American Radio Equipment Co.

Radio broadcasting was introduced in Shanghai in 1922. At that time, there was very few listeners. The audience and attraction grew in the 1930s. Shanghai being a modern city, radio stations were popular with more than 100 of them operating in the city (as mentioned in “ All about Shanghai“). Import of radio equipment from the USA and Europe was a large business.

I recently ran into the below letter from American Radio Equipment Co, from 1935. It was located on 265-267 Avenue Haig (today HuaShan Lu) in the former French Concession. Although I have no other information, it is clear that company was selling and creating radio equipment. From Radio Engineers, Importers, Contractors, it is clear that they were not only selling radio receivers, but surely also building and maintaining radio transmission systems. They were probably the guys to talk if you wanted to open a radio station.

Just like today, a large business of Old Shanghai was importing and exporting. Radio equipment was no exception, as the large majority of it was imported (See radio history of Shanghai using this link). Trading companies would send international letters by air or sea, as well as telegrams, though those were really expensive (see post: Lost in transmission for more details). The pace of trade and communication was definitely much slower than today, with a letter requiring at least a few days to reach Europe or the USA,

I love the sentence “Shipping to Shanghai is same as San Francisco and no extra needed be added.” as it seems really strange nowadays. I assume that is this in particular linked to electric power, as current in the International Settlement and in China was 110 Volts like in the USA. No modification of the items was required then to use it in Shanghai.

Finding this kind of documents shows that despite changes in time, the World was already globalized in the 1930s, and Shanghai already was one of the main nods in this global network.

Le musical-hall des espions

French journalist Bruno Birolli was stationed in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Beijing for more than 23 years. After two non-fictions book about Asia history, he published “Le musical-hall des espions” in France in 2017. I have read and written about quite a number of Old Shanghai novels like The master of rain” or “Night in Shanghai“, as well a Paul French book on Shanghai Gangsters, City of devils. Since I also love reading crime novels, one taking place in Old Shanghai could only attract my attention.

Book cover

Birolli novel’s title, ” Le music-hall des espions”, could be best translated as “Theater of spies”. The novels takes place from 1930 to 1932 and focuses on French man René Desfossées, who is sent to political unit of the Shanghai French Concession Police. Main characters include his boss, Commandant Léo Fiorini along with Archibald Swindown, a colleague from the International Settlement police. As historical events unfold in Shanghai, their police work will make them meet various people including the chief of police for the Kuomingtang government, other members of the French police, a magician, and many more. The action is mainly located in Shanghai, the city could be considered also as one of the main characters, along with a short part in Hankou’s French Concession.

The author has spent years in Asia and it definitely shows in the book. I often found that Old Shanghai novels lack the climate, noise and smells of the city. They are all here. The dampness of the city after the rain, cold waves that freeze it a few days a year and other mentions of the city’s weather just feel like the real thing. Neither are missing the smell of Chinese food or of coal burning, the noise of people shouting in the streets and the honks of cars, giving a vivid portrait of the city.

Birolli’s interest in early 20th century’s Asian history and journalistic experience is also showing. This makes his version of Old Shanghai very accurate, taking into account the time of constructions of various roads and buildings. Actual historical events are developing in the background and are fully integrated in the story. One can also find numerous references to real history characters of the time, the most obvious one being the Commandant Fiorini, whose name is a direct reference to the real Captain Etienne Fiori who ran the French Concession police from 1920 to 1932. Characters have deep personality and there own history influences their actions and decisions in a very realistic way. Probably a little more explanations would be welcome by readers unfamiliar with the settings and Shanghai history, but the novel is making it a very enjoyable trip to Old Shanghai.

The real Capitaine Fiori receiving a medal

Although the background, historical events and characters are very credible, the books feels sometimes more like a photograph of an era, than a real crime novel. Having read many of those, I was expecting more speed in the story as well as a more sophisticated intrigue. Writing style is still very journalistic, as opposed the punch that one could expect from great noir novels, like “Perfidia” by James Ellroy or an historical spy novel like “Carnival of Spies” by Robert Moss.

In any case, I enjoyed reading the book and it highly recommended to anybody interested in Shanghai history. Unfortunately, it is only available in French so far.

Top 5 posts 2020!

1920s have a reputation to have been memorable years. The roaring twenties were called “Les années folles” in French, meaning the crazy years. The start of the 2020s did not disappoint in craziness, although definitely not is such a fun way. To close this year where I finally started to write regularly again, here is a the 5 most read articles in the Shanghailander blog in 2020.

1 – The rise and fall of the Majestic Hotel
The story of the star of Shanghai nigthlife in the 1920s, that disappeared in the 30s seems is a regular on the top search posts of the blog. The reason why I wrote this post in 2017 was my own interest and the lack of information available on the topic. Apparently I was not the only one searching

2 – China General Omnibus Company
It seems that I am also not the only one to be interested in Old Shanghai transportation, in particular the bus network of the International Settlement. This post from 2017 also includes a pretty unique map of the bus network itself from 1937.

3 – Old Shanghai tramways
Another post on public transportation in Old Shanghai. This topic seems to attract attention. This post from 2017 includes a map of the International Settlement tram network and a tram ticket from the 1920s.

4 – Sainte-Thérèse Church
First post of 2020 in the top 5. It is focused on the mysterious catholic church in the middle of the few remaining lilongs of JingAn district.

5 – Aquarius Water then and now
Published in the middle of a hot summer, this post tells the story of the Shanghai brand of mineral water Aquarius, and its famous Orange Squash. Through modern advertising, the brand became one the Shanghai favorite, that is being relaunched in a modern version in 2020.

Best wished from the Shanghailander blog for 2021! If you want me to share or publish information about Old Shanghai, people places, documents and other related topic, please contact me at hmartin@shanghailander.net .

Merry Christmas in 1936 Shanghai

Christmas in the Old Shanghai was a big thing. Christmas mass celebrated in all the churches, but Christmas was also a big party night for many. If you were looking for ideas were to spend Christmas on 1936, here are a few ideas.

Christmas at the Jessfield Club

I am not sure why this ad was in French, although Jessfield was located on Yu Yuan lu, that was outside the International Settlement. Jessfield Park (current Zhong Shan Park) must have been a far away place from the center at that time. An ideal location for a big noisy party. There is really little for be found about Jessfield Club, apart from a short article on China Rhyming.

Chrismas and New Year parties at the Astor House Hotel

The Astor House Carnival Dinner Dance was surely of much higher level. Located at the Astor House hotel, on today North Bund it was surely one of the great party of the city for that night.

Union Brewery beer Christmas gift

Finally, if one decided to stay home for Christmas, the best gift could a 12 pints of beer, delivered by Union Brewery.

Embroidery pattern book

Traditional Embroidery has been used as decoration for fabrics in China for centuries. European style embroidery was imported in China by foreigners and must have gained popularity in Old Shanghai. The below book is an embroidery pattern book combining western cross-stitch technique with Chinese style design, found in an antique market a few year ago. This must have been a popular publication as this particular one is N 19.

Old Shanghai embroidery pattern book

This book was clearly not an import, but a Shanghai creation. Spinning was one of the major industry in Shanghai, creating embroidery books helped sell their products. (All names are written from right to left, as it as written at the time).

鸳鸯语

The Mandarin Duck speach character combination is a traditional Chinese way to wish harmony in the couple.

Good Chance embroidery pattern

Although some English text was used in the booklet, it was not designed for foreigners. It even includes an explanation in Chinese of the meaning of “Good Chance”, which is actually not proper English as the expression actually means “high probability” as opposed to “good luck” as implied in the pattern.

Bonzai cross-stitch pattern

Finaly the last illustration is of Bonzai, another traditionnal motifs in Chinese culture.

I did find embroidery thread in an antique market, but they were imported ones from France. Locally made sewing thread was locally manufactured, as shown in post “Made in Shanghai“.

Old Shanghai was a fascinating place were traditionnal Chinese culture (in particular South West China) tradition was mixing with Western Culture. The specific style of the period was known as Haipai ( 海派) style, the Shanghai style. Another exemple of Haipai style object can be found in post “The Haipai Ruler“, or in cigarette advertising like the one for “Russian-China Tobacco Ltd“.

Renovation on Lyceum Theater

Seeing scaffoldings on a Old Shanghai building is always scary, as this can be the sign of future destruction, or a really bad renovation (See post Plaza 353 ruinovation for more info).

I recently passed by Lyceum theater at the corner of Rue Bourgeat and Route Cardinal Mercier (today Changde Lu and Maoming Nan Lu), to discover the building wrapped in plastic. Since shows are not taking place due to CoVid pandemic, it is probably a good timing for renovation. Not sure how it will turn, but will keep a look for it.

Chinatown, the movie

Although it is considered one of the best neo-noir movies, I had somehow missed this one until recently. Based in LA in 1937, the 1974 Roman Polanski movie staring Jack Nicholson is an acclaimed classic of the genre.

Late 30s period costums

The director spent a lot of time and energy recreating LA in the 30s, with spectacular result. This make the movie very relevant for this blog as fashion, cars and building were quite similar to the ones in the former French Concession and International Settlement at the same time. The only surprising part is the lack of Art Deco buildings in the movie, but most buildings are Mexican or Spanish Revival style that was also popular in Shanghai in the same period.

Just like the movie ” Casablanca” , Chinatown gives a pretty clear feel for the period dress and decor that was very similar in Old Shanghai. I can imagine that it was used as a base for Old Shanghai movies like 2010 “Shanghai” or “Tian Tang Kou“.

Films noirs and period movies like Chinatown must have also been an inspiration for neo noir writers including James Ellroy. See post “Perfidia” about his book. I am long searched for a really good noir book taking place in Old Shanghai. Paul French’s “City of devils” is pretty close to that though it’s not a novel.

Sung Sung dairy box

One of the latest post on Shanghailander, was focusing on milk distribution in Old Shanghai (See post “Shanghai Milkman” for more details). Among other things, I was showing an antic milk box from Culty Dairy. Soon after publication, a Shanghai antic dealer came to me with pictures of another milk box, from a different dairy company.

The box is much bigger than the Culty Dairy one, so maybe it was for a large family.

Sung Sung Dairy (生生牧场) was located at 175 Great Western Road (大西路175号), now the parking of Longemont hotel on West Yan’an Rd, close to Panyu Rd and to the Columbia country club (now site of modern Columbia Circle). In the 1947 Shanghai telephone directory, it was listed as Sun-Shine dairy.

French Master of Shanghai Art Deco

Le Petit Journal Shanghai edition has republished an article about Art Deco in Shanghai, focusing mostly on the work of Léonard, Vesseyre and Kruze firm. I wrote the article together with my friend David Maurizot in 2018.

The article is in French only and can be found following the link below:

https://lepetitjournal.com/shanghai/a-voir-a-faire/promenade-historique-les-maitres-francais-de-lart-deco-shanghai-221435

It’s a great way to enjoy autumn in Shanghai.

Shanghai Milkman

Daily milk delivery has been a feature of English life since the end of the 19th Century. The milkman service was a full part of British culture, with 94% of the milk consumed delivered by the door in 1974. This is probably best illustrated by the 1966 British hit “No Milk Today”. Similar service was also available in Holland and in the USA. Being of such importance in the UK, it is of no surprise that a milkman service was available in Old Shanghai. What is more amazing, is that the service has survived in Shanghai and is still available nowadays.

Milk and milk products were an essential trade for European settlements in Asia, including Old Shanghai (see post “milk and butter” for more details). As the population of Old Shanghai grew, European farming was developed to supply local customers, including dairy products. They were quite a number of dairy farms in Shanghai, including the Liberty Diary on Connaught Road, in the International Settlement (today Kanding Lu), the Standard Milk Company on Great Western Road (today Yanan Xi Lu), or Model Diary Farm on Tifeng Road (today Wulumuqi Bei Lu).

1938 ad for The Liberty Diary
Standard Milk Co ad – Picture MOFBA

The most famous then and today being probably the Culty dairy, located at the corner of Avenue Joffre and Route Culty, today’s location of Shanghai librairy on Huai Hai Zhong Lu. It was a few step away from Hungarian architect Béla Matrai’s home and most well know building.

Shanghai libray, former location of the Culty Dairy

Just like in the UK , milk was delivered daily in glass bottles. Every customer received a small metal box that was hanged outside the house, like the one pictures below. Early morning, the milkman would come, collect empty bottles from the previous day and put filled bottle instead. Bottles were normally half pints, i.e. 236 ml. Milk was delivered and consumed within a short time, it did not really need refrigeration.

Although milk is now mostly sold in cartons, using refrigators, the milkman service is still available in Shanghai, with milk delivered early morning daily. The little box is made of plastic, not of metal anymore but form and function are similar. Glass bottles are 195 ml, that is pretty close to the half pint.

Since very little packaging is used, this is also an environment friendly way of getting your milk. Bright food group was born form the merger of several food companies in Shanghai, including the Yimin N1 food company, the original ice cream company in Shanghai. They probably also included some of the former dairy farms and milk company, including Sun-Shine dairy, so service continued all those years. Bright also owns the Aquarius water and soda brand, that was available in Old Shanghai.

Now that I am regular customer, I enjoy my daily milk just like in Old Shanghai. This is a revival experience, similar to enjoying unchanged palmier from Park Hotel, or having lunch in Old Shanghai Deda Cafe.