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.

Night out at the French Club

Old Shanghai has been back in fashion in the city for many years now, but so far it was mostly about architecture and famous people from the past. What was missing was a true popular event involving the Chinese public interested in the topic, just like the annual Napier Art Deco Festival in New Zealand that I attended in 2010. The Shanghai Style Fashion Festival that took place from 15th to 18th June is definitely along the same line and was great fun to attend.

Dressed up for the night

Taking place in the former “Cercle Sportif Français“, today’s Okura garden hotel it merged an exhibition of Old Shanghai furniture and interiors, talks about the topic and evening events gala style events. Most of the participants followed the 1920-30’s dress code, adding to the atmosphere of the location.

Old Shanghai interiors

The event combined several rooms exhibiting Old Shanghai furniture and interior, talks about the topic and daily evening parties including small scenes about Shanghai daily life, and Old Shanghai inspired fashion shows.

The live bing band

A unique feature was the presence of a live big band, a rare occasion in Shanghai, that also helped creating the right atmosphere. That is particularly true on 16th June, the Swing dance evening.

Dancing through the night, like in the 1930’s

With the enthusiasm of the real Swing dance club supporting the event, people dressed up and an original ballroom from the 1920’s, it really felt like a time travel to Old Shanghai. This is very much how a night out in the Canidrome Ballroom, or the Paramount must have felt like. Congrats to the organisers for the event and looking forward to the next edition.

Vegs in a can

One of my recent post was focused on a market garden supplier to Park Hotel, Jardin Français. As mentioned in a comment, getting safe vegetables in Old Shanghai was not such an easy task. “Honey pots”, i.e. human defecation was collected all over Shanghai and used as fertilizer. The daily morning collection was still going on for years when I lived in the Former French Concession, until around 2010. The modern version of the collectors were riding bikes but I am sure the Old Shanghai version were just walking with a stick over the should supporting two buckets on each ends.

This recycling of human manure was causing vast hygiene issues including epidemics. One solution was to buy vegetables from a safe place, such as Jardin Français that is the topic of an earlier post. Another one was to eat imported canned vegetables.

The idea of cooking food in a seal container was invented by French man Nicolas Appert to feed troops for the Napelonic wars. It was massively used for preserving fishes with many factories located in Britany. Food was preserved in glass jars and later in metal boxes, but canned food remained a luxury items. The process of “double seams” lead to the creation of the modern tin in the beginning of the 20th Century and was largely used during World War I. After the war, canned food companies turn to the civilian market, expanding their range of products to satisfy new customers.

Canned food was available in Old Shanghai, as shown in ads below from the “Journal de Shanghai” 21st March 1928. Although Cassegrain is still famous today for it’s canned vegetables, the Nantes based company definitely had a much larger range then. Advertised products are mostly canned fish, as well as staple of French Cuisine including Tripes, Cassoulet and Choucroute. Cassegrain was available in China much earlier, as the company website shows Cassegrain canned food was used to supply Russian Troops during Port-Arthur siege in the Japano-Russian War in 1904-05 (Port-Arthur was located close to Dalian in Liaoning province of China).

Another famous French brand of canned food was Rödel from Bordeaux. The company still exists with its main factories also in Britany. This brand must have been of very high level, as below ad was found in Feb 1932 magazine of the Cathay Hotel. The list of canned products is mostly fish, French “Plats cuisinés” (ready made French dishes) and “patés & truffles” (I am sure this also meant fois gras). Vegetables were peas (still one of main canned vegetables) and “Autres légumes”, i.e. other vegetables.

Also much less mainstream as Cassegrain, Rödel still exists today focusing on high quality canned Sardines. None of the ads mentioned canned milk or dairy products that seem to have been the speciality of Dutch companies as well as Australia & New Zealand companies. This was the focused on an older article, “Milk and Butter“.

Jardin Français

A recent post on this blog was focused analyzing a day of Park Hotel accounting. One the pages in the booklet particularly attracted my attention, a receipt from “Jardin Français”.

As the subtitle states it, Jardin Français or French Farm, was a market garden in the West part of the French concession. It offered “sanitary own grown vegetables, asparagus, fruits and special lettuces at any seasons and times”. This actual voucher was for chicory salad, and another one was for eggs. This was probably a premium place to get quality western vegetables, serving the hotels and the high level residents, something like today’s organic farming.

19B Route de Say Zoong is now located on Changshu lu. Above map shows that 19 was just South from the Route Ratard / Route de Say Zoong corner, today Julu Lu / Changshu Lu. It is located on below map from 1939. This was definitely a shop, but not the garden itself, which was probably a few miles away, in the countryside.

After writing the original post on this topic, friends from MOFBA came with a advertising for Jardin Français at a different address, published in “The China Press” from 9th March 1934.

From “The China Press” from 9th March 1934

The earlier incarnation of Jardin Français was closer to the center, and probably moved West along with the development of the city, and maybe (just like today) rents increase. I like the “prices reasonable”, which sound to me like a literal translation of “Prix raisonnables” in French but sounds kind of funny in English.

This is the exact same corner, today Julu lu / Changshu lu. On my back it the other side of Julu, Changshu lu 17, i.e. 17 Route de Say Zoong. Numbers on that street have not been changed. The large building is numbered 55 but covers a large area, so it surely encompasses 19, and 19B. This was the location of the Jardin Français shop in 1938. The actual building was probably a 2 story long building with many shops, that is common in Shanghai even today.

More Aquarius advertising

I have encountered another newspaper cut with advertising for Aquarius recently. With it design depicting a modern Shanghai women sipping a soda, it is probably from Old Shanghai time. The theme of modernity and luxury through drinking Aquarius is very similar to the other ads I found.

However the design seems very late in the period, probably more 1940s that earlier. Thus, I would guess the ads was designed in the 1945-1949 period, but I have no further information so far.