French movie “The crime is mine” is inspired by a play from the 1930s. Director Francois Ozon have turned into a movie that has many references to French cinema past and present, including many actors that are famous in France. This will probably be lost to the non French viewer. What is stunning for the 1930s and Art Deco fan are the fantastic decors and costumes.
1930s locations around Paris and further have been used, including the below bridge that is located in Bagneux, a few kilometers from Paris.
The story is focused on two ladies, one of which being accused of killing a major film producer, and the other one being her lawyer. The crime is taking place in the luxurious villa of the producer, which is actually the fabulous Villa Empain in Brussels.
Costumes were carefully modeled after the 1930s fashion, creating a real visual univers for the movie. This helps to imagine how life in part of the former French Concession looked like.
The whole movie has a light atmosphere. Many people seem to like it, although I tend to prefer a noir atmosphere for movied taking place in this period, just like TV series Babylon Berlin taking place in the 1930s. In any case, The crime is mine will delight Art Deco et 1930s fan.
Actress Ruan LingYu 阮玲玉 was one of the main star of Shanghai cinema in the 1930s. Shanghailander.net’s series of blog posts about her 1931 movie “Love and duty” sparked interest in the readers. One of them pointed me to the 1991 Stanley Kwan Hong Kong movie “Center Stage” or 阮玲玉 (Ruan Lingyu) in Chinese.
Center Stage is focused on the life of actress Rang Lingyu, from the time she became an actress for the Lian Hua studio in 1930.
Stanley Kwan Hong Kong movie mixes biopic like scenes with cuts from the two remaining original movies (The Godess 1934 and New women 1935). It also adds interviews from people who actually knew Ruan Lingyu, and of some of the movie cast. Meggie Cheung is fantastic at interpreting Ruan Lingyu sensibility.
One of stunning feature of the movie is that various actors speak different Chinese dialects to each other. Ruan Lingyu, as many people of the Lian Hua studio speak cantonese. Other characters speak mandarin or Shanghai dialect, but they all seem to understand each other somehow.
A number of surviving pictures have been studied used to recreate the original scenes. Enormous work has been done recreate the architecture, art, fabrics and objects of the time. The art deco mansion occupied by the Lian Hua studio feels like a Shanghai villa, just like the dance club is clearly inspired by Shanghai’s paramount.
Although not so well known in the West, the movie was well received by critics, with Maggie Chueng earning a Silver price for acting in Berlin festival in 1992. It is definitely a must see for Old Shanghai lovers. Too bad “Love and Duty” was only found and restored after “Center Stage” was made, that would have been a great match.
The story of express train abducted in Shandong province by local gangsters in the 1920s was the base for World famous 1932 Hollywood movie “Shanghai Express”. James Zimmerman’s “The Peking Express” is the true story of this incident and its consequences in China and beyond.
Although the whole journey was called the Pekin Express, the actual line ran only from Pukou (today part of Nanjing) to Tientsin (today Tianjin). Passengers from Shanghai would take a train from Shanghai Station (Today Shanghai railway station) for a few hours to Nanjing, and then cross the Yangze river on boats (the first bridge over the river lower was only built in 1968). After desembarking in Pukow, they would get into the train heading to Tsientsin (today Tianjin). In late 1922, the train was equiped with new luxury sleeping carriages, allowing an overnight journey of only 38 hours from Shanghai to Beijing, over 1435 kms through Zhejiang, Shandong and Henan Provinces.
Foreign hostages of the high luxury train counted several known figures in Shanghai including editor of Shanghai Weekly review JB Powell, as well a China press report Larry (Llyod) Lehrbas. Businessmen included Leon Friedman one of the leading car dealers in Shanghai, Lee Solomon the leading mahjong sets exporter to the West and Giuseppe D. Musso, an Italian lawyer wellknown in the community. Passengers included (wealthy) tourists, such Lucy Aldrich, sister in law of the Rockefeller family, as well as two US Army majors and their families and a number of interesting characters. They also included Marcel Berubé, a French man working for the Chinese Salt Administration in Tianjin.
Local bandits organised the train derailment in the early hours of th 6th May 1923. After having stolen all passengers properties and train amenities, they took the passengers hostage, trying the get concessions from the regional and national government. Although there was more than 100 hostages, the story focuses on the 28 foreigners who were travelling in first class, along with 2 Chinese citizens that staid with them. The book tells the story of the robbery, the captivity of the hostages as well as the escape of some of them. It also tell about the supporting effort, notably by the Shanghai foreign community, lead by Carl Crow and the mediation efforts until the release of the last prisoners about a month later.
James Zimmerman has lived in Beijing for 30 years, and has done an amazing research in the topic. Many of the hostages wrote notes about their captivity, sometimes publishing books or articles. Zimmerman has definitely read most of those books as well as been in touch with many families of the hostages, findind resources that had not been used before. The whole incident is told in great details, with recurring quotations from all the journals writen by the hostages. The information content is very dense, but using the voices and quotation from the actual people make the book an easy read. James Zimmerman has also explored the area where the whole incident took place in Shandong province and gives a lot of important information about the location and landscape of the area. This makes the book an easy read, as well as a strong source of information for people knowledgeable about Old Shanghai.
2020’s book “The last kings of Shanghai” by Jonathan Kaufman has been on my reading list since publication, but I only read it recently. I had high expectations from the review and the book has some really interesting parts, at the same time it is a bit of a disappointement from an Old Shanghai researcher point of view.
A number of books have been written about the Sassoon’s trade empire, and particularly about its most visible character in Old Shanghai, Sir Elias Victor Sassoon. Instead of focusing on this family only, “The last kings of Shanghai” tells the story of two competing families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories. Both Jewish families originated from Baghdad through Bombay, ending up in Shanghai. Both left grand buildings in Shanghai, the Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel and the Kadoorie’s Marble Hall.
As opposed to the Sassoon’s, the story of the Kadoorie family is much less known. The author description of the family life in Shanghai, the role of the death of Elly Kadoorie’s wife Laura on him and his sons Lawrence and Horace is really informative. The roles and differences of both brothers in running the business in Shanghai and in Hong Kong brings a lot to this story. The book does not stop with the end of Old Shanghai in 1949, but also covers the crucial involvement of the family in Hong Kong development as well as their return to China in the 1980s and Shanghai come back with the opening of the Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund in 2009.
Although it brings some good information, the book is also shallow on a number of topics. The author seems to be more interested in telling a good story than doing in-depth historical research. Sometimes, subject are simply overlooked when more research would have been valuable as well as bringing accuracy. This was underlined by the FT review of the book , mentionning that “Laura Mocatta, Elly’s dynamic wife, is described as “an educated British aristocrat”. The Mocattas were prominent British Jews, but, unlike the Rothschilds, not ennobled.”
Similarly, the history of the Kadoorie’s Shanghai & Hotels group property and its architecture could have been more detailled. It has been documented that Abelardo Lafuente, the Spanish architect in Old Shanghai had a close relationship with the Kadoorie family, having been involved in the interior decoration of several of their properties including the Palace Hotel in 1922 and the Astor House Hotel in 1917 and 1923., but he is never mentioned. As explained by Katya Kniazeva in her post, Aberlardo Lafuente was commissioned to create the Jewish Club near the Kadoorie’s house on Bubbling Well Road in 1918. This particular building also burned down some times after the fire that took Laura’s life. Marble Hall was created by renovating this structure after the fire, keeping a familiar look.
Similarly, the story of the Majestic hotel is also overlooked. The book mentioned that the building was bought from ” Scottish friends of the Kadoories”. Those “Scottish friends” were the McBain, one of the most important family in Shanghai, involved in petrol distribution all over China and other businesses. The “Spanish / French” architect hired to create the Majestic hotel was also Aberlardo Lafuente.
“The last Kings of Shanghai” is definitely an entertaining book telling a great story. It’s a great introduction to Shanghai history and its foreign influence. Too bad the author did not go into more details on a number of topics. That would have made the book even more valuable.
I have read a number of novels taking place in Old Shanghai, but for some reason I missed MJ Lee’s “Death in Shanghai” until now. It is amazing I did not get to read it before, having been interested in both crime novels and Old Shanghai for a long time.
Piotr Danilov is the only foreign inspector in the Shanghai International Settlement’s Police Dept. Being Russian, he spent time in Scotland Yard, hence his excellent command of English. He also speaks French although where or how he learned is not clear. This conveniently helps him being sent to discuss with the French concession police when required. As a hard working cop, he is very much isolated among his moslty lazy, violent and corrupt British colleagues. Danilov also has his dark past that will be uncovered through the novel. Danilov’s sidekick, Strachan, is also an outsider being born of a British father and a Chinese mother and not being part of any of those communities.
The book starts with a corp discovered in the Suzhou Creek with inspector Danilov being put in charge of the investigation. The police hierarchy wants a quick found convict, but soon more murders will be linked to this one, both in the International Settlement and the French Concession. The books plot is complex but not overly so, making it a fluid read.
The main character of the book is not a person, but a city. MJ Lee has lived in Shanghai and definitely used historical documentation to write his novel. The city description is not limited to its buildings but also includes scents, food tastes and sounds giving a lot of atmosphere to the story. It is mostly accurate in its geography of the city giving a lot of credibility to it from an Old Shanghai enthusiast point of view. One of the twists of the story actualy comes from the Garden Bridge on the Suzhou Creek and the Shanghai Morgue, inside the Shanghai General Hospital, being located close to each other. Although the book has been historicaly researched, the novel does not become a show of the author’s knowledge of Old Shanghai like other ones I have read before. The story reads easily even if the reader knows nothing about Old Shanghai.
As an Old Shanghai researcher I could not avoid picking a few anachronisms. As an exemple, the author mentions “Art Deco” buildings and jewelery in 1928, when the term “Art Deco” was only coined in the 1950s or 1960s (see post “1925 when art deco dazzled the World“) . Another point is the mention of the “Shanghai Badlands” in 1928, an area that became known under this name only after 1937 Japanese occupation. I also noticed a small mistake in the French dialogs when a gard at the French police was called a “fonctionnaire”, meaning civil servant which sounds pretty weird in the story. The author surely meant a “factionnaire”, meaning a “soldier on duty”. This also shows that the author probably speaks French himself, as the French dialogues are very good in the book.
With its historical accuracy, its interesting plot and good writing style, “Death in Shanghai” is definitely a great read and a good introduction to Old Shanghai. I am looking forward to read the three other novels in the series. Having lived in the Shanghai at the same time as the author, I can only regret that we did not meet then as we would have had a number of common interests.
Champagne has been the drink of parties and celebration since the 18th century and a lot of it was consummed in Old Shanghai. In 1934, about 42.000 bottles of French Champagne where imported in China, mostly through Shanghai port.
Champagne was served in the many private parties organised then. It is public knowledge that Champagne was flowing freely at Victor Sassoon’s party. Drinking Champagne at a wealthy Chinese mansion in Shanghai is mentionned in “Shanghai secrets” by Jean Fontenoy, the editor in chief of French newspaper “Le journal de Shanghai”. Champagne was also available in the numerous restaurants, bars, clubs and dancings in the city.
Above picture is the first page of the Sun Sun sky terrace wine list displayed in previous post (See post “French wines in Old Shanghai“). Lines 1 to 4 are famous Champagne brands that are again available in Shanghai today : 1 Pommery, 2 Veuve Cliquot, 3 Mumm Cordon Rouge, 4 Piper Heidsieck. Champagne was already very expensive then, as a bottle of the best Champagne was 30$, 3 times more than Chateau Lafite from Bordeaux or Corton from Burgundy. There was a real premium for sparkling wines as the cheapest on the list was more expensive than the best red wines.
Importing Champagne was a big business for a number of French companies that were the Champagne houses agents in Shanghai. French company Racine & Cie was the agent of Champagne Heidsieck mentionned above. Racine & Cie was one of the major agents for French companies in Shanghai, with its GM Jean Donné being a member of the board of the French Chamber of Commerce in 1930. Racine & Cie also imported French tinned food (See post “Vegs in a can” for more details).
Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne was imported by smaller French import company Optorg, with advertising in “Le Journal de Shanghai”. The above ad is about 14th July 1931, with the following caption : “To upstand your reputation and match the taste of yours guests, serve them Mumm”. In Shanghai as well, serving French Champagne was seen as a matter of high taste.
Although not in the Sun Sun restaurant drink list, Lanson Champagne was imported in Shanghai by British trading firme Calbeck MacGregor. Above ad is from Le Journal de Shanghai 1st January 1932.
Other sparkling wines from France were also available in China, including Loire Valley Veuve Amiot, imported by leading French trading company Olivier Chine. Above picture shows 2931 bottles to Tientsin (today Tianjin) and 3642 to Shanghai.
The previous post was about wine import in 1920-1930s Shanghai (see post French wines in Old Shanghai for details). France was the largest provider for imported wine. Being orginally from Burgundy, I did some research into this specific region that was then famous for its wines and is even more famous today.
Burgundy wines where famous among the elite in 1920s and 1930s Shanghai. The most famous person drinking Burgundy wine was surely Sir Victor Sassoon, owner of the Sassoon house hosting the World famous Cathay hotel and many other buildings in Shanghai. Sir Victor Sassoon wrote a journal and during a trip to France on 2nd August 1934, he had diner as leading Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent where he was served Clos Vougeot 1925. He must have really liked it as it ordered 24 bottles of it and probably took them to Shanghai.
As shown in previous post, 1939 wine list of famous Sun sun department store Sky Terrace included Burgundy whites such as Chablis 1929, Meursault 1923 (with a spelling mistake) and Pouilly-Fuissé. Burgundy red were Pommard 1929, Corton 1929 and Macon 1929. It has to be noticed that 10 years old wines were sold and served in restaurants. Even the Burgundy white table wine was from 1933, i.e. 6 years old. Burgundy wines at that time were kept for years before being drunk. Although they still can be kept for decades is properly stored, they are often drunk much younger now. It is noticeable that Burgundy wines were more expensive than Bordeaux at that time in Shanghai.
Some Burgundy houses tried to get into the Asian market using the French colonies as a springboard in the early 1920s until the mid 1930s. While Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was the largest area controlled by French in Asia, China with its large population was the main target. In a way similar to today, wine houses had agents in Shanghai that would purchase the wines and resell it being both importers and distributors.
French wine in bottles was mostly handled by French people. Just like today, major trading companies imported wines in their portfolio. Above picture shows an add for wine from Dufouleur, a wine house in Nuits-Saint-Georges that is still making wines today. Their wines were imported and distributed by Racine & Cie, one of the major French trading company in Shanghai that also advertised for imported canned vegetables (see post Vegs in a can for further details).
In the same way, smaller import company Rondon was the sole agent for large wine maker and trader, or “négociant” in French, Bouchard Ainé. They already had large range of Burgundy wines imported in Shanghai by agents L. Rondon & Co. Now property of Burgundy wine power house Jean-Claude Boisset, Bouchard Ainé has been back in today’s China since the early 2000.
Trading company Hirsbrunner was the importer of négociant Jules Regnier. Their ads in the press were more interesting than an simple list of wines as they also tried to link their wines with history. The bottled displayed were Grand Chambertin and sparking Burgundy. Jules Régnier & Co does not exist anymore, but I found a picture of their cellar and heaquarters in Dijon.
Burgundy wine history was studied in depth by French scholar Christophe Lucand, who is also the Mayor of Gevrey-Chambertin, one the famous Burgundy village and my home town. While Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was the largest area controlled by French in Asia, China with its large number of people was the main target. Just like many other manufacturers in Europe and the US, Burgundy winemakers dreamed of having millions of Chinese drinking their wines sending back huge profit. Burgundy wine makers where by far not the only ones having this dream and similar stories are told in fantastic Carl Crow’s book “400 customers”.
Converting large number of Chinese to drink wine was a complete failure and the effort to bring Burgundy wine to China ended in the mid 1930s. Still, foreigners in China’s concession as well as elite Chinese seemed to have enjoyed those wines a lot. It took another 90 years for Burgundy wines to become famous in China, where they now are the darling of wine lovers imported by numerous trading companies.
Foreigners who built Shanghai brought their drinking habits with them. Chinese people had been drinking various kind of rice alcohol for centuries, but foreigners brought new kinds of alcoholic drinks. Beer, Gin, Whisky came in as well as wine. Pictures of the Ruan Lingyu “love & Duty” showed wine and Brandy being served and drunk in 1930s Shanghai (see post “Love and Duty” for more details). This is also visible on below wine list of the Sun Sun department store sky terrace, one of the fashionnable restaurant in the 1930s.
Wine import in China in the 1930s was quite a big business, as shown in yearly customs report “The Trade of China”. This gives significant statistics and data about import in China. Details are provided on alcoholic drinks in various categories. I looked at the 1933 and 1934 statistics.
Champagne is the first wine listed in the statistics. 33 986 liters of Champagne were imported in 1933, and 36 551 liters in 1934. Of this, 77% was from France in 1933 and 86% in 1934. At that time, the name of Champagne was not yet protected so Champagne could be made out of the French Champagne region. Other countries included Italy and Great Britain (probably re-exporting). Unsprisingly, about 2/3 of the import went through Shanghai Port, 1/3 through Tianjin Port.
The next category is “Still Wines, in bottles”. Red or whites were unfortunately not separated. Just like today, this was surely the most expensives wines that were transported bottled. 46 085 litters were imported in 1933 and 38 323 in 1934. Out of this, France had 54% in 1933 and 41% in 1934. Second place was Germany with 20% in 1933 and 25% in 1934, that was probably all white wine. Italy came third with 10% in 1933 and 19% in 1934. Main port of entries were Shanghai with 62% and Tianjin 17%. Mengtsz came in with 12%. Since the city was the main place for France in South Yunnan, it was surely import from French Indochina transported on the famous French Yunnan railways.
The last category is “Still Wines, in bulk”. Lower quality wines were transported bulk to be bottled locally. In 1933, 677 289 liters of wine were imported in bulk, in `1934 896 739. This is 14.75 times more than import of bottles in 1933 and 23.44 more times in 1934. France was the leader in the market with 46% market share in 1933, and a stagering 85% in 1934. The country faced massive overproduction of wine in those years and took action to massively export its surplus. Spain was second with 43% in 1933, and a market sharply reducing to 7% in 1934. Italy was third with 13% in 1933 and 4.8% in 1934. Other countries Chile, Egypt, Germany, UK, Greece, Japan, Palestine and Portugal.
Just like today, wine was a major export for France. When wine consumption was mostly in Shanghai in the 1930s, it has now grown all over China and import volumes are counted in hundreds of million of litters. Still the first country of origin for wine import in 2019 was France with 30%. Followed Australia, where winemaking was still in its beginning in the 1930s, with 26%. Third came Chile with 16%, then Spain with 11% and Italy with 6%. Just like in the 1930s, imported wine in Shanghai today is mostly from France.
The cross of North-South and the Yanan elevated motorway is the center of Shanghai. Its construction in the 1990s was a major construction work. Although it was a major step in the city modernity, it came along with the destruction of many beautiful building on the main road of the former French Concession, l’Avenue Dubail.
This video made in collaboration with Augustin Vouilloux shows the beauty of the architecture and a few pictures of the lost beauty of old buildings.