Meeting of old neighbours

lilianeelenasMy first encounter with Liliane Willens, author of “Stateless in Shanghai” about 4 years ago was really the product of chance (see post “A date with Liliane“). As she came to Shanghai again, fate was again acting, making me encountering another former Shanghailander by total random and making them meet each other. Last Thursday was the day for the first presentation from my friend Didier Pujol (founder of China World Explorer). He was scheduled to speak about “Swinging Shanghai”, entertainment in Old Shanghai. I was also going there to meet Liliane Willens, who had just returned to Shanghai for a visit. This is when my phone rang, with a real surprise. A friend of mine had read my previous blog about the police building and Huai Hai lu and had met à lady in front of this very building. This lady was claiming to be a former Shanghailander, who used to live around this place on Huai Hai lu. After talking with her on the phone for a few minutes, I decided to take her with me to Liliane’s conference on the same evening. This is how I met with Elena Nemtzeff and introduced her to another Shanghailander.

Elena’s parents were White Russians, who fled the Russian revolution first through Harbin and then arriving in Shanghai. “My mother was not very educated”, she said, “but my father was an army cadet, from the Russian military elite school.” They met and married in Shanghai, and Elena was born in 1935. Elena’s father, using his military background, was employed as a body guard for wealthy Chinese. He then created his own firm, a pest control company , serving all the large buildings that were built in Shanghai in that period. “He worked in all the large new buildings like the Cathay Hotel and Broadway Mansions. We became quite well off, until loosing everything during and after the war.” Elena went to school to the French école de la rue Rémy (still a school today on Yong Kang lu), that was opened by the French authorities for the children of the many Russians refugees who lived in the French Concession. Most of her French has disappeared after living many years in Sydney.

During her first visit back to Shanghai, she went back to her former appartment building on 1352 Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai zhong lu), which still stands today. She managed to catch up with her former Chinese neighbor, school mate and friend who still lived in the same place. “Because his dad was working for the French police, we went to the same school. We used to  go to school together.”

Talking with Liliane Willens, we realized that they were living about 100 meters from each other, as Liliane was living in the Savoye appart on Route Sayzoong (today Changshu Lu). Liliane was going to a different school, the College Municipal Français, so they never actually met. Liliane left Shanghai to go to the USA and Elena went to Australia.

What these two ladies have in common is a strong link to Shanghai. They remained attached to the city, despite time and distance, and they felt enough link to come back again several time when China opened again. They are and feel like Shanghailanders until today.

French police accommodation

Police accomodation on Huai Hai Lu
Police accommodation on Huai Hai lu

The building pictured left is one of the most viewed old building of Shanghai, though it may not be the most looked at. Located at the corner of Huai Hai Zhong lu (former avenue Joffre) and Baoqing lu (former route Pottier), its architecture really stands out but it is dominated by the opposing and much more visible art deco building. Its architectural style is quite unique in Shanghai, I once read that the architect was from Marseille and that it is clearly similar to some buildings of this city.

This corner of the former French concession was once the location of the Foch police station, one of the five police stations of the French authorities. The actual police station is long gone (a sky scraper stands in its place), but I found the below old picture on the internet. Being next to the police station, this building had a very specific function, it was designed to accommodate the police officers working at the police station. As far as I know, the building inhabitants are still police officers to this day. The building is still in a good shape, despite the usual DIY modifications, in particular the closure of some of the balconies. I have noticed this particular building since I first came to Shanghai in 1998 and I thought it was unique in Shanghai until recently. It turns out that it is not.

Police accomodation with Joffre police station
Police accommodation with Foch police station

Apart from the Foch police station, the French concession had 4 others, covering the whole area of the concession. The most well known is probably the police station Mallet, a large Art Deco building near the Bund, which is still a police building. The Pétain police station one was located at the bottom of Heng Shan lu (the former avenue Pétain), there is still a police station in this area, but I am not sure it is at the same location. The Joffre police station was located next to the fire station on Huai Hai lu (former Avenue Joffre, near Xin Tian Di). This particular building has been under renovation since a few years, and a French luxury brand should open its flagship store in it.

Police accommodation on Jiang Guo Lu
Police accommodation on Jiang Guo Dong Lu

The main police station was the Central Police station on Jiang Guo Dong Lu (former route Stanislas Chevalier). It was the headquarters of the French police, at least until the Mallet police station was opened. The large building was also the seat of the mixed court, the special court with a French judge and a Chinese judge seating together. Although it was covered up by an ugly entrance and somehow horribly modernized a while ago, it appears that the original structure is still in place. Moreover, renovation work has started a few months ago and it seems the final result will look like the old pictures. This is where I found copies of the building on Huai Hai lu (see picture).

The twin building
The twin building

The Huai Hai lu version has the main decorated facade facing North and visible from the street, making it very distinctive. On the Jiang Guo Dong Lu one, the decorated facade is also facing North, but the street side is on the South side, so the facade is only visible if you get into the courtyard. There are in fact two buildings surrounding a garden.  Both buildings are identical, but they are not exactly the same as the one of Huai Hai Lu which is a little wider with a much wider roof. However colors, balconies and decoration details are extremely similar, making clear that the same architect did them all, with surely the same purpose of accommodating police officers, which I believe is still the case today.