To do on a rainy day, Shanghai history museum

Shanghai Oriental Pearl towerShanghai history museum is one of these things that has been on my to-do list since several years. It took a rainy Sunday to get me to visit it. Focusing on 1920’s Shanghai, it would be perfect somewhere in the old concessions, in a renovated old house recreating colonial charm. At the contrary, it is located under the Oriental Pearl Tower, in the hear of Lujiazui skyscraper’s field. Going there on a rainy Sunday I was not expecting much, but it was a nice surprise.

The display is a nice and easy introduction to old Shanghai. Focusing on life like exhibition, it manages to put a great show and is quite entertaining. It definitely gives you the feel of a time travel to this period. I also appreciated that foreigners and their influence on Old Shanghai was not only described as evil and colonialist as it is still often in China. The show is very much unbiased, showing how the mix of foreign and Chinese influence created a very unique culture in Shanghai.

It is a good introduction to foreigner and Chinese visitors to the past of the incredible city we live in. Hopefully, it will help people to understand Shanghai heritage better. With a nice display about itself, Shanghai is becoming even more of a world city.

The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby

I still don’t understand how come I did not see this book in Shanghai… but bought it in Beijing instead. “The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby” is captioned by Graham Earnshaw as his “favorite book on old Shanghai by a long margin”. I knew the name of Graham Earnshaw throught Tales of Old Shanghai website, but I had not heard about the book before. After flipping through the pages for a minute, I bought on the spot and read it over in the train from North Korea.
The book is the mock diary of a one year old baby living with his parents in HongKou district. First published in 1924, it’s a first hand witness of the life of the Shanghailanders. It is a lot of fun to read about the live of the father going to play golf and spending hours drinking at the club or at the race course. Dady probably works to support the family, but little mention is made of it in the book. Mummy’s main occupation is to give away the baby to the Amah (as Ayi were called then) and take care of her appearance. Staying with the family, Auntie (surely Mama’s younger sister) is going out with a boy or another, but does not seem to have a lot of brain. As all the nearby places the baby goes to are located in HongKou district, mainly “HongKew park” (today’s LuShun Gong Yuan),  I guess the family lived in an appartment on Sichuan Bei Lu  or the neighboring streets not far from the Suzhou creek.
Like a number of today’s expatriates in Shanghai, the kid is mainly raised by the Chinese Amah, giving us a great view of the life of the chinese domestics in foreign houses. The story of the houseboy stealing socks from the master, or using the lady’s fine garments and toiletries for cleaning purposes are hillarious… and not so far from stories I have heard in today’s Shanghai. The Chinese servants run every practical aspects of the house with the foreign owners having little control or understanding of it. This is also not so different from today’s foreigners’ life in Shanghai.
The writing is easy to read and very humorous, with Elsie Mc Cormick making fun of foreign life in Shanghai. It is a great introduction to old Shanghai, but also contains many details of the period that make in an invaluable resource for research on this topic. The writer went back to the US in the 1930’s and started to write for the New Yorker later on. As a proof of a writer’s quality, you hardly can get better.

Brooklyn Court, Routes des Soeurs

People often ask me why I am so fascinated by old Shanghai. The answer is very simple, there is a sense of mystery about it, of uncovering a past that was long lost. In my (nearly five) years in Shanghai, a lot has been re-discovered and documented… but there is always something more to find.

ARCO logo on the wall
ARCO logo on the wall

Walking on the Ruijin lu 1, we passed an old building near the corner of Huai Hai Lu one spring evening. The buildings on the East side looks old and tarnished, particularly compared to the newly renovated Estrella Apartment, designed by Laszlo Hudec, on the opposite corner. We were looking at an old door in what was probably its grand entrance, when we noticed the sculpture on the wall (picture left). After some research, it became clear that the “ARCO” sign stands for “Asia Realty Company”. This American company was the largest property owner in Shanghai and had a large office building near the Bund. Like many others, the building has suffered a lot from the lack of maintenance, various episodes of Chinese history and the add-hoc transformation by residents. Despite all this, the sign of the original owner still stands in its place.

Street facade of Brooklyn Court
Street facade of Brooklyn Court

The facade on RuiJin Lu has seen better days, but would surely look great after some renovation. The bottom floor of the building is occupied with shops, as probably in the original design. Real-estate in this part of town was surely not cheap when this was built, and has become again very expensive. The building has three entrances, a central one large enough for cars to go through and two smaller one for access to other apartments. The main entrance of Brooklyn court leads to a back yard, passing by entrances to the apartments above and a cross shaped light well (picture down). The left entrance is occupied by a temporary socks shop. The ARCO sign is located right above the shop’s display on both sides. The shopkeeper was really surprised that I wanted to take a picture of this “thing on the wall” that she probably never noticed before.

Light well in Brooklyn Court
Light well in Brooklyn Court

In my old Shanghai documents collection, there is a rental contract for an apartment in building in what I thought was on Rui Jin Lu. The address of the property was “143H Rue des Soeurs”, which is quite different from the 243-245 Rui Jin Lu, where the ARCO building is. However, from an old map of the French concession, it shows that this particular section of Rui Jin Lu (from Avenue Joffre / Huai Hai Lu to Avenue Foch / Yanan Lu) was called Rue des Soeurs… the 143 Rue des Soeurs is this particular building. “Brooklyn Court” was clearly an upper class residence. This part of Avenue Joffre was an upscale area, with proximity to the “Cercle Sportif Francais”, The Cathay apartments, the Lyceum Theater, the French Park (now Fuxing Park) as well as the French municipality. This old piece of paper that I bought 2 years ago turns out to be a rental contract for an apartment in this particular building. Too bad it’s not valid anymore… Sounds like a great place to live.

Allez les Belges!

The 2008 Olympic games mainly take place in Beijing, but a small bit is happening is other cities. Of course, all finals and prestigious events will be in Beijing, but other cities got some leftovers. Shanghai was generously granted the right to host a few qualifier football game. It was very difficult to get tickets for Olympic events, and only few people I know actually flew to Beijing to attend. Since we got tickets for a game taking place in Shanghai, two metro stops away from home, we decided to give it a go.
The football game was Belgium – New Zealand, and the Belgium Consulate in Shanghai organized a gathering of Belgian people to support their team. Since the French team was not qualified for the tournament, I became a temporary supporter of the team of our friendly neighbors. The game was fun to watch in this crowd of Belgian expatriates who seem to get back some unity far away from the homeland. The French speaking people were shouting “Allez la Belgique”, the Flemish speaking shouting “Belgie” and the consensus ended up with “Belgium, Belgium” the country name in English (different from the one in French or in Flemish, being sort of a neutral ground). I even heard a few (Bilishe Jia You” Go Belgium” in Chinese). It was a nice evening followed by a few beers in local bar. Taking part (even a small one) in a world event like the Olympic was fun. Final score: Belgium 1, New Zealand 0.

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.