China General Omnibus Company

Riding newly opened trolley 71 from the west of Shanghai to the Bund is very practical, and always makes me think about Old Shanghai. Tramways were installed in Shanghai first in the International Settlement in 1908, then in the French Concession and the Chinese city (see post Old Shanghai tramways for more details). If tramways were the most modern urban transport in the 1900s and 1910s, by the 1920s and even more the 1930s, they were taken over in modernity by buses.

First Shanghai buses in 1924

The China General Omnibus company was incorporated in Hong Kong in 1923, like many companies in Shanghai at that time, to operate bus services in Shanghai. Part of the Sasoon group, it ran bus routes in the International Settlement and beyond. The first routes were opened in 1924, to increase to about 20 lines in the 1930s. Those routes mostly followed main roads and are quite similar to today’s bus line. Buses in the French Concession were separately operated by the “compagnie française de tramways & d’éclairage électrique de Shanghai” which was also operating the tramways.

China General Omnibus Company stock

Picture left is a list of some of the bus routes (the second page is missing), with some being very familiar, starting with Route 1 from Jessfield Park (today Zhong Shan Park) to the Bund. This is actually pretty close to parts of today metro line 2, and was also following Tram route N2 (see post Old Shanghai Tramways for more details). Route 9 had the same beginning and end, but was going Avenue Foch and Avenue Edouard VII (both streets are now Yannan Lu). This is quite similar the eastern part of today’s 71 bus line. As the road was the border between the International Settlement and the French Concession, there was no tramway line.

Above map is a full route map of the China General Omnibus Company. The network was very extensive, allowing to travel all over the international settlement and other areas controlled or managed by the Shanghai Municipal Council. It is a very rare map, hardly seen online. Although edges are missing, it gives a clear view of the bus network. According to documents found with it, it is from 1937.

A few samples of the precious tokens

Another feature of the CGOC that attracts today’s collectors, are the bus tokens issued by the company in the 1920s and 1930s. As Shanghai coins value was fluctuating a lot, the bus company created token that could be purchased in advance and used to pay the bus fees. There was several issues of various token in 1924, 1926 and 1939. They have now become collection pieces highly sought after. For more information about them, best is to have a look at the China Mint website (see following link for more information). Although they have now been replaced by a electronic card, taking the bus at night through the streets of Old Shanghai still feels like a bit of a time travel.

First home in Old Shanghai

The post is focused on my first Old Shanghai house, nearly 13 years ago. The Shanghailander blog did not exist at this time, but this place was surely and inspiration.

I reached Shanghai in early 2004, and after sharing a flat in a concrete block for 8 months, I just could not resist trying the Old Shanghai adventure, living in real Shanghai historic villa. The house was one of a series located in a small compound, at the corner of Route Pottier (today Baoqing Lu, an extension of HengShan Lu) and Rue Lafayette (today Fuxing Lu). The compound had clearly been of high luxury, with 3 level houses following a very European pattern. Houses had been subdivided after the communist takeover in 1949 and the lady upstairs had been living there ever since. The old tenants said that these houses had originally built by a German bank.

After long search, I found a land registry from the early 1930s, showing that the land belonged to French Bank, Banque de l’Indochine, with its seat on the Bund. It was probably built to house the bank directors. No wonder it was luxurious! I never found the construction date, but from the location and the style I would guess late 1910s, or early 1920s. The style is very classical European from the pre WW1 period.

French windows overlooking Route Pottier

The flat I moved in was on the ground floor, occupying about 70 sqm. It had 2 large rooms, one being a huge dining room with kitchen and the other one subdivided into a study and a sleeping room. The house entrance led to a corridor, opening to the doors rooms, including the one to my flat. The original bathroom and toilet, that had seen no changed and was still in common use for the house inhabitants (fortunately not for me, I had my own!). The first foreign tenant (2 years before me) had attempted to renovate the flat. Some parts were really well done like the elevated floor in the sleeping /study room. Unfortunately, the original fish bone wood floor in the dining room had been sanded with the wrong equipment and was seriously damaged.

mini door

The kitchen / dining room of my time was certainly the dining room of the original house. The walls were covered with dark wood panels, as was the fashion of the day. The original setting must have been really dark, but fortunately, they had been painted white. The large French style window overlooked Route Pottier (today Baoqing lu). This dining room had an interesting side door, enclosing a small double door, about 50 cm by 50 cm, 1 meter from the floor. This small door was certainly designed to deliver dishes from the kitchen to the dining room  and then having a butler serving the master’s table. The room behind the door was originally a service room leading to the underground kitchen. It had been later used as a bedroom before being turned into my own bathroom, so the little door was not supposed to open anymore (though I did manage to do it once).  This certainly gave a feeling of grandeur in the original setting, perfect for a bankers home.

Display niche

Next to this door was a display niche. The original glass windows have disappeared for a long time but the railing and the upper cupboard door was still there. This was clearly the place to show some expensive pieces to the guest in the dining room. On the right hand side, opposite to the large window looking on the street was a door and a fireplace. The door was originally communicating to the next room (now the neighbors apartment) that had been walled up.

Like most fireplaces in Shanghai, mine had been filled up with concrete after 1949. I dreamed about opening it up during my stay in that flat, but that is not allowed in Shanghai anymore.

French doors

The back wall was opened with large french doors. They were really beautiful, but the small windows were nearly impossible to change if damaged, thus some of the windows were broken and left unrepaired. It must originally have been possible to open the top windows to give some fresh air, but after 60 years without being used, I was never able to do it.

The study / sleeping room was divided in two parts with a very clever cupboard / wall left by the architect tenant. The original room had been extended from original construction, probably enclosing a terrace as the room was located half under the 2nd floor and half under it’s own little extension roof. Insulation was very poor and it was extremely cold in the winter (to bad I only noticed that when winter came). There was door from this room to the garden, which was very large and must have originally very nice. Unfortunately, people living in the house never really maintained it and it became half jungle and half junk yard with people dropping all kind of rubbish in it (including an old bath tab).

Avenue Pétain (today Hengshan Lu) and Route Pottier (today Baoqing Lu) is a major way into Shanghai and (further down) became a major entertainment street, thus the road in front of my flat was a 24 hours traffic jam. With taxis and buses honking at any time of the day and night, it was really difficult to sleep. Along with the cold, it made it impossible to stay and I happily left after my first year, moving to a flat on Route Kauffman (today Anting lu) where I stayed for 11 years. The flat on Route Pottier has now been turned into a cafe. Although it still has an atmosphere, many of the original parts have been removed.

Poy Gum Lee’s lost building

Today’s Nanjing Xi Lu in 1910

I have often heard or read that in Old Shanghai, the business district was in the International Settlement, and the higher class residential in the calmer streets of the French Concession. Although most of it has now disappeared, the International Settlement although had its select residential district. Bubbling Well (today Nanjing Xi lu), was originally a countryside road with large mansion along with their massive gardens on its side, including the former Majestic Hotel. In the 1920s and 1930s, these large properties were sold and new buildings were erected in a much denser fashion. The residential streets moved up North, along Avenue Road (today Beijing Xi Lu). Although this part of Jing An has been massively built over in the last 20 or 30 years, a few villas have resisted in this area, they include the Laszlo Hudec Hu Mansion (the Green house), the former Pei Mansion and a few houses around the corner of today Changde Lu and Beijing Xi Lu.

Hidden Art Deco on Wuding Lu

Another street further North with a number of large villas was the Western section of Wuding Lu, although very little information available about them. Large houses seem only to have been in that section of the street as opposed to the (now gone) shikumen and factories that lined the more Eastern section. This stretch of a few hundred meters really feels like other residential streets in the French Concession or around Yu Yuan Lu, making it a pleasant stroll. Although each house is a different style, they all seem to have been built in the 1930s. From a neighboring rooftop, I could see them all and noticed one in particular, an Art Deco mansion, behind a modern school building. Although I could only see part of it, I always thought this house was special.

It’s only a few years later, while visiting the Ordinary Metropolis exhibition in 2016, that I discovered the true identity of this house, in a section dedicated to Chinese modernist architects. One of them was American architect Chinese Poy Gum Lee / 李锦沛 (see in-depth article about him on Shanghai Art Deco blog). He worked, among others, on the Chinese YMCA building in Shanghai (today Marcopolo Hotel on people square), on Sun-Yat-Sen memorial in Nanjing and later on buildings in New York’s China Town. I first heard about him during 2015 Shanghai Art Deco World Congress. Blue prints of a house designed by him were used as an example of Chinese modern design in the exhibition.

The revealing rendering

I thought the design looked familiar, but did not really knew from where until seeing the rendering. The Yan Mansion designed by Poy Gum Lee and built in 1934, is actually the house I saw from the rooftop. This was further confirmed by an old picture, although original balconies have been glassed over and the ornamental doors and windows are long gone. Lastly, a map of the location was provided showing it located on “Wuting Road”, today’s Wuding lu.

Original picture of the Yan Mansion

Although there is no historic plate on the building, it is without a doubt, the Yan Mansion designed by Poy Gum Lee, located on today’s 932 Wuding lu. Unfortunately, most of the garden has been eaten by a new building masking it from the street. Being a school also makes it off limits for most people. Funny enough, the exhibition showed its blue print but did not show any current picture, nor mentioned that the building still stands. Hopefully, one day it will be recognized and protected. In the meantime, its current use should keep it standing for long.

 

Gordon & Co Construction, Shanghai

Need some construction, call 16077?

Shanghai development was fueled by real-estate and construction. Just like in every big city, people moved house, bought and sold properties and remodeled them. There was also maintenance work, as well as upgrade to be done.

I recently noticed this ad in a 1937 Shanghai publication. I particularly like the “All works satisfactorily executed”. The company was surely a foreign one, located behind the Bund, on today’s Sichuan Middle Road, close to Fuzhou Lu. In such a central location, it must have been involved in building or maintaining the buildings of the business district of the International Settlement, though I did not find more information about. I tried to call 16077, but sadly this number does not exist anymore.

The best days for Old Shanghai are nearly over

Being in the subtropical zone, Shanghai weather varies strongly over the course of the year.

Art Deco behind the trees

Summers tends to be very hot, with the back ground noise of cicadas (see post Singing trees and Shanghai heat), the damp atmosphere feeling more like tropical Saigon. On the opposite, winters are cold and damp (See post freezing Shanghai). While snow is rare (see post snow in Shanghai), the humidity makes living in the city really miserable for a few days. Mid-season between those Scylla and Charybdis are really nice, and best to visit Shanghai either in spring, or in Autumn.

Uncovered façade on Anfu lu

Shanghai sub tropical sun light is very strong and a few sunny hours tend the change the city mood really fast. This is why most houses face South, as light coming directly inside the home will brightens up the dampest winter day. In the rare days of winter sunshine, lanes fill up with hanging clothes and bedding, the sun light being most effective to chase away bugs and humidity of the old houses.

Soon covered by leafs

Best days for me are also those blue sky days in winter, even better late winter or early spring. Winter time is a particularly great time to look at old architecture in the former concessions. While plane trees leafs provide a nice shadow in the summer, they tend to cover up low rise buildings from the 1920s and 30s. Winter see the leafs disappear and the buildings appearing clearly. It’s a great time to walk around, look at the buildings and take photographs. With the spring a few days away, buds will soon open before becoming leafs. They will recreate the charming green vault overlooking the streets, but will also cover Old Shanghai low rise buildings. With a few days to enjoy it, every day of blue sky is an opportunity to discover more about Old Shanghai, so just go out and look around before it’s too late… for this year.