Bernadine’s Shanghai Salon

The name of Bernardine Szold Fritz keeps coming up when researching 1930s Shanghai. Susan Blumberg-Kason biography offers a lof of new information about this character, thanks to her in-depth research and access to fresh resources.

Born in 1896 from Hungarian Jewish parents from Poszony (today Bratislava, Slovakia) that had emigrated to the US in 1890, Bernardine grew up surrounded with love and art. Her three siblings started their career in acting. She became a journalist, starting in Chicago, then New York, before moving to Paris in the 1920s. She already showed her ability to connect with artists and art patrons. Her companions in Paris and on the Cote d’ Azur included American expats in France like writer Glenway Wescott, wealthy heiress Barbara Harrison as well as Jean Cocteau. During travel in Asia in 1928, she met highly successful businessman Chester Fritz in Shanghai once and he proposed her soon after. In 1929, she went to China to get married with him on her fourth marriage.

Chester Fritz

Thanks to her talent for connection, she created a network of artist and art patron that was unique in Shanghai. Originally living in her husband’s appartement on Route Kaufmann (where I live for 10 years), the young couple moved to the newly built Cloister Apartment on Route de Boissezon (today Fuxing Xi Lu) in 1930. This is where Bernardine organized her salon, where artist and art patrons, both Chinese and foreigners mixed and mingled. Salons were attended by a long list of famous people of the time, based in Shanghai or visiting from abroad. At times, up to 150 people would gather in Bernardine apartment to discuss art and politics.

Cloister apartments

Foreign regulars included Shanghai “King” Victor Sassoon, writer and reporter Emily “Mickey” Hahn. Chinese close friends of Bernardine included Chinese Ambassador to the US and writer Hu Shih / , writer and linguist Lin Yutang / 林語堂 and his wife, poet and Emily Hahn’s lover Shao Xunmei, Chinese opera super star Mei Lanfang / 梅兰芳 and cartoonist Ye Qianyu / 叶浅予. Famous politicians also attended her salon, including the Soong sisters, Ling Jingmai / 李經邁, son of Qing Dynasty stateman Li Hongzhan / 李鴻章 and former Chinese Ambassador to Austro-Hungary as well as Zhang Xueliang / 張學良 also called the Young Marshall. Thanks to her network many foreign visitors coming to Shanghai also attended her salon, including French-American actress Claudette Colbert, British writer Harold Acton (based in Beijing), cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias, Charlie Chaplin and American Chinese movie star Anna May Wong.

Sketch by Miguel Covarrrubias during his time in China

Bernardine first major achievement was the International Art Theatre Group, where she managed to put together several plays with Chinese crew performing plays or musicals in English. First came The soul of the Ch’in in 1933 was probably the first ballet performed in China by an entire cast of Chinese dancers. Shanghai based Russian composer Aaron Avshalomoff directed it with music was played by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra directed by Italian Mario Paci. The show took place at the Grand Theater on Nanking Road, that was just completed then.

Bernardine was really becoming famous and was even mentioned in the Shanghai special of US Fortune magazine published in January 1935. That year, the IAT moved to 50 East Nanking Road, just behind the Bund. The next show was Xiong Shiyi / 熊式一 Lady Precious Stream a musical that was already a success in London . The whole cast was made of Chinese friends of Bernardine, including Tong Ying, Henry H. Lin who later became President of Shanghai University and Daisy Kwok whose family owned Wing On department store. The show took place on 25th and 26th June 1935, at the Carlton theater, near the Grand theater on Nanking road. A third performance was held on June 28th at the Lyceum theater in the French Concession, where French Amateur drama was regularly playing. The public was a mix of Chinese and foreigners, mingling and mixing together and the play was a great success. The peak of Bernardine’s activites in Shanghai was surely the IAT Ball on 18th June 1937 as the Paramount ballroom. More events were planned but the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in August 1937 put an end to cultural programs in Shanghai for a long time. Bernardine left Shanghai soon after to New York and never came back.

1920s and 1930s were the high time of Old Shanghai. Barriers between foreigners and Chinese were falling down fast and the very specific Shanghai culture of mix between the East and the West, also called Hai Pai / 海派 was in full formation. People like Bernardine were instrumental in creating this mix and legend of Old Shanghai. Such an artistic mixed community also existed on a smaller scale in Beijing, around writer Horose / Stephanie Rosen-Hoa.

Having lived in Shanghai for more than 20 years, 1920s and 1930s Shanghai feels very similar to the my time in Shanghai. In a similar way, this period was met with an abrupt end with the Covid pandemic that stopped all travel and drastically reduced the number of foreigners in Shanghai. Bernardine was long gone from Shanghai, but somehow the idea of mixing art and ideas from the East and the West came back. In a similar way to Bernardine’s period, the bridge between both sides were expats with a high interest in China together with returning Chinese overseas students. The closest to Bernardine’s International Arts Theater was probably M on the Bund and its Glamour Bar, the location of the Shanghai Literary Festival and many cultural events. It’s legendary owner, Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnault, was definitely the new Bernardine of Shanghai.

2 thoughts on “Bernadine’s Shanghai Salon”

  1. Hai Pai is a new expression to me. Very interesting.

    I am now living in Saigon. I often wonder how aware of Vietnam was the Hai Pai they would have considered Saigon ..if at all….styleless?..exotic? I am wondering if there may be remnants of the Shanghai scene here.

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