Rumors from Shanghai

The second half of the year has been particularly hectic, so I used the last days of December to get back into my Old Shanghai passion. I bought Amy Sommers “Rumours from Shanghai” at publication sometimes in April 2021, but I only finished it recently after a very long interruption.

Book cover

The story is set up in 1940-1941, the last days of Old Shanghai as they later were called. Although the war is coming fast, nobody seems to notice and Shanghai social elite continues the life of lesasure and party it had for decades.

The book central character is Tolt Gross, an African American law graduate who speaks fluent Japanese and Chinese. He is sent to Shanghai to work along the owner’s son of a major Seattle treadmill that has opened in branch to develop the Far East. The story is that he learned Japanese and Chinese from both company staff of his childhood household, which I found really hard to believe. Having an African American sent to run a large foreign company is also very improbable at the time. Tolt Gross mentions he had little chance to find a job for his qualification in the USA, I think his chances in Old Shanghai were even thinner.

Old Shanghai was made of two parallel societies run by powerful white men on one side and powerful Chinese men on the other side. They interconnected for business, but remained separated most of the time, and both communities saw any other race as inferior. There was a number of Afro-American in Old Shanghai, mostly musicians that brought Jazz to the city (See post “Night in Shanghai” for more about this). There must have been afro-american US Navy sailors stopping with ships or stationed as troops, but they were surely not many, as they represented 2.3% of the force in 1940, mostly at mess attendants, officers’ cooks and steward, as is one of the minor characters in the book.

Rumors from Shanghai being a novel, it is the author’s choice that create the story. Amy Sommers has lived many years in Shanghai and has long been involved in Historic Shanghai researching the city’s past, so the environment she creates is historically just right. The places, experiences and electric atmosphere of 1940-1941, the are well documented and rendered without becoming an history lesson in disguise as Old Shanghai novels sometimes turn to.

From a slow start depicting elite life in Old Shanghai, action really kicks in after Tolt talks with Japanese officer Takeda, and his plans for Japan’s attack on the USA. From that point, the novel really becomes a page turner with Tolt trying to convince sceptic officials that such an attack is really going to happen. As we all know, Pearl Habor attack took place on 7th December 1941. Tolt could not stop it, but a lot events happened to him and his friends in the meantime, making “Rumors from Shanghai” a really entertaining book, once you get into the author’s world.

Hugh Martin, back from the dead

In a previous post “Hugh Martin’s grave in Shanghai“, I shared my discovery of the tumb stone of Hugh Martin, in the foreign cemetery of Old Shanghai. This grave stone attracted my attention as my name “Hugues Martin” is very similar. It turned out that the story is more complicated that it seemed at first. Here are a few discoveries that I made, including him surviving Old Shanghai and moving back to the UK.

Photograph from 1938

Like many men of the Empire, Hugh Martin was not actually English, but Scottish. He was born in Edinburgh on 9th April 1888. As it was common with British, he was a sport man, having played for the Scottish rugby team between 1908 and 1909. He must have reached Shanghai in 1910 as he first played rugby in Shanghai team in December of that year. He played many games in Shanghai and other treaty ports, being the team Captain in the 1913-1914 season (Thanks for those details).

Shanghai vs Tianjin, 1913. Hugh Martin is bottom row middle right with a mustache. (picture )

Hugh Martin also took part in World War 1, coming to Europe in September 1914 to fight for England. The story of those European men that left Shanghai for the WW1 front in 1914 is told in Robert Bickers Pinguin book, “Getting stuck in for Shanghai”, although Martin is not namely mentioned in it. Martin was slightly injured on the front in 1915 and so quite a lot of action particularly in Belgium. From the European front, he wrote a letter published in the North China Daily news, where he mentioned meeting one of his Old Shanghai mate, “Quite like old time, except that there were no cocktail floating abut. This is the simple life and I could do with a Race Club cocktail any night“. He finished the same letter by saying: “This is just a line to tell you I often think about old Shanghai days and old Shanghai pals.” He was promoted from Lieutenant to Captain in July 1916. He returned to Shanghai after the war, where he joined back Noel, Murray and Co Ltd (瑞和洋行 in Chinese).

He must have lived in the French Concession after coming back to Shanghai, as on 12 January 1921, he was elected among the three foreign members of the Shanghai French Concession Municipality, “foreign Other people elected included R Fano (GM of the International Saving Society which financed a lot of real estate in Old Shanghai), and Michel Speeman (a prominent Dutch business in Shanghai who was later strongly involved helping Jewish refugees in the late 1930s). He was elected for 2 years only. As mentioned in post “Hugh Martin’s grave in Shanghai“, in 1925 he was living in 89 Peking Road, in the international settlement.

His entry in 1927 Who’s who lists him member as various club including the prestigious Shanghai Club, the Country Club, The Race Club, Le Cercle Sportif Français (the French Club). 1928 was probably the year when is social stature increased even more as he became the manager of Noel, Murray and Co Ltd (瑞和洋行 in Chinese). As mentioned in previous post, in 1931 he was a tenant of fashionable Cathay Mansion, opposite de French Club on Route Cardinal Mercier (today Maoming Nan Lu).

The Cathay Mansion, one of the high end place of the time

Hugh Martin was definitely a socialite involved in many causes. For example he signed with other people a letter against the return of the International Settlement to the Shanghai Chinese city in June 1930. It must have been a heated question at the time, as on the same year South African judge Richard Feetham was charged to write a report on the same topic, the famous Feetham report. In May 1931, Hugh Martin was reelected managing director of the Shanghai International Greyhounds Ltd, and organized its liquidation after the Shanghai Municipal Council prohibited dog racing in 1930. In February 1937, he became the president of the British and American United Association, which main purpose was to find employment for British and American people in Shanghai.

The most surprising part of all this research was the last sentence of the profile on “He died in England on 6th January 1970 aged 81”. I am not sure how and why a grave was made with his name in the Shanghai SongQingLing memorial… but Hugh Martin seems to have escaped Shanghai at the end and gone back home.

SmartShanghai article on Deda Café

SmartShanghai has been around for many years. One of the best information service for all about foods, drinks, nightlife and all kind of information for those living in Shanghai. I did not know that they also had an historic section.

Long time Shanghailander Lisa Movius interviewed me as part of an article about my old favorite Dead Cafe as I wrote an article about in 2010. Thanks to Lisa for the interview. To read the article, follow this link:

Visiting Prada Rong Mansion

The Rong Mansion on 186 Shaanxi Bei lu is one of those places that Old Shanghai lover wants to visit. I had a chance to be part of a full tour of the house thanks to Historic Shanghai and I am happy to share pictures and impressions about one of the greatest Old Shanghai property in the city.

The original house at this location was built around 1909-1910 by a German Jewish family. The garden was much larger than today, going all the way down to Weihai Lu. Bubbling Well Road (today the busy and upscale Nanjing Xi Lu) was a road to the countryside with large residential domains on each side. The house was in the neighborhood of Silas Hardoon’s Aili’s Garden (completed in 1909) and Mc Bain building that later became the Majestic Hotel.

Bubbling well Road, 1910

The mansion was purchased in 1918 by the Rong family, as the original owner did not come back to Germany after WWI. The Rong family was one of the richest Chinese family in Shanghai. Although the house was remodeled and expanded several times there are definitely parts dating back from the construction time. This particularly true on the ground floor, where the smaller reception room is located, as well as the rooms above it, that formed the core of the original building. Tiles in this room is one of the few Art Nouveau details that can still be seen in Shanghai. Similar tiling can also be seen on third floor above. David star is also displayed in both places, probably thanks to the original Jewish owners.

Glass work has been amazingly preserved through Shanghai history and magnified by the beautiful restoration by Italian designer Roberto Baciocchi. The villa has one of the the largest collections of original Art Nouveau stained glass Windows in Shanghai. Only comparable to former College Français on Rue Vallon or the CMLI building on Guangdong Lu.

Great care has been put into cleaning, restoring or recreating the original materials. Besides glass work, this included tiles, wood floors and wood wall panels. The most iconic piece of the house is surely the stained glass ceiling of the main reception room. The only similar piece in Shanghai is the stained glass ceiling at the former Cercle Sportif Français, today’s Okura Garden Hotel.

Famous stained glass ceiling in the Rong Mansion

It’s difficult to say whether this was part of the original design or added later. I would think that it was added in the 1920s or 1930s with such a strong geometrical Art Deco center… but the outside (see picture below right) is much more Art Nouveau. It still feels like the original ceiling was more a traditional Central European style which part is still visible today (picture down left), and that the stained glass ceiling was added later.

Going through the Rong Mansion is like a trip to Old Shanghai, until realizing that it is in the heart of bustling Jing An District when getting in the garden.

The house can be viewed when exhibition take place there, but often parts are covered or off limit for visitors. We had the chance to get the full viewing!

Meanwhile in Berlin

Summer time is perfect for book reading. Crime novels have been one my long term favorite and I have read a number of them taking place in Old Shanghai (see for more details). A few years ago, I wrote about the parallels between Old Shanghai and early 1940s LA in James Ellroy’s “Perfidia” as well as Roman Polanski’s movie “Chinatown” . This time, the trip is to 1929 Berlin, with Volker Kutscher’s “Der nasse Fisch”.

photo credit:

End of 1920s Berlin was definitely a rough and happening place. The consequence of WW1 defeat and a weak government overwhelmed by powerful militias on both side of the political spectrum created instability but also a kind of free for all atmosphere that was really special. Like in other European countries, the 1920s were crazy years where everything was possible, but Germany definitely had a much darker version. This clearly resonate with Old Shanghai feeling of lawlessness created by the 3 sectors, International Settlement, French Concession and Chinese city, with gangsters being able to easily escape the law from the one to the other. In Berlin, like in Shanghai, the police was often less busy running after gangsters than chasing political opponents, in particular communists.

Like Shanghai, cabarets and dancing halls were plenty

This created a background where life was to be enjoyed today as none really believed in tomorrow. Late 1920s Germany was time of new thoughts and new arts, at the same time that Haipai style developed in Shanghai (one of the main current was Bauhaus that later influenced Shanghai architecture). Young people were eager to turn the page of the previous generation and jumped into new Western or American culture. Movies where widely popular and movie industry both developed in Shanghai and in Berlin (Fritz Lang Metropolis is a great exemple). Both Shanghai and Berlin’s scene were taken over by Jazz music, dancings clubs and cabarets (called Varieté in German). Those with money could party like no tomorrow in these new king of places. This also had a dark side in both cities, with rampant drug use, prostitution and criminal organizations.

Berlin, late 1920s

In both cities, this short period did not last long, as the rise of Hitler in 1933 put a brutal close to it in Berlin, while in Shanghai, the party was shut down by 1937 Japanese invasion. When WWII was over, both Shanghai and Berlin could never go back to these golden ages as the World had totally changed. Destruction of large parts of the city by bombings and partition into East and West meant that Berlin was never the same. The short but intense period created a myth around both cities at the time, that still remains until today, inspiring generations of authors including myself.

Der Nasse Fisch TV series

Der Nasse Fish is a great novel capturing the atmosphere of the area, while keeping the reader turning page after page. Main character Gereon Rath moving to Berlin in early 1929 to join the Berlin criminal police. The story is very well documented and has many twists and a very enjoyable read. It has translated in many languages and has been turned into successful TV series “Babylon Berlin”. I have yet to find an Old Shanghai crime novel that combines in-depth research, recreation of the right atmosphere and a page turner at the same time. It also helped me to do something I did not do for more than than 25 years, namely read again a full novel in the original German version.

15 years blogging Old Shanghai

88,000 users, 185,000 page viewed and 308 articles, the Shanghailander blog is turning 15 years old today. Read on to discover the blog origin, history and evolution along those years.

The Shanghailander blog started as a way to collect information that I found about Old Shanghai. When I reached Shanghai in 2004, little was available on the topic and few people seemed to wonder why and how all those foreign buildings ended up in a Chinese city. To be honest, most of the old houses were in a very bad condition, and it took some effort to see the beauty in them. My interest came from a mix of Europe nostalgia as well as the experience of seeing cities in similar derelict state springing back to life and modernity in Eastern Europe.

Long before social media, blogging was the fashion of the time. The Shanghailander blog started in 2006 after reading a few books and cruising antic markets. Old Shanghai artefacts where not in fashion and prices where cheap. New items called for more research and reading more books. One of the great motivation was creating a tour company giving tours of (Old) Shanghai in a side car from 2008 to 2011, the now defunct Shanghai Sideways.

Blogging about Old Shanghai has been a great way to meet other people fascinated by the topic. The high point was the 2015 World Congress on Art Deco in Shanghai, when most of us joined to share information. This event bound our small community together, mostly online now as many experts such as Tess Johnston, Peter Hibbard, Paul French, Spencer Dodington, Katya Kniazeva, Dvir Bar-Gal and Didier Pujol have now left Shanghai.

If Old Shanghai was an obscure topic 15 years ago, knowledge and publication about the topic has increased tremendously since then. Numerous books, movies and TV series have been produced on the topic. Apart from Brits, French and Americans, other communities have led researches in their presence in Old Shanghai, and the findings have been amazing. Russians in Old Shanghai were numerous Old Shanghai in the late 1920s and 30s, the life and fate of many of them is being search in-depth by Katya Kniazeva’s life journal. Spanish architect’s Abelardo Lafuente live and work has been revealed by Spanish architect Alvaro Leonardo Perez. Belgians rediscovered their major role behind railway construction in China. In the last few years, Hungarians have joined the club, with Livia Szentmartoni finding a lot of information about the abundant Hungarian community in Old Shanghai, including architect CH Gonda, and Matrai Béla besides already famous Laszlo Hudec.

The Normandy building / Wukang Da Lou

The biggest change of all has been the new strong interest of Shanghai people in the history of their own city. Old Shanghai was pretty much a taboo topic 17 years ago, but a lot has changed on this front. Destruction of Old Shanghai building was the priority, when protection of the few remaining is now official policy. A major museum about Shanghai history was created in the former race club building. As Old Shanghai gets more and more popular, Hudec’s Normandy building (Wukang Da Lou in Chinese) is now the background for hundreds of photographs daily, having become one of the symbols of old architecture in Shanghai.

With drastic reduction of travel and more time at home, 2020 helped spark renewed interest in Shanghai history. Historic Shanghai has substantially increased the number of tours and events it offered. French always being different have started their very own Société d’Histoire des Français de Chine, that has sparked a host of research on the topic in the French speaking community. This period has also given me time to write more often on this blog and to keep on after 15 years.

Hugh Martin’s grave in Shanghai

Last weekend, I found the remains of my previous life in Old Shanghai. Here is where and how.

Song Qin Ling memorial on Hong Qiao Road is an important remembrance site in Shanghai today, built on the location of the International Cemetery. This spot was by far not the only cemetery in Old Shanghai, but all the others have disappeared or being transformed into parks. Cemeteries in Old Shanghai included today’s Jing An park near Jing An Temple in the former international settlement, today’s Huai Hai Park on Huai Hai lu in the former French Concession, and the former jewish Cemetery now replaced by Ming Tian Guang Chang, the Marriott Hotel on people Square.

Tombs in the memorial

The former international cemetery is now part of the memorial. As explained on signs in the park, the cemetery was severely damaged in during the cultural revolution. So an effort was made to recreate a foreign cemetery at this place. The approximately 600 graves are not the original onces, nor are they in their original location. It is a nice effort to remember life and death of foreigners in Old Shanghai. Names on the grave seems to come from farious nationalities, including British, Russians, Germans, Japanese, Portuguese and English (or American) among others. One of the famous people I noticed was Henry Morris, who owned the North China Daily News and build the Morris Mansion (today part of the Intercontinental Ruijin Hotel).

The most surprising part was to find a tomb with my name on it… nearly. Although my French name is Hugues Martin, most English speakers call me “Hugh Martin”, so I was really stunned and thrilled to discover a tomb with “Hugh Martin” written on it. The discovery was an opportunity to search into the life of Mr Hugh Martin in Old Shanghai.

Hugh Martin spent his entire career with firm Noel, Murray and Co Ltd (瑞和洋行 in Chinese) “Auctioneers, Piece Goods and General Brokers and Commission Agents”. The first trace I found of the company is directory of Asian trading firm from 1904, but it was formed earlier by Mr GW Noel and Mr WC Murray. They seemed to have been former employees of Jardine Matheson but I could not confirm it. Hugh Martin was certainly British like his employer. He is mentioned in the directories from 1925, as a director with EW Noel being managing director. At that time the company was located at 10/16 Ezra Road (a small street behind the Bund), having moved from 78 and 79 Szechuen lu a few years before. Hugh Martin was living at 89 Peking Road, a few blocks away. Although he was mentioned in the Hong List, the Shanghai directories, he was not included in the VIP section, the Shanghai Who’s Who.

From 1927, his name is part of the Shanghai Who’s Who, meaning that he really has a place in Shanghai foreign society. His big promotion probably came with the departure of EW Noel, as from 1928 he is listed as the director of the firm, located at 11 Hankow Road (today Hankou Lu, right behind the Bund). 1931, he is a tenant in the brand new and highly fashionable Cathay Mansion. “An apartment with a bedroom, sitting room and a bathroom could be rented for $400 (Shanghai Dollars) a month. Servants were provided and by ringing a bell, a “boy” would come and take orders for meals.” Salary for Europeans where about $300 dollars at the time, thus he must have been really well off by then. He was surely a member of “The Club”, meaning the Shanghai Club on the Bund (Today Waldorf Astoria Hotel). Living across the Cercle Sportif Français, he was probably also going there for evening cocktails as the French Club (as it was also named) was one of the liveliest venue in the city at that time.

Hugh Martin was still listed as a director in 1941, but does not appear on the lists in 1947. I can only assume that he died in Shanghai during WW2. With his grave included in today’s International Cemetery, he will be in Shanghai forever.

More was found later about Hugh Martin. Please see post “Hugh Martin, back from the dead

French party at the Cathay

Old Shanghai high society life was a succession of parties and social occasions. With my second Old Shanghai party in less than two weeks, my social agenda recently looked a bit like old times.

Last Friday was the first general assembly of the “Société d’Histoire des Français de Chine”, the French association about Old Shanghai. Besides the formality of re-electing the association’s board, it was the opportunity for gala diner with an Old Shanghai dress code in one of the icons of Old Shanghai. The party took place in the Cathay Hotel magnificent Art Deco ballroom (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel).

Following French tradition, the party was a high level gala diner with Old Shanghai style cocktails, several courses with matching wine and Champagne at the end. The party was a real success thanks to the hotel team and corporate sponsorship, mostly drink companies, as well as my own company’s contribution, EXPATRIMO.

Shanghai star Jazz singer Anne Evenou and her band performed class jazz songs during much of the diner, perfectly matching the Old Shanghai atmosphere. This was another session of time travel in Shanghai after last week night out at the French Club.

The diner was also a great way to advertise numerous activities of the “Société d’Histoire des Français de Shanghai” including walking tours of Old Shanghai and well as conference and research in the topic.