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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.

Shanghai scarlet

August 30th, 2012 | 1 Comment

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Book cover

The Shanghai forgotten modernist writers, Mu ShiYing, Shi Zhecun, Du Heng, Liu Na’ou, Xu Chi have captured my attention since I first came across them in Lynn Pan’s excellent Shanghai Style. I also wrote a specific post about Mu ShiYing “Shanghai Foxtrot” a few years ago. The opportunity to read a novel focused on the author’s life was quite exciting, this is the story told by Shanghai Scarlet.

Author Margaret Blair spent her youth in the Shanghai International Settlement, and now lives in Canada. Like JG Ballard (surely the most famous), Liliane Willens and several others, she wrote a book about her life in Old Shanghai, Gudao, Lone Islet. Shanghai Scarlet, her second book, has received little review as self-published by the author in Canada.

Shanghai Scarlet is inspired by the life of Mu Shying, but it is told by 2 characters, Mu himself and his wife Qiu Peipei. The book is a novel based on historical facts on which the author has added her own vision and filled out the blanks. It is very clear that Margaret Blair has taken the forgotten Shanghai modernist writers to her heart and acquired an impressive knowledge about the topic. The Old Shanghai decor feels really right and the fast changing background of the Chinese politics of the time really shows the hard choices those artists had to make. Mu XiYing’s career started in the early 20’s as a Ningbo student who discovers life in Shanghai, China’s center of modernity. He became part of the group of modernist writers that tried to reform Chinese litterature, in the wave of the changes of the time. With the civil war going on in China in the 1930’s and the Japanese invasion, artists became under pressure to choose a side between Nationalists, Communists and collaboration with the Japanese occupant. Each of them made his own choice, turning long life friends into enemies. Mu XiYing ends up siding with the puppet government of Wang Jingwei, collaborating with the Japanese. Although there are not many information about the topic, the book analyses the thoughts and motivations of the various choices in a very credible manner.

The narrator’s voice is alternatively Mu Shying and Qiu Peipei, keeping the story together and showing the adventurous life of this couple through different angles. Very little is known about Mu Shying’s wife and Margaret has chosen a very strong and (nearly) feminist tone and personality for her. That is probably a little odd in regards to the actual period but matches the story. Despite the heavy research, I noticed a few anachronisms (Margaret, the name Art Deco was coined in the 1960’s so I don’t see how Mu Shying could be thinking about “Art Deco” buildings, for him they were probably simply “modern” I guess).  The writing style itself is a little slow sometimes and the same story to be made shorter at some point, particularly toward the end. However, the book all in all  is quite an entertaining read, as well as a good source of information.

I had never heard about the book nor the author before she contacted on this blog, however the book is also available on amazon. This is not really a mainstream book, but people interested in the topic will enjoy it. The author’s website is www.margaretblair.com

From Boulogne to Nanjing

August 20th, 2012 | No Comments

Passion for Shanghai and its Art Deco heritage (see post World Art Deco Congress Shanghai 2015) has pushed me to try and understand history and art history of the early part of the 20th century. Pursuing Art Deco and 1920-30’s anywhere I can (see posts about Antwerp, Paris, Lyon, Napier and many more to come), I only could end up in the Paris’ Museum of the 1930’s. Although as was attracted by the general topic, I found there a number of points related (often indirectly) to Shanghai.

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Art Deco door of Boulogne Post Office

Located in Boulogne-Billancourt (a close suburb to Paris) the museum current area was one of the points where Art Deco started. Many of the artists, workshop and factories that created Art Nouveau in 1900’s Paris moved to this (then) cheap location for expension in the beginning of the 20th century. As fashion in decorative art moved to Art Deco style, this is also where Art Deco emerged in France. The town was also developed by its mayor André Morizet after World War I. Calling for major architects of the time, including Tony Garnier, he organised the construction of the city center in a modern and urbanistic way, with a mix of Art Deco and modernist style. Some of the famous buildings of the area include the City Hall, the Main Post office (see picture) and the Central Police Station. Many more Art Deco and modernist building were constructed in the city at that time and a section of the museum is devoted to it.

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Art Deco furniture in the museum

The museum itself contains a large collection of furniture designed in the 30’s and it is striking to see the similarities to the ones made in Shanghai. Similar material were also used like wrought iron, although the woods used in Europe where often precious woods like palissandre and ebony, as opposed to the much more common woods used in Shanghai. As discussed in post Shanghai Art Deco furniture, Art Deco furniture in Europe were often the ones of the rich and priviledged, when in Shanghai it became much more common and available. Besides these differences, visiting the museum makes clear that the Art Deco in Shanghai came from Art Deco in Europe and the USA. Globalization of styles was truly started at that time… way before most people think.

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Sun Yat Sen sculpture, by Paul Landowski

The Museum is part of a building called “Espace Landowski” and Paul Landowski left me with a big suprise. The French sculpture artist was obviously based in Boulogne-Billancourt. He became really famous in winning the 1928 olympic medal of… sculpture. That fame and links with the olympic movement will surely bring him a lot of attention again as his most wellknown piece is the Christ statue in Rio de Janero, an Art Deco wonder created in 1931. However, he is also the author of another major work mostly well known in China, the statue of Sun Yat Sen in the Nanjing Mausoleum (a copy of it was made for the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall in Taipei). Paul Landowski’s fame became large enough for China to order this major achievement of Republican China from a French man, another example of globalization before its time.

Antwerp Art Deco

August 1st, 2012 | No Comments

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Boerentoren, Antwerp

Belgium cities are mostly famous for their Art Nouveau architecture, built before WWI. While visiting Belgium I was on the hunt for Art Deco buildings, expecting very little apart from enjoying Art Nouveau. This was true in Brussels where Art Deco buildings are very few, but Antwerpen offered a nice surprise. The main Art Deco feature of the city is the 1932 Boerentoren (today known as KBC tower). First Art Deco tower in Europe, it was also the tallest when it was built and was renovated in the 1970’s after being considered for demolition.

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1930’s view

The Boerentoren is an Art Deco wonder with the sculptures ornamenting the façade, in particular the cover for the main entrance. The building originally hosted offices and apartments, as well as a restaurant and a beer bar (this is Belgium after all) at the 10th floor, on the top of both wings (as seen on the 1930’s picture). It’s shape is quite similar to Shanghai’s Grosvenor house.

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Art Deco door, on the river front

Another Art Deco wonder is located on the riverside. The décor of the building and the location makes it clearly linked to the shipping industry. I guess it was the headquarters of a shipping line or a marine insurance. Since many many buildings on the waterfront were destroyed during WWII, it is quite miraculous that this one has survived. I particularly liked the door in the picture.

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Century building, Antwerp

The last area with Art Deco was around the central station. Although the station and the zoo next to it are Art Nouveau treasures, several buildings on the boulevard away from the station are of Art Deco design. The most spectacular is probably the Century building (picture left), now a hotel. The main features are the geometrical sculpture on the top of each column, the iron balconies and the staircase shape of the building itself.Antwerpen 02 150x150 Antwerp Art Deco We continued walking in the city with a short visit in the shop of a famous retailer, established in nice Art Deco piece, just like one of the Shanghai branch on Nanjing Xi Lu. In Antwerp, not only the outside is Art Deco, but the inside of the shop as also been kept in its original state. I wish it was the case also for Shanghai Art Deco buildings turned into shops.