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Paris Art Deco comes to Shanghai

March 22nd, 2014 | No Comments

Exhibition annoucementVisiting 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).

Meeting of old neighbours

October 21st, 2013 | 2 Comments

lilianeelenasMy 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.

French police accommodation

October 13th, 2013 | 3 Comments

Police accomodation on Huai Hai Lu

Police accommodation on Huai Hai lu

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.

Police accomodation with Joffre police station

Police accommodation with Foch police station

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.

Police accommodation on Jiang Guo Lu

Police accommodation on Jiang Guo Dong Lu

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 twin building

The twin building

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.

8th Anniversary of Shanghailander.net

August 11th, 2013 | 7 Comments

8th birthdayAlthough 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.

8th birthday2Today’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.

Intercontinental Ruijin Hotel

August 4th, 2013 | 2 Comments

The Morriss estate

The Morriss estate

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.

Old corner in a new building

Old corner in a new building

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.

Old Face Bar entrance

Old Face Bar entrance

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.

Still nice outside

Still nice outside

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.

Shanghai Tang @ Cathay Cinema

July 6th, 2013 | 2 Comments

Renovated Cathay facade

Renovated Cathay facade

1932 Cathay Theater (see an old picture on post “Ligths on Huaihai Lu”), a movie theater on Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai Zhong Lu) was one of the anchors of the French Concession. It was designed by Hungarian architect CH Gonda, a less famous countryman of Laszlo Hudec, who also designed the Bank of Communication building (Bund 14) and the Capitol theater (now part of the Rock Bund project). The Art Deco theater had one large room originally seating 1080 people, with 30 rows. Friend who were in Shanghai before me fondly speak about the original Art Deco interior, including “couple seats” that could, interestingly enough, seat two people next to each other without separation. I have never seen it, as the cinema was ruinovated in 2003,with the large room split into small ones and original inside lost forever. Despite the survival of the building’s outside, many Old Shanghai enthusiasts very pretty scared of seeing this piece of architecture and history surrounded again by scaffolding in the beginning of the year. Turns out that the result, the new Shanghai Tang flagship store is much better than expected.

Store main entrance

Store main entrance

Richemont’s Shanghai Tang is one of my favorite clothing brand. Originally started by HK designer David Tang in 1994, it was purchased by the international group in 1998. The brand is strongly influenced by Chinese fashion from the 1920’s and 1930’s which is surely why I like it. It is noted for its use of bright colors and references to Old Shanghai in it’s shop design. Shanghai Tang store music was for a long time “Shanghai Lounge Diva“, one of my favorite CD’s. Considering that Shanghai Tang already had a shop a few meters up the same street and that the Richemont group also occupies the 1920’s twin villas on 796 Huai Hai lu, only a few blocks away, the move is not surprising. Previous attempts of the group at Old Shanghai buildings renovation was definitely a good sign.

Art Deco Staircase

Art Deco Staircase

Since most of the cinema interior was destroyed in previous renovation, the inside it totally modern. Architects have had to cut the store space into several parts to fit the specific of the building, giving more charm to the whole shopping experience. It is somewhat comparable to former HK Shanghai Tang store on Peddler Street. The nice surprise is the stair cases coming up from the cinema entrance. It is difficult to judge whether they are the original cinema staircases that were previously hidden or a modern re-creation (the original theater had no balcony, but they could have been stairs leading to above offices or projection room that were previously hidden). In any case, the Art Deco design really fits the original style and and fashion of the time of the building construction. Somebody really made an effort for this part and it shows, creating an atmosphere and a real connection between the store and the building. The main entrance hall of the theater has also been renovated in somewhat art deco style separately from the store. I guess designers where not the same, as the new inside mock-up Art Deco is much less stylish as the upstairs store.

The combination of Cathay Cinema and Shanghai store shows that combining old Shanghai building and modern retail requirements are possible in a tasteful way. Hopefully it will inspire some more projects in the area.

Peter Hibbard’s Peace at the Cathay

June 23rd, 2013 | 4 Comments

Peter Hibbard's new book

Book cover

Peter Hibbard has long been one of the leading scholars on Old Shanghai. He wrote the best (if not only) guide to the Bund: “The Bund Shanghai: China faces the West”, as well the privately published book celebrating the opening of Shanghai Peninsula, covering the history of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotel corporation. Peter Hibbard is also known to have revived the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , an association that was at the center of cultural and intellectual life of Old Shanghai and has come back to life in recent years. With his years in Shanghai and is long term interest for city’s history, Peter always mentioned several book projects, with the most exciting surely an history of the Cathay Hotel (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel). Having started researching in the mid 80’s, the book has finally become reality.

Author Peter Hibbard

Author Peter Hibbard

With in-depth knowledge, historical photos, documents never seen before and years of passion in the making, Peace at the Cathay is the definitive guide to what is now known as The Peace Hotel. The book covers the history of the spot of its predecessor, the Central Hotel, as well as the competitor on the other side of the street, the Palace Hotel (now Swatch Peace Hotel). This is where is learned that the Palace Hotel was renovated in 1925 by Spanish architect, Abelardo Lafuente.

Obviously, the main part is focused on what became known as the Sasoon House (still known under this name in Shanghainese), and its most well known host, the Cathay Hotel that opened in 1929. With its revolutionary design, highest end service and luxury shops  offering the very best available at the time, the Cathay quickly became the center of the high class social life in Shanghai and a magnet for international tourists. Owner Victor Sassoon, with his office in the building and private apartments on the top of it, probably became the most famous Shanghailander ever and many celebrities stayed at the Cathay, as Shanghai was becoming part of the international scene.

Metropole Hotel

Metropole Hotel

Sasoon hotels also opened the Metropole Hotel n 1932 (and its sister building the Hamilton House). They completed the existing Cathay apartments in the French Concession, and were joined by another Art Deco icon of Shanghai, the Grosvenor house in 1935. All of them are also covered in the book, as well as the later use of the building after 1949.

Despite the in-depth research and the quantity of information it brings, the book makes a good read as well as a pretty coffee table book. Unfortunately, only a few hundreds of copies were made in the first print, so people interested in it should buy it fast (as far as I know, it can be bought at shop in the hotel itself as well as by contacting the author). Hopefully, as second print will be made on a larger scale, making the original copies even more valuable.

Peace at the Cathay is definitely the book about the Cathay Hotel, from the best source. We are lucky it is finally available.

Population Zoning in the former French Concession

May 20th, 2013 | 8 Comments

Urbanisation zones in the 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

Wukang Lu 393

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.

Model of building in Xu Hui

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.

Fako decoration

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

Original album cover

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.

Zhang Chongren

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_006Tchang’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.