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Population Zoning in the former French Concession

May 20th, 2013 | 6 Comments

zones de répartition de la population 1 300x128 Population Zoning in the former French Concession

Urbanisation zones in the French Concession

I have often wondered how zones of Old Shanghai were urbanised, of there was any planning at all. I recently encountered a document showing occupation zones of the French Concession in 1934. The document is in French and I have not been able to ascertain its origin or its author, but here is it for sharing with the reader:

“Zones of population dispatch in the French Concession in 1934.

The dispatch of population was started from the beginning of the 20th century, continue following similar trends. From the cadaster study from 1934, the concentration of Chinese population is the highest near the Chinese city (Zone I). From the administration point of view, it is reserved for the native population; buildings of all styles can be erected, shops, factories in living quarters are mixed altogether.

Zone II is next to the business district (located in the International Settlement), occupied by many living quarters and Chines shops. The French municipality wanted to transform it into a ‘European City’ because of its size and it proximity with the business district but ambitions of the French municipality was never realized due to heavy cost of such a project. However, in order to smooth traffic and create more space between the buildings, it is decided to erect higher buildings in this area and avoid the anarchy of older constructions.

Zone III is occupied by shops and residence for the middle class. All constructions are allowed, but they must follow rules about aesthetic and keeping quiet around public facilities, including schools and hospital. Those exclude polluting or noise generating industries. European styles shops are favored on the street side, along with keeping space between buildings.

Zone IV is reserved for residential area and was further extended up to Xu Jia Hui. As a consequence, any factory not following “aesthetic rules” of the French municipality were prohibited so as to guarantee a western type of architecture and avoid pollution in this upper class area.”

It is interesting to compare this 1934 study with current urban development in Shanghai. Zone I is being totally transformed into a modern living area, along with the area  of Zone III where Xin Tian Di is located. At the same time, Zone VI has kept most of its charm and is now often referred as “the Former French Concession”, when it actually is part of it.

Wukang Lu Tourist Information Center

April 14th, 2013 | No Comments

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Wukang Lu Tourist Center Entrance

The Wukang Lu Tourist Information Center has been open for a few years now, and somehow always escaped me. Located on a tree lined street typical of the former French Concession, it would have been the perfect place to show people what this area was at the time it was created and how it compared to today’s transformation in the Shanghai equivalent to New York’s Greenwich Village, or Paris, Saint-Germain. Although it’s a nice effort from Xu Hui district, it still felt short of my expectations.

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Model of the Normandy building in Xu Hui

As the name says, it is a tourist center, not a museum. Located in a 1912 building, it includes a number of fake art deco fixtures (also called fako, see post “the rise of fako“). The result of a strangely shaped building with a mix and (not) match of decoration from architecture style is a little strange but not uncommon in today’s China. However the models of buildings on display are really nice. They are some masterpieces of the area and this presentation really shows them in original state.

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Fako decoration

What is really weird is that no reference is made to past names, usage or inhabitants of those buildings, nor is there any pictures displayed. It’s like this part of the city suddenly jumped out of nowhere, that the past never existed. At the same time, there is lot’s of space for today’s picture of the district and its various bars and restaurants, mixing old and new buildings without any regard for architecture style or time period. Just like some official books about Old Shanghai I mentioned (see post “Classical Buildings of Old Shanghai“), the view is taken today without any relationship with the past that created this very special part of the city. I can understand that some part of history are better not told publicly, but there are some places in Shanghai already taking about it, too bad they are located in Pudong when this tourist center would be the perfect place for it (See post about Shanghai history museum).

Instead of a source of information to understand and appreciate the area, we get an empty shell with little interest. This even more surprising has Wukang Lu has been the first (and only) place in Shanghai, to display the former name of the street as well as extra information of the buildings in the area (see post “What’s in a name“). This lack of past reference is similar to Xu Hui Art Museum, located on the site of a major former library in Old Shanghai… with no mention of it (see post “Hung Ying Library, 1413 Avenue Joffre”). At least Wukang lu Tourist Centers sells cards for using the rental bikes of Xu Hui district, a great way to visit the area.

The Blue Lotus

April 7th, 2013 | No Comments

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Original album cover

“The Blue Lotus”, Tintin’s adventures in China, was probably the first thing I learned about Shanghai. The reality of today’s city has little to do with this cartoon anymore, but the book was an inspiration to come to Shanghai for many of us. Although it was a work of fiction, this great depiction of the city’s past still has find echoes in shikumens or villas in the former French Concession.

The weekly black & white cartoons were originally published in children weekly supplement of Brussels’ daily news paper “twentith century” (‘Le Vingtième siècle”). Famous cartoonist Hergé set to send his report to China for his fifth adventure. Rarely leaving Brussels, he started deep researches on this country that he knew little about. His meeting with a young Chinese art student in Brussels created the elements for his new work.

chang 002 The Blue Lotus

Zhang Chongren

Born in Shanghai, Tchang Tchong-jen (Zhang Chong Ren in modern pinyin) studied painting in Tu Shan Wan art academy, that was founded by Jesuits priest in Xu Jia Hui. He was the nephew of Ma Xiang Bo (known in the west at Father Joseph Ma), a professor at Aurora University (run by the Jesuits brothers), who left it to start Fudan University. Just like many young Chinese, Tchang is highly interested in politics and wishes the end of the foreign concessions in China. He leaves China to Belgium on 23 rd September 1927, the day of the “Mukhden incident”, first step of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and meets Hergé during the early part of his stay.

Tintin 006 221x300 The Blue LotusTchang’s role in creating the cartoons really develops when Tintin reaches Shanghai. Being himself an artist, he strongly influences the drawing of the cartoon, making it so vivid that Hergé’s drawing sometimes looks like old photos of Shanghai.

Chinese characters used in the action and decors must have been drawn by him, including a number of secret messages, like political slogan demanding foreigners to leave China disguised as writing on walls. Some foreigners in the cartoon are seen as racists, exploiting poor Chinese people. Real pieces of news such as the “Mukhden Incident” are included in the story. Tchang is himself represented in the album as Tintin’s friend Tchang, demonstrating the link created between the two artists. Although this a biased view of a much more complex reality, the album carries the atmosphere of Shanghai at this period really well.

Having being instrumental in the cartoon creation, Tchang goes back to China in 1935, before the actual publication of the cartoon in “Le Petit Vingtième” newspaper. Having lost track because of the war and political events, Hergé will look for his friend for years, before finally meeting again in1981. The Blue Lotus remains one of the most wellknown Tintin album, having been published in several editions in France / Belgium and in China. Publication will be studied in a further post.

Dijon Art Deco

March 31st, 2013 | No Comments

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Art Deco door in Dijon

The beginning of this year has been really busy with work and travelling, leaving little or no time for writing. This particularl post is about a recent trip to my home city of Dijon in Burgundy. Although I have been there numerous times since I got interested in Art Deco, I only recently discovered the Art Deco heritage of the city (including the door picture left that definitely looks like some in Shanghai), so I made a post about it (after Paris, Lyon, BoulogneReims & Vichy).

Being an important city since the medieval time, Dijon’s architecture is a mix of the various styles from roman churches and medieval wood houses to Hausmann-style late 19th century apartment buildings. There are a few really nice Art Nouveau buildings in the city center and little Art Deco, but it only takes a few hundred meters in the right direction to find much more of it. Montchapet district was built on a hill from the early 20th century, just away from the core city of them. The lower streets are more Art Nouveau, but the higher the street, the later the construction and the more it turns to Art Deco.

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Art Deco House in Dijon

The gem of the neighborhood is surely this impressive house. It really shines thanks to its location at the top of a street. It was probably separated in two semi-detached houses from the origin, as the iron works on both sides are both sophisticate but different. Although the geometry of the house and the cut corners of the windows definitely make it Art Deco, balconies remind much more of French Renaissance Chateau style. The roof is really special, a modernized version of famous medieval tile roofs from the region, just like in the city center of Dijon or the Beaune medieval hospital. I have not found yet who the architect was but he really managed to make a mix of modernity and local traditions.

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Corner house in Dijon

The last part of my walk around involved what I call a “Shanghai Flashback” with the corner house in Dijon (left), reminding me of a corner house in Shanghai (down). Although I later realized both houses are not that similar, the corner roof shape really makes it feel like, thousands of kilometers away from each other.

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Corner house in Shanghai

Ruinovation on Duo Lun Lu

February 18th, 2013 | 4 Comments

duo lun lu 01 225x300 Ruinovation on Duo Lun Lu

2006 picture of the mansion

I have written before about the work of Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente in this blog. The most famous of his building was surely Antonio Ramos Summer Mansion built in 1924 on Duo Lun Lu in Hong Kou district. This particular building has been the object of study by Spanish architect Alvaro Leonardo from Polyfactory (click here to see his blog). To his surprise and horror, work has started on this unique building without much regards for its historical value. As for many in Shanghai, it is very far from historical renovation standards. A detailed report can be found at: http://polifactory.com/blog/patrimony-destroyed-at-250-duolun-rd/

It is not the first time in Shanghai that an old building historical interest has been severely diminished by ruinovation. We are still waiting of  the result of the former Collège Municipal Français that is also currently under renovation (I don’t hold my breath for that either). Another massive ruinovation was made on former Nanking Road (See post Plaza 353 ruinovation). Historical building renovation techniques have been developed for decades in Europe and European cities show great examples. Not many people seem to have heard about it Shanghai.

Feeling like European Winter

February 9th, 2013 | 4 Comments

winter 01 300x201 Feeling like European Winter

Empty Route Frelupt (Jiang Guo Xi Lu)

The extremes of Shanghai winter always comes as a surprise. Snow falls generally once or twice a year, and only remains for a few hours, sometimes one day. This year main snowfall came on the days before Chinese New Year, at a time when the city is deserted. The combination of empty streets, snow and (some) blue sky was a quite unique photo opportunity.

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Snow in the garden

The snow had already mostly melted when I left for my photo trip except for the shadows of our garden. The sun coming out also did not leave much time for photo opportunities, but the feeling of walking the empty streets in the cold was very special. With their European architecture, the snowy empty streets of Shanghai former French Concession felt really like being in Europe. The traffic, noise and constant activity of Shanghai streets are normally unmistakably Chinese, but the emptiness and quiet really made them feel different.

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Empty Route Dufour (Wulumuqi Nan Lu)

Funny enough, the quite of Chinese New Year in Shanghai is also the time when today’s Shanghai old quarters mostly feel like Old Shanghai. Thanks to modern transportation, most people have gone home to celebrate with their family, so most ayis and drivers are gone back to the countryside and many foreigners are gone to warmer and sunnier landscapes. The empty city remaining has the quite and the look of Europe in the winter… thousand kilometers away. This will only remain for a short while, as tonight the city will turn into a massive fireworks show.

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Sow in Old Shanghai

With the cars gone and only a few bikes passing by, it could have been winter 1933, just like winter 2013 and I would not have been really surprised to pass by a rickshaw running in the cold just like on picture left (more information about this picture in post Snow in Shanghai).



Luang Prabang

January 27th, 2013 | 1 Comment

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Former French primary school

Former Laos royal capital of Luang Prabang had been on my travel map for years before I finally reached it in early January 2013. This post is not directly linked to Old Shanghai, but buildings and architecture in this place where built as the same time and the past definitely creates a bridge between them. Just as last year post about Rangoon was a link to a former British colony, this post is about a trip to the former French colony of Indochina.

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French villa in Luang Prabang

Just like river treaty ports in China such as Hankou, French posts in Indochina were not limited to sea ports but also included ports on river. Up the Mekong river, Luang Prabang was a royal capital and French colonists helped to develop it. Besides wood buildings that were the original houses used, the French colonial built a series of official building and houses, directly copied after French style. The best example was surely the school buildings, that looked pretty much a like a French school from the same period and with a similar style with former Collège Municipal Français in Shanghai. Another series of building is now hosting the regional government and was I guess the former French colonial administration. Besides these administration buildings, I also saw a few typical French villas (see picture) actually quite similar to the FONCIM houses designed by Leonard & Vesseyre in Shanghai former French Concession.

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The main architecture feature of the city(apart from the wonderful temples), is the former royal palace, now a museum. Built by the French in 1904 it is a combination of French Beaux-Arts with decoration elements of the Lao culture. Although the outside, in particular the front roof  and the golden conical central park looks very much Asian, the interior of the palace, the back and the gardens are clearly of French inspiration. The palace features extensive Gaugin-like style murals by French artist Alix de Fontereau.

Most of the colonial houses were built in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s but Art Deco never came up the river. Although the ensemble is very charming, not much effort was put into the decoration as most of these buildings were utilitarian, shops and houses for the residents. They are now all turned into bars, cafes, guest houses and tourist offices creating a nice atmosphere at night.

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Institut Français Luang Prabang

One beautiful exception is the beautiful house now hosting the French institute in Luang Prabang. Just like the Palace the building layout it typically western but the outside decoration is inspired from Laos architecture. The geometrical motives used is very much Art Deco, making it the one of its kind in Luang Prabang.


The last tycoon

January 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments

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Last Tycoon poster

This new movie about Old Shanghai attracted a lot of attention and a large media campaign. With a line of stars including Chow Yun-Fat and a massive budget, it was one of the high profile movies of the end of last year. This is not the first movie about Old Shanghai that I have seen, but it is definitely one of the best.
It is clear that a lot of attention was given to the decor, the atmosphere and the costumes. A number of the scenes were filmed in real Old Shanghai properties, with many antique objects and furniture for back ground. This contributed a lot to the atmosphere of the movie and it really does feel right. This is surely the best effort for a Chinese movie ever. The main outdoor scenes were filmed at Shanghai Cinema Studio (see post on this topic), particularly the ones a taking place on Nanking Road, as well as the ones taking place over an iron bridge (supposedly) over Suzhou Creek (the brigde is a copy of the original one, located in the Cinema studio).

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Bridge in Shanghai Cinema Studio

The movie is clearly linked to 1980’s Hong Kong TV series “The Bund”, taking place in Old Shanghai, that started the acting career of Chow Yung-Fat. The story is loosely based on the life of most famous Shanghai Mobster Du Yue Shen, although it often departs from historical facts. Like it’s inspiration, the main character is an amble boy in countryside China, who climb through the gangster organisation to become the leader of Shanghai gangster. The movie adds to it number sub-plots, including gangster warfare and romantic involvements. Like some of the American movies about Chicago gangster, it creates quite an romantic and legendary image of them, forgetting in the meantime that their fabulous wealth mostly came from crime, kidnapping, drug trafficking and prostitution.
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Special effects and war scenes

The movie includes many special effects, in particular in all the warfare scenes. They really help to recreate the vision and feeling of Shanghai during the Chinese / Japanese war, including the devastation of bombs falling in Shanghai streets. Fight scenes are very vivid, sometimes brutal, depicting fights, injuries and death in graphic details. It is probably the most graphic movie I have seen about Old Shanghai, but this also makes it one of the most realistic. The movie also manages to escape talking too much about politics then which is a good think. Unfortunately, it also pictures the main Kuomintang official as a traitor to the Japanese enemy  which was surely not the case for most of them. Too bad, it did not also show some of the them being on the right side of history, like most were.

Finally, it was really weird to have one of the scene taking place in a winery, as it is clear there was no such a thing in China in that period. It is somehow weird to have spent all this attention to make a movie that has the right feeling, but stamble on such a clear mistake. In any case, this does impact so much on the whole story, nor distract from viewing this very good movie about Old Shanghai. To been seen in an Old Shanghai Art Deco theater for best atmosphere.


December 28th, 2012 | No Comments

metropolis poster METROPOLIS

METROPOLIS original poster


It seems at first that there would little connection between Shanghai and a 1927 German movie. However, METROPOLIS is not just any German movie and it is strongly linked with both Old and New Shanghai.

The link with New Shanghai is probably the clearest. First shown in 1927, METROPOLIS displays a city of the future, with giant skyscrapers dominating the sky and cars driving on bridges suspended in the air. Watching the first part of the movie, it impossible not to connect it with Lujiazui and its forest of world class skyscrapers.

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Babel Tower

The bridges are also very similar with the knots of the elevated motorways that criss-cross Shanghai. Fritz Lang, METROPOLIS’ director imagined his city after seeing New York, but the result is really similar to some parts of today’s Shanghai. Fritz Lang and his team developed a number of revolutionary techniques and special effects for this movie, best shown in the scenes displaying the city itself and the one of the transformation of the robot. They also developed visions of futuristic architectures as well as transportation and communication devices such as video communication that only became reality a few years ago. The movie has inspired generations of artists with numerous records, cartoons and movies quoting it as a source, including a Japanese animated movie and science-fiction icon Blade Runner.

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Art Deco door frame

Metropolis was very successful and its Art Deco design and costumes definitely helped spreading the style. It then nearly disappeared with several restoration before being released again in 2010. One of the best example is surely this door frame, very similar to the (now disappeared) one in Shanghai children hospital on Beijing Lu. Another scene has the hero sleeping in a bed with a half pentagonal bed frame (I could not find any picture of it online).

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Maria’s costume

Similarly, Maria’s costume in one of the scenes (see next picture) is quite typical of the 1920’s and of similar to some of the sculptures found in the ballroom of the Cercle Sportif Français.

Movie theater were very popular in Old Shanghai, with many of them built in the city (some still being used). It is highly likely that METROPOLIS was shown in Shanghai after its success in the USA, influencing viewers of this master piece just like everywhere in the world.

Touring with a legend

December 16th, 2012 | 2 Comments

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Touring Old Shanghai under the rain

There are not many things that would make me wake up early morning Sunday in winter, walk under the pouring rain for 2 hours and keep a happy smile. Taking a tour of art deco buildings with Tess Johnston is just about the only thing that could create  this miracle. This Sunday was one of the few opportunities for such a tour, and I would not have missed it for anything.

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Tess Johnston memoirs

Writer, history researcher and Old Shanghai story teller Tess Johnston first arrived in Shanghai in 1981, working for the US Consulate. She soon got the passion for Shanghai history and old buildings, and she eventually retired in Shanghai in 1996. Based on her research, she wrote books about Shanghai history and architecture, inventing the genre of Old Shanghai architecture books, with the first publication of “a last look”, with Chinese photographer Deke Ehr. The team has published many more of those including their latest “Shanghai Art Deco”. Her last books are 3 walking guides through Old Shanghai streets, along with her autobiography “Permanently temporary, from Berlin to Shanghai in half a century”.Tess also created Historic Shanghai, along with Patrick Cranley, which was organising this tour.

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A building I never noticed before, on Wanping Lu

Tess Johnston is probaly the most knowlegeable person alive about Old Shanghai and hearing her speaking about her favourite topic is always a priviledge. Having the opportunity to tour her own neighbourhood was something that is unforgettable. She practically knows every single building of Old Shanghai, including many that have since long disappeared and sees them with “the eyes of love, not the eyes of reality” as she pointed out in one of her speechs a few years ago. She is also in touch with many people who spent there youth in Shanghai and left in the 1940’s as she has been contacted by many people looking for their roots. Besides architecture, she also has collected stories about the people who lived in those buildings. I have been interested in this topic for years, but I still managed to get a few surprises along way and discover a few buildings that I never actually noticed. One of the funny and touching moment of the tour, was when asked when she came to Shanghai, Tess replied 1931 (her date of birth as well as the peak period of Old Shanghai). It felt just like the right answer as we were all feeling in a time travel. Despite the heavy rain and cold, the two hours of the tour passed really fast, just like a short trip back in Old Shanghai.