Visiting Prada Rong Mansion

The Rong Mansion on 186 Shaanxi Bei lu is one of those places that Old Shanghai lover wants to visit. I had a chance to be part of a full tour of the house thanks to Historic Shanghai and I am happy to share pictures and impressions about one of the greatest Old Shanghai property in the city.

The original house at this location was built around 1909-1910 by a German Jewish family. The garden was much larger than today, going all the way down to Weihai Lu. Bubbling Well Road (today the busy and upscale Nanjing Xi Lu) was a road to the countryside with large residential domains on each side. The house was in the neighborhood of Silas Hardoon’s Aili’s Garden (completed in 1909) and Mc Bain building that later became the Majestic Hotel.

Bubbling well Road, 1910

The mansion was purchased in 1918 by the Rong family, as the original owner did not come back to Germany after WWI. The Rong family was one of the richest Chinese family in Shanghai. Although the house was remodeled and expanded several times there are definitely parts dating back from the construction time. This particularly true on the ground floor, where the smaller reception room is located, as well as the rooms above it, that formed the core of the original building. Tiles in this room is one of the few Art Nouveau details that can still be seen in Shanghai. Similar tiling can also be seen on third floor above. David star is also displayed in both places, probably thanks to the original Jewish owners.

Glass work has been amazingly preserved through Shanghai history and magnified by the beautiful restoration by Italian designer Roberto Baciocchi. The villa has one of the the largest collections of original Art Nouveau stained glass Windows in Shanghai. Only comparable to former College Français on Rue Vallon or the CMLI building on Guangdong Lu.

Great care has been put into cleaning, restoring or recreating the original materials. Besides glass work, this included tiles, wood floors and wood wall panels. The most iconic piece of the house is surely the stained glass ceiling of the main reception room. The only similar piece in Shanghai is the stained glass ceiling at the former Cercle Sportif Français, today’s Okura Garden Hotel.

Famous stained glass ceiling in the Rong Mansion

It’s difficult to say whether this was part of the original design or added later. I would think that it was added in the 1920s or 1930s with such a strong geometrical Art Deco center… but the outside (see picture below right) is much more Art Nouveau. It still feels like the original ceiling was more a traditional Central European style which part is still visible today (picture down left), and that the stained glass ceiling was added later.

Going through the Rong Mansion is like a trip to Old Shanghai, until realizing that it is in the heart of bustling Jing An District when getting in the garden.

The house can be viewed when exhibition take place there, but often parts are covered or off limit for visitors. We had the chance to get the full viewing!

Night out at the French Club

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.

Dressed up for the night

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.

Old Shanghai interiors

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.

The live bing band

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.

Dancing through the night, like in the 1930’s

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.

2025 Paris World Congress on Art Deco

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 speaking gathering of the 2015 World Congress on Art Deco

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.

Now in 2021, Art Deco in France has gained a lot of exposure in the last years following the first Art Deco exhibition in Paris in 2015, “1925, when Art Deco dazzled the World“. This was followed by a massive Bauhaus exhibition in 2017 “L’esprit du Bauhaus“.

Another major event was creation of Paris Art Deco society, with a Facebook group with 6000 members. A new Art Deco society has opened in Vichy and the media exposure around the re-opening of the renovated Villa Cavrois in Lille area in 2015 shows that Art Deco is now getting a lot of attention in France.

Villa Cavrois, Croix near Lille

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!

In April 2021, Art Deco International (formerly ICADS) has also introduced the first World Art Deco day, on 28th April. The date was chosen as the anniversary date of the opening of the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

More Old Shanghai luggage labels

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 Great China Hotel luggage label (image eBay)

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.

The New World Hotel Luggage lable (image ebay)

For more Old Shanghai Hotels luggage labels, go to original post “Old Shanghai Hotel Luggage Labels“.

Chinatown, the movie

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.

Late 30s period costums

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“.

Films noirs and period movies like Chinatown must have also been an inspiration for neo noir writers including James Ellroy. See post “Perfidia” about his book. I am long searched for a really good noir book taking place in Old Shanghai. Paul French’s “City of devils” is pretty close to that though it’s not a novel.

French Master of Shanghai Art Deco

Le Petit Journal Shanghai edition has republished an article about Art Deco in Shanghai, focusing mostly on the work of Léonard, Vesseyre and Kruze firm. I wrote the article together with my friend David Maurizot in 2018.

The article is in French only and can be found following the link below:

https://lepetitjournal.com/shanghai/a-voir-a-faire/promenade-historique-les-maitres-francais-de-lart-deco-shanghai-221435

It’s a great way to enjoy autumn in Shanghai.

Art Deco in Minhang district

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.

Budapest Art Deco

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.

Art Deco on Népszínház utca

8th district

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.

11th district

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.

13th district

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.

Dunapark Café

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.

Art Deco, the French-China Connection

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.

famous “meuble a fards” from Ruhlmann, brought from Paris

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).

French sculptor Paul Landowski, with his Sun Yat Sen statue.

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.

Shanghai Art Deco furniture, with the backdrop of the Shanghai Bund

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.

A few of the Art Deco “necessaires” on display

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

Déjà Vu from Paris to Shanghai

Art Deco floor tiles pattern
Pattern on Jian Guo Lu

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.

FONCIM D, by LVK (thanks Shanghai kat for the picture)

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.

Similar floor patter (picture ShanghaiKat)

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).

The same pattern

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).

Kitchen of the NormandieA 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).

Chef en cuisine
Chef en cuisine on the Normandie

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.