Sliding doors

Shanghai underground train is one of the feature of the city. As opposed to Beijing which metro was started in the 50’s with Soviet help, Shanghai Metro was only started in the 90’s. New lines are being built at fast speed, opening the one after the other. The first time I was in Shanghai in 1998, line 1 was just starting with only a few stations. Line 1 has been expended, line 2, 3, 4 and 5 have been put into actions. The Shanghai Metro authority just opened the extension of line 2 towards Hong Qiao.

The only real node was People Square station for a long time. Peak hours in the corridor going from Line 1 to Line 2 is just like going through a sea of black hair. Riding the metro then always involves a lot of pushing around in the very dense crowd. The trains and stations get packed and everybody is jut trying to keep a little space for him/herself, and trying not to fall on other people. No politeness or manners in here and people nearly climb on each other sometimes. It feels a little like Paris metro on strikes days, when the number of trains is drastically reduced. The most funny or annoying is that people climbing in the train often don’t let people go out first. This always creates a mess, and one has to sometimes push people out to be able to escape. I have to admit that education campaigns seem to have an effect as now people step out more often if they are blocking the way, as well as (sometimes) give up their sit for elderlies or women with kids.

Until last year, the Shanghai Metro was relatively simple. The older stations were not really fancy, but pretty effective in carrying tens of thousand people a day. Since then, Shanghai metro has embark on a campaign for modern and fancy look by adding glass sliding doors on the platforms. I am not so sure what is the reason for it. Local people say that people have regularly jumped on the tracks, needing a brand new wall to stop that. As incidents and delays do not seem that frequent I am just convinced that Shanghai metro wants to look like a “world city metro”.

Like in HongKong and Singapore, they need sliding glass doors. This is where the Shanghai twist comes in. Work was started in some of the stations, without any announcement. There was very little protections for the passengers on the platform. Even better, the glass partitions were installed, but the doors were not operational. This made passengers feel very safe behind the glass protection… until realizing that there was no door. This generally happened when the next train was arriving. This whole mess made it look pretty disorganized and even dangerous for unaware passengers. Not all the doors are functioning yet, but after a few months of being interrupted while unfinished, work has restarted. Major stations on line 1 have been equipped and completion now seems near. I am sure the people selling glass doors and separations must have had great connections with the metro authorities. They must now be celebrating. With glass doors and separations in its metro, Shanghai is trying to become a little more of a world city.

Hotel des colonies

Hotel des Colonies
Hotel des Colonies

The French settlement in Shanghai was started in 1884, but it did not grow as fast as the British (then international) next to it. When the international settlement was busy with traders shipping things in and out of China, the French settlement remain a much quieter place, eventually extended to become the residential and garden city of Shanghai.
One of the few prominent buildings of the French settlement, was the “Hotel des colonies”, the only hotel of the French settlement for quite a long time. It was located on “Rue du Consulat” near the “Quai de France”, the French part of the Bund located South from the Bund itself. “Hotel des colonies” is mentioned in “Les Francais de Shanghai” and was clearly an important location both for traders coming to Shanghai and for the community. Some of the traders based in Shanghai  even lived there for years.
I found the enclosed postcard in an antic shop in Malacca. It was written in Saigon and sent to Shanghai by the post, carried by ship to Shanghai, another French settlement. More than the picture on the front, it’s the address of on the back that caught my attention. The postcard is simply addressed to “Monsieur Millon, Voyageur, Hotel des Colonies, Shanghai”. No street, no number only the hotel’s name, where the card would wait for the traveler to arrive and collect it from the counter. “Poste restante”, i.e. letter sent to a post office and remaining their until the receiver collects it used to be quite a popular mean of sending letter, although it’s quite difficult to imagine it today. It’s just nice to think about a time when time schedule was so relaxed, that people would just post the letter and wait for months until an answer arrive… what a change from today’s email. I was still quite happy to be able to check my email in the old port of Malacca. The modern world also has it’s great advantages.

Raclette cheese party

This all started as a joke. I had met this Quebec guy who tried to convince me that cheese in Quebec could rival European ones. To prove his point, he proposed to bring some raclette cheese next he would be in town. Two month later, our Quebecer came back. I then had to organize a raclette cheese party for him to prove the quality of his cheese. The cheese had to be vacuum sealed to avoid smell and get through Chinese borders… but this was only the beginning. Raclette is a very peculiar cheese dish originating from the French and Swiss Alps and Juras mountains. The cheese is melted and eaten while it’s hot with hot potatoes, various dried meets and cold cuts. To do a proper raclette meal required getting the specific cheese (that we had) and the various needed cold cuts that I ordered from my favorite restaurant. However, the most important element was finding a raclette oven. This device is quite popular in France and Switzerland, but finding it in Shanghai was very problematic. I inquired a number of French friends in the restaurant business, but nobody had one. Missing two people to complete the table and I invited a Swiss friend, assuming that he may have access to one. The cheese party was on Sunday lunch. Thursday arrived with still no trace of the needed oven, when suddenly I received a text message from him saying “I will have a raclette oven tomorrow”. I was so relieved that the party could take place… until I received the next message saying “The oven is broken and cannot be used. I should get another one tomorrow.” The whole destiny of my cheese party was hanging on my friend’s plan B. Fortunately the second oven worked out fine. Our lunch on Sunday was really special, as we all had been waiting for it. Eating this dish is truly unusual in Shanghai and we all enjoyed it tremendously. It brought to all of us memories of sky holidays, mountains and snow making us really feel like back in Europe for a moment. This successful lunch required the cooperation of a French bringing Italian cold cuts, a Quebecer bringing cheese all the way from his home land and a Swiss who searched for this special device found only in far away countries. This very exotic experience was shared by another French, a Chinese and a Mongolian friend (who all happened to like cheese very much). This mix of competences and experience was a truly Shanghai story, people and cultures from all around the world mixing in this very special place that Shanghai used to be and is becoming again. Having raclette in Shanghai makes it a little bit more become a World city.

Freezing Shanghai

Winter has fully come to Shanghai. I escaped to the earliest cold wave in late December by flying to a sunnier destination, but holidays are now finished… and the winter has come back. Temperatures during the day are about 5C, but it’s below 0C during the night. This would be no problem in anywhere else apart from China, as people have heating… but not in Shanghai which is a real pain.

Fireplace blocked by concrete

Shanghai old houses used to have fireplaces, at least in the villas. They were a great way to heat up those big houses and keep them warm just like their sisters in Europe and USA. Unfortunately Shanghai is different. Sometimes after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, it was decided that people in South China do not need heating. I could imagine that people were supposed to be warmed up by belief in communist ideology… or that all this wood and coal was better used for the development of heavy industry. All fireplaces inside houses were filled up with concrete and pipes were broken down (like picture on the left). I also heard that the radiators were melted down to use the metal they were made of. In any case, it was probably a  fast track way to reduce energy costs.

The whole issue is about defining what South China is. The actual dividing line is a river, that runs north of Shanghai making the city and the surrounding provinces part of the South… I can tell you that it is cold here during winter. As a consequence, people use air conditionners to heat up rooms. If airconditionners are fine for a slightly chilly climate… they are clearly unsufficient for Shanghai’s. People push them to the maximum to get a mere 18-20C in rooms. The sales of electric heaters soars along with comsumption of electricity. Because of the real bad efficiency of electric heating and the lack of insulation of houses, a lot of energy is wasted… contributing to more pollution… Shanghai in winter is somewhat less of a world city.

Malacca, the Chinese settlement

I decided to add one day of holiday to a business trip to Malaysia, to visit the old city of Malacca. Like Shanghai, Malacca was a western settlement in an Asian country. The first to settle were the Portuguese, replaced by the Dutch and then the British until independence in the 1950’s. What really links Shanghai and Malacca is the large Chinese communities that settled in Malacca since the 17th century. This give to the city a whole new dimension. Like in Shanghai Chinese design and western technology mixed to create a lifestyle and buildings that are very unique.

Most of the Malacca houses have the traditional shape of 2 story Chinese houses with the shop facing the street and the living quarters above them. The typical Malacca style mixes it with western details such as Corinthian column top, painting of colorful flowers on the walls. This mix of western and Chinese style are quite similar to the one to be found in China’s Guandong province, in particular around Kaiping. I could also see number of buildings with colored glass windows like one can see on buildings in Shanghai. Buildings from the 1930’s and later often have iron windows like the one in my apartment in Shanghai.

The whole Chinese city of Malacca has a very nice colonial atmosphere. Many cafes are open to the street. My two preferred places where the Lin Loke Wee Coffee Shop, at the corner of Jalan Tokong and Jalan Portugis (just the name of the street is an evocation to travel). This a very local place, in a corner building surely from the 1930s. Age old wooden tomette chairs, wooden table with stone top, the decor has not changed for decades, not even the fridge in the back that seems straight out of a 50s movie. You can have noodles, drink the local soja drink or a great ice coffee with milk or Sugar. This place is authentic Malacca style.

A little further on Jonker is street is the new and attractive Geographer Cafe, keeping the colonial atmosphere while creating a modern touch to it. This place reminded me of other travels cafes I have been to, like the Foreign Correspondent Club in Phnom Penh. Decor is great, food was fine (a little too western to my taste… but great to tourists). I enjoy it tremendously… The decor upstairs is all made with antic maps, old pictures and postcards… not far off my dream cafe if I ever make one.

Jonker street, the central street of the Chinese city is also packed with antic shops, where I was looking for treasures and ended up buying a number of things… including the promotion flyer for “Fantomas”, a French film from the 1970’s at the Cathay Theater (reminded me of the Shanghai one). It was just so out of it’s place that I could not resist. Looking for Shanghai related items, I found a postcard sent to the “Hotel des Colonies” in the French concession.

Building Shanghai

Book cover
Book cover

I had this book stored on my shelf since I bought it a few months ago. Winter coming, bad weather and renewed interest kind of melted together pushing me to open it again. “Building Shanghai” looks at first like of those coffee table books, that you look at every now and then and you leave around just to look nice when people come and visit you. This book is really nice to look at, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a history of Shanghai from an architectural point of view. With several maps of the old Shanghai compared with the new one, I was able to locate quite a number of buildings I had noticed in the street and know about their history and architectural style. What is more fascinating is to look at some of those photograph, and to realize that I passed some great buildings every day without notice them… as they have been covered or altered with terrible expansions or additions that make impossible to recognize anymore.
As much as I am appalled by the current destruction of Shanghai architectural heritage, I also have to admit that destroying grand building a few years old to replace them by something even grander has always been part of the Shanghai history, and that some buildings that we revere today as antics were horrible creations mixing very diverse kind of styles in Frankenstein-like creation. Similarly in the old and new Shanghai, architects are pushed over the limits by landlord willing to deliver a message with their buildings… but only end up showing how bad tastes they have.
Finally I enjoyed in this book the great love of the authors for the old Shanghai and it’s preservation… as well as the love of Shanghai as a modern city and how to continue it’s expansion while avoiding expending it’s monstrous aspect to much. I’m not sure this has been the priority of Shanghai’s planners until now… but hopefully this attitude is already changing in some districts.

Calling Wallis

Now living in the world of email, VOIP and blogs… it’s sometimes difficult to remember the time when all these tools did not exist, and people had to wait for days to be able to communicate from remote places like Shanghai to their home country. Nearer to us, I often explain the difficulties to send a fax to my mother back down in the beautiful Islands of Wallis and Futuna when I lived in Hungary. As this archipealgo lost in the Pacific Ocean is a French (!) territory, the majority of the communication would take place through France. Due to the lack of traffic, operators in other countries would not even program the country code in their phone system. People from there could call us, but could not be called.
Sending a fax was my regular entertainment on Sunday evening. After hand-writing the message, I would start the painful experience of transmitting it. The first time that I tried to do it, I used the normal fax-sending procedure, i.e. I dialed the fax number with the +681 country code. The surprise came when I heard a voice in Hungarian repeating something that I understood after several times to be “the country code your are using does not exist”. The only solution was to find the operator for international calls at Matav (the Hungarian telecom company). This took me quite some time, as very few people actually require this service and it’s not advertised in phone books. This really challenged my (then burgeoning) Hungarian. I finally reached the operator, explaining that I wanted to send a fax to this weird location with its even weirder country code. I then spent about 5 to 10 minutes to explain to the operator that this country and country code actually existed. This had to be repeated every time I wanted to send a fax. After convincing the operator of the very existence of this place and giving him re-assurance of my mental sanity, I would over hear him calling the France Telecom international operator, going like “Hello, I have this mad guy willing to place a call to a country that does not exist, but claiming that France Telecom may be able to do it.” Then, France Telecom operator would answer something like “Yesse, zis is ze country code ove Wallis et Futuna. Pliz old on, I will connect you”. Then, I would wait for a few seconds and the phone would start ringing to my Mum’s house… in the best case. Most of the time, I would overhear the France Telecom operator saying “I am sorry. Ze line is occupied at the moment. I will call you back when ze line is available”. Then I would wait for minutes and sometimes hours for “ze line to be available”. As I had to be ready to talk or send the fax at the appropriate moment, my only hope was to sit next to the phone with a book, until (up to 2 hours later), the Matav operator would call back. The only four satellite phone lines to the archipelago were far insufficient.

Though this repeated experience sounds like from the middle-age, it took place in 1996-97. For Chinese and inhabitants of the Eastern Europe, it does not sound so far away, as all international calls used to be like that until not so long ago. I’m sure calling Europe and the USA from the old Shanghai was a similar experience.

Les Français de Shanghai

"Les Français de Shanghai" Book cover
Book cover

The French concession of Shanghai was run by French and under French law, an enclave in the middle of China. Although French people settled it, many more nationalities were added on the way. Portuguese, Russians fleeing the revolutions, Jews fleeing persecutions in Europe and of course Chinese. I recently read a book about the French people that lived in the French concession, “Les Francais de Shanghai” (i.e. “The French people of Shanghai”).

This book is not a novel, it’s not a thesis or a real biography of Shanghai either… it’s a little bit of all. It is  built in many small chapters, each of them telling stories and anecdotes about a particular French person or family of Old Shanghai. The author used a lot of research, old documents and interviews of people who actually lived in the old Shanghai, or their descendants. It gives little snaps of the daily life in old Shanghai, details that have not much importance taken one by one but together create an atmosphere, a moving picture of Old Shanghai.

I read the book within a weekend, losing a lot of sleep on it as I was fascinated by the characters and stories. It is full of information I had never seen before, including the history of famous institutions such as the university, hospitals and churches that one still can see today. It also give great information about the influence of the Jesuites priests in the development of the city, as well as more information about some famous people (de Montigny, Dubai, Moller). I particularly enjoyed the part about police and gangsters in the old Shanghai, discovering that a house very near from mine used to be the “Poste de police Pétain”, complement of the “Poste de Police Joffre” that I already knew of a little further on the road. I was sitting on my sofa while reading, in my 1920’s apartment in the heart of the French concession and I felt like being transported through time.

Readings occupied my mind fully, and when I had to go out for survival shopping it was a shock to re-discover XXIst century cars …when I was expecting 1930’s Renaults or Peugeots. This book was a great travel in itself, making old Shanghai even more vivid. After “Les Français de Shanghai”, I will continue looking for great books like this one, completing my knowledge of the past of this great city.

Made in Shanghai

Thread from the old time
Thread from the old time

Objects of the old Shanghai can still be found in the city when you know where to look for. Very expensive icons of doubtful authenticity are offered to tourists for enormous amounts of money. What I find more interesting is to look for daily life objects that have gone through the ages. They are generally much cheaper and less likely to be fakes. I recently run into a full box of sewing line for sell in an antic market. It was probably an old survivor of times, kept preciously in a bottom of a wardrobe during dark times when replacement would be difficult to find and all originality in dresses forbidden. Although the box seemed old, I was not sure when it was from and whether this could have any interest in my search of the old Shanghai. The box contained about 30 rolls of line of various color. I looked at it, but did not really want to buy them… Until I saw “MADE IN SHANGHAI” printed on the label. The Chinese characters are traditional characters, so these objects were probably produced before 1949, when the characters were changed to simplified. The “MADE IN SHANGHAI” label in English proves to me that these rolls were made during the old Shanghai time, as from 1949 there are is little chance to have something written in English on the product, and certainly not “MADE IN SHANGHAI”, but more probably “MADE IN CHINA”.

These rolls were probably made in one of the multiple factories that were built in Shanghai during the concession time. The French concession corner near Xu Jia Hui (Xi Ka Wei in the old spelling) was a heavy industry area, along with the Suzhou Creek sides and the banks of the Huangpu. One of the remains is Xu Jia Hui park, where a high column of bricks stands… the old chimney of a factory. As for other objects and documents, they are a little bit of the old Shanghai that have crossed the ages. Touching it and looking at old pictures, it’s easy to imagine Chinese tailor sewing fabrics to create traditional Chinese or modern western cloths, as they still do today. In today’s Shanghai as in the old Shanghai, tailor is a respected work and most people have their cloths made by their skilled hands. This is one of those things that never changes in Shanghai, part of daily life in both the old and new Shanghai.

Soviet Nostalgia

Old Shanghai was the most developed Asian City of it’s time… and Shanghai is today’s economic capital of China… but the political capital city remains Beijing. I was
in Beijing again recently and the difference between those two cities is always striking. Now that most of the traditional habitat of Beijing (the famous Hutong) has been destroyed out of the core center, Beijing looks even more like the ideal communist city of the Markism inspired planners. Like a communist post-modern postcard, it has the great large avenues, large brand new buildings one the side, and apartment blocks of various styles around. Bikes have nearly disappeared… as they don’t look modern and rich enough anymore. I wish that there was just a few cars in the streets like on those postcards, not like the permanent traffic jam that this city is. The friends I visited live around the people stadium, in a nice area that
was all built in the 50’s. Small 4-5 floors buildings with a shop at the bottom, quite a number of restaurant around, this area looks like the suburb of Moscow, Warsaw or Bucharest. I have to admit that I still like the Eastern European feeling I get when I go there. Beijing has also a large Russian community, and as a result a Russian district and several
Russian restaurants.

Walking on the south side of Ritan Park, I was looking for a fancy bar and restaurant that I visited last year. Cruising the empty boulevard on Monday night, I finally reached the place I was looking for, just to find out that it was closed, being transformed into something else. I was just wandering around, following the dark street, looking for another place for diner when I started to see some lights through the fog. As I was walking further, the vision became clearer. The Kremlin skyline with “MOCKBA” written in neon lights was standing over a Soviet style building. Black Mercedes were parked in front of me, with two big guys falling in each others arms and speaking Russian. I stepped forward feeling like Neo facing Morpheus. Swallowing the red pill, I passed through the door. The room was very large with 2 floors,
many soviet style wooden tables… and about 10 customers. The restaurant’s menu was written in Russian and Chinese, with some parts being sub-titled in English. The waiter started naturally to talk to me in Russian. Despite Monday night emptiness, the show started when I arrived. Typical Russian dancers in traditional costumes were followed by acrobats straight out of  Russian navy seals performing a very blond, blue eyes and muscular version of hip hop dancing. Then came the Russian singers. I did not really understand the lyrics, but
the sound of the keyboard straight out of the 1980’s fitted perfectly the sad and nostalgic voice of the girl singing. I would not have been surprised to see Leonid Brejnev’s face showing up in the news I was watching in the massive Russian TV.

MOCKBA is not a Russian restaurant, it’s a portal back to USSR. The social-realist decor, passable food and terrible service contribute wonderfully to the time travel. I’m not sure I will come back ever, but this place is really worth a visit. Shanghai is become a world city and has no space for such a weird place anymore. I am glad I could find it in Beijing.