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, 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, 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 (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.

Timelessness – Face Bar

Face Bar Shanghai
Face Bar Shanghai

Face Bar is not “in”, it’s not a fashionable location but it is quintessentially part of the Shanghai spirit. Face Bar is located in one of the smaller building of the former Morriss Mansion, now Rui Jin Guest House. The front entrance looks at the park of hotel, and the back entrance is a few steps away from Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Zhong Lu). Although this building is not the main one of the compound, it’s a large and impressive mansion with 3 floors. I’m not a great fan of the terrace. It’s a cozy place, but as it’s spread out along the alley, the isolation of the tables from each others gives the feeling that you are alone in the world, while letting people at the next table fully comprehend your conversation.

I particularly like Face Bar in the winter at 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, drinking high tea in the veranda, looking at sun rays painfully piercing through the clouds. It’s cold outside, but the inside is jut warm enough. Just a little sunshine gives a pre-feeling of the winter. There are not so many people at this time on a lazy Sunday giving the atmosphere a feeling of great intimacy and timelessness. The whole winter gloom suddenly disappears while lying one of the Chinese beds. No need for opium to travel in the comfort of the wooden canopy. The world outside this wooden protection has become just the show that I am spectator of. Time stops while lying on this carpet as magic as the one of Aladdin.

Face Bar also has a restaurant upstairs, serving Thai food. There again, the old walls and old wood give you the feeling that you are on a time travel… to old colonial Asia. Flavors and atmosphere of various Asian countries mix, to create this subtle ambiance. Face Bar also has a third floor in the attic, cozy and charming, with a balcony overlooking the park.
The genius of the architect is to have preserved and used the old building where the bar is located. It has created an establishment that seems somehow straight out of the settlements time, while  very contemporary. Like their ancestors in the “Cercle Sportif” of the old Shanghai, today’s expat meet there for drinking a Gin-and-Tonic, chatting with friends, enjoying a cigar and play a game of pool. Under this veranda, the year could be 1920, 1930, 1990 or 2050… it does not really matter. Face Bar is a timeless place, one of those where my mind starts to imagine that I actually live in the old Shanghai.

UPDATE: Face Bar Shanghai as now been closed since late 2008. A new Little Face has opened on Donghu lu in April 2009. Nothing of the grandeur of the old Face Bar, but just enough to help waiting for the opening of a Brand New Face that everyone is missing.

Decadence on the Bund

It’s another Sunday, waking up when most of the mornings hour have already vanished. I am thinking of going to brunch, which is just another way of forgetting that breakfast should have happened a few hours ago… when I was still in the first hours of my sleep. I’m looking at time passing so slowly and so fast at the same time, feeling somewhat guilty of this lost morning of free time. I could have used all this time for the many interesting things that have always been planing but never done, instead of staying in my bed, recovering from last night’s dancing and drinking. I’m trying to remember what I did last night. Snapshots of drinks, dance music and happy people come back to my mind. We talked about going to a new club where a famous Dutch DJ was playing last night… instead I ended up in old favorite Bar Rouge.
There is only one bar like this in Shanghai. It opened about 2 years ago along with the restaurant below (Sens & Bund). Brand new design in an old ostentatious building, bringing a team of French managers and skillful bar tenders with them. Management probably initially thought that Bar Rouge would be “The bar of Sens & Bund” … when this very bar has become infinitely more successful than the restaurant below. Some people love it, some people hate it, but everybody in town has been to Bar Rouge at least once… I have long lost count of how many evenings I have enjoyed on the 7th floor of Bund 18 looking at LuJiaZui towers on the other side of the river… or the amount of money I have spent there, that only somewhat equals the amount of bad things people have told me about this place.
Yes! Bar Rouge is the center of attentiong the newly rich foreigners as well as jet setters and posh tourists in Shanghai. Yes! people go there to be seen, much more than to enjoy and everybody seems to try being just something else than what they really are. Yes! Service can be appaling on overcrowded weekends if you don’t know the bar tenders personaly. Yes! prices are astronomical compared to Shanghai bar scene, not to mention the local living standard BUT this is exactly why Bar Rouge is so great. Managers of foreign multinational companies, Russian models looking for a salary complement, new stars of the Chinese Media, winners of the “end of communism” game, foreign trainees looking for a little more of student life, foreign tourists looking for some posh action or maybe a little trouble at half the price of home, entrepreneurs celebrating business successes, Chinese working women willing to become your instant friend for the night, foreign buyers from all nationalities recovering from hours of drive on terrible roads visting factories, a new generation of young Chinese enjoying the fun of parties and nightlife, business visitors shown how much China is a “hardship posting”, foreigners coming to Shanghai to study Chinese and ending in the most foreign place of the city, all of them and many more dress up and enjoy the pure decadence of the this place, the ablaze Champagne bottles, colorful lab tubes in ice, heavy cigar smoke, flamming bar and Formula One style Champagne aboundantly shaken by the beat of the dance music spinned around by excellent DJ’s.
I don’t always want to, but more often than not I find myself ending up in Bar Rouge. There are so many other great places in Shanghai, but going there is somewhat convulsive… there are nights that I just need to go there, because only there can you find this kind of atmosphere. There is true feeling of old Shanghai in this place. Like the Majestic dance hall, the New World and the Paramount in their times Bar Rouge is the place where Shanghai business people show off their success and release from the stress of the intoxicating life of this city. A night spent there makes you feel just how Shanghai is becoming a world city again.

Opening post

It’s a warm night in Shanghai, and after discussing it many times with friends, I am starting this blog. There are already many blogs about Shanghai or about the experience of foreigners in China. I will try to add my little original touch to this electronic mess. This blog is dedicated to Shanghai both old and new.

By “Old Shanghai”, most people understand Shanghai during colonial times, i.e. from the settlement of Shanghai (1842) before the “liberation” of China by the communist party (1st October 1949).
By “New Shanghai”, I mean the change of the city from sleeping beauty until the opening fast development of the city from the early/mid nineties.

This also includes present times, as Shanghai is still a city in rapid transformation both in its appearance and socially. My fascination and love are for both periods in a different ways, this is why I have tried to share this double passion in the same blog. I hope you will enjoy reading this blog, as much I enjoy living here.