple of 18th century French architect Vauban.
The current main square overlooking the sea was clearly made by taking down parts of the Medina wall to clear space in the early 1920s, when the city was called Mogador. Near the square stands Beau Rivage hotel, with is modernist style and its ground floor Café de France that has kept is Moorish Art Deco interior.
The other spot of Art Deco buildings are villas along the beach, South from the old town. This area feels quite similar to places Miami Beach, Long Beach California or Bondi Beach in Sydney. The beach side is now a mix of modern hotels and apartment blocks with a few Art Deco beach villas remaining.
I managed to talk with an old man enjoying the sunset on the balcony of one of the them. “This house was built for the director of the regional veterinary administration, in 1948, under the French protectorate” he said. For the French civil servants, posting in Mogador must have been quite a remote location, but having a nice villa on the beach to watch the sunset was a pretty nice compensation.
The really interesting part is that I had always thought that French Art Deco stopped with WW2. It seems that in Morocco, Art Deco continued well in the late 1940’s and maybe further, just like it continued in Asia (See post Frankenstein Art Deco). Casablanca architecture was also influenced by California in the 1940s, so the trend of Art Deco beach villas came all the way to Mogador, just like it came all the way to Qingdao, Yantai and other sea side resorts in China.