Piazza Regina Elena, Tientsin

Feeling like in Italy
Feeling like in Italy

This post is not strictly about Shanghai, but about its little less known sister, TianJin. Shanghai colonial is well known, researched and documented… but it was not the only treaty port. Along the Chinese coast other international concessions were built on with foreign buildings, including ShaMienDao (Guangzhou), GuLanYu (Xiamen), Qingdao (old German colony) and Tianjin (Tientsin). Tianjin was surely the most developed of the treaty ports after Shanghai, having been the location for up to 8 concessions (French, English, German, American, Austrian-Hungarian, Russian, Belgian and Italian). I had always heard that very little remain of the old buildings until a friend actually went there and took a tour. In fact, although quite a bit has been destroyed, the Tianjin municipality is doing a great job at keeping and restoring the remains. The most amazing part is probably the Italian concession.
The Italian concession was created in 1902 and is probably the only Italian colony in Asia. It was located on the North side of the Hai He river, between the Russian one and the Austrian-Hungarian one, connected with the French concession by the “International Bridge”. The main attraction is Piazza Regina Elena (earlier named Piazza Marco Polo) and the surrounding streets. The area is a gem as most building are now restored in their original state.  It was described as bustling with life and noise before 1949 and was surely overpopulated afterwards, but it is now deserted. The renovation project was supposed to come along with an Italian-Chinese touristic development. Renovation was done by the Chinese part, but the Italian partners seem to have disappeared. The Sunday we were there, streets were empty apart from the occasional car and the weather was really hot. Looking at the statue on Piazza Marco Polo, it felt like we were enjoying the hot summer in a small town in Italy, thousand miles away from China.
Having walked through the English and French concession to reach the Piazza, we were dreaming of pizza and ice cream looking at this Italian ghost town in China. The wait was not in vain, since an Italian restaurant has opened its door in one of the villas around the plaza. “Buitoni’s” chef probably never went near a real Italian dish judging by the poor quality of the pizza. However, along with a nice gelato and an espresso, it just did the trick. It was the perfect end for our short trip to this little piece of Italy in China.

Back from the dark side

I did not write posts recently, going on vacation after weeks of writing slowed down by technical problems. The summer break was a great opportunity to take a step backward from life in Shanghai. My first trip was to Thailand, to relax in a Ko Samui detox resort. Shanghai hectic life comes with a price, and fasting for a few days was a great thing to do. People kept on saying I was so relax when I came back, it must really have done something to me… but this was only a preparation for the main event of the summer, a trip to the Democratic People Republic of Korea, i.e. North Korea. Since there is no Internet and mobile phones are forbidden there, I was out of the world’s touch for nearly a week.
North Korea was a real time travel. Having lived now for more than 12 years in countries that had (or have) a communist regime it was final opportunity to live through what I had heard so much of before… and I was not disappointed. The whole tour was about visiting monuments to the glory of “The Eternal Leader, President Kim Il Soon”… who died about 15 years ago. His son took over, but it’s has Korean barely noticed with Kim Il Soon portraits ubiquitous in the city. Just like people visiting the East block in the 1960’s, we kept on visiting enormous and empty monuments, being repeated the same three ideas again and again, i.e. “The Evil American created the Korean war by attacking us”, “Re-unification of Korea should come immediately, starting with Americans leaving the peninsula”, “Kim Il Soon was the greatest leader of the 20th Century and we owe him our wonderful current conditions”. The brain washing was intense, and after 5 days I got sick of it. We saw only the “nice” part of PyongYang, but its state of disrepair is far beyond any Eastern European cities in the late 80’s. Taking a trip to a small town near the DMZ and the train back to China was a shock. There are simply no cars on the streets out of PyongYang, and walking seems the only mean of transport. We only saw the best part of North Korea, I cannot even imagine what is the worst.
The 5 days trip highlight was the Arirang festival, the world famous Mass Games that counts roughly 100.000 participants. The show was fantastic, comparable (if not bigger) to the Olympic games opening ceremony. North Korea is not a high tech country, so the show mainly relies on thousands of dancers. The most impressive is surely the backdrop of the stage, with 30.000 kids sitting there showing colored cards that create a giant animated mosaic. The show itself is well worth the travel, and helps to forget about the rest of the tour that is not the nicest travel I have done so far.
Coming back to China was a real relief. North Korea is surely similar to China in the 60’s or 70’s and going there helped understand what Chinese people have been through. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to be back in China. It was like coming back to reality, 21st century… and freedom (!). My first action back to Shanghai was to go to my favourite French restaurant and enjoy a meal on a terrace with a glass of wine, trying to forget the prison feeling from North Korea as soon as possible. Unfortunately, coming back to China, I also learned about the sudden death of the one friend that I wanted to share my North Korea trip with. He will be dearly missed.

First Russian Bakery & Tkachenko

Writing the last post about Paul bakery attracted my attention to bakeries in the old Shanghai. There was a lot of foreigners but not that many French (probably about 1200 in the French concession at most). Still, from the documents I read and knowledge about European culture, there must have been bakeries in Shanghai to satisfy foreign (and Chinese appetites). The best place to look was surely my 1938 version of the Shanghai Dollar diary (more about it in an upcoming post).
I looked into the “bakery” entry of this older version of the phone book and found out 15 entries. I remember reading that the bakery business in the 30’s was run by many Russians in Shanghai. By looking at the names of the shop, at least 5 of them were run by Russians. The most obvious was First Russian bakery, Tchakalian (more about in a further post) and Tkachenko.
First Russian bakery is pictured right (picture is from the website of the Shanghai municipal archives). Located on 234-236 Avenue du Roi Albert (This now Shanxi Nan Lu, the location was approximately opposite Parkson on the other side of Shanxi Nan Lu). This was the urban art of the French Concession where many small apartment buildings were built, not far from Cathay Apartments, Brooklyn Court and the Cercle Sportif Francais. I will have to check, but if the building still exist, it’s probably a cloths shop nowadays.
Tkachenko bakery was also pictured on the same website.
As you can see, they were located in a large mansion of early Shanghai style. This is surely a much earlier building than the one of First Russian Bakery, but it was located only about 15 minutes walk away from it. 640-642 Avenue Joffre is today HuaiZhong lu, north side about half way between Yan Dang Lu and Sinan Lu. It’s approximately opposite the current Sephora shop. The original building was torn down since, probably in the 1990’s. This Avenue Joffre location was a bakery but also a Cafe and Restaurant (as seen on the picture). it would have been the ideal place to stop after shopping on Avenue Joffre (just like Paul today). It was typical of this part of the French Concession that attracted a lot of the White Russians and took the nickname of little Russia. Tkachenko also had factory and confectionery on Nearby Route des Soeurs (today RuiJin Er Lu), just after the corner with Nanchang lu.
This setup of having a shop on a prime location with a factory and confectionery in different location is very similar to today’s Visage chocolate shop and bakery (with its shop in XianTianDi and bakery and confectionery at the cross of HongQiao Lu and HuaiHai lu). The nearest thing to today’s Paul was probably the Tchakalian bakery, but this will the topic on another post.

Paul’s Gospel

This bakery chain opened its first shop in Shanghai one year ago only. In this short time they have changed life here. For sure they were not the first bakery in Shanghai, but others with similar bread quality generaly hide in high end hotels. The great idea of Paul is to create shops in high street locations. Their concept of Bakery / Coffee shop is just the right thing for Shanghai, complemented by a restaurant in a few locations. Paul has fresh bread and pastries on offer and it has become such a recognised brand name amongst the urban clique living in the center of Shanghai… that it’s difficult to remember how we could live here before they opened.
Some of the shops really match the French touch of the bakery with the french touch of the French concession. I particularly enjoy the one at the corner of Avenue Joffre and Avenue Cardinal Mercier (Huai Hai Zhong Lu and Maoming Nan Lu). It is located in the building of the only remaining Shanghai restaurant from the old time (The red house). The bakery fits perfectly in the renovated building, located in one of the best preserved corners of the French Concession, opposite the Cathay theater. Paul creates a modern and fashionnable place to be for the new Shanghai generation, as well as bringing essential confort for the expat community and helping recreate some of the old spirit. This location is fast becoming an essential stop after intense shopping in the cloths shops down the street. It is a revival of the old time when people would browse the highly fashionnable shops of the Avenue Joffre and stop for a coffee around this area (for example in the Cercle Sportif Francais or the Cathay Appartments).
The DongPing lu store is also located in a spot evocating the old time. The shop’s building itself looks old (though it is not), but it is mostly the surrounding that creates the “French Concession” atmosphere. This section of “Rue Francis Garnier” hosted the house of T.V Soong (inherited from his father, where the family grew up), the one of Chiang Kai Check and the one of HH Kung (married with Soong Ailing). The pane trees, small street and old houses along with fresh bread make it feel just like Europe.
I used to bike for 20 minutes to the XinTian Di shop, buy my bread and come back to Jiajia waiting for me with fresh coffee. Riding in the small streets of the french Concession under the pane trees, I felt I was in 1938… not 2008. Instead of going to the Church every Sunday, I would go to Paul every Saturday religiously. Nowadays with the Dong Ping Lu Paul very near to my home in the French concession, getting fresh bread on Saturday morning is just a short walk. Paul has answered the prayers of some of the Shanghai inhabitant, asking for quality bread. Let’s pray for their success and long life in Shanghai.

The Haipai ruler

Going to antic markets is always like a treasure hunt. Finding things is a matter of luck, but also of knowledge. The best example is surely this little envelop that I found last week. I had seen it before but never really noticed it. It’s a pretty banal object, a envelop for a drawing tool that came with it. It has become grey with time and usage but the prints are still clearly visible. The ruler in it is still stainless and nearly as new (see picture below).
Having seen it so many times, what attracted my attention on that occasion is the similarities with pictures in a book I am currently reading about art in the 1920’s and 30’s in old Shanghai, and in particular print art (I will make an introduction to this book in a later post). Reading about the evolution of the fonts used for printing the characters, I could recognize that this one is pretty unusual. The characters used in this very simple object are very carefully designed, in a similar way to the sophisticated youth and art magazines of the time. In particular, the fonts used for the middle characters are really special with very wide vertical strokes against very thin horizontal strokes. The geometrical shape of the characters shows the clear influence of the modern painting and design. There is something “art deco” about it.
This is typical of the the Shanghai style, or Haipai. At written on the envelop, the ruler was made by a Shanghai company. It is a simple drawing tool, an industrial mass consumption product but the envelop design really gave it a very modern look for the time. Along with the “International Brand” ( with the logo with plane and earth), the design gave the impression to the buyer that he was getting a piece of this bright new world on display in magazines and posters. Haipai styling was not limited to newspapers, books and other intellectual objects but also also applied to more usual objects, making them truly Shanghainese. This simple object is a true reflection of Shanghai at that time, a true Shanghai product.

The Nanjing Ticket

KMT flag

This is not strictly about Shanghai, but closely related. The president of the main Taiwanese political party in power has come to visit China this week. In view of the relations between Taiwan and the mainland, this is incredible enough, but the most stunning is that his party is the Kuomintang, i.e. the very party that dominated China, before being chased out by the communists in 1949 and take refuge in Taiwan.

The Kuomintang was founded in Dr Sun Yat Sen in 1912 who is largely seen as the father of the nation on both sides of the straight. From its base in Guandong, the party took over the whole China lead by Chiang Kia Shek in 1927. From that point on the capital of the nation became Nanjing where Dr Sun Yat Sen was also buried.

KMT flag in aviation building Shanghai
The hidden KMT flag

The “Generalissmo” actually spent a lot of time in Shanghai, living in his villa in the French Concession (Dong Ping lu) with his wife Soong Meiling. He was  highly interested in the development of Shanghai as a city, unifying the Chinese city around the foreign concessions and pressing for construction of the Shanghai civic Center in Jiangwan district. The Kuomintang logo used in  decoration of buildings 70 years ago is still visible in today’s Shanghai (like this one in the former aviation society building) though you may have to search a little.

Since Nanjing had such an importance for the Kuomintang’s history, it is not surprising to see the most important visit of he Taiwanese leader in Mainland China to start there. As the Chinese press underlined, the Taiwanese leader came to the city to honor the tumb of the father of the nation, Sun Yat Sen, and because of the “great links between Jiangsu province and Taiwan province”. It is also highly charged in symbolism for the Taiwanese for this visit to start in Nanjing, that used to be the capital of China ruled by the Kuomintang.

Wu Poh-hsiung, the leader of the ruling Kuomintang in the “Republic of China” (i.e. Taiwan) then met the leader of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China (Hu Jing Tao) in Nanjing. His visits finished in Shanghai, meeting with Taiwanese businessmen that are in high number in the city. Many Shanghainese families fled to Taiwan (as well as HongKong) after communist liberation in the late forties and many still have ties in the city. Many have come back, some trying to claim the family property confiscated by the government 40 years ago.

From an historical point of view, the visit is of prime importance. The rumors has it that direct flights from mainland to Taiwan are on the way, replacing the indirect flight through Hong Kong. With direct flights to Taipei, Shanghai would be even more of a modern city.

Empire of the Sun

I remember the movie’s poster when it came out in 1987. Steven Spielberg was already famous, though not the star that he is now but the movie was much talked about. I did not see it then, and it’s only recently that I realized its connection with old Shanghai.
Based on life of JG Ballard, Empire of the Sun tells the story of a young English boy left alone in Shanghai during the 1941 Japanese invasion of the International Settlement and his life throughout the war until being re-united with his parents in 1945. The most interesting was that the movie was fully filmed in Shanghai in 1986, before the real estate boom in Shanghai.
The first part of the movie takes place in the city itself and the remake of old Shanghai is simply stunning. The scene on the Suzhou creek bridge is exactly as one can see on the period photographs. The movie makers imported old cars and rebuilt parts that had been destroyed. The scene overlooking the Bund is also amazing with the level of details involved. The Bund used to be a street as well as a parking lot with a little cabin in the middle. The actual movie looks just like the old postcards. They even rebuilt the WWI victory statue that was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the settlement. There is also a scene in front of a theater that is located just behind the Bund and was used as a club called New York New York a few years later. The movie perfectly rebuilt the crowd and atmosphere of the period and its clear that historians were involved to recreate the past. The most stunning was the documentary on the DVD, showing pictures of the Bund in 1986… helping to understand the enormous work involved for the decors. The film also involved hundreds (if not thousand) of people for creating the enormous crowd of refugees and people pushed back by the Japanese army invading the settlement. One scene was even filmed in the Peace hotel overlooking the Bund. The scenes with the Japanese army coming into the settlement are also very impressive, and must have brought back a lot of memories to many Chinese people who went through this period.
With a good knowledge of Shanghai, it’s also easy to spot the points that were not actually filmed on the spot. In particular, what is supposed to be the Cathay Hotel entrance (with a Cathay Hotel sign) is certainly not the actual hotel entrance. The villa where the boy live with his parents is also not in Shanghai. I have not seen any picture of this particular villa in Shanghai, and it would have been in a much too good state after 40 years of bad treatment. Moreover, buildings where built after 1949 in most gardens of the original villas as the density of people increase rapidely. I believe that the villa scenes inside and outside were filmed in England… in villas from the same period. The neighboring villas are Faux-Tudor like the ones in Shanghai and were probably built in the same period as well.
Finally, the camp scenes were not filmed in China. First of all, the sandy desert ground is surely not in the Shanghai region but looks much more like spain (one of the filming location). However, the style of the buildings re-created is very near to the original Shanghai style and the remake of the LongHua Pagoda (near which JG Ballart was actually interned) is also very close to the original. The only thing missing is the LongHua airport terminal that would have been between the tracks and the pagoda… i.e. exactly where the camp is build. One point I am not sure of yet, is where the green house of the ending scene is. It could be the one of the Shanghai botanical garden, but it also could be in many other places.
In any case, the remake of old Shanghai in the city itself is just amazing, and the attention to details given to the other parts of the movie make it a must see for Old Shanghai enthusiasts. For current Shanghai resident, it is amazing to see how Xu Jia Hui looked like before thre real estate boom of the 90’s and later. I wish the more recent movies about old Shanghai would pay such an attention to details.

Breaking the wall

If you are a frequent reader of Shanghailander.net, you probably have realised that the blog has changed of provider a few times recently. This has been quite a pain and took a lot of time away from actual writing but was necessary. Until a few days ago, Shanghailander.net could not be read from China… This has finally been changed by moving the whole blog to my own platform instead of a blog provider. Since typepad.com (my old platform) is still not accessible from China.. this was the only way. I am still not happy totally with the result… but the main point is “My blog about Shanghai can finally be read in Shanghai”. Enjoy reading

Paramount’s suicide

Parmamount outside view
Parmamount outside view

Paramount Club was the hippest dancing hall in old Shanghai. The main hall had a big orchestra playing jazz and twist tunes for the enjoyment of the dancing crowd. Taxi girls, romance and gangsters in the corners, Paramount had it all. Fortunately, the building survived until today, having kept it’s tower and a big part of its style. It is still a landmark of Shanghai. The top floor or the building still hosts a broadway style musical. It is far from broadway’s quality but one can have diner in style there, while watching a live musical. It’s not what it used to be, but the old lady still manages to keep up appareances. Going to the paramount show is one of those old Shanghai moments that I affectionate so much.
The outside of the building has more or less kept it’s original shape and inside was also preserved in original state… until recently. This is the much talked about renovation of the Paramount. I had heard about it and ended up one night there. Having seen the original I was expecting the worse… and the worse it is. Some Taiwanese investor spread a large amount of money on this venerable old lady and just turned it into a disaster. The entrance has been transformed with bad design, not to mention the chandeliers (cheap copies Philippe Starck’s Bar Rouge ones). This is supposed to impress… it probably does impress peasants from the countryside, but Paramount’s lobby is very far to be the most elegant or the most original of Shanghai’s bars. The entrance is bad enough, but the main room is the worst. If you like nightclubs in second and third tiers cities in China… you will feel right at home in the new Paramount. There is not one single fixture from the old room that can be recognized. Everything has been done to destroy or cover the old walls. The same club in any brand new shopping center or 1970’s concrete building could have been built the same way. Forget the original parquet, the balconies and the charm of this old lady.

Inside of modern Paramount Club
Inside of modern Paramount Club

The worst is not even there. Where Bar Rouge designers managed to hide the age and create a hype and highly original place without the old colonial atmosphere of places like Glamour Bar, Face or Lounge 18. Muse or Muse2 (ex Wynn’s win) designers did the same in another genre, and all those places definitely have an originality and an atmosphere. One may not like them all, but they are memorable. Paramount is memorable for it’s dullness. I am sure that the new owner spent millions to redecorate it, but it does not get anywhere near the fine establishments mentioned above. Paramount clearly remind me of clubs I visited in Chengdu or in Guilin… not of Shanghai’s cream of the crop. The worst is probably the sound that was so bad in the building. Please somebody teach them how to set their sound system properly.

I have read a number of articles flattering this new club… we must not have been to the same place… or the articles were written after a few free boozes generously offered by the club owner. The saddest part of the story is not that some Taiwanese entrepreneur spent a lot of money on creating something that is just bad. This could have been done anywhere, without destroying one of the few remaining Shanghai’s old icons. At the time when parts of the old Shanghai are used to create a great mix of the old and the new, Paramount’s owners just did not get anywhere near that.

Building Shanghai

Book cover
Book cover

I had this book stored on my shelf since I bought it a few months ago. Winter coming, bad weather and renewed interest kind of melted together pushing me to open it again. “Building Shanghai” looks at first like of those coffee table books, that you look at every now and then and you leave around just to look nice when people come and visit you. This book is really nice to look at, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a history of Shanghai from an architectural point of view. With several maps of the old Shanghai compared with the new one, I was able to locate quite a number of buildings I had noticed in the street and know about their history and architectural style. What is more fascinating is to look at some of those photograph, and to realize that I passed some great buildings every day without notice them… as they have been covered or altered with terrible expansions or additions that make impossible to recognize anymore.
As much as I am appalled by the current destruction of Shanghai architectural heritage, I also have to admit that destroying grand building a few years old to replace them by something even grander has always been part of the Shanghai history, and that some buildings that we revere today as antics were horrible creations mixing very diverse kind of styles in Frankenstein-like creation. Similarly in the old and new Shanghai, architects are pushed over the limits by landlord willing to deliver a message with their buildings… but only end up showing how bad tastes they have.
Finally I enjoyed in this book the great love of the authors for the old Shanghai and it’s preservation… as well as the love of Shanghai as a modern city and how to continue it’s expansion while avoiding expending it’s monstrous aspect to much. I’m not sure this has been the priority of Shanghai’s planners until now… but hopefully this attitude is already changing in some districts.