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.
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.
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:
– 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.
– 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.
– 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
Shasha’s, the bar and restaurant at the corner of Heng Shan Lu and Dong Ping Lu, was one of the first bar I visited in Shanghai, along with the now defunct Face Bar (see post “Timelessness” and “Intercontinental Ruijin“). This was for the reopening of the bar after renovation… in January 2004. Although this time is now long gone, I still find myself coming to Sasha’s on a regular basis. It is now pretty much forgotten, but the original bar was really proud to be the former house of the famous Soong family (see post “The soong sisters”). There is even a painting (supposedly) of the family in the main room. I don’t think that anybody looks at this poster anymore. In any case, the Soong family story was mostly a marketing stunt, i.e. the story of the three sisters who took very different path in life with one (Soong Qinling) marrying Sun Yat Sen, and then becoming one of the communist party icon, one (Soong Mayling) marrying communist party enemy, Chiang Kai Shek and the third one (Soong Ailing) mostly famous because her husband ruined China as finance minister as well as filling his own pockets ludicrously. It was a great story to tell that the building that is now Sasha’s was once the family home, but it mostly fake.
The Soong family lived in Nanchi (now part of Yangpu district) and mostly in Hongkou. This is where Charly Soon printed Bibles during the day, and republican propaganda for his friend Sun Yat Sen during the night… before 1911. The methodist Soong family attended the church in HongKou district, off Zhapu Road, very close to what became known as little Tokyo, where Chiang Kai Shek and Soong Mayling Sasha’s building was only built in the early 30’s, once Chiang Kai Shek (now married with Soong Ailing), had recovered control of large parts of China as well as the money and might to build it in the French Concession, as well as building his own house next door. Similarly, Shasha’s building is supposed to be old, but there is not much old in it. The interior has suffered numerous “ruinovation”, so none of the original probably remains. Futhermore, the 1980’s renovation added a third floor, totally changing the shape from the original 1930’s design from spanish architect Alberado Lafuente (See post of Lafuente’s story). The attic (where I sometimes gave conferences about Old Shanghai history) is a new construction that did not exist back then, though I had to admit if fits nicely with the building. Despite all this, today’s Sasha’s has become a Shanghai institution. Long passed is the time when Sasha’s was one of the few terraces in town and the venue is not really fashionable anymore, but there are always customers. It is not the new kid on the block, but it is always there, and has been for a long time. As opposed to the early days of expat only attendance, the place is now crowed with a good mix of people, locals, newly arrived expats and old timers like me, making it really an interesting crowd. It’s a bit of melting pot really. In a city that is known for permanent change, a little bit of permanence is really welcome. This makes it and anchor of the nightlife, a place that has always been there and (hopefully) always will be.
Like a number of those before on Shanghailander.net this book review is a biased one. Just like “Peace at the Cathay“or “Promenades dans l’ancienne concession Française“, the book was written by friends of mine, in that case Spencer Dodington & Charles Lagrange. Furthermore, I was actually involved in the project itself, though only for a tiny bit. In any case, this books really fills a hole in Old Shanghai studies.
Having lived in Shanghai for about 10 years, and discovering its history and architecture, I long dreamed that somebody put as much efforts into studying work of French architecture firm “Leonard, Vesseyre & Kruze”, as that was the case for British firm Palmer & Turner and Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec. It took a team of a Belgian and an American authors to actually deliver in-depth study of the French firm. LVK was a major influence of the architectural style of Old Shanghai and this books truly highlight this heritage, focusing on the life of principal architect Paul Vesseyre.
Thanks to enormous archive research, in-depth knowledge of Shanghai and access to the archives of the Vesseyre family, the authors give a precise account of the early life of the architect, as well as his voyage to Shanghai. Just like contemporay Laszlo Hudec, Paull Vesseyre architecture studies were interrupted by WW1. He then returned to France, taking part of rebuilding one of main French Art Deco cities, Reims before sent by French construction firm Brossard & Mopin to Tianjin, and then Shanghai. He met Alexandre Leonard there, and both created firm Leonard & Vesseyre architects in 1922. Their debut work was the new building of the Cercle Sportif Français on Rue Mercier, today’s Okura Garden Hotel on Maoming Lu. This major work became an anchor of the French Concession and insured the success of the company and both men personal wealth.
Leonard & Vesseyre created most of the modern buildings in the French concession. They worked for the Catholic Church, the municipality and most prolifically for the French developer FONCIM. Major pieces include Béarn and Gascogne apartments on Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai Lu), the Dauphine and the Boissezon apartments. LV&K was also the designer of the series of neo-normandy style houses aroung Jian Guo Lu and Gao An Lu (see portrait of an old neighbour and further posts on this topic), as well as many buildings in that neighborhood. All of them and many more are analysed in the book, making it an essential piece of the knowledge and understanding of Old Shanghai. The book is currently only available in English, published by Earnshaw book. A French version in under preparation.
Last blog post was written about an exhibition of Paris 1930’s art in Shanghai, this blog post is about another exhibition about Art Deco that took place recently in Paris. It is actually long overdue, as the exhibition closed its doors in early March. My long stay in France, gave me the opportunity to see it in Palais de Chaillot (itself an Art Deco master piece) in Paris.
This was the last major exhibition in Paris about Art Deco since 1975, and the 50 years celebration of the “Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs” of 1925, from which the Art Deco expression comes. It was designed to commemorate the birth of Art Deco, as well as to show how French Art Deco expended to the World. The new style from the 1920’s, with it’s geometrical and very lean design was a revolution, breaking for the overcrowd of ornaments of the Art Nouveau style. Long before being called Art Deco, it had become the symbol of modernity, celebrating liberation from the madness of WWI. This period is called in French “Les années folles (the crazy years)”, showing the energy and creativity of the period. Being still at that time the World Center for fashion and design, Paris was the center for the creation of this new style before it took off and spread all over the world. Strangely enough, Art Deco style was not considered much valuable for a long time in France, as the country has many much older pieces available. With the years passing, it seems to be in fashion again.
The exhibition was an essential display to understand how this new style invaded all forms of art from architecture and interior design to textile, fragrance, automobile, ships design. In the boiling cultural mix of 1920’s Paris, many people got inspired from it. Ideas and fashion spread fast in the artistic community, with such famous figures as painter Tamara de Lempicka, dancer Josephine Baker, fashion designer Coco Chanel as well as Lalique (whose glass decorations were used for the Cathay Hotel, Peace Hotel today). The new style also greatly influenced the design of large cruse ships, symbol of modernity and travel way before today’s airliners (see post 2 months in rationnaire for details).
I brought back the exhibition catalog (available in French only… how French can that be), but it would be way to large to share here. Searching the internet, I found a nice video about the exhibit that will give the feeling for it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsV5cg2Y19M
The exhibition did not stop at showing Art Deco in France. Although it really does not leave much space for Art Deco in America or in the British Empire (like Art Deco wonders like Napier, New Zealand or Mumbai) the exhibition showed the development of Art Deco in the French colonies. Besides great Art Deco in North Africa and Indochina, I was nicely surprised to find a pavillion dedicated to Shanghai. It mostly focused the work of French architect firm Leonard, Vesseyre and Kruz (more about them soon) forgetting others like Hudec but it was really nice to find a small piece of our city in the exhibition.
Visiting Boulogne’s 1930’s museum 2 years ago was fascinating. Coming from Shanghai Art Deco, the origins of the art movement became so clear by comparing both cities art from the same period. The most amazing discovery was surely to find out that Sun Yat Sen’s mausoleum satute in Nanjing was created by French sculptor Paul Landowski, who also crafted world famous statue of Christ in Rio. (Click here to read the full story, with post “From Boulogne to Nanjing”)
Little did I imagine that the same exhibition would actually come to Shanghai only a year and half later. Thanks to long term Shanghailander Philippe Cinquini, part of the collection was brought to Shanghai including studies for the statue of the father of modern China. The exhibition is displayed in the Shanghai Art Museum (former China pavillon at Shanghai Expo 2010) and has been extended til end of May . For details, follow the link to Shanghai Art Museum exhibition page . (reservation in advance compulsory).
My first encounter with Liliane Willens, author of “Stateless in Shanghai” about 4 years ago was really the product of chance (see post “A date with Liliane“). As she came to Shanghai again, fate was again acting, making me encountering another former Shanghailander by total random and making them meet each other. Last Thursday was the day for the first presentation from my friend Didier Pujol (founder of China World Explorer). He was scheduled to speak about “Swinging Shanghai”, entertainment in Old Shanghai. I was also going there to meet Liliane Willens, who had just returned to Shanghai for a visit. This is when my phone rang, with a real surprise. A friend of mine had read my previous blog about the police building and Huai Hai lu and had met à lady in front of this very building. This lady was claiming to be a former Shanghailander, who used to live around this place on Huai Hai lu. After talking with her on the phone for a few minutes, I decided to take her with me to Liliane’s conference on the same evening. This is how I met with Elena Nemtzeff and introduced her to another Shanghailander.
Elena’s parents were White Russians, who fled the Russian revolution first through Harbin and then arriving in Shanghai. “My mother was not very educated”, she said, “but my father was an army cadet, from the Russian military elite school.” They met and married in Shanghai, and Elena was born in 1935. Elena’s father, using his military background, was employed as a body guard for wealthy Chinese. He then created his own firm, a pest control company , serving all the large buildings that were built in Shanghai in that period. “He worked in all the large new buildings like the Cathay Hotel and Broadway Mansions. We became quite well off, until loosing everything during and after the war.” Elena went to school to the French école de la rue Rémy (still a school today on Yong Kang lu), that was opened by the French authorities for the children of the many Russians refugees who lived in the French Concession. Most of her French has disappeared after living many years in Sydney.
During her first visit back to Shanghai, she went back to her former appartment building on 1352 Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai zhong lu), which still stands today. She managed to catch up with her former Chinese neighbor, school mate and friend who still lived in the same place. “Because his dad was working for the French police, we went to the same school. We used to go to school together.”
Talking with Liliane Willens, we realized that they were living about 100 meters from each other, as Liliane was living in the Savoye appart on Route Sayzoong (today Changshu Lu). Liliane was going to a different school, the College Municipal Français, so they never actually met. Liliane left Shanghai to go to the USA and Elena went to Australia.
What these two ladies have in common is a strong link to Shanghai. They remained attached to the city, despite time and distance, and they felt enough link to come back again several time when China opened again. They are and feel like Shanghailanders until today.
The building pictured left is one of the most viewed old building of Shanghai, though it may not be the most looked at. Located at the corner of Huai Hai Zhong lu (former avenue Joffre) and Baoqing lu (former route Pottier), its architecture really stands out but it is dominated by the opposing and much more visible art deco building. Its architectural style is quite unique in Shanghai, I once read that the architect was from Marseille and that it is clearly similar to some buildings of this city.
This corner of the former French concession was once the location of the Foch police station, one of the five police stations of the French authorities. The actual police station is long gone (a sky scraper stands in its place), but I found the below old picture on the internet. Being next to the police station, this building had a very specific function, it was designed to accommodate the police officers working at the police station. As far as I know, the building inhabitants are still police officers to this day. The building is still in a good shape, despite the usual DIY modifications, in particular the closure of some of the balconies. I have noticed this particular building since I first came to Shanghai in 1998 and I thought it was unique in Shanghai until recently. It turns out that it is not.
Apart from the Foch police station, the French concession had 4 others, covering the whole area of the concession. The most well known is probably the police station Mallet, a large Art Deco building near the Bund, which is still a police building. The Pétain police station one was located at the bottom of Heng Shan lu (the former avenue Pétain), there is still a police station in this area, but I am not sure it is at the same location. The Joffre police station was located next to the fire station on Huai Hai lu (former Avenue Joffre, near Xin Tian Di). This particular building has been under renovation since a few years, and a French luxury brand should open its flagship store in it.
The main police station was the Central Police station on Jiang Guo Dong Lu (former route Stanislas Chevalier). It was the headquarters of the French police, at least until the Mallet police station was opened. The large building was also the seat of the mixed court, the special court with a French judge and a Chinese judge seating together. Although it was covered up by an ugly entrance and somehow horribly modernized a while ago, it appears that the original structure is still in place. Moreover, renovation work has started a few months ago and it seems the final result will look like the old pictures. This is where I found copies of the building on Huai Hai lu (see picture).
The Huai Hai lu version has the main decorated facade facing North and visible from the street, making it very distinctive. On the Jiang Guo Dong Lu one, the decorated facade is also facing North, but the street side is on the South side, so the facade is only visible if you get into the courtyard. There are in fact two buildings surrounding a garden. Both buildings are identical, but they are not exactly the same as the one of Huai Hai Lu which is a little wider with a much wider roof. However colors, balconies and decoration details are extremely similar, making clear that the same architect did them all, with surely the same purpose of accommodating police officers, which I believe is still the case today.
Although it is really hard to believe, Shanghailander.net has just turned 8 years. What started as way for me to keep track of my research has become a blog with thousands of readers. It is still pretty much a work of passion and even if I have less time now to spend on the topic of Old Shanghai, I still enjoy it a lot.
With 8 years of blogging, and close to 10 years in China, I have witness many changes about my favorite Old Shanghai. 10 years ago, hardly anybody out of Shanghai was ever talking about the cities past. There were a few movies (like Shanghai Triad), mostly from HongKong and Taiwan , but no blockbuster (like Shanghai, the movie). The memory of this lost age was kept by families of the people who had left China in the late 1930’s or 1940’s. The legend of Old Shanghai was carried from one generation to another on the exile grounds in the USA and Australia but the story was little known. Few people had heard about Laszlo Hudec, Jews finding refuge in HongKou and the French and English names of the Shanghai streets. Shanghai was the door to the future, but it seems to have no past apart from the pages of Tintin’s Blue Lotus.
In Shanghai itself, only a handful of foreigners and Chinese were taking pictures, and trying to publish books to document that massive changes that was happening and the architectural beauties being destroyed. The pioneer among foreigners was surely Tess Johnston, who invented the genre of Old Shanghai books (I forgot who is the author of this sentence, but it captures the essence of it). Most Shanghainese people had not heard much about the city’s past and the little they knew was not flattering. The end of foreign exploitation of China had been over in the 50’s, and nobody regretted it. Nobody ever mentioned that those same foreigners were by far the minority, and that Shanghai was one of the most advanced Asian city in the 1930’s.
Today’s Shanghai is seen very differently from both sides. Although a large part of the former colonial architecture has been replaced by skyscrapers, the rest has become a must visit for foreign tourist. Both the Bund and the Former French Concession have been turned into hip location with bars, restaurants and nightlife difficult to imagine a decade ago. Many of the building have renovated (even poorly) and the foreign influence of Shanghai is not a taboo topic anymore. Shanghainese are proud of their city, and it’s glorious past is the background for many movies and TV dramas. I still meet people not from Shanghai who have never heard about Old Shanghai, but I can see this changing as well. Brand new buildings advertise themselves as Art Deco (!), and upmarket magazines regularly publish feature about the city’s past and the place in the international scene that it has taken back.
Old Shanghai used to be a non-existing topic, it has now become something cool. Hopefully, that will help saving from destruction the little remaining.
Although it has now been mostly forgotten by foreigners, Ruijin Guest house and it’s difficult to pronounce Chinese name was once a compulsory piece of expat vocabulary in Shanghai. Host of the famous Face bar, the former Morris estate was built in the 1910’s by Shanghai business man Henry Morris, mostly known for his passion of horse racing. He also owned the “North China Daily News”, i.e. the most read English newspaper at the time with it headquarters on the Bund. After about 4 years of work, the Ruijin guest house park has opened again, now hosting the Intercontinental Ruijin Hotel. The original buildings have not been touched by the renovation apart from outside cleaning. This side of the property was still open during the work.
The new hotel buildings occupying the park are of the “old Shanghai revisited” style that is now in vogue. Trying to copy and adopt the style of the original Morris house, the outside of both buildings somewhat fits into the old Shanghai model. Old timers like me will regret the original space and opening of the park, but the whole compound still has a lot of charm. I was expecting much worth few years ago when I saw the first images of the project. The hotel also has now a large underground parking that is well hidden. The inside is supposed to be old style inspired with a lot of wood, although I was not so impressed by the design. One of the nice touch is the Old Shanghai theme foyer, with a few period artifacts. With it’s location in the city and welcoming garden, the hotel is sure to become one of the places to stay in Shanghai.
Besides from visiting the new hotels, the aim of the trip was also to go and see what happened to the former Face Bar. Running from 1999 to 2009, it was the main gathering place of the foreign community at that time. Having carefully renovated the former Mitsui building, they kept as much as possible of the old interior, along with using period objects to recreate a very special Old Shanghai atmosphere. Although the bar closed down about 5 years ago, it is still fondly remembered by its former clientele and has somehow never been replaced. I knew going back to the this former legend would be a disappointing experience, but I somehow had to do it.
The outside of the building has been preserved and (over) cleaned making it look brand new as for most renovations in Shanghai. The park still looks the same (including the mosquitoes), and is still a fantastic place to have a drink outside. In a perfect example of Shanghai style ruinovation, every single item of the old inside has been gutted away. Good bye to the former glory and special feeling of this Grande Dame of Old Shanghai. Instead of this unique atmosphere, the interior is now plain and modern, having lost anything that made it special. Coming back to this place made me feel nostalgic in a way I had not been seen since going to the former Lounge 18 (see post Massacre at Bund 18) or the Paramount building (See post Paramount Suicide).
Enjoying the garden is still very nice but if you have known the former Face Bar, just don’t get into the building itself.