Snow in Shanghai

Sow in Old Shanghai
Snow in Old Shanghai

With latitude in the range of to Casablanca, Baghdad and New Orleans, Shanghai is much more associated with warm summer than cold winters. Harsh winters happened every few years. I saw a little bit of snow in January 2005, but it’s nothing compared to the snow in January 2008 (see pictures in my photo albums).

As you can see on the picture, snow in Shanghai is not a new thing. The postcard was written in December 1930, but the picture is from an earlier time. Peace hotel was not yet built when the picture was taken, so the picture is from before 1928. On this picture, Palace hotel still had it’s tower that were destroyed in August 1912 and rebuilt in 1998 (according to “The Bund” from Peter Hibbard). Railways track visible on the postcard were laid down in 1908, thus the picture is from the period between winter 1908-09 until 1911-12. I have not found yet the records of temperature for this period, but clearly one of those winter was really cold. I am not sure how frequent snow fell on Shanghai then, but it could have been quite rare since the picture was still in use 15 to 20 years later.

Cold in Shanghai at that time was surely not a problem for the rich foreigners and Chinese alike. Most western style houses were fitted with fireplaces. It must have been warm in then, much warmer than later. As I explained in another post (Freezing Shanghai), most Shanghai houses have no real heating, only air conditioners that are used to warm up some air. Fireplace heating can be found in a few bars in Shanghai and a few house have it, but most people just freeze. Snow was rare then, but the cold certainly did not spare the poors. The rickshaw pullers on the picture must have been freezing, right on the most expensive stretch on road in the city. Poorer houses must have been heating burning coal, like they still do in rural parts of China. Just like today, people were certainly wearing multiple layers of cloths to fight the wet cold.

Pictures of Shanghai under the snow are very rare. This is one of the reason I bought this one. Besides the glorious pictures of wide avenue, large villas and imposing building, this picture shows a Shanghai that is rarely seen. I recall seeing another postcard of Huang Pu park covered with snow, that would be directly opposite where this picture was taken. I have not found yet when was the winter in the early 10’s that saw so much snow… just some more research to do.

Shanghai is coming to you

I was reading a Shanghai based magazine recently, when I caught a full page advertising for Dragonfly Massage. I remember when Dragonfly started, or at least when the franchise had 2-3 shops. The surprise was that they now have many many more. Not only is there about 10 stores in Shanghai, but they also have a branch in Suzhou, a few in Beijing as well as Oslo (yes, in Norway) and soon opening in Dubai. If I am well informed, Dragonfly was originally started by Singaporeans but it’s a true Shanghai creation. Thriving business in the city certainly helped them to grow and they are on track to open in many world locations soon. I’m not sure if I will got Dubai or Oslo any time soon, but I can imaging the day I will be passing by a Dragonfly store somewhere in the world and not be surprised about it anymore.
Dragonfly may be the most visible Shanghai franchise taking over China before going worldwide, but they are not the only one. I was recently having lunch at two of the most well known restaurant – Cafe in Shanghai i.e. Wagas and Element Fresh. When I arrived in Shanghai in early 2004, both stores were amongst the very few foreign cafes in the in the business district of Nanjing XI Lu. Both stored opened less than one year before. They now have about 10 stores each, with locations in Beijing and probably plans for other cities in China. They are the kind of franchise I could see soon in Hong Kong or Singapore and later in New York or London. Then, I will be able to say "I used to go to their first store in Shanghai, right when they started". This will probably sound like "I was a friend of Colonel Sander’s" or that "I used to get my coffee from the original Starbucks in Seattle".
Services chain are not alone in this, I know at least two design firms of Shanghai that have opened stores abroad, Jooi Design and Shanghai Trio. I cannot count in the famous Shanghai Tang… as it is a Hong Kong brand. They both were opened by expat ladies who got relocated to a new place where they continued distribution of their Shanghai created brand. These circumstances certainly helped… but I was so proud last time I went to Budapest, to walk into the Jooi Design store and say "I usually go to the store in Shanghai". You should have seen the face of the local sales girl, she could barely believe it. Another example is my friends from Phonepha / The French Tailor, shipping suits and shirts all over the world.
These are times when I am proud to be a Shanghai expat (even a little bit of a Shanghailander). This is when I strongly identify with my host city. It surely helps that the franchises I mentioned were created and mostly frequented by foreigners like me. I am also thrilled when I see a add for Haier in France, a Great Wall car dealership in Romania, or can get cash at an ATM in Brussels with my Union Pay Card. But the Shanghai franchises are so much closer to my heart. When I see them expending, I somewhat feel like I took part in their growth. Not only Shanghai welcomes all kind of chains and products from all over the world. Its local firms expend in China and the rest of the world. With the Shanghai touch reaching out to the world, Shanghai is really becoming a world city.


Tian Tang Kou
Tian Tang Kou

Blood brothers had a such a great trailer, it was impossible to miss. It promised it all, Chinese Shanghai gangsters, 1920’s decor, a beautiful singer girl that all man are dreaming of, shotguns fight and old cars… and the movie delivers. To add a little bit of flavor to it, I went to watch it in the historical Cathay theater on the old Avenue Joffre (nowadays Huai Hai Lu).

Tian Tang Kou (Paradise’s door), or Blood brothers in English, is a traditional gangster movie. 2 young guys from the the village are taken in town by an older brother. They first struggle with low jobs, such as pulling rickshaws until they get introduced to the boss gang. As small bits of the big organization, they get protected by it and not getting anywhere, until they get a bigger mission which is the turning point. They have to choose between going away or getting really big trouble within the gang and through it to get introduced to the big boss. Climbing in the organization bring them benefits and honors, but also dilemma. Ultimatelty, the older brother kills the boss of the city gangs, and take his place. The movie finishes with a grand gun fight scene, where the evil boss gets killed by the younger one, who just goes back to his home in the countryside, leaving the city behind him.

Despite massive marketing, Tian Tang Kou was not a big success in China. It’s really a pitty, as the movie really recreates the 1920’s-30’s Shanghai atmosphere. It has a good plot, great decors and costums. The special effects are also excellent, but the best is probably the whole atmosphere of the movie. There has been movies and TV series about gangsters in old Shanghai, but this one is probably the best and certainly the more thoroughly researched. It’s great fun to watch for all old Shanghai lovers.

Yellow Mountains

As in today’s Shanghai, many foreign residents of the old Shanghai rarely left the sprawling city. As the small frontier port transformed into Asia largest megalopolis, time needed to reach the countryside became longer and longer. Furthermore, warlords fighting, civil war, bandits and finally Japanese invasion did not help making trips outside the city any easier.
The ones adventurous enough to leave the protection of the foreign settlements could reach quite a few interesting sights. Just like today, Hangzhou’s lake, Suzhou’s garden and pagodas and Qingdao’s beaches were high on the list. HuangShan (the yellow mountain) was also within reach. Travellers would take the overnight train and climb the mountains by foot, just like some people still do today. Carl Crow, the famous advertising agent used to do it quite often.
I recently went to Huang Shan and few things have changed… although there is not a cable car most things are carried up there by people and the mountains are still the same. More photos are available following this link.

The Master of Rain

Book Cover
Book Cover

Field is a young English officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police, freshly arrived from Yorkshire. Through his uncle high in the Shanghai establishment, he is very quickly introduced to both the high Shanghai society, and the less glamorous parts of the megalopolis. The master of Rain is a crime novel based in Shanghai 1927, centered around the resolution of furious murders of  Russian prostitutes. Field tries is best to solve the murder, along with his newly found friend, the American detective Capresi. They are surrounded by a fallen White Russian noble turned into serving men (Natasha Medvedev) and the Taipan of one of the largest trade house (Charles Lewis), all of it under the shadow of the king of Shanghai’s mafia.

Although I bought this book without knowing anything about it, I have loved every page. Tom Bradby was the foreign correspondent for a British TV in China. Based in Hong Kong, he clearly used a lot of time and efforts to research and recreate the old Shanghai in his novel. Characters have the right tone and locations in the city have been thoroughly researched. Only Shanghai experts will notice a few omissions, or inventions but they never deviate too far from documented history. Action flows at a fast pace making this book a real page turner.

Though enjoying the book tremendously, I have to admit that the universe created by Tom Bradby has a lot of sight, but very few sounds, smell or taste. It fails a little to immerse us in the (noisy) streets of Shanghai. There is a also a little too much indulgence in making the characters meet various historical figure (such a Borodin) without any need for the actual story. The actual plot is sometimes bizarre and the book leaves many questions unanswered, which is a bit disappointing for a crime novel. Finally, the sexual serial crime at the center of the novel seems a little odd in the 1930’s.

Nevertheless, The Master of Rain is a great introduction to the old Shanghai, recreating the Paris of the East and illustrating the high life of a few as well as the hard life of many. As a quick introduction to the Old Shanghai, it comes highly recommended.

Paramount’s suicide

Parmamount outside view
Parmamount outside view

Paramount Club was the hippest dancing hall in old Shanghai. The main hall had a big orchestra playing jazz and twist tunes for the enjoyment of the dancing crowd. Taxi girls, romance and gangsters in the corners, Paramount had it all. Fortunately, the building survived until today, having kept it’s tower and a big part of its style. It is still a landmark of Shanghai. The top floor or the building still hosts a broadway style musical. It is far from broadway’s quality but one can have diner in style there, while watching a live musical. It’s not what it used to be, but the old lady still manages to keep up appareances. Going to the paramount show is one of those old Shanghai moments that I affectionate so much.
The outside of the building has more or less kept it’s original shape and inside was also preserved in original state… until recently. This is the much talked about renovation of the Paramount. I had heard about it and ended up one night there. Having seen the original I was expecting the worse… and the worse it is. Some Taiwanese investor spread a large amount of money on this venerable old lady and just turned it into a disaster. The entrance has been transformed with bad design, not to mention the chandeliers (cheap copies Philippe Starck’s Bar Rouge ones). This is supposed to impress… it probably does impress peasants from the countryside, but Paramount’s lobby is very far to be the most elegant or the most original of Shanghai’s bars. The entrance is bad enough, but the main room is the worst. If you like nightclubs in second and third tiers cities in China… you will feel right at home in the new Paramount. There is not one single fixture from the old room that can be recognized. Everything has been done to destroy or cover the old walls. The same club in any brand new shopping center or 1970’s concrete building could have been built the same way. Forget the original parquet, the balconies and the charm of this old lady.

Inside of modern Paramount Club
Inside of modern Paramount Club

The worst is not even there. Where Bar Rouge designers managed to hide the age and create a hype and highly original place without the old colonial atmosphere of places like Glamour Bar, Face or Lounge 18. Muse or Muse2 (ex Wynn’s win) designers did the same in another genre, and all those places definitely have an originality and an atmosphere. One may not like them all, but they are memorable. Paramount is memorable for it’s dullness. I am sure that the new owner spent millions to redecorate it, but it does not get anywhere near the fine establishments mentioned above. Paramount clearly remind me of clubs I visited in Chengdu or in Guilin… not of Shanghai’s cream of the crop. The worst is probably the sound that was so bad in the building. Please somebody teach them how to set their sound system properly.

I have read a number of articles flattering this new club… we must not have been to the same place… or the articles were written after a few free boozes generously offered by the club owner. The saddest part of the story is not that some Taiwanese entrepreneur spent a lot of money on creating something that is just bad. This could have been done anywhere, without destroying one of the few remaining Shanghai’s old icons. At the time when parts of the old Shanghai are used to create a great mix of the old and the new, Paramount’s owners just did not get anywhere near that.

Consequently, the club closed down a few years after opening. The following renovation of Paramount was much closer to the original… too bad it’s all fake since the original has actually been destroyed.

Majesty up the street

42nd street poster
42nd street poster

Majestic Theater is one of the old Shanghai survivors. The outside of the building does not look much anymore. The façade has been not been cleaned or repainted for a long time, and various advertising and neon lights have been added to it without any concern to the original design. In contrast, the inside is a great example of Art Deco theatre architecture. The entrance hall is probably in the original state, with high windows and a grand staircase. The inside of the theater with large waves and parallel lines is also an art deco showcase. There is little decoration inside, apart from the architecture and it’s quite refreshing compared to other old buildings in Shanghai. In any case, I hope that nobody will try to “renovate” the interior by adding some mint green, peach yellow or bright blue to it like in other places.

World famous musicals have started to come to Shanghai few years ago. “Phantom of the Opera”, “The Lion King” and this year “Mamma Mia”, all of them stayed in town for one to two months. They all came to Shanghai Grand theater on People Square (in the middle of the horse race track of the old Shanghai), the pearl of the modern Shanghai. 42nd street the musical probably had a lesser budget and a tighter production. Instead of a long stay in Shanghai, they went on a tour to Chinese major cities. Majestic theater was chosen for Shanghai and it was a great choice.

42nd street is the stage adaptation of a famous musical movie from 1933. Although the play itself is from the 80’s, it was modeled after the 30’s and the result is amazing. The dancing, the singing and tap dancing create magic and transport us back to the 1930’s. It is a real Broadway show that is worth every penny of it.The show was great and the art deco location added a lot to the atmosphere. 1930’s décor were art deco styled and they fitted the Majestic theater perfectly. The magic of the show mixed with the magic of the old Shanghai. 42nd street is also a simpler kind of show relying mostly on the dancers and the small orchestra traveling with them as opposed to a massive production. All of it made it a great evening during and after the show. Even after leaving the theater, Bubbling Well road (today Nanjing Xi Lu) had the air of the old Shanghai for a moment, before getting in a taxi a going back to Frenchtown. If the taxi had been a 1930’s car the illusion would have been perfect.

Update 2010

Shanghai Majestic Theater has been renovated for the Shanghai Expo 2010. Nice paint job outside, no more terrible posters covering it… and no ruinovation of the inside. Enjoy this art deco wonder!


Explore Shanghai in a sidecar:

The return of the Dauphine

The Dauphine Apartments
The Dauphine Apartments

Jianguo lu (ex Route Frelupt) is one of these small streets in Shanghai old French concession. Walking around it, one can admire long lines of old villas, sometimes interrupted by a small cubic building from the 1970’s. Although most of those villas have not been touched for years, slowly the old ladies get a face lift and recover their former glory. I noticed one of those building, grey and dirty, with unwelcoming walls topped with barb wires. My own apartment is not so far from it, so I cycle around it quite often.  Looking between the gate doors, I could see that this military building was the Dauphine, one of the landmark of Leonard & Vesseyre, the architecture company that built most of the Art Deco buildings in the French Concession. The walls were grey and looked uncared for. It is clear that the building was used by the Chinese army and that they did not care about it. The inside of the building was probably not renovated, just covered by layer of dirt but near to its original state. With its military status, the Dauphine Building and its garden were out of touch for old Shanghai’s amateurs like me.

Cycling along one of those lazy Saturdays of summer, I realized that the door to the Dauphine was open. As a matter of fact, they were doing work on the pavement in front of the building. I rushed home to take my camera backpack. Playing the innocent, I talked my way in pretending to just have a look. The building looks great again as the outside renovation has kept the old look. As opposed to other renovations of Art Deco buildings, the original shape has been kept untouched. Balconies have been left open and the original iron windows have been kept in place and not replaced by horrible plastic sliding ones. The tiling on the facade has also been kept in it’s original state. The Dauphine looks just as it did 70 years ago. The outside is a great work of preservation.

I walked into the garden and then got through the entrance door. Inside view was far from thrilling, as the building interior has been gutted and replaced by modern imitation. Fake marble is everywhere and I am sure gold will be splashed all around. The work is far from finished and I only could stay there a few minutes before being asked to go… but it’s clear that interior was not part of the preservation program. The return of the Dauphine is both a good and a bad surprise. It’s a great outside renovation (apart from the garden that is getting its kitch touch) recreating the Grand Shanghai atmosphere from a building left in abandon. At the same time, the original interior is gone away, so are all the furniture and fixtures, the original art deco being replaced by splashes of fake marble. I guess I should look at the bright picture and enjoy the nicely renovated outside… and the fact that this great building was at least saved from destruction. Too bad for the interior though.

The Fall of Kashgar

Savage destruction of old cities is nothing unusual for people living in today’s China. We all have witnessed the fast disappearance of the Hutongs of Beijing and of the Shikumens in Shanghai. These are the most well known examples of what has been happening in China since the 50’s. Commercialization and economic opening have accelerated the process since the late 90’s, fueled by the appetite of mega real estate companies. They eagerly transform century old ways of communication into "Prime real estate location" with great potential return. In the meantime, they forget that the value of the land was mostly created by the generations that walked these streets before, much more than by the cheaply built concrete stacks they added up on the top of it. This is clearly supported by all kind of authorities whose interest in the process varies from genuine (but sometimes misplaced) will to propel people into a brand new world… to more direct lucrative personal interest. Often both are closely intertwined, the former being an excellent excuse for the later.
Kashgar’s case is even more touching, as one can easily feel the ideological touch behind it. Walking in the old city, you fell like you are somewhere between Tehran or Marrakesh, as far away from Beijing as you can be. The last remains of the century old city walls are used as junkyards and old tombs are being surrounded by concrete blocks. A Chinese city that looks totally out of place was created next to the old Kashgar. It is still possible to see really old remains but one really has to look for it out of the fast reducing central old quarter. Most of them are one or two floors buildings surrounded by concrete blocks with blue windows and white tiles… they are scheduled for destruction soon. The most ridiculous of it all is the Aldous Huxley’s Brand New World style new city that is standing empty in the middle of the countryside. Designed to host people living in the old city, it remains unused as the inhabitants refuse to leave traditional habitat. The new argument to move them out is the scare of earthquake, somewhat reminding of the destruction of Bam in Iran in 2003. This is surely a real danger, but I somehow doubt whether the quickly built concrete blocks would resist any better to an earthquake that traditional constructions.
Fast destruction of Kashgar is such a remainder of the fast destruction of my beloved Shanghai. Replacing traditional houses with concrete blocks seems the instant solution to urbanization questions at each end of the country.

Life at the end of the lane

Old Zhang is sitting in his home, at the end of the lane,
looking at the cranes tearing down the street. “I was born in this street, and
now they break it down. It does not look so good but I am used to it and to
this neighborhood. ‘Your house is not just a shag, it’s a jewel of XIXth
century colonial architecture.’ I’m not sure what it means, but it’s what a
passing by foreigner told me with his terrible Chinese. He also told me that
the cube of a house next door was a jewel of Art Deco. I am not sure what he
meant about either but this all seamed pretty important for him. It does not
matter anymore, he has gone away and they torn down this house last week.
They told me that it’s for the best, that our life in a far
away suburb, in a new high rise building will be so much comfortable. It’s surely true,
but I don’t want to go. It’s not the little money they want to give us to move
away, that will be enough in any case. I can’t remember the name of this new
place and I don’t even want to learn it. All my friends will be lost, spread
into various districts, and I will loose all my life with it. It’s maybe the
future, but I’m not sure I want to be part of it. The past was tough some
times, but not always so bad. I am so sad for Shanghai and my home that the skyscrapers are
rapidly eating.
My son already moved to this new apartment and loves it. He
often comes by to take me there, but I still refuse to go. Old Ma, my old
neighbor, moved into one of this new tower about a year ago. He was the first
ones to go, moving with a smile on his face, realizing the long life dream to have a place of his own. He
had been promised long time ago to get an apartment and it finally came. He
disappeared for a while, and then started to come back. He comes here everyday
now. It takes him hours to cross the whole city, just to enjoy old friends and
familiar places. He says life is comfortable there, but there is nobody to talk
to. My life has always been at the end of this lane and I can’t imagine it differently.
Seeing it disappear makes me feel that I am also going to die soon.