Tian Shan Apartments

Tian Shan Apartments
Tian Shan Apartments

One of the most rewarding part of my passion for old Shanghai is to find locations and information that are little known or have been overlooked when they should be easy to see. Just like in the post “Haig Court, right in our face” this post is about a building on a street that every knows but only few people have noticed. Showing the city to visitors on a sidecar is challenging and pushes me to learn more and more about the city, so more posts like this are to be expected.

U-shaped Tian Shan Apartment

The entrance of Tian Shan apartment is located on Huai Hai Zhong lu, on one of most busy shopping stretch. The apartment complex is made of six buildings of 4 floors. Architecture and facades are typical of art deco, using vertical and horizontal lines to enhance the shape of the buildings. These 6 buildings are U-shaped with the opening turned south to catch as much light as possible for each apartment. They would not be really noticeable without the art deco fixtures on the roof. As you can see on the picture below, the buildings are linked with concrete cross-beams that are hanging on the whole with this very geometric design hanger. I am not sure what was it useful for, probably for pipes or cables.

Decoration on Tian Shan Apts
Decoration on Tian Shan Apts

This definitely increase the art deco feeling of this compound a lot, as well as the decoration on the roof of the central part (see picture right up). This compound is now mostly inhabited by employees of the nearby university and still gives the impression of peace and quiet, a few meters away from the busy street.

Tian Shan Apt

The recent painting also helps a lot.  The purpose built cable carrier did not stop the electricity company to install some ugly cables in the middle (see right), but they did not manage to destroy the harmony of this 1928 piece of art.

This charming small compound was located in the heart of the urban part of the French concession, not far from Brooklyn Court, Russian bakeries and restaurants, and Cathay Apartments. With entrance on famous Avenue Joffre (the old name of Huai Hai Zhong Lu), it was certainly one of the nice adresses to live in and rental were surely very high. Tian Shan apartment can now be found at 622 Avenue Joffre (today 622  Huai Hai Zhong Lu).

From the top of Broadway Mansions

Bund from Broadway Mansion 2009
Bund from Broadway Mansion 2009

The Bund is probably Shanghai’s the most visited attraction. This strip of land has seen many transformations but has always remained the symbol of the city. In the run-up to Expo 2010, it is being remodeled again. The elevated walk created to stop flooding and used as a promenade is being expanded and renovated to welcome the expected millions of visitors. Similarly, the Garden Bridge (also known as Waibaidu Bridge, picture left) has been fully renovated for the 100th year of its construction. It is now open again for traffic and is a great ride in a sidecar. The re-opening of the bridge was followed by an official exhibition of photographs of the bridge and the renovation work that is well worth visiting. During the exhibition grand opening in Broadway Mansions (used to be called Broadway apartments), I had the opportunity to climb up the 18th floor terrace of the building and take pictures up there.

Bund from Broadway Mansion 1935
Bund from Broadway Mansion 1935

Looking in my own collection of pictures, I found this one that was surely taken from exactly the same place. This picture was taken probably in 1935 or 1936 as Broadways Apartments was finished (1934) but the Bank of China Tower is not yet visible (completed in 1937). The hotel staff showing me the terrace was so proud to tell me that Richard Nixon and Zhou En Lai had met on this particular terrace in the 1970’s. In any case, the view up there is stunning and not so much has changed ever since. Hopefully the new Bund promenade with an enlarged garden will bring back a lot to the old Bund Garden. The place I took the picture from is normally not open to the public as the room next to the terrace is the most luxurious room of the hotel’s restaurant. For years, this spot has been the best place to get a view of the Bund… and it is still one of the best.

British Consulate area 2009
British Consulate area 2009

Looking at another direction from the top of Broadway Mansions, I could not help not taking pictures of the area of the Old British Consulate.  I already had been interested in this area in a previous post, with pictures of the destruction of the Union Church. Although it has now been destroyed, the Church is still featured on all the rendering for the project, so I could even imagine that the intention is to rebuild “better and more modern”, though I somehow doubt it. Both buildings of the British Consulate are still there, currently being worked on to incorporate the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Hopefully, this luxury establishment will take good care and create a nice balance between old and new. The old postcard below of the same area is difficult to date, but since the waibaidu bridge was on it, it dates from after 1908. The white building in the modern photo, the Capitol theater was built after the burning of the building before, i.e. 1924. So the card is from before 1924, when the whole Museum road was re-developed. My guestimation is mid 1910’s

British Consulate Area 1910's
British Consulate Area 1910's
Inside of the swimming pool
Inside of the swimming pool

The most surprising is the building along the river (with the tennis court above it in the modern picture). I never thought that this was a historical building until I managed to get into it. This was the swimming pool of the American YMCA round the corner and was surely still in use until not so long ago. The picture at the end of the article is the one of the inside of this building, featuring the pool itself. It is now used as storage for the bricks harvested on the Yuan Min Yuan lu work, but I don’t think the pool will return to its original usage. Too bad, that was surely a great swim. This riverside pool reminds me of a similar one in Paris, and Komyadi swimming pool in Budapest where I used to go.

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.

Plaza 353 ruinovation

Plaza 363 outsideWatching the renovation of the “Dong Hai building” on Nanjing Dong Lu was a mixed joy and disappointment… just like the final result. The Continental department store building from 1933 is a fine piece of Shanghai architecture. Although not as extravagant as other Shanghai building from this period, it had an interesting “zig zag” façade representative of the geometrical motives used in Art Deco.
Seeing this building surrounded by scaffoldings was scary as always in Shanghai. One is never sure whether the next step will be destruction or renovation. The prime location on Nanjing Lu and previous demolition of neighboring buildings did not give much hope … but it survived. The facades have been well preserved, even if the ground floor is just not the same as it was before. At least, it keeps a consistent look with the building’s style and keeps the atmosphere around this part of Nanjing Lu… the less nice part of the story is the inside.
Plaza 363 insideThe building had an inside courtyard that has been covered to create indoor space inside. I have seen this feature many times in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s a great way to develop such a construction. Having seen many early 20th century buildings being carefully restored and transformed into office buildings or high class shopping malls… I was expecting more. As in most “ruinovation” in Shanghai, nothing remains from the original interior. Some (like Central Plaza on Huai Hai Lu) managed to keep use the original volume, giving a special feeling to their store… but this was not the aim of the developer of Plaza 353. The inside looks and feels like a cheap copy of CITIC Square and could be just in any concrete building in any suburb of Shanghai… not a high class shopping center on the busiest shopping street of Shanghai. Best advice for old Shanghai lovers… enjoy it from the outside but don’t get inside. At least the facades were preserved, that is already not so bad.

Brooklyn Court, Routes des Soeurs

People often ask me why I am so fascinated by old Shanghai. The answer is very simple, there is a sense of mystery about it, of uncovering a past that was long lost. In my (nearly five) years in Shanghai, a lot has been re-discovered and documented… but there is always something more to find.

ARCO logo on the wall
ARCO logo on the wall

Walking on the Ruijin lu 1, we passed an old building near the corner of Huai Hai Lu one spring evening. The buildings on the East side looks old and tarnished, particularly compared to the newly renovated Estrella Apartment, designed by Laszlo Hudec, on the opposite corner. We were looking at an old door in what was probably its grand entrance, when we noticed the sculpture on the wall (picture left). After some research, it became clear that the “ARCO” sign stands for “Asia Realty Company”. This American company was the largest property owner in Shanghai and had a large office building near the Bund. Like many others, the building has suffered a lot from the lack of maintenance, various episodes of Chinese history and the add-hoc transformation by residents. Despite all this, the sign of the original owner still stands in its place.

Street facade of Brooklyn Court
Street facade of Brooklyn Court

The facade on RuiJin Lu has seen better days, but would surely look great after some renovation. The bottom floor of the building is occupied with shops, as probably in the original design. Real-estate in this part of town was surely not cheap when this was built, and has become again very expensive. The building has three entrances, a central one large enough for cars to go through and two smaller one for access to other apartments. The main entrance of Brooklyn court leads to a back yard, passing by entrances to the apartments above and a cross shaped light well (picture down). The left entrance is occupied by a temporary socks shop. The ARCO sign is located right above the shop’s display on both sides. The shopkeeper was really surprised that I wanted to take a picture of this “thing on the wall” that she probably never noticed before.

Light well in Brooklyn Court
Light well in Brooklyn Court

In my old Shanghai documents collection, there is a rental contract for an apartment in building in what I thought was on Rui Jin Lu. The address of the property was “143H Rue des Soeurs”, which is quite different from the 243-245 Rui Jin Lu, where the ARCO building is. However, from an old map of the French concession, it shows that this particular section of Rui Jin Lu (from Avenue Joffre / Huai Hai Lu to Avenue Foch / Yanan Lu) was called Rue des Soeurs… the 143 Rue des Soeurs is this particular building. “Brooklyn Court” was clearly an upper class residence. This part of Avenue Joffre was an upscale area, with proximity to the “Cercle Sportif Francais”, The Cathay apartments, the Lyceum Theater, the French Park (now Fuxing Park) as well as the French municipality. This old piece of paper that I bought 2 years ago turns out to be a rental contract for an apartment in this particular building. Too bad it’s not valid anymore… Sounds like a great place to live.

Paradise

Tian Tang Kou
Tian Tang Kou

Blood brothers had a such a great trailer, it was impossible to miss. It promised it all, Chinese Shanghai gangsters, 1920’s decor, a beautiful singer girl that all man are dreaming of, shotguns fight and old cars… and the movie delivers. To add a little bit of flavor to it, I went to watch it in the historical Cathay theater on the old Avenue Joffre (nowadays Huai Hai Lu).

Tian Tang Kou (Paradise’s door), or Blood brothers in English, is a traditional gangster movie. 2 young guys from the the village are taken in town by an older brother. They first struggle with low jobs, such as pulling rickshaws until they get introduced to the boss gang. As small bits of the big organization, they get protected by it and not getting anywhere, until they get a bigger mission which is the turning point. They have to choose between going away or getting really big trouble within the gang and through it to get introduced to the big boss. Climbing in the organization bring them benefits and honors, but also dilemma. Ultimatelty, the older brother kills the boss of the city gangs, and take his place. The movie finishes with a grand gun fight scene, where the evil boss gets killed by the younger one, who just goes back to his home in the countryside, leaving the city behind him.

Despite massive marketing, Tian Tang Kou was not a big success in China. It’s really a pitty, as the movie really recreates the 1920’s-30’s Shanghai atmosphere. It has a good plot, great decors and costums. The special effects are also excellent, but the best is probably the whole atmosphere of the movie. There has been movies and TV series about gangsters in old Shanghai, but this one is probably the best and certainly the more thoroughly researched. It’s great fun to watch for all old Shanghai lovers.