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.

Singing trees

Shanghai is a very noisy city. Taxis and buses constantly horn, people often speak loudly, advertising and various kind of music resonate all the time. It’s also not rare to hear the song of an air hammer a three o’clock in the morning, but if you look for it, you can find some pockets of quiet between the old buildings. The entrance of a lane can be on a busy street, but get through the door and it suddenly becomes much more quiet. Within ten or twenty meters, the traffic noise slowly disappears, giving away space for live noise of people talking with each other and households noises.

Lanes going through Shikumens are small narrow alleys serpenting between two-three level houses. The real gem is to find a lane leading to larger villas. Those often have gardens and trees, surrounded by a very special sound. The noise comes slowly from the sky, going crcrcrcr and taking everybody by surprise. It inflates and inflates and inflates until one cannot hear anything else for a while and then disappears on a slow descrendo. Silent regain the floor for a few minutes and the noise comes back again. Most of people living in newly built tower have never heard it.

This mysterious noise is the song of the cigalas. They are large insects, creating noise by vibrating their wings to attract females cigalas. This cigala’s “love song” is a typical noise of the old Shanghai. Along with intense heat and Spanish style old houses, it gives a strong Mediterranean feeling to old parts of the city. Cigalas are still a privilege of the old Shanghai, as they seem to prefer old trees. Trees in the new parks and residence gardens do not seem to have been found yet by the little animals… or maybe the traffic noise is covering the Cigalas song there. Sitting in my old house looking at the garden, I hear the cigalas song and suddenly feel miles away from China. This sound is for me like a trip on the Mediterranean, somewhere between Marseilles, Thesaloniki and Oran. Cigallas song is one of these little details that make summers in old Shanghai so special.

In love again

From Buda to Pest

We had not met for about a year and I just could not come to Europe without seeing her. The original trip was supposed to take me straight to France, but somehow I had to make a detour. Instead of the streets of Paris, I’m sitting on a terrace having a coffee at Cafe Vian on Liszt Férenc Square, far away from France. The one I came to visit is the city of Budapest. Our story started when we first met in 1996 to somehow finished in December 2004, when I decided to leave and move to Shanghai. Although I am now far away, I have never forgotten the intense feeling of living here.

I have just spent the last hours walking in its streets and old feelings come back so fast. The city and me just find back each other. I notice every detail, every change in its heart. I touch the walls, the old stone still has the same feeling and the same soul. Flashbacks about people I knew and events that happened when I lived here come back at every corner. There is a déjà vu feeling (maybe a glitch in the matrix) and the return of past habits is just like slipping back in old shoes. I sometimes feel that I never left, that the whole time in Shanghai was just last  night’s dream, just like it happened when I came back here after more than a year in Vietnam a few years ago. Spending time with old friends, sitting at the same restaurants we used to go and feeling somehow part of the group again, those feelings are worth coming from the other side of the World.

Buda from Pest

I am still in love with Budapest and being here is just like restarting an old relationship. While living here, I thought I would never leave, and somehow with fatigue, habits and all what happened, I ended up going away and  eventually left for my new girl, Shanghai. Even if new and unknown feelings were overwhelming, it took me a long time to really absorb the end of my Budapest story and feel like a part of this new adventure. Shanghai is now my home and the relationship with this city is just as intense as the previous one. I still enjoy re-living the old times again, and I regularly come back (See later post Budapest Old and New). I even found ways to help bringing Budapest and Shanghai through the work and life of Lászlò Hudec (see post Hudec Alma Mater for more details). Having talked with enthusiasm of Budapest has also convinced a number of my Shanghai friends to come here to visit.

Spending time around the city great architecture and feeling Hungarian nostalgia again is still fantastic, while I know that the story is over. As much as I feel home here, it does not take long to realize how much a different person I have become. Any return would be the start of a new story, and imagining anything different would be fooling myself. The city is like an old girlfriend of mine, and meeting again is just so nice for a few days. It is just long enough to enjoy a little bit of the nostalgia before flying back to Shanghai, my new home.

Decadence on the Bund

It’s another Sunday, waking up when most of the mornings hour have already vanished. I am thinking of going to brunch, which is just another way of forgetting that breakfast should have happened a few hours ago… when I was still in the first hours of my sleep. I’m looking at time passing so slowly and so fast at the same time, feeling somewhat guilty of this lost morning of free time. I could have used all this time for the many interesting things that have always been planing but never done, instead of staying in my bed, recovering from last night’s dancing and drinking. I’m trying to remember what I did last night. Snapshots of drinks, dance music and happy people come back to my mind. We talked about going to a new club where a famous Dutch DJ was playing last night… instead I ended up in old favorite Bar Rouge.
There is only one bar like this in Shanghai. It opened about 2 years ago along with the restaurant below (Sens & Bund). Brand new design in an old ostentatious building, bringing a team of French managers and skillful bar tenders with them. Management probably initially thought that Bar Rouge would be “The bar of Sens & Bund” … when this very bar has become infinitely more successful than the restaurant below. Some people love it, some people hate it, but everybody in town has been to Bar Rouge at least once… I have long lost count of how many evenings I have enjoyed on the 7th floor of Bund 18 looking at LuJiaZui towers on the other side of the river… or the amount of money I have spent there, that only somewhat equals the amount of bad things people have told me about this place.
Yes! Bar Rouge is the center of attentiong the newly rich foreigners as well as jet setters and posh tourists in Shanghai. Yes! people go there to be seen, much more than to enjoy and everybody seems to try being just something else than what they really are. Yes! Service can be appaling on overcrowded weekends if you don’t know the bar tenders personaly. Yes! prices are astronomical compared to Shanghai bar scene, not to mention the local living standard BUT this is exactly why Bar Rouge is so great. Managers of foreign multinational companies, Russian models looking for a salary complement, new stars of the Chinese Media, winners of the “end of communism” game, foreign trainees looking for a little more of student life, foreign tourists looking for some posh action or maybe a little trouble at half the price of home, entrepreneurs celebrating business successes, Chinese working women willing to become your instant friend for the night, foreign buyers from all nationalities recovering from hours of drive on terrible roads visting factories, a new generation of young Chinese enjoying the fun of parties and nightlife, business visitors shown how much China is a “hardship posting”, foreigners coming to Shanghai to study Chinese and ending in the most foreign place of the city, all of them and many more dress up and enjoy the pure decadence of the this place, the ablaze Champagne bottles, colorful lab tubes in ice, heavy cigar smoke, flamming bar and Formula One style Champagne aboundantly shaken by the beat of the dance music spinned around by excellent DJ’s.
I don’t always want to, but more often than not I find myself ending up in Bar Rouge. There are so many other great places in Shanghai, but going there is somewhat convulsive… there are nights that I just need to go there, because only there can you find this kind of atmosphere. There is true feeling of old Shanghai in this place. Like the Majestic dance hall, the New World and the Paramount in their times Bar Rouge is the place where Shanghai business people show off their success and release from the stress of the intoxicating life of this city. A night spent there makes you feel just how Shanghai is becoming a world city again.

China in my ears

I have never been a fan of moving my music with me. I remember the first walkmans being introduced in France, with the old cassette tape in it. A lot of my friends were getting one and I ended up buying one as well. I never used it a lot, neither did I use his CD based successor much more. Short battery life and the necessity to carry music supply with me were a killer… but most importantly I always felt very strange to be separated from the world by the headphones. I always tend to listen to and observe everything around me, so the very idea to cut this source of permanent entertainment is a little weird for me. Sound is also a way to
understand the surrounding environment. In crossing busy Shanghai streets, hearing the right sound can save your life from being crushed by an incoming bus…

I am sitting in the French high speed train (TGV) looking at the countryside speeding through the window left to me. 48 hours in Europe including a shopping spree in Paris yesterday, I am going home to reconnect with my family. Jet-lag and late night enjoying friends before taking the plane are still taking their toll on my sleepy eyes. Going home is always a lot of
nice feelings, as well as a lot of nostalgia. I enjoy tremendously and I somehow fear it a little as well. I start my computer to write another of those blog posts. I write about how much the
Paris near suburbs from the 1920’s remind me of the French concession that dates from the same period. Inspiration is difficult to come, constantly disturbed by the crying baby next to me and the conversations of people around that I cannot stop from hearing as
they are in my mother tongue. This is when I dig my SKYPE portable headset from my computer suitcase and start a MP3 player software… as I suddenly felt like cutting myself from the world.
Any music will do as long as it covers the surrounding noise. Chinese notes invade my head within seconds and I am transported to a different universe. Through the hilly fields of the French countryside, I can see rice paddies and terraces from China. Somehow warmed by this usual sound, I feel much better and linked again to Shanghai. I also remember my
friendly music composer of neighbor who gave me this file because I used to listen to it all the time… through the wall separating our both apartments. Sitting in the train facing my computer, I am probably using the wolrd’s clumsiest portable MP3 player… but it does the
trick. I will get a real player very soon, so that I can carry China in my ears with me everywhere.

Unpaid bills

In a recent trip to an antic market, I ran into a large stack of old papers. They were sketches and drawing from an unknown artist. I was not really interested… but my friend was. He looked at all the drawings one by one, spending so much time with them that I was already moving a few vendors down the line. He called me back and pointed out to these three envelops that he found but had no idea what they were. One of them is the picture below.

Electricity Bill
Compagnie Française de Tramways et d’Eclairage Electriques de Shanghai

“Compagnie Francaise de Tramways et d’Eclairage Electrique de Shanghai”, i.e. Tranmways and Electric Lighting company of Shanghai, was written on the envelop. The largest employer of the French Concession, “La Compagnie” as it was often called, was the main utility company of the concession, producing and delivering electricity, supplying running water and operating tramway lines (see post “Old Shanghai Tramways” for more details), as well as bus lines (see post “Old Shanghai full bus schedule 1931” for more details). One of the managers was Mr Lubeck (See post “The story of the Lubeck family and their house in Shanghai” for more details).

These three little envelops, contained three electricity bills from May, June and July 1949. As China was liberated by the communist party in October 1949, they were among the very last ones to be sent by the company under the nationalist regime. The company was later nationalized and surely part of today’s electricity company.

1949 electricity bill

The bills themselves are in English and Chinese, with no French writing except being called “Facture” and the phone number indicated as “téléphone”. Just seeing the name of the company written in French is like a living proof of the very existence of the French concession. Details and daily life objects like this make history become so much more real.

The electricity company address was noted as 249 Chung-King Road (Southern), that is formerly Avenue Dubail. Street names have been changed several times in Shanghai, including in 1945 after concessions were given back to China. The whole former Avenue Dubail has been destroyed in the 90’s to build the famous flyover motorways of Shanghai, so the office probably does not exist anymore. The address where it was sent to, “Seng Sie Leu, 256 Route Cohen” (now Gaoan Lu) is very near from my street, Route Kaufmann (now Anting Lu). It would be funny seeing the face of the house owner, being shown those unpaid bills from 60 years ago. This is only daydreaming, as the receiver of these electricity bills has probably been chased out of their house long ago.

In any case, after a second look I realized that the bills have actually been settled in July 1949. No chance of collecting any money from these old bills, but just looking at them is still fascinating.

Another one bites the dust

SurroundedOn the back side of my office building, there is a small lane running between old houses. I often walk it on the way home, to avoid the crowd of the surrounding boulevards. It is lively but quiet, kids playing around and people chatting from one house to the other in a tranquillle atmosphere… right in the middle of modern Shanghai. This is one of my “secret passages” through the old Shanghai shikumens. The picture left shows this little alley going throughout the houses, surrounded by brand new skyscrapers towers. During my trip, I cross two separate sections, one that is of very good construction art-deco style (the first two rows on the picture), the other one of lower quality 1920’s houses.

I walked through it recently, and realized that many of the small streets were strangely empty, people having abandoned furniture outside and many windows being left open. I looked around for an explanation, and I suddenly noticed the large posters that were sticked on many walls. Although I still cannot read so much Chinese, it did not take me long to understand that they were official government posters, and that the date of 10th August 2006 (i.e. yesterday) was written on then. I was reading the evacuation notice, the death sentence of my beloved back street. These beautiful art-deco brick houses will soon be destroyed, probably replaced by another tasteless modern complex of building featuring “luxury” apartments, shopping center and offices. I can already see banners repeating again and again arguments for destroying this piece of architecture and history, the race for modernity. I am not so sure those people will love to be relocated from the house they have lived in all their life in the city center to modern aseptic housing settlements, miles away in the suburbs, cut apart from their life long community. The neighborhood is probably happily waiting for the next one of these all-in-ones developments, with another shopping center looking like an advertising for luxury chains of hotels or international credit cards, where the same brands as anywhere else will be sold in an sterile environment.

I do not want sound like opposing progress, as I know that Shanghai still needs a lot of economical development. At the same time, remains of the old Shanghai are disappearing so fast that the city’s history will soon be visible in museums only. I mentioned before that this little road crosses through two different groups of building. The second one was clearly not well built and some houses are about to collapse after 60 years without maintenance. I don’t think there is much to do about this section, apart from tearing it down and rebuilding above it. However, the first smallest section is made of beautiful art-deco style buildings of high quality, still looking great after all this neglect. Every time I pass here, I try to imagine how this section of eight or ten houses could be restored and transformed into beautiful shops, cafes and restaurants enjoying sunny terraces. Few examples of this kind already exist in China, and the location could have made it an ideal shopping and entertainment area, right next to the main business district. Maybe I am a little too European liking old buildings so much, just dreaming about creating nice living conditions in a city were people are just obsessed by fleeing far away as soon as they have made their money. In any case, this dream of a little corner of enjoyment in the middle of the skyscrapers while keeping some valuable history is just about to disappear. To destroy its past is probably the fastest, but not necessarily the nicest way for Shanghai to become a world city.