Remembering Shanghai

Book cover

Many autobiographies have now been published by people who live in Old Shanghai, and most of them were written by westerns. The really interesting part of Remembering Shanghai, is that it is a story of a Chinese family in Old Shanghai. Living in the same city as the foreigners, but often not in the space, the personal story makes a really interesting read.

The first wave of autobiographies about Old Shanghai was published in the late 1940s and 50s, when foreigners who used to live in Shanghai, realised that they would not go back after the communist takeover. Among those are “My twenty-five years in China”, by China Weekly Review publisher  John B. Powell, as well as Emily (Mickey) Hahn books published after her departure, including “China to me” (for more details about Mickey Hahn’s life in Shanghai, see article “Tara Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand“). Since the events in China were still very much in the Western news, those books sold well at publication.

Another wave of Old Shanghai books came when those people who had lived and worked in Old Shanghai retired and spent time remembering the golden days of their youth, mostly in the 70s. At that time, Old Shanghai was pretty much a forgotten topic, those books sold in small numbers and are now difficult to get. Two good examples included Ralph Shaw’s Sin City (Ralph Shaw was in the Shanghai Police force) and John Pal’s Shanghai Saga (John Pal was a employed in the customs office). Although facts are sometimes distorted by memories, those books are great source of first hand details on life in Old Shanghai.

With the rise of the city on the international scene, Old Shanghai books have been in fashion again from the early 00s. Some who left Shanghai in the late 1940s started to come back to the city they had fondly kept in their memories. Some of the most well known are Liliane Willens’s Stateless in Shanghai as well as Rena Krasno’s book (stranger always, Once upon a time in Shanghai). Both lived in the former French Concession of them attended the French Collegue Municipal Français. Another one is Tea on the Great Wall, by Patricia Lu Chapman. Author give a first hand view of foreign Shanghai, but what makes the new Remembering Shanghai special is that it was written by Chinese people.

Author Isabel Sun Chao was born in  a wealthy family from Changshu, in Jiangsu province. Her father had relocated to Shanghai in his youth and was managing the family properties in the city. The life of Isabel and her siblings was on the outside very similar to the one of wealthy foreigners, as the children attended the best schools in the international settlement. Inside home, it was quite different, as a permanent fight between traditional China and modern Shanghai was raging within the family. Traditional China was represented by her father, a poet and a Chinese painting collector, and even more by Qingpo, the grand mother ruling the house with an iron fist. On the contrary, Isabel’s mother was embracing the modern city and its life of fast pace. She eventually became one of the first Chinese women to actually divorce her husband.

Just like foreigners stucked in Shanghai after the Japanese , Isabel and her sister Virginia went through the privation of the war, and finally were able to be the only two members of their family to escape Shanghai before the rise of Communist power. Due to political events, the two branches of the family were separated for years and communication was lost for many years. It’s only in 2008 that Isabel went back to the view the family house on now Zhenning Lu, together with her daughter Claire.

I actually met with Isabel and Raymond Chao in 2011 and wrote a post about it (See post “Shanghai exiles” for more details). This showed them that their story interested people and helped turning the project into reality, with publication in end 2017.


Advertising Park Hotel

Park Hotel, the highest tower in Asia in 1934

The horse race track of Shanghai (today’s People square) was at the center of the entertainment district in Old Shanghai. Hotels were built in the neighborhood including the home of Chinese stars, Yangtze Hotel (see post Yangtze Hotel for more details), the Great China Hotel and the New World Hotel.

Lászlo Hudec Park Hotel opened in 1934 on the Northern of the race track, on Bubbling Well Road. Financed by the Joint Savings Society, a major Chinese financial institution, it was a clear attempt to compete with the Cathay Hotel that opened a few year earlier on the Bund. As displayed in the advertising material below, entertainment was the main point of the hotel’s offer. If the Cathay was the home away from home for foreign travelers, the Park Hotel was designed with residents in mind, as well as guests coming to enjoy the race track and other local entertainment establishments. Those included the neighboring theaters (Grand Theater, Nanjing Theater and Metropole Theater), as well as the shopping temples on Nanjing Lu (Wing On, Sincere and Sun Department stores) as mentioned on the below map.

Advertising leaflet for Park Hotel in Shanghai

I particularly like the hotel silhouette and the characters displayed. Their dress look very much like characters from movie Casablanca. Another specific feature is the display of parts of the Chinese city (Longhua Pagoda and the Civic Center, in today Yangpu district ) as possible tours destination from the hotel. Although Longhua Pagoda was (and still is) a major tourist destination, the new Shanghai area of Jiangwan was rarely mentioned in foreign guides.

Using the same concrete raft technique as the Cathay, the 24 floors building was the highest of Shanghai… and in Asia. It only lost the Shanghai crown in the 1980’s when high buildings construction restarted. For decades the Park Hotel tower dominated Shanghai sky. The view from the top floor was unobstructed and stunning, as seen on the picture below. From up there, one could practically see the whole of Shanghai. For people of the time, this view must have been as stunning as the one from today’s Pudong skyscrapers.

Since most of the original Art Deco interior and furniture has disappeared, the Park Hotel does not compare to today’s luxury hotel anymore. The exterior is now roughly back to its original design, but inside only the ball room of which the circle floor was designed by German Bauhaus trained architect Richard Paulick has survived.  When Park Hotel opened though, it was one of the best of Shanghai, competing not only in height but also in the best services with the Cathay. Below is a rare advertising leaflet for the

Rare advertising for Park Hotel

Pictures of the original Park hotel and decoration are extremely rare, but the hotel was clearly of the highest standard. It hosted two major restaurants, the Main Dining Room “remindful of the choicest wines and Epicurean French Cuisine” on the second floor and the Grill room on the 14th floor “which has a reputation on its own”. 14th floor was also the location of the Sky Terrace, I am preparing a special post on this one.

The Grill Room of Park Hotel. Thanks to my friend Peter Hibbard to find this one

It also had a lounge on the 3rd or 4th floor, ideal location for drinking cocktails while watching the horse races. The highest attention was put for the kitchen… though no Chinese restaurant is mentioned.  “The pastry cook has his place, and quite an important one” as high teas were (just like today) an important market for the hotel. The Park Hotel’s pastry reputation survived the years, as it was one of the few places to buy cakes until the bakery revival a few years ago. It was particularly famous for its Palmiers, or “butterfly cookies, Hu Die SU” as it is called in Chinese, that are still on sale today (Please see post “Tasting Old Shanghai” for more details).

It was quite a shock when I discovered this leaflet in a market in Shanghai more than 12 years ago. It can date it from 1937 or 1938, as I know from other sources that Mr T M Lamb was the GM in 1938. Nearly eighty years later, this advertising for Park Hotel looks very much like today’s top hotels promotion material.