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.

Shanghai nexus

It is only a few minutes walk from my beloved and quiet Anting Street, but it’s always a shock for me to go to Xu Jia Hui. This area is a major concentration of new buildings in South Western Shanghai. Within a few hundred meters, one can find dozens of shopping centers, including the biggest tech malls (mall specialized in computers and technology products) of the city. It includes one of the major metro station of the (Xu Jia Hui), one of the largest road in Shanghai (twice four lane Zhao Jia Bang Lu, larger than many European motorways), as well as hundreds of buses crossing the district in all directions at all time of the day and night. The area is next to the Shanghai stadium(the largest stadium of the city) and the beginning of the South-Western Shanghai, an area in transformation from industrial to residential.

Hundred of thousands of people live in or around Xu Jia Hui making it a major hub for transportation, living, working and shopping. It is also hosting major construction projects and the population is still increasing at a high speed. This district was always densely populated ,mixing industrial and living areas. It used to be covered by little houses with red roof that are still very common in Sanghai.  It’s now covered with twenty to thirty floors buildings and new ones are being built all the time. Between two skyscrapers, one can discover the Saint Ignacius cathedral and the old covent, part of the Xu Jia Hui Jesuits area. The old covent is now a restaurant weirdly called Shanghai Old Station.

An unforgettable experience one can have every day is to try and get through the area at peak hours. My friends who working in the area compare it to the experience of going to a major concert… every morning. At that time of the day, the whole district is covered with people and it’s nearly impossible to find an empty space. As Xu Jia Hui is also a major shopping district, it gets even more flooded with people on bank holidays. It’s difficult to describe this feeling… it’s a bit like being in a large demonstration, where the only thing you can is do is to go with the flow. With all kind people mixing, loudspeakers from sales booth, buses and taxis constantly honing, the whole area feels like straight out of Blade Runner. Towers, lot’s of people, shopping centers everywhere surrounded with car… this is the way Shanghai is becoming a world city.

Moleskine or else

I ran into my first Moleskine in a book shop in Hong Kong. I had never seen one before, but I have had many carnets de voyage. After a few pages the notebooks were often quickly lost or forgotten… to give way to another notebook of a different fashion… but I would never travel without one. A note book is always part of of what I call "city survival kit", along with a good book, a pen, a map of the city and a camera. But I never thought that a notebook could be something so nice and resistant as a Moleskine.
Moleskine’s marketing is just so smart. Evocating past writers and painters that won’t be able to contradict them, they simply explain that their products have been the companion of artists and adventurers for centuries. I’m not sure this is such an accurate statement, and the new makers of Moleskine are probably somewhat remixing history to their advantage… but the product remains great. My first Moleskine has been a travel companion for nearly a year, from XuJiaWai to Kashgar, from China to Germany. It’s (soon to come) successor is already waiting in my bookshelf for breaking into action. My Moleskine is always in my pocket and has become a companion of every day. I used to collect the million of thoughts (including blog entries) coming to my mind and disappearing soon after… I now catch them on my Moleskine, and re-use them later.
I’m not sure whether it’s the quality of the manufacturing or the beauty of the item, but its very existence is a tremendous help. With resistant leather binding, and good quality paper, this booklet can go through a lot without damage and has a superb advantage over all it’s electronic equivalents… it just takes any pen to work and its operating system never crashes.

Before the storm

The weather was so hot three days ago. The temperature reached 37 degrees (about 100F), and taking a walk outside was the best way to loose liters of water within a few minutes. Streets were deserted, and people were finding refuge in the air-conditioned metro stations, buildings hallways and shopping centers. The temperature dropped a little two days ago, as the wind started to blow the city. From my office on the 18th floor I could see banners floating, pushed away by the invisible force from the sea. This strong wing sometimes reminds us that Shanghai is a city on the sea (上海 literally means “on the sea”), although we see so little of it. The more and more clouds made the sky darker and darker, as night fell much earlier than usual. We were all waiting for the storm to splash the city coming from the Southern provinces and we were all apprehending it… but the storm did not come. Yesterday morning brought a feeling of relief, as the sky cleared. The very idea of a storm seemed just like a collective nightmare…
Pictures of last year’s storm come through my mind, torrent of rain pouring, wind blowing the trees downs, cars looking like boats floating in half a meter of water. There are not many storms like this in Shanghai. Typhoons in Hong Kong are very frequent, people simply leave offices and go home when the drill comes. They are prepared, ready for the tempest descending on the city. Typhoons are rare in Shanghai, and the city is far from ready for it. Last year, many of the luxury villas of the suburb were flooded, the designer just did not think so much rain could fall on them. Some friends got water coming into their expensive apartment, as the construction was just no thick enough to resist the pressure. The wind blew also an advertising sign killing several people in its flight. I cannot stop thinking that some of the stuff hanging on balconies on tours and skyscrapers could easily take off and fall on somebody.
The wind has started to blow again today, even stronger than yesterday. Trees are starting to shake, clouds are flying fast in the sky. The whole city is going through the anticipation, the presentiment of the events to come. Everyone knows the storm is coming, everyone can feel it. All streets are crowded, all taxis are taken by people trying to reach home as soon as possible. The city will become a gigantic traffic jam tonight, before getting quiet under the pouring rain. The ambiance is electric, expectancy mixed with fear and haste. The atmosphere before the storm is just really special.

Timelessness – Face Bar

Face Bar Shanghai
Face Bar Shanghai

Face Bar is not “in”, it’s not a fashionable location but it is quintessentially part of the Shanghai spirit. Face Bar is located in one of the smaller building of the former Morriss Mansion, now Rui Jin Guest House. The front entrance looks at the park of hotel, and the back entrance is a few steps away from Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Zhong Lu). Although this building is not the main one of the compound, it’s a large and impressive mansion with 3 floors. I’m not a great fan of the terrace. It’s a cozy place, but as it’s spread out along the alley, the isolation of the tables from each others gives the feeling that you are alone in the world, while letting people at the next table fully comprehend your conversation.

I particularly like Face Bar in the winter at 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, drinking high tea in the veranda, looking at sun rays painfully piercing through the clouds. It’s cold outside, but the inside is jut warm enough. Just a little sunshine gives a pre-feeling of the winter. There are not so many people at this time on a lazy Sunday giving the atmosphere a feeling of great intimacy and timelessness. The whole winter gloom suddenly disappears while lying one of the Chinese beds. No need for opium to travel in the comfort of the wooden canopy. The world outside this wooden protection has become just the show that I am spectator of. Time stops while lying on this carpet as magic as the one of Aladdin.

Face Bar also has a restaurant upstairs, serving Thai food. There again, the old walls and old wood give you the feeling that you are on a time travel… to old colonial Asia. Flavors and atmosphere of various Asian countries mix, to create this subtle ambiance. Face Bar also has a third floor in the attic, cozy and charming, with a balcony overlooking the park.
The genius of the architect is to have preserved and used the old building where the bar is located. It has created an establishment that seems somehow straight out of the settlements time, while  very contemporary. Like their ancestors in the “Cercle Sportif” of the old Shanghai, today’s expat meet there for drinking a Gin-and-Tonic, chatting with friends, enjoying a cigar and play a game of pool. Under this veranda, the year could be 1920, 1930, 1990 or 2050… it does not really matter. Face Bar is a timeless place, one of those where my mind starts to imagine that I actually live in the old Shanghai.

UPDATE: Face Bar Shanghai as now been closed since late 2008. A new Little Face has opened on Donghu lu in April 2009. Nothing of the grandeur of the old Face Bar, but just enough to help waiting for the opening of a Brand New Face that everyone is missing.