A trip to old Rangoon

Sule Paya at night, Yangon
Yangon main street at night

Arrival in Yangon (Rangoon) at night woke back many memories of other cities frozen in time. The first contact reminded me of arriving in Saigon in 1998. Same trees, same roads and mostly 1980’s Japanese 10th hand cars around. The cars falling apart with wheel on the wrong side reminded me of Cambodia in the late 90’s. I was expecting the former British colony to have right hand side driving like its neighbors. Just like Old Shanghai did in the mid 1940’s, driving direction was changed in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1970’s. In any case, if the airport drive at night had led me to the Caravelle hotel in Saigon instead of the Trader’s hotel in Rangoon, I would not have been surprised at all.

Colonial building, Yangon
Colonial building, Yangon

The morning of the second day visiting Rangoon reminded me more of the Hanoi of the late 1990’s. Walking around the Kandawgyi lake with the Sedona hotel overlooking it, felt just like Hanoi’s West Lake hotel in my memories. On the river front, Strand Road reminds of the Shanghai Bund with the customs house on the waterfront and the main bank as well as the main hotel (The Strand Hotel) next to it. Today’s Strand Road looks a lot like picture of Shanghai Bund in the 1920’s, before Art Deco towers like the Sassoon House (peace hotel) and the Bank of China were built.  The back streets with trees growing between the buildings look a lot like Hankou (today’s Wuhan) former French concession. Many people eat in the streets in Rangon. They have early diner from 5 to 7 or 8 PM sitting on colorful plastic chairs, eating noodles, curries and meat skewers. The same plastic chairs I used to sit on about 14 years ago in Saigon.

Most of Central Rangoon (Yangon) has been left more or less untouched since the 60th. Although a lot of construction went on in the 50’s and early 60th, style was kept in line with the colonial architecture. Most buildings have been left untouched for decades, with some of them being now renovated. Walking in the streets by daylight gives a nice view of the buildings with various forms and styles. Night time in Yangon is also very nice as there is little activity. The low lights and old buildings create an atmosphere that is charming and very unique. At the same time, it is very clear that redevelopment of the city has already started. A number of colonial buildings have been replaced by new towers and the process will probably accelerate with the recent political changes in the country. Just like other cities in South East Asia, Yangon (Rangoon) will surely transform in the next years but hopefully it will retain its charms and history. In any case, now is probably the best time to visit. This stay in Yangon (Rangoon) was part of a trip around Myanmar (Burma) that has been quite incredible. Although poverty in the country is striking, there is a warmth with Burmese people like nowhere else in Asia and the country is stunningly beautiful. More picture about this trip can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24266052@N00/sets/72157629302498231/

Abelardo Lafuente, Shanghai Spanish architect

Old Shanghai was a place where people from many origins came to, including architects. Added with a long construction boom, this created the patchwork of architectural styles that is still visible today. The most famous architect firms of Old Shanghai were Brits Palmer & Turner, French Vesseyre, Leonard & Kruze and Hungarian Hudec Laszlo. Besides them smaller firms such Minutti (Switzerland), Gonda and Matrai (Hungary), Atkinson & Dallas (US). There was also a number of Chinese architects that designed buildings mostly from the 20s, including Poy Gum Lee.

A new one has recently got a lot of attention, Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente. Thanks to the research of Shanghai-based Spanish architect Alvaro Leonardo, Abelardo Lafuente’s work and story was uncovered, carefully stored in Spain within Lafuente’s personal stuff.

Alberado Lafuente

Abelardo Lafuente was born in Madrid in 1871. Following his father who became the municipal architect of Manilla, he moved to the Philippines with wife and kids. Abelardo also became an architect in Manilla but most of his work was done in Shanghai after moving in 1913. He quickly made a partnership with G.O. Wooten, introducing “Mozarabic” or Moorish-Andalusian style to Shanghai. Only few of those buildings still exist, including the former Star Garage on Nanjing Xi Lu (picture further down) and the former Jewish Club next door. The master piece of the style is surely the Andalusian villa on Du Lun Lu, that is still standing. 

Abelardo Lafuente then operated alone and was in great demand for interior design, creating the ball room of several hotels. This included the Astor House hotel on the North Bund that he did the design for one of the extension in 1917 and then renovated in 1923 (this can still be visited) and the Majestic Hotel on Bubbling Well Road in 1923 (around of the same place as current CITIC Square on Nanjing Xi Lu).

Astor House hotel ballroom

Being the only Spanish architect in town, he also made a design for the Jai Alai building in the French Concession at the corner of Avenue Joffre (Today corner of HuaiHai Lu and Shaanxi Lu, at the place of the Paris Spring shopping mall), although it is not confirmed if his design was finally constructed. Lafuente also created film theaters for the Spanish business man Antonio Ramos who introduced cinema to Shanghai and a few villas including the former Soong villa, today’s home to Sasha’s restaurant at the corner of Avenue Pétain and Rue Francis Garnier (today HengShan lu and Dong Ping lu). 

When Lafuente went to the USA in 1927, one of his draftman, Russian architect Alexander Yaron, was made partner and kept the office running. Although Lafuente designed buildings in the USA, the 1929 crisis stopped his effort there. Without much money, he tried to return to Shanghai, first stopping in Mexico and finally reaching Shanghai in 1931. He died only a few months later of pulmonary disease probably caught in Mexico.

Lafuente exhibition poster 2011

Abelardo Lafuente’s style was unique in Shanghai. An exhibition about him and his work in Shanghai was organised at South Bund 22 in December 2011. It was organised by Alvaro Leonardo and the Spanish Cultural Center in Shanghai. Details are provided in the invitation on the left hand side.

More recent information about Abelardo Lafuente can be found on the page of the Abelardo Lafuente research project page.

Somebody finally got it

Master house on Weihai lu
Master house on Weihai lu

Having lived in Shanghai for more than 6 years, I have seen a clear evolution of the vision of Shanghainese people and the Shanghai municipality. A few years ago, only foreigners were complaining about the destruction of the Shanghai architectural heritage. The fashion was about new, new, new and the past and its remains had no importance whatsoever. Shanghai was supposed to become another version of Hong Kong and Singapore where only a few trophy buildings remain within the everlasting paradise the skyscrapers and other “high level real estate developments”, i.e. brand new building of average quality, lots of marketing and nor more personality than the neighbor.  I have seen the evolution with a few of the main buildings being kept away from demolition by the municipality, but the EXPO has clearly accelerated the process.

First of all, most Shanghai facades have been now renovated. This is often limited to the front row of a lane and not always of best quality, but it is clearly a step forward. The face lift given to building gives a much better look to the city and will show to the inhabitants that old does not mean necessarily shabby. Until now, the renovation is mostly limited to the exterior, but I am sure that it will extend to the interior as well.  In other part of the world well built and maintained buildings can survive through the ages, while being transformed for various usage.  Like in Europe in the 1960’s I hope this will be a turning point for Shanghai.

Brand new information
Brand new information

Secondly, plates and explanation about local history have been put in a number of places just before the expo. Besides giving information to tourists, they also have a lot value for the local people. They are often extremely surprised to learn that the old rotten shag where they think they live in, is actual a wonder of Art Deco or neo-classic architecture.

Thirdly, the whole image of 1920’s and 30’s Shanghai has changed in a few years, thanks to a large number of articles and TV programs about the topic. I always find it kind of funny when I see a sign celebrating the 100th anniversary of various things in Shanghai (transport systems, parks, hospital, university) where no mention is made that actually often foreigners brought these novelties to Shanghai.  Once a taboo or forgotten period, old Shanghai is now a common topic of conversation and of pride for Shanghainese, at least some of them. At the same time, the image of foreigners in this period is also changing as Shanghai revisits its own history. Last but not least, the whole image of the Republican period is also changing slowly at least in Shanghai.

Master house engulfed
Master house engulfed

Finally, more and more buildings are being protected. One of the latest turn seems to be to keep of the old while building new. In the development I have seen in the past, all buildings on the site were destroyed. During construction, a master house was often built first with a very large garden around, as ground was cheap then. A few years or decades later, the owner would sell part of his garden for a very high price, as the city had extended and a shikumen would be built. The master house would be engulfed into it and is often still there, lost in the middle. The new trend in real estate development is to keep this master house while destroying the shikumen around. In Jing An district where I work, there are 3 massive real estate development that started with destroying the shikumen on the location but keping the master house. I guess they will use it as the club house, taking advantage of the space offered while adding value to the compound. In one of them (picture on the top), the master house as even been moved 100 meters towards Wei Hai Road to give space for real estate development and preserve it at the same time.

This form of preservation is clearly a new trend and probably imposed by new regulation on the developers.  Old buildings will become more trendy and more expensive, fueling investment in this new segment. Somebody finally realized how to combine profit and heritage preservation in Shanghai and this is great news.

Collège Municipal Français

The original Cercle Sportif Francais

Most people interested in Shanghai history know about the “Cercle Sportif Francais”, the current Okura Garden hotel on Maoming lu. The French Club as it was called in English moved to this brand new building in 1926, from its original location on Route Vallon (today’s Nanchang lu). The very large building previously used was then allocated to house the French High School or “Collège Municipal Français” in French.  The garden of the Collège Municipal Français extended all the way to French Park, i.e. today’s Fuxing Park. Unfortunately the park has been separated from the building and a wall is now separating them. It would be extremely difficult to take the same picture again.

Shanghai Science Hall

I managed to get into today’s Shanghai Science Hall on Nanchang lu, the building that was the old Collège Municipal Français. It is not a high school anymore, but a building dedicated to science studies. As such, it is sometimes difficult to enter  as the guards are not happy to see foreigners coming in. The side on Nanchang lu is oriented towards North. The much nicer facade is oriented toward the South, overlooking the park. Like in many buildings in Shanghai, a south orientation allows to get some light and warmth in the gloomy winter.  With the large space this building is very cold in the winter, like most buildings in Shanghai. I have not seen a real heating system in place, but the may have been one when it was built.

One of the most interesting feature is the art deco stain glass in the hall way (see picture left). Stain glasses were very much in fashion when this building was erected, as found in a number of building in Shanghai. This one is the largest I have seen in the city. I have tried to take pictures of it before, being chased out by the guard… but today was my day of luck. The stain glass is not noticeable from the outside, but really nice from the inside. Although it has been clearly repaired in some parts, it has crossed time and Shanghai history while being well preserved.

up the stairs

Among others, two famous authors attended the teaching of the Collège Municipal Français, Rena Krasno and Liliane Wilens. As explained by the later when we met (see post “a date with Liliane“), students of the Collège Municipal Français were French children and other foreigners, as well Chinese from Shanghai upper class society. Located in the heart of the French Concession, the Collège Municipal Français was very near to some famous residential areas such as Rue Lafayette (today Fuxing Lu) and Avenue Pétain (today’s Heng Shan lu). Since the building was not originaly designed as a school but as an entertainment club, it became a school with a wonderful design, surely giving life long memory to the children who went to school there.

This location was also the seat of the original Alliance Francaise de Changhai, teaching French to Chinese students just like it is today on the Wusong Lu campus. This very large building is still in use without much repair and still has grand style and appearance. It is very well worth a visit if you can sneak in.

Farewell to JG Ballard’s home

jgballard_houseOne of the most famous film about Shanghai history is surely Steven Spielberg’s  “Empire of the Sun”, that I wrote about a few years ago . The movie from the 1980’s was the film version of the JG Ballard novel of the same name. Ballard spent his childhood in old Shanghai until the Japanese invasion of the International Settlement, on 8th December 1941. Although most people think that like in the book, he lost his parents in the crowd on the Bund. He did not get separated from them and was interned with them in Lung Hua camp from 1943 (thank you Liliane Willens for information on this point).

Ballard’s life and books have attracted a large crowd of fans who looked for his old house located in Columbia Road (today’s Fanyiu lu). Ballard was a famous British author and died in 2009 (see the Wikipedia article about him). The house was found rediscovered by fans a few years ago and was still in relatively good state after decades of neglect. It was visited by JG Ballard a few years ago and was supposed to be protected. Sadly, this house has been severly damaged recently by the latest occupant. Here is the link to the excellent article from British Daily “The Telegraph”.

Anybody witnessing Shanghai destruction of its architecture heritage should be surprised about, as the same thing is currently happening with most the buildings in the Bund area and many others. I think the saddest part of the article is the interviews in the report. Still, this is a great loss.

Classical Buildings of Shanghai

Book Cover
Book Cover

I am always curious about new books related to old Shanghai, and this new one was no exception. Surprisingly, I found it out of my usual circle, in a small shop in Tai Kang Lu. I later checked places like Garden books, but it was not on sale there… or maybe it is already out of stock. Although I was first impressed by the printing quality and the appearance of the book, reading it led to a less enthusiastic judgement.

There are definitely good points with this book, starting with the cover. The mosaic of small pictures is an eye-catcher and printing and paper quality are very high. This definitely makes a good coffee table book. Some pictures are quite recent, with others from the 1990’s. It is actually nice to see how some buildings actually looked before some disastrous renovation (like the red house on Hen Shan Lu), or invasion of advertising (like Sincere Department store on Nanjing Dong Lu).  Some of these buildings have been nicely renovated since, so the picture in the book is not as nice as today’s reality. I also have found some of those pictures used previously on various website. This book is clearly not one of original photographs from one photographer, but a collection of already existing pictures. As the book was published in China, it is both in English and in Chinese making it a great tool for show Chinese friend why we love old Shanghai building so much. Moreover, at RMB 100 it is really affordable.

Unfortunately, I also found quite  a number of points that make this book miss the 100% score by far. First of all, there is no classification of the buildings, neither by period, location, style or architect firms. Yes the book has nice pictures, but a little bit of order would have helped to make style and period differences easier to understand. Moreover, the level of the description is quite inconsistent in particular in naming the buildings. Sometimes the 1930’s name is used, sometimes today’s name, sometimes… something in the middle. I am also wondering what motivated the choice of including a particular building or not. It is really surprising not to see Bund 18, Kee Club and many of the Art Deco buildings in the French area… nor Broadway Mansions. Anyway, it seems that the authors rarely venture South of Fuxing Lu, or even Huai Hai lu. The other major drawback is the English translation. Some of the parts are well written, but many are difficult to understand due to dubious translation. Furthermore, there are quite lot of omissions or inaccuracies… which also degrades the book overall quality.

At the end, this book is a nice for a coffee table. It is also great to show the beauty of old Shanghai to Chinese friends (with Chinese text) and is affordable… but don’t count on it for an in-depth study of old Shanghai architecture.

Paris Art Deco

Art deco Building in St Germain
Art deco Building in St Germain

Just like in previous post “Home sweet home“, I used my trip in France to look at French buildings from an old Shanghai point of view. The heart of Paris was mostly built in the mid XIXth century, thanks to the design work of Baron Haussman who redesigned the French capital. Paris new design with large avenues connecting train stations organized in a network gave inspiration to design of cities all over Europe (just like Budapest where I used to live and many others). It also inspired the design of American cities like Chicago in the early XXth century as well as Moscow with its huge avenues … and finally came back to Shanghai as a model for building today’s Pudong.

normandy-2000-01

Built on a ad hoc basis and constantly changing in a bit of architectural anarchy, old Shanghai was never planned in such a way. Although it was called the Paris of the orient, the similarities of town planning only goes so far as Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai lu), that is indeed far from its model. However, Paris continued to be built in the 1920’s and 30’s at the same time as old Shanghai, here are a few examples of similarities. The first one to catch my attention was the building left that is located near St Sulpice in Paris Rive Gauche area.

Art Deco Building in Montmartre
Art Deco Building in Montmartre

Although it is not a triangle building like the Normandy building in Shanghai (picture right), they have a lot of similarities with the usage of red brick over 2 floors of stones as buildin g materials. The fist floors are both using large arches and a balcony it circling the top floor.

Willow Cour door frame
Willow Cour door frame

The second one is this art deco building in Montmartre. It did not specifically remind me of Shanghai art deco, apart from one important detail at the bottom right of the picture… the entrance door. Its shape is peculiar as it is non rectangular shape, but with cut angles instead. This shape is special enough to be remembered and I have seen it before in Shanghai, in Willow Court on Route de Boissezon (today Fuxing Xi Lu). Small detail, but clear similarity miles away from each other.

Up river, Hankou’s foreign concessions

Hankou's custom house
Hankou's custom house

Hubei’s capital Wuhan is mostly known in today’s China to be a heavy industry base. The current city is the agglomeration of two cities on each side of the river. Wuchang on the right side is known for its revolutionary history, where the 1911 revolution started as well as center point of 1927 northern expedition to re-unite China. This is a legacy that still holds today. On the left side of the river Hankou the trade city was the location where foreigners settled in when the city was opened as a treaty port in 1862 and Hanyang a more remote part. Foreign concessions in the coastal area like Shanghai, Tientsin (today Tianjing), Amoy (today Xiamen) and Tschingtao (today Qingdao) are quite well known in and out China. Concessions and treaty ports were also established in-land, mostly on the main rivers like Hankou and canals like Suzhou.

Old picture of the Hankou Customs HouseBeing up the easily navigable part of the Yangtse river, Hankou was a major point of trade for China’s inland. Wuhan is still the most important port on the river today. The area around the customs house has been changed a bit by the enlargement of the Bund road like in Shanghai, but the buildings are still there and easily recognisable from the pictures. Just like in Shanghai, the Hankou customs house is a massive building that could be seen from far away, being probably the first point that visitors would see coming up the river, and it is still the main building of the old areas.

Hankou's Foreign concessions map
Hankou's Foreign concessions map

I used a recent business trip to Wuhan to spend a few hours in the old concession area. Unlike in Shanghai, the concession area is not (yet) in the heart of Hankou’s business district. The concessions were also much smaller than the ones in Shanghai, limited to an area near the river. I read somewhere that up to 1500 foreigners lived in the concession at the most. Just like in other locations, concessions of various countries were lined up next to each other on the Hankou Bund, with a different atmosphere in each of them. Hankou’s first concession was British, followed by Russian, French, German and Japanese. The custom house was located just off the British Concesion, as Chinese customs were delegated to foreigners at that time. Just like in Shanghai, their is a large commercial street perpendicular to the Bund with massive buildings lined along. This area has been pedestrianised and most building now host Chinese banks or brand new shops. It is quite similar to Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu. The whole area is lined with Neo classical style buildings, similar to the ones on Shanghai Bund. As the British concession was seized back from China in 1927, there are only a handful of Art Deco buildings on that street as this style was only emerging in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.

Art Nouveau building in Wuhan
Art Nouveau building in Hankou

Art Nouveau facade in Hankou
River facing Art Nouveau facade

The British Concession is the most visited part of old Hankou, but there are some other very nice parts next to it. The old Russian and French concessions have quite a similar atmosphere to Shanghai small streets of the French Concession, with pane trees shading the strong Hubei sun. Building there are not in great shape, but work in restoration would bring them back to their original glory. The most surprising for me was to find a Central European Art Nouveau style (also called secession) building in Hankou. Having lived many years in Central and Eastern Europe, I have seen many of those in Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Riga and so forth. Surprisingly, I never saw one in Shanghai as I think this was a mainly  European Style that was never popular in Asia as it was quickly supplanted by Art Deco. This was really a nice surprise to discover the building of the Daosheng bank, built in 1927 in Hankou, China.

London of the East

High Street Kensington, London
High Street Kensington, London

Old Shanghai was often called “Paris of the orient” or “Paris of the East”. I have read or heard the later used for several cities inspired by the French capital including Budapest (with its Andrassy ut looking like Champs Elysees), Bucharest (because of boulevards and buildings French inspired), Saigon and Hanoi (with obvious French architecture) along with Shanghai. Wellknown characteristics  of old Shanghai people, in particular their high interest in fashion, dresses as well and cafes and restaurants have been well documented and clearly have links with Paris lifestyle in the same period. It is still true of today’s Shanghai as the particular city’s culture re-emerge after so many years.

Some houses in the old French Concession are the very same style as some of the Paris suburbs build in the 1920’s. That is very understandable since they were build by French architects. Parts of Huaihai lu used to look like a Paris boulevard, although most of it has been destroyed since. The French Concession’s atmosphere with its streets lined with trees, shops and cafes maybe had a similar atmosphere to Paris but in terms of architecture most of Old Shanghai looks much closer to London.

I already wrote about the Court of Westminster on Maryleborne Road (Click here to read post “London recalling”) that definitely looks like building’s on the Shanghai Bund. In my last trip to London, I stayed in a different part of the city, next to High Street Kensington. The mix of building in this area and in particular above High Street Kensington’s tube station is for me  very similar to the streets of Shanghai just behind the Bund, in particular JiangXi Lu.  It obviously starts with Queen Anne style building’s that were fashionable in the late XIXth Century and the early 1900 years. There are many of those in the Kensington area, and there were many in Shanghai as well. They were mostly the work of Atkinson & Dallas, a British architecture firm very active in the early year of Shanghai construction boom.

Queen Anne Style building in London
Queen Anne Style building in London

Queen Anne Style Building in Shanghai
Queen Anne Style Building in Shanghai

Art Deco Ornament in Shanghai
Art Deco Ornament in Shanghai

Art Deco ornament in London
Art Deco ornament in London

Similarities do not stop there, as both cities added Art Deco buildings in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. The inspiration was clearly the same, as the decorations on the buildings are strikingly similar. The same iron works in the windows and doors were used. Symbols used also had similar mythical inspiration.What is probably unique of Shanghai and this area of London is the mix of both in the same area and a similar spatial arrangement. In architecture, many Shanghai buildings are a reminder of the London ones… or maybe I love Shanghai so much that I see it everywhere.

The revival of Gulangyu

Our third trip to the Gulangyu Island near Xiamen is making it a bit of a yearly pilgrimage.  Xiamen is about 800 km south from Shanghai and the 1 hour flight is enough to transport from Shanghai winter to Xiamen spring. Just like Shanghai,  Xiamen was one of the treaty port open by the Treaty of Nanjing from 1842. Although it did not turn into a metropolis, it became an important trade city. A number of old buildings are still visible on the shore front, including the “Lujian Harbour View Hotel”. As our taxi driver proudly pointed out, “these buildings are as old as the ones on the Bund in Shanghai”. Like in Shanghai, they are being rediscovered and transformed into tourist attractions.

Gulangyu beach

We have walked the streets of GuLanYu many times before, but this year’s visit was a little bit of a surprise. Since the closure of our beloved Night Lilly guest house in 2006, accommodation on the island was quite limited. Choice was basically between a few state owned hotels (with the delights of the Karaokes and low quality Chinese breakfast) and small chinese hostels that can be really friendly, but not that comfortable like the Boat House hotel where we stayed last year.

Leeming hotel

We were really excited to find out that a real private hotel had opened on the island. Leeing hotel (www.leeinn.cn) is located in an old mansion on 38 Zhangzhou lu.  The building has been renovated, meaning that only the walls were kept and all orginal fixtures have been removed. The interior is very modern with design bathrooms and LCD TV screens in each room. Like in many Chinese hotels, the beds are hard and the noise insulation is not the greatest point but it makes a comfortable stay. The hotel also has a coffee bar and restaurant, great place to sit and relax with a bottle of wine. It is located in side street of Zong Hua lu, the main walk through the island, making it quiet but of short distance to many of the interesting places to visit like the Catholic church, the Huai Jiu Gulangyu museum, High Heaven complex and the beach.

Glass window in Gulanyu
Glass window in Gulanyu

The other interesting place we discovered was the Reminiscence hotel, behind the Huai Jiu Gulangyu Museum on 38 Huangyan lu (tel: 0592-2065000). It is probably less comfortable and modern than the Leeinn, but all furniture are antics and the renovation has left most of the inside fixtures in place creating a really nice atmosphere. This is a great place for history lovers like us and we will surely try it next year.

The most visible change from last year was the opening of many coffee shops on the island. Until last year, the only places to get descent coffee on a terrace after walking around the island was Naya hotel and Cafe, in the former German consulate (12 Lujiao Road, near the harbor), and slowly Cafe (An Hai lu 36). Coffee shops have sprung up around the island, particularly around Zhong Hua lu. Gulanyu is quickly transforming into a new version of Yangshuo or LiJiang with backpackers hotels and small “western restaurants” everywhere. Quite a number of houses are under renovation, showing that more of these places will open soon. Tourists were also in a much higher number than the year. The quite little island is transforming to become a mass tourism destination. It definitely makes a stay there more comfortable… but a little less private and exclusive. It’s probably best to enjoy it soon before the nice and quiet feeling disappears under the coming wave of KTV and tourist masses.

Next post about Gulangyu is “Night on Gulangyu“.