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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.

Shanghai Cinema Studio

December 9th, 2012 | 4 Comments

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The fake Nanking Road

Shanghai Cinema studio had been on my visit list since a long time. The studio is famous to host a rebuilt version of Old Shanghai. It quite famous has it was for period movies and TV series, including “Lust, caution” and “Shanghai Shanghai“. It takes a long drive to reach the location in SongJiang but the trip is well worth it.

The most impressive sight is surely the small strech of rebuilt 1930’s Nanking Road. Centered around the corner of Nanjing Dong Lu and Zhejiang Lu, the side includes the Wing On store, the Sincere store and the Sun Sun Store. Picture perfect with period signs and tramway karts driving around, it really gives the atmosphere of time travel. The ground floor of the buildings is well replicated, with the higher floor being rebuilt on a smaller scale, a normal feature of movie sets and backgrounds. Walking around there feels very much like walking in an Old Shanghai postcard. Only missing would be the hundreds of people that normally go around this very busy part of the city.

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Tram in Old Shanghai

The picture would not be complete with the tramway, with the short ride being the only way to ever experience tramways in Old Shanghai. The tramway shakes and feels just like a real ride in the city, with the noises and motions I used to experience on the oldest lines of Budapest network. Watching the tramway going up this fake Nanking Road really adds up to the atmosphere.


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Shanghai other iron bridge

The rest of the cinema studio is also made of various buildings mostly copied from Old Shanghai. They include a copy of the Moller Villa on Shaanxi Nan Lu, one of the building that is now Ambrosia restaurant on Feng Yang Lu and one of the Wing On Extension on Nanjing Dong Lu. There is also a copy of the New World Building that used to be at the end of Nanking Road, now replaced by the (not so nice) New World Shopping center. I was expecting to find a copy of Shanghai’s iconic Garden Bridge, but only found a copy of the other iron bridge that is further up the river. Most of the other buildings are not actual copies, but they fit the general style of the period including the church. It seems very popular for wedding pictures though I don’t think such a church was actualy ever built in Shanghai.

Night on GuLangYu

November 11th, 2012 | 4 Comments

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A nice atmosphere

GuLangYu island (鼓浪屿), off Xiamen in Fujian province, has always been one of my preferred place in China and I went there already 4 times. The yearly trip to the  island were mostly in the winter, an easy escape from Shanghai fog and humidity, but this time I went in September, a different time with a different weather but the magic is still there.

At our first trip to GuLangYu in 2007, not many people (at least from Shanghai) stayed overnight in the island. Accommodation was very limited and the only place open after 9pm was the Mc Donald’s at the ferry port, where we ended up one night. We found the one cafe on the hillside, enjoying  coffee and 20C in the sunshine with the only company of the owners. I think this coffee house has disappeared since. Winter in GuLanYu is the low season and we felt at that time that the island belonged to us. The following year, we stayed at a small home hotel but the weather got so cold that we spent most time in Nana Cafe drinking hot chocolate and eating warm food. We even ended up escaping the cold and the island, spending the last night in a big hotel on the Xiamen side. As written in post “The revival on GuLangYu“, by the third time we went the island had already transformed and a few more hotels had opened. Three years have passed since and many many more hotels have now opened. From the experience in Chinese mass tourism, I was afraid that the island atmosphere would not survive.

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Piano festival concert

Luckily, we arrived on the last night of the GuLangYu piano festival. Concerts are free and we could enjoy an unexpected but small and intimate concert from American/Uzbek piano master Stanislas Ioudenitch. The crowd attending the concert was really attentive and silent, a change from noisy and often uninterested crowds in Shanghai classical music concert. The festival attracted many people and I was really surprised of the crowd remaining on the island even after the concert. Not that many tourists used to stay on the island, this has definitely changed. It is now even possible to get a beer in a bar with music at 10:00pm, something unthinkable a few years ago. At the same time, the atmosphere has lost a bit from what I was used to. It’s only by walking around the small streets on the hills, away from the main street that I could find back the old tranquility of GuLangYu. Walking down the empty streets of the island, it felt again like being out of time, like being back again in the 1930’s when GuLangYu was a foreign concession off Xiamen.

The next day saw one of the best weather I have ever seen on the Island. We climbed up the rock, giving a splendid view up to Xiamen Bund. Just like in some parts of Shanghai, the contrast between the old houses from the concessions and the skyscrapers on the other side of the straight is stunning. As the piano festival was already finished, there was already less crowd on the island, but still quite many. Nights on GuLanYu are still magical and quite, but the days are now the one of main tourist attraction. Best go there in the winter, as there will should be much less people. This trip took place just before the October holidays, I later heard than one week later (during the actual holidays), the number of visitors increased tremendously, way over the existing records. I’m not sure how quite nights on GuLangYu were then, but fortunately I had already left.

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Shanghai Exodus

October 6th, 2012 | 6 Comments

Shanghai exodus Shanghai Exodus

DVD cover – Shanghai Exodus

As the reach of this blog grows year after year (Shanghailander.net is now more than 6 years old), so does the number of readers. Through it I have received a few mails from researchers and met a few  people who actually lived in Old Shanghai, including (among others) Liliane Willens, Lynn Pan, Isabelle and Raymond Chao (who died this year) and  Rena Krasno (who died in 2009). Many of them have a passion for the city they call their home, although many had not been back since the late 40’s and quite a number have written books about their experience, their life in Shanghai and their families. Shanghai Exodus came to me through this blog and I don’t think I would have known it otherwise.

This documentary movie was made with the collaboration of many old Shanghailanders. It is their story and their link to the city they grew up in and that they love so much still. The 2009 movie includes a brief history of Shanghai, but is mostly interesting in the many snips of interviews of Old Shanghailanders. Many of them now live in the USA, but they and their family came from various countries including the UK, Russia and other European countries. Being from various level of society, they did not all live in the privileged world that is often associated with foreigners in old Shanghai but they all kept a very strong link to the city that can be felt throughout the movie. The movie also tells the fate of these people during WWII and how they managed to leave Shanghai in the laste 1940’s.

Although Shanghai Exodus is mostly about their life in Old Shanghai, one of the most moving part is seeing these people, coming back to their home city. The Shanghai they left has little to do with the Shanghai they come back to but some manage to find their root back to the city that they left so long ago. It is also very clear that many of them kept in touch in their new homes and feel that they lived in a very special place at a very special time. Growing in Old Shanghai is an extremely important part of their life and having to leave Shanghai left a scar in them. It is then really nice to see them closing the loop and finding back their roots. In a way, this is also the story of Shanghai and the rediscovery of its past by both Chinese and foreigners coming back to it.

About 15 minutes is available on www.shanghaiexodus.com as a trailer.

China 1932, a tourist movie

September 17th, 2012 | 1 Comment

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1932 tourist movie

Photographs of Old Shanghai rarely seen in the city a few years ago are now quite common again. Exhibited in collections, used to illustrate books or by marketing companies to create a nostalgia feeling, most of the one seen are always the same. The most well known show the Bund at different period of time, as well as Nanking Road (Nanjing Dong Lu today) and Foochow Road (today’s Fuzhou lu). Old movies of Shanghai are much rarer as not that many where made and conservation was always an issue, because of the process used them as well as historical events that lead to the destruction of many.

The movie that recently appeared on YouTube (sorry you’ll need a VPN to see it): China, the flowery Kindgom, dates from 1932 and is quite enjoyable for that matter. Altough the sequence about Shanghai is only a portion of the film, it is still nice to see how little arrival on the river has changed. It reminds me of taking the ferry to or from Pudong which is always a little voyage in the city.

The movie seems to have been made by American tourists, or seamen on a tour to China. The departure from Shanghai shows a floating American flag, and they were regularly at call in Shanghai port I guess the ones making the movie were military. The other part I like is the view of camels in the streets of Beijing, that it surely not seen anymore. The time is not so long when caravans of camels would cross China and central Asia along the silk road. Xian was the original departure when it was capital of China, but the road was extended all the way to Beijing when it became the capital. This reminded of Lao She‘s novel, Richshaw boy that describe similar scenes.

Abelardo Lafuente’s buildings map

September 3rd, 2012 | 3 Comments

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The Lafuente map

The rediscovery of Old Shanghai Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente was a major event of last year for Old Shanghai enthusiats. The buzz about the Spanish architect culminated in the exhibition held in Bund 22 in December. (See post “Abelardo Lafuente, Shanghai Spanish architect” for more information).

The team behind the research and the exhibition has now published a map of remaining Lafuente’s buildings in Shanghai. Although only 6 remain, they are clearly visible in the city as 2 of them are located on Nanjing Xi Lu and 2 more are in the tourist area of Duo Lun Lu. The other ones are a major historical hotel and   a bar in the former French Concession that is an anchor of expatriates life in Shanghai.

With its short text and visual, the map is a great for beginners in Old Shanghai discovery and will surely be used many to explore. The current version is printed in Spanish and English, but the next one will also include Chinese text. In a similar way to Hungary’s Laszlo Hudec, Spain has cleverly used the remainings of one of his ancient citizens to enhance its in image in Shanghai. Hopefully some more countries will follow suit.

Lafuente’s map is available at Sasha’s (corner of HengShan lu and Dong Ping lu) and Restaurante CASA 700 (700 Huanpi Nan Lu). Cost is 30 RMB.