Old Shanghai has been back in fashion in the city for many years now, but so far it was mostly about architecture and famous people from the past. What was missing was a true popular event involving the Chinese public interested in the topic, just like the annual Napier Art Deco Festival in New Zealand that I attended in 2010. The Shanghai Style Fashion Festival that took place from 15th to 18th June is definitely along the same line and was great fun to attend.
Taking place in the former “Cercle Sportif Français“, today’s Okura garden hotel it merged an exhibition of Old Shanghai furniture and interiors, talks about the topic and evening events gala style events. Most of the participants followed the 1920-30’s dress code, adding to the atmosphere of the location.
The event combined several rooms exhibiting Old Shanghai furniture and interior, talks about the topic and daily evening parties including small scenes about Shanghai daily life, and Old Shanghai inspired fashion shows.
A unique feature was the presence of a live big band, a rare occasion in Shanghai, that also helped creating the right atmosphere. That is particularly true on 16th June, the Swing dance evening.
With the enthusiasm of the real Swing dance club supporting the event, people dressed up and an original ballroom from the 1920’s, it really felt like a time travel to Old Shanghai. This is very much how a night out in the Canidrome Ballroom, or the Paramount must have felt like. Congrats to the organisers for the event and looking forward to the next edition.
Shanghai 2015 World Congress on Art Deco was a major event for the Old Shanghai lover community. Bringing dozens of delegates US, the Americas, Europe and Asia, it focused the Art Deco World’s attention to Shanghai heritage, thanks to organizer Historic Shanghai. It was also a great meeting place for Art Deco people and an introduction to the very few Art Deco societies in France and other European countries to ICADS (now Art Deco International). As explained to post “Art Deco in France” from 2014, Art Deco was not really well recognized in Europe then, particularly in France.
French speakers taking part to the Shanghai 2015 World Art Deco congress gathered for an informal meeting after one of the Congress diners at the former Cercle Sportif Français (today the Okura Garden Hotel). The conversation moved to the plan of having the World Congress on Art Deco in Paris in 2025, that seemed like a distant dream.
The best part is that the 2025 World Art Deco Congress in Paris has been confirmed, starting on 28th April 2025. An early version of the project has already been presented. This event will mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of the original exhibition and will be a great boost for Art Deco in France. The dream from Paris is now becoming reality. Surely a Shanghai delegation will join!
Traveling in general and hotels in particular, have long been a strong interest of mine. In an earlier post, I was writing about Hotel luggage labels that were stuck on traveler’s luggage for advertising (see post: “Old Shanghai hotels luggage labels“). Here are a few more examples of luggage labels.
The Cathay Hotels Ltd
The luggage label from Cathay Hotels featuring The Cathay and the Metropole is probably the most famous luggage label of Old Shanghai. I found out that there was also a version with three properties. The Cathay Mansion was completed in 1928, the Cathay in 1928 and the Metropole 1931. However the Cathay Mansion was originally an apartment building, turned into hotel with a redevelopment and restaurant addition, so I guess the 3 hotels version was the latest.
The Great China Hotel
The property is still located at that corner and Fuzhou Lu and Xizang lu, but it was turned into an apartment building. The building that was dominating this side of the racetrack is now dwarfed by neighboring towers, but it is still easy to recognize.
The New World Hotel
Also located near the race track, the New World Hotel was located at the corner of today’s Nanjing Dong Lu and Xizang Lu. It was part of the entertainment center, the New World, an earlier version of the massive gambling, shows and entertainment focus, the Great World or Da Shi Jie that is located a few hundred meters down Xizang Lu. It has been destroyed to build a shopping mall.
Although it is considered one of the best neo-noir movies, I had somehow missed this one until recently. Based in LA in 1937, the 1974 Roman Polanski movie staring Jack Nicholson is an acclaimed classic of the genre.
The director spent a lot of time and energy recreating LA in the 30s, with spectacular result. This make the movie very relevant for this blog as fashion, cars and building were quite similar to the ones in the former French Concession and International Settlement at the same time. The only surprising part is the lack of Art Deco buildings in the movie, but most buildings are Mexican or Spanish Revival style that was also popular in Shanghai in the same period.
Just like the movie ” Casablanca” , Chinatown gives a pretty clear feel for the period dress and decor that was very similar in Old Shanghai. I can imagine that it was used as a base for Old Shanghai movies like 2010 “Shanghai” or “Tian Tang Kou“.
On the way to visit Qibao Old town, in Minhang district, I was not expecting to see any Art Deco architecture. This part of Shanghai used to be a separate village in the countryside, reachable by boat, crossing the swamps over the small rivers that were surrounding Shanghai then. The trip would have been shorter, but similar to the one to Sheshan (see post Climbing Zo Se for more details).
Although Old Shanghai was one of the largest cities in the World in the 30’s with more than 3 million inhabitants, its footprint was much smaller than today’s Shanghai. If early 20’s century architecture, in particular Art Deco, can be found in the center of Shanghai, it is unheard of outside of today’s first ring road. The only exception being Hudec Laszlo’s Catholic Country Church, built then in the countryside, now located in the residential area of Hong Qiao (picture above) in Changning district.
I was then really surprised to discover this Art Deco building close to Qibao Temple. It was hidden between a large advertising poster and seems to be soon to be demolished, but the style was impossible to miss. How could an Art Deco building end up here?
The mystery did not last for long, as although the style was very much modernist / Art Deco, the cover of small tiles is typical of the 1980’s architectural style in China. This building is the former Minhang phone exchange. This kind of building seems to have crossed through time more or less unchanged, just like the ones in the former French Concession or the Former International Settlement. It was probably the first modern building in the area, and like in other cases, architects in the 80’s reused techniques and styles from the late 30’s or 40’s. Architecture did not change much in the meantime in China, so the modern ideas of Old Shanghai were still modern 40 years later. As new technology allowed larger buildings, this lead to Frankenstein Art Deco (see post Frankenstein Art Deco for more details).
Even if it was out of fashion for more than 40 years went it was built, it must have been the top of modernity in this rural surroundings… and somehow it still is very modern. Too bad it will soon go down.
I only became interested in Art Deco in Shanghai, long after leaving Budapest where I lived for a number of years (see post “Budapest Old and New“) . Just like in France, Art Deco was until recently seen as a minor style, often enclosed in the “Entre- deux guerres” period (Literally “between the 2 wars”), see post “Art Deco in France” for more on that. During my previous trip to Budapest, I was looking for Hudec connection in Budapest (see post “Hudec Alma Mater“. This time I walked around the city in search of Art Deco.
The search was greatly helped by a great guide book, from Zoltan Bolla, that is both in English and Hungarian. I had already looked for Art Deco in Budapest districts where I used to live in (mostly 6th, 7th), including UjSzinhaz theater, that is on the guidebook cover. This time I went to the 8th, 11th and 13th districts, parts of the city I never really visited while living there, but main points of Art Deco and modernist style. The border between Art Nouveau, Art Deco and modernism are often blurry and Budapest is no exception. This made a really interesting trip.
This area is pretty central, and Art Deco buildings are spread between earlier styles building. I focused on Népszínház utca, from Blaha Lujza Tér. The largest and most noticeable building on that road (though not the only onw) is pictured above, a beautiful and massive corner building. Although it is very central, the area was not very desirable when I lived in the city. This has massively changed and it is transforming fast.
Spending most of my life in Pest, I rarely went to Buda, the other side of the river. This is the home of one the main Art Deco et modernist area, around Móricz Zsigmond Körtér, with its large modernist buildings (picture above). I always felt that this part of the city was mostly about large boulevards, but strolling the small side streets looking for Art Deco completely changed my impressions on the area.
Small leafy streets with Art Deco buildings, like Szábolcska Mihály utca (number 3 on that street is pictured above) are really quite, with a high concentration of Art Deco and modernist buildings, as this part of the city was really developed in the late 20’s and 30’s. Away from the traffic, but close to transportation, they make a really nice area to live, away from the tourist crowds.
Further down Bartók Béla út, around Kosztelányi Dezsö Ter, Art Deco and modernist buildings are much larger, overlooking large boulevard. This gives a much more urban and modernist feeling.
Although I lived in that area at some point, I only realized many years later that my flat was located in a modernist building from the 1930’s. This part of the city has quite a mix of buildings, including art Nouveau, Art Deco and mordernist. The most noticeable Art Deco part is surely around Szent István Park (above picture). This is also the location of Duna Park Kaveház, a fully renovated Art Deco Cafe and restaurant. A great spot for a rest while on the hunt of Art Deco in Budapest.
Another really valuable guide about Art Deco and modernism in Budapest is the new guide book from Kovács Daniel, with pictures from Gulyás Attila. Although, it is only (so far) in Hungarian, the English translation will be a great addition for international Art Deco lovers.
Thanks to a recent business trip, I finally had the chance to view the ” Art Deco, the French-China Connection” exhibition in Hong Kong. Opened in early March, it will last until end of June and is worth seeing for Old Shanghai fans visiting Hong Kong.
The exhibition is the result of a very unique cooperation. It’s origin is the major Art Deco exhibition in Paris that took place in 2014 (see post “1925, when art deco dazzled the World” for more details), with a number of major pieces having been brought from Paris. Had this new exhibition been only a short version of the Paris one, it would already have been really interesting, but there much more to see.
One of the major and little known Art Deco link between France and China, is the mausoleum statue of Sun Yat Sen in Nanjing. If the purple mountain based mausoleum and the statue are extremely famous in China, few people know that the statue was created by French sculpture Paul Landowski in Boulogne near Paris, before being shipped to China. Landowski was also the creator of another World famous piece, the Christ statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. (See post: From Boulogne to Nanjing for more details).
With a France-China Connection theme, Shanghai art deco was also called in, with the help of major Shanghai based collector including Deke Ehr, Patrick Cranley and Tina Kanagaratnam. The original Paris Art Deco exhibition had shown a few photos of Shanghai Art Deco architecture by Leonard & Vesseyre company. Here, the Shanghai part is much larger with great examples of Shanghai Art Deco furniture, as well as fashion and famous art deco advertising posters. Side by side with the ones from Paris, they highlight the similarities between style and fashion in both cities during the same period.
Many more of those advertising posters from Hong Kong were on display, but the most important contribution to the exhibition is the whole room full of 1920’s and 30’s compact boxes or “necessaires” as they are called in French. These small boxes for ladies to carry make-up became really trendy in this period, and the collection on display is simply amazing thanks to the Liang Yi Museum.
Although the neighborhood of Kowloon Tong is quite far from the center of Hong Kong, the exhibition is definitely worth the trip for anybody interesting in Art Deco and Shanghai.
It is open until 30th June (10:00 to 19:00, closed on Monday), at CityU Exhibition Gallery, 18/F, Lau Ming Wai Academic Building, City University of Hong Kong, 83 Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon Tong
With its mix of influence, Old Shanghai had bits of pieces coming from all over the World including Beaux Arts style, Art Deco, Andalusian, Mexican revival, New Normand, German, traditional Japanese to name a few. They all added up and sometimes got inspired by traditional local style or its modern incarnation, neo confusion (sometimes called Republican style). While walking around in Old Shanghai, it’s sometimes surprising to see details that are heavily influenced by another place.
I have been fascinated by the floor tiling pattern in the picture up, since I discovered it a few years ago. The original picture was taken on the ground floor of the FONCIM D building (1933) at the corner of Jian Guo lu and Gao An lu. The building was designed by the firm Leonard, Vesseyre & Kruze (or LVK) (See post ” Shanghai Art Deco master” for more details or my article, in French, in Lepetitjournal.com Shanghai edition). The firm was highly creative and the building was designed for their largest client, the FONCIM real estate investment firm, so I first assumed it was unique.
The only other similar pattern I found was in a villa on Yong Jia Lu, a few hundred meters from the FONCIM building. The area was built by the LVK firm (Leonard and Vesseyre’s personal homes are nearly opposite from this building), including this one, probably from the mid 30’s. The tiling shape is slightly different, with the beige stripe wider, but still very similar. This was the only place were I saw this pattern until a recent trip. A later found a similar pattern with different colors in a building on Hunan Lu (see post more on tile patterns).
Having diner in Paris a few days ago, I realized that the early 1900’s building had been extended by an Art Deco part with the tiling on the picture right. It took a while to retrieve the Shanghai picture, but when confronting both, the similarity was striking. So the Shanghai Art Deco pattern was probably not the invention of LVK, but probably imported from France. Looking for more about this pattern, I received a big help from my friends of the France Art Deco Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/franceartdeco).
A similar pattern was used for the flooring of the kitchen of flagship cruiser SS Normandie. Launched in 1935, SS Normandie was the largest cruise ship of its time, a floating palace fully designed in Art Deco Style. Because of WW2, it only operated a few years before sinking in New York in 1942, but it is still a legend in term of cruise ships, technological achievement and as an Art Deco masterpiece. Exemple of the ship’s decoration was shown in the Paris Art Deco exhibition in 2014 (see post “1925, when art deco dazzled the World” for more details).
Unfortunately, all pictures of the Normandie are black and white, so it’s impossible to know the original color of the kitchen tiling, but in any case it looked quite similar to the one used by LVK on Jian Guo Lu. As the pattern originated from France and it is so rare in Shanghai, it is likely that the actual tilling was imported from France. Shanghai was a modern city, in touch with the latest fashion in the World… just like it is today.
The horse race track of Shanghai (today’s People square) was at the center of the entertainment district in Old Shanghai. Hotels were built in the neighborhood including the home of Chinese stars, Yangtze Hotel (see post Yangtze Hotel for more details), the Great China Hotel and the New World Hotel.
Lászlo Hudec Park Hotel opened in 1934 on the Northern of the race track, on Bubbling Well Road. Financed by the Joint Savings Society, a major Chinese financial institution, it was a clear attempt to compete with the Cathay Hotel that opened a few year earlier on the Bund. As displayed in the advertising material below, entertainment was the main point of the hotel’s offer. If the Cathay was the home away from home for foreign travelers, the Park Hotel was designed with residents in mind, as well as guests coming to enjoy the race track and other local entertainment establishments. Those included the neighboring theaters (Grand Theater, Nanjing Theater and Metropole Theater), as well as the shopping temples on Nanjing Lu (Wing On, Sincere and Sun Department stores) as mentioned on the below map.
I particularly like the hotel silhouette and the characters displayed. Their dress look very much like characters from movie Casablanca. Another specific feature is the display of parts of the Chinese city (Longhua Pagoda and the Civic Center, in today Yangpu district ) as possible tours destination from the hotel. Although Longhua Pagoda was (and still is) a major tourist destination, the new Shanghai area of Jiangwan was rarely mentioned in foreign guides.
Using the same concrete raft technique as the Cathay, the 24 floors building was the highest of Shanghai… and in Asia. It only lost the Shanghai crown in the 1980’s when high buildings construction restarted. For decades the Park Hotel tower dominated Shanghai sky. The view from the top floor was unobstructed and stunning, as seen on the picture below. From up there, one could practically see the whole of Shanghai. For people of the time, this view must have been as stunning as the one from today’s Pudong skyscrapers.
Since most of the original Art Deco interior and furniture has disappeared, the Park Hotel does not compare to today’s luxury hotel anymore. The exterior is now roughly back to its original design, but inside only the ball room of which the circle floor was designed by German Bauhaus trained architect Richard Paulick has survived. When Park Hotel opened though, it was one of the best of Shanghai, competing not only in height but also in the best services with the Cathay. Below is a rare advertising leaflet for the
Pictures of the original Park hotel and decoration are extremely rare, but the hotel was clearly of the highest standard. It hosted two major restaurants, the Main Dining Room “remindful of the choicest wines and Epicurean French Cuisine” on the second floor and the Grill room on the 14th floor “which has a reputation on its own”. 14th floor was also the location of the Sky Terrace, I am preparing a special post on this one.
It also had a lounge on the 3rd or 4th floor, ideal location for drinking cocktails while watching the horse races. The highest attention was put for the kitchen… though no Chinese restaurant is mentioned. “The pastry cook has his place, and quite an important one” as high teas were (just like today) an important market for the hotel. The Park Hotel’s pastry reputation survived the years, as it was one of the few places to buy cakes until the bakery revival a few years ago. It was particularly famous for its Palmiers, or “butterfly cookies, Hu Die SU” as it is called in Chinese, that are still on sale today (Please see post “Tasting Old Shanghai” for more details).
It was quite a shock when I discovered this leaflet in a market in Shanghai more than 12 years ago. It can date it from 1937 or 1938, as I know from other sources that Mr T M Lamb was the GM in 1938. Nearly eighty years later, this advertising for Park Hotel looks very much like today’s top hotels promotion material. Another form of advertising for Park Hotel was hotel luggage labels, see post “Old Shanghai luggage labels” for more details.