Midnight in Peking

Book cover in Australian edition
Book cover in Australian edition

Journalist and author Paul French is one of the most knowledgeable person about Shanghai. Although he now has gone back to the UK, he spent years in the city commenting about both the old and modern side of it. He is the author of The Old Shanghai A to Z (See link to my post on the book), the definitive guide about street names in Old Shanghai. It was then surprising to read a book from him about Beijing. Unsurprisingly though, Midnight in Peking tells a story that happened in Beijing in 1937, in the foreign legation or it surroundings. The atmosphere of old colonial China is very much the background of the story, very similar to the atmosphere in Shanghai at the same time.

The book is focused on the horrible murder of 19 years old Pamela Werner. Her body was found on 8th January 1937, as the bottom of the fox tower, Dongbianmen today. Daughter of a former British diplomat that was one of the best sinologist at the time, her death was the center of the media attention for a while. Unfortunately, international politics and Japanese troops surrounding the city did not help to solve the case. It is also clear that although some effort was made to find the murderer, a lot of energy was spent by well placed people to make sure that the guilty ones were never to answer their crimes.

As in previous books, French had a lot of research into the matter, including archives from the UK diplomatic services as well as other countries. The original inquiry was made by DCI Dennis, the chief of the Tianjin Municipal police, and inspector Han from the Beijing police. Nobody, apart from them and the victim’s father, had any interest in the police finding the murderer. The whole British diplomatic circle was focusing on protecting the honor of Britain and its privileges, be it by protecting the worst of its citizen. As the inquiry starts to raise questions, they are moved away to make sure they don’t find anything. It becomes obvious that the local little clique wants nothing of its secrets revealed, some of them really being horrible.

Where the body was found
Where the body was found

The book is also a dive in the badlands of Beijing, a territory next to the foreign legations that was controlled by nobody, where about anything was going on. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, human abuse and worse, all of it was flourishing at a time when nobody was sure of anything about the future. Japanese armies were coming and some people were left alone, satisfying their vices in the most sordid ways. It is also a place where the top and the scum of the foreign community mixed together. Every city has a dark side, but Beijing badlands were darker than most.

Midnight in Peking is the tale of a period, that was the end of a world. Atmosphere was surely very similar in the Shanghai badlands, after Japanese invasion a few months later. The book takes us straight to it, just like a crime novel and also helps solving one of the great murders of Old China. A great read for Old Shanghai fans.

Shaving time

On the edge
On the edge

Although they now have mostly disappeared, barbershops were a central point in men’s life until WWII, including in old Shanghai. Until the early 20th century, a single blade razor was the only razor available. It was quite dangerous and required to be really skillful to get a clean shave. With a double edge safety razor invented by Gilette in 1904, shaving got easier but still required quite a skill to cut a good shave without cutting oneself. This kind of razors became popular in the 1920’s and 30’s, allowing people to shave themselves every day and reducing the business for barbershops.

Barbershops were men only stores, offering services such a shaving, hair styling and other beauty treatment. They were also a a great place to socialize and have chat with friends while getting shaved or groomed. Barbershops were a social institution, as men had to go several times a week to keep a clean shave. For some, in particular business men, they were part of the daily routine, at a time when business was conducted over letters and telegram (see post Lost in transmission), much slower than today’s emails and mobile phones. It’s easy to imagine men in Old Shanghai going to the barbershop to get a clean shave on their way to the business district of the Bund.

There was surely many barbershops then as this kind business does not need much infrastructure. People would come and get a shave or an haircut, not appointment. As the time needed is much shorter than for women hairdressers sessions, one just had to come and wait for his turn to get serviced while drink tea or water and chatting to other patrons. The shaving process would normally include the nice hot towels applied on the face of the patron before starting the actual shaving.

Having seen this many times in movies, I tried to get a proper shave in Shanghai. Barbershops have long disappeared and it took a while before finding a proper man barber ready to cut my beard the old way. The shop I found (on the internet), is located in the same building as the paramount dance room (see post Paramount suicide for more details), whose upper floors are (again) in ruinovation. It is one of those state owned hair dressers that now tend to disappear in favour of the fancy private ones. Actual location is 230 Yu Yuan Lu. I’m not sure this always been a barber shop, but being a state owned one in an historic building, it is very possible. In any case, the barber has been shaving men for many years and he did an excellent job.

FullSizeRenderAfter the shave, I searched in an Old Shanghai phone book, I found only two barbershop with a phone line… in 1938. They were probably the most prosperous as having a phone line was not cheap at the time. I took me a while to realise that one of them “Parlow Barber Shop” was actually located in the same place than the place I went, 230 Yu Yuen Road. In Chinese it is cold Bei Le barbershop, just like Bei Le Men, the Paramount theater that was located in that building. The phone number has changed and “Marcel Waving” are not fashionable anymore, but this place is still a nice old fashion barber shop. I will be going again for a time travel and a shave at the same time.

I also looked up the second adress in the phone book. The Nanking barbershop was located at number 734-6 Bubbling Well Road. Today’s 734 Nanjing Xi lu is also a state owned hairdresser. In Shanghai, some things never change.




Book cover

I have been a fan of James Ellroy’s crime novel for years, reading his original “LA quartet” (the black dahlia, The big nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) in the early 90’s at publication. Although not set in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I am so fascinated by, they felt close enough. Ellroy’s novel are often more about the atmosphere and characters than about finding the actual murderer. I recently found latest Ellroy’s novel in a travel bookstore and could not resist reading it, particularly as the central period is getting even closer to my interest.

Perfidia, is located in Los Angeles (as always with Ellroy), during the last day of December 1941. It starts on 5th December 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this is not mentioned in the book, the Japanese army invaded the Shanghai International Settlement on the very same date. This episode is the center of the Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. The Japanese invasion of China, in particular Nanjing massacres are often quoted in the book though Shanghai is not. In any case, the parallel with Shanghai history at the same time makes is an interesting read from a Shanghai perspective. Perfidia is also a song from 1939 that was very fashionable at the time. Becoming a hit in the US, it was also surely heard and played in Shanghai clubs then.

The central murder in the novel is of a Japanese family and a lot of the novel is focused on the reprisals and subsequent internment of Japanese American from early 1942. As always in Ellroy novels, there are many subplots and numerous characters of whom life and action are crisscrossing with unpredictable consequences. International politics and espionage are the new notes added to the usual complexity and dark ambiance.. Characters are never black or white, good or bad, but all of it mixed. The tone is dark and pessimistic, with a general background of corruption in US politics in general, and in LA police in particular.

James Ellroy’s LA often makes me think about the books and information I have read about old Shanghai. Corruption was massive, along with lawlessness, prostitution, gambling and drugs. People all tried to make money as fast as possible in any way they could, often ending up badly. There are not many winners in Ellroy’s novels, but all fight hard for it. The way Ellroy intertwines real life characters and his own fiction is magnificent, giving a real lesson in LA gangster and police history. The same thing with Old Shanghai characters has been tried before, but never really succeeded. I often wish that Ellroy would switch his focus from LA crime history to Old Shanghai. A James Ellroy novel taking place in Old Shanghai would be a perfect match between those two dark universes.

Citron, Art Deco Café

Art Déco Café entrance
Art Déco Café entrance

Art Deco and life in Shanghai being two of my favorite topics, I could not miss the Art Deco design of new CITRON Café on Fumin Lu. I had noticed it while it was still under construction, so I could not stop visiting as soon as I could. The façade of CITRON is very much inspired from Art Deco theaters in the USA, this was a real teaser for me.

Art Deco mirror
Art Deco mirror

Designers have played with the Art Deco codes, giving the place a special feeling. They have added many details, including a large mirror with wrought iron decor (see picture), brick wall (surely not the real wall but still nice) and a large wall painting that is very much 1920’s inspired. They even use Art Deco inspired cutlery, so there was some serious attention to details. The whole inside is themed after the 1930’s Orient Express train, so I am not exactly sure why the place is called Citron… but in Shanghai not everything can always be explained.

Just like in the Orient Express
Just like in the Orient Express

This is a nice design effort, though a little bit of a patchwork. Being in an Art Deco city, I was also expecting some reference to Shanghai own Art Deco, particularly in a location in the former French Concession… but there is not such thing in Citron.

Although still in soft opening, the food was simple but very well done. Particular note for the coffee that was really good. With a great central location, next to other famous establishments, I am sure they will attract many people. Add it a nice Art Deco theme and you can expect to find me there on a regular basis. This is the perfect place to prepare for the World Art Deco Congress in Shanghai in November.

Citron can be found at 291 Fumin Lu, at the cross with Changle Lu


Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai book cover
Book cover

Historical novels are a great way to get transported to the past. I have not had much time for my own research about Old Shanghai recently, but I still can find time for reading books about it. Having read a number of novels about Old Shanghai, like “The master of rain” or “Last seen in Shanghai”, “Night in Shanghai”was soon as on my list.

The novel takes an original point of view from the start as the main character is black American jazz player Thomas Greene, who ends up playing in the Royal, one of the Shanghai dance club. Jazz was the music of Old Shanghai and the city had many jazz bands. The most famous were brought from the USA, recruited by agents and sent all the way to China to play in the large ball rooms such as the Canidrome in the French Concession or the Paramount in the International Settlement. The story of these jazz band players has often been overlooked, making the novel stand out by choosing this main character.

Nicole Mones is a specialist on China and has clearly spent a lot of research on Old Shanghai. Historical facts are accurate and many secondary characters in the story were actual people. The book is the a great way to discover little known Russian composer “Aaron Avshalomov”, British envoy to help fixing China’s economy “Sir Frederick Leith-Ross” and many more. Old Shanghai nightlife is really well rendered, as well as the darkening atmosphere on the city coming with the Japanese invasion. Secondary characters, including crime lord Du Yuesheng are also coming to life in a very credible way.

Unfortunately, historical facts and characters often seem to have been added as matter of teaching the reader with little connection to the actual story. The flow of the novel is regularly obstructed by side plots and details that were surely very enjoyable to research and write about but add little to the action. In a same fashion, food and music are described in great details, but lacking explanation, feeling or taste. Moreover, characters tend to explain to each other points that would have been obvious for them in the historical context, seemingly as an explanation to the reader, making them sometimes really weird.

The central line of the novel, the love story between Thomas Greene and Song Yuhua seems over simplistic and not really believable. Characters regularly get an easy escape from trouble, and seem to be passing through dreadful events such as war and crimes without being really affected by them. Although I enjoy the historical research a lot, I have to admit that the story telling does not match it. Readers interested in Shanghai history will surely enjoy it, but other may be disappointed by the lack of depth and feeling of the novel.

Mr Loo, the novel of an Asian art dealer

Lenain's book cover
Lenain’s book cover

Old Shanghai was often the paradise for adventurers, due to the civil war raging in China at the time as well as lawlessness and multiple jurisdictions creating many places to hide. It attracted many shady characters, some of them becoming real stars of the city. Although he was born in ZheJiang province and was coming back to Shanghai regularly for his business, Mr Loo was not really part of the Shanghai as he lived mostly in Paris and New York. Nevertheless, his story is so fascinating and linked to China in the Republic time that it deserves to be part of this blog. It is the topic of Geraldine Lenain’s book, “Mr Loo, le roman d’un marchand d’art asiatique”, Mr Loo the novel of an Asian art dealer.

CT Loo was born in a poor family in Zhejiang but became the trusted companion of Zhang JinJiang , sent as 3rd secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Paris in 1902 and took CT Loo to Paris. This changed Loo’s life forever. Zhang also opened an antic store, that was soon in the hands of CT Loo. Having learned the trade in a few years, he left on his own to create his own company. He later one opened a company in New York, organising a triangular trade of antic from China to Europe and then the USA, but he kept the relationship going with Zhang JinJiang while became of powerful part of Chiang Kai Shek Republican government. He exported large quantities of major Chinese historic art work to the West thanks to his powerful connection in the republican administration. In the process, he made the World discover Chinese ancient art including bronzes, carved jades, stone sculptures and paintings at a time when little was know about it in the West. He help build the Chinese and Asian collections of numerous world class museums, including Paris Musée Guimet, London British Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum and many others in the USA.

One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum
One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum

His personal life was really bizarre, marrying, his lover’s daughter while keeping the relationship running with both of them and having 4 daughters later on. He kept his life in China, France and the USA disconnect, having nearly three parallel lives and keeping the secret to each other most of the time. The real dark side of him is that he organised the export of China historical treasures, through his connection in the Europe, USA and the Chinese administration. Though he claims that he never organised the theft from original locations, he clearly played a major role in the process. One of the most well known example are the two sculptures of the Taizong horses, ordered by early Tang dynasty emperor Taizong in the 7th Century with 4 of the 6 horses exhibited in Xian and the 2 remaining sold by CT Loo to the Penn Museum in Philadephia. For this he is still hated in China and considered a traitor. At the same time, most of the pieces he exported have been saved from later destruction during China recent history.

Geraldine Lenain’s biography of CT Loo as a very enjoyable read, carrying us through CT Loo work, his twisted personal life and historical events of the time. Though CT Loo was a real character, his life sometimes feels like a novel. The book was written in French. For more details in English, follow this link to the excellent FT article on the book and its writer. There is no English translation of the book so far, though I am sure it will come.


Modern Shanghai history, 10 years of Bar Rouge

Bar Rouge 10th birthday
Bar Rouge 10th birthday

This blog was originally started to talk about Shanghai both Old and Modern. Only a few posts about modern Shanghai were published as my attention was fully taken by Shanghai history, but the similarities between Old and today’s Shanghai have often come back to me. With nearly 11 years of life in the city, some of the stories from my arrival are becoming themselves part of Shanghai history. The 10th anniversary of Bar Rouge is one of them.

Although I was not at the actual opening ceremony, Bar Rouge was a very special place for me in the years 2005 and 2006. I even wrote one of my early blog post about it (click here for post: Decadence on the Bund), along with a post about now gone Lounge 18 (click her for post: Dancing in the Bank). Bar Rouge at that time was the place to be, the meeting point for a crowd of party people gathering every weekend for dancing away the night. It created friendships and meeting that are still strong today. I have not been a regular for years, but it still seems to have this strong party atmosphere  every time I go there.

Still going strong after 10 years
Still going strong after 10 years

Attending the 10th anniversary of Bar Rouge was also a time to remember all those years that went away at Shanghai speed. Just like we read about the club Delanos, Cyro’s and Paramount in Old Shanghai, people now hear about the stories of Bar Rouge early years and the rebirth of Shanghai night life. There are even people making sociology studies about what was essentially our life. After having searched and studied so much about Shanghai history, parts of my own life starts to become part of it from the point of view of the new generations. Maybe one days people will use this blog as the base of their own research into Shanghai then history.

Classic cars on the Bund

1920's Packard on the Bund
1920’s Packard on the Bund

The very special history of China and Shanghai has been essential at preserving 1920’s and 1930’s architecture, making Shanghai one the world Art Deco hotspot (with the World Art Deco congress coming to Shanghai in 2015). As late as the 1990’s, most original Shanghai buildings had remained pretty much untouched. With clever restoration, the remaining ones have taken back a new life as private mansion, company’s headquarters or bars and restaurants. Old Shanghai dresses have also been coming back, either as part of classic parties (see pictures for my own 40’s birthday party in 2012) or as part of today’s fashion brand such as Shanghai Tang. The only thing really missing is classic cars, as most of them were either taken by owners when they left Shanghai, or destroyed during the war or later. Bringing classic cars back in Shanghai is the aim of the Bund Classic event, for one weekend at least.

BundClassic started in 2013 and the 2014 edition was really nice, under a fantastic weather. As the only classic car event in mainland China, it attracted collectors and classic cars admirers. It was a unique opportunity to actually see cars from Bund building’s  period on this location. Due to Chinese regulations on old cars, they could do not really be driven (apart from a short parade), but the photo opportunities were great.

Not all cars were pre WW2, but a few of them really looked just at the right place in front the former British Consulate building. I particularly like the beige Packard that looked pretty much like 1920’s pictures of the Bund, before the Cathay Hotel (Peace hotel today) was built. I am not sure this actual make was ever on the Bund, but it clearly had close cousins right here.

Hudson Terraplane
Hudson Terraplane

The 1930’s Terraplane coupé was also just in the right place. It is clear that this particular make was imported in Shanghai, as the brand was really popular in the 1930’s in America. Coupé were also seen in Shanghai, a symbol of money and modernity for the youth of rich Shanghainese. I also liked the French Traction Avant, which was surely imported to China, at least for the administration of the ” Concession Française de Changhai”. Although the one on display was red and white, the original color for this model was black only, until the 1950’s.

shanghai-girlThis short trip to Shanghai glorious past was really enjoyable, sometimes feeling straight out old Shanghai movies or Beverly Jackson’s book ” Shanghai girl gets all dressed up”. Classic cars collection seems to a be trend amongst China’s superrich, so more cars will surely being brought in. However, there is little hope of ever seen one driving down the streets of the former French Concession as they are way too old to be allowed on today’s roads.

Saved from the junk

Art Deco carvings
Art Deco carvings

Having spent many weekends in the old markets a few years ago, I often looked at pieces that most people thought should go straight for the junkyard. Many of these objects are worn out and have not been cared much for, so people where often amazed of what I would actually buy. I had bought think in a derelict state sometime but I have never actually collected anything from the junk.

This changed last week to the total surprise of the old ladies living in my lane. Our old neighbour decided to clean her home and pilled a number of items that were surely directed to rubbish bin. I noticed a particular piece and got it as a gift after some discussion. What actually attracted my attention was the front carving shown in the picture left. This piece of wood is actually the door of a small shelve, that used to sit on the top of a bigger piece of furniture. The style of the carving is clearly art deco, typical 1930’s Shanghai. Since the area I live in was a wealthy place at that time, it probably comes from the neighbourhood, maybe even the original furniture of the house. What is sure is that it was stored outside for a long time, and that our neighbour had had it since she lived here, meaning for decades. She was really surprised when I collected it, I probably thought I wanted to burn it or something like that.

Before and after
Before and after, right and left

After a deep cleaning, some sanding and work on the wood, the original style appeared clearly again. Having barely recovered from the surprise of seeing me collecting this piece from the junk, my neighbour are now seeing a laowai doing some handy work, as I decided to do the job myself. I am sure I have become the topic of conversation for a full week. It took me a while to find the various tools and products needed and it’s still a work in progress. At the end, it should make a nice little Art Deco shelve to store CD and other small items. The kind of things that will fetch a high price in the fancy antique stores of the city.

Art Deco in France

Having long been in love with Art Deco, I have also been asked and wondered why Art Deco is not so recognized in France, my own country and the birthplace of the style. Numerous Art Deco supporting societies first started in the USA and have now extended all over the World, but barely exist in France.  Out of the dozens of association members, only 2 are in France:
The Association Society of Saint-Quentin. Both Saint-Quentin and closeby Reims were devastated during WWI. They were both rebuilt in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Art Deco architecture was in fashion and both formed the French Art Deco city association. As far as I know, they are the only member. Few pictures from my trip to Reims in 2012 are available at the following location
The Perpignan Art Deco Association, that was founded in… April 2014.
I thoroughly search in both the French and English internet, but they seem to be the only ones so far.

ICADS (International Coalition of Art Deco Societies – www.icads.info) organises an Art Deco World Congress every 2 years. The next one will be in Shanghai in 2015 (see post World Art Deco congress ) for more details.

This lack of enthusiasm for Art Deco in France, and probably in Europe (the only other member of ICADS in Europe is in London) may seem difficult to understand for lovers of the period. My long time in France this summer allowed me to explore this issue. Art Deco is definitely undervalued in France, here are some of the reasons why:

IMG_2390 copy
Batiment Art Deco à Amboise

– There are many other old buildings in France and Europe
Art Deco spread around the world along with industrialisation. For many countries, in particular the USA or Australia, it was the time of cities creation and expansion. Long neglected (like Miami’s Art Deco hotels that only where looked after in the 90’s), Art Deco buildings are often now the oldest buildings in town, making them valuable.
In Europe, they are most often not the oldest buildings by far. The best example is this neglected Art Deco Cafe in Amboise, a renaissance town where surely little time is spent of modern buildings as opposed to 16th century relics next to it.

Art Deco is not that old. The first major Art Deco exhibition in Paris just took place.
The first major art deco exhibition took place in Paris in the beginning of 2014 (see post about the exhibition). There are other museums in France about it, but they are also not that old.

Major building were built out of city centers.
Being a late architecture style, Art Deco was often the style of developments in the suburbs of the cities that where expending at the time. In Paris it is mostly found in outside districts or in close suburbs. Another example is Villeurbanne’s gratte-ciel district that was in the middle of nowhere when it was built.

Gratte-Ciel, public housing in Villeurbanne
Gratte-Ciel, public housing in Villeurbanne

– Architecture of the utilities. Many hospitals, barracks and other administration buildings
Coming at a time of major construction of public buildings, art deco was often used public use and public housing buildings in France, as opposed to earlier styles used for palaces and stylish buildings. This is different from other parts of the World.

It’s “so common”.
The 1920’s and 30’s were a period of intense construction in France, so many example can be found from this period. Not all are really art deco though and not all have great architectural value.


With time passing and interest abroad, Art Deco seems to attract more and more interest in France. The first Paris-based exhibition about this truly first global style will certainly help to create attention to it. Hopefully more fellow French will get interested in it and create Art Deco societies and maybe Art Deco festival equalling the famous one in Napier, new Zealand.

August 2015: There is now a Paris Art Deco Society, that started right at the time of original writing of this article.
Their website is: http://www.paris-artdeco.org/

Representative of the Paris Art Deco Society will join the Shanghai Art Deco Congress. Maybe one day there will be a Art Deco congress in Paris… where it all started