Love in a fallen city

Zhang Ailing
Zhang Ailing

The recent movie “Lust, Caution” made the headlines because of the sex scenes that were cut off in the Mainland China version. “Lust, Caution” is based a novel from late author Zhang Ailing (or Eileen Chang as it is spelled in English). I had heard about “the Chinese writer who used to live on Changde Lu”, but it’s only after having seen the movie that I put the pieces together. Born in Shanghai in 1920,  Zhang Ailing is probably the most famous icon of this period in Chinese literature. A women of her time, she was (and still is) an icon of modernity. She was born in one of old and powerful families of Shanghai (she was related to Li Hong Zhang) but her family was not the ideal one. Her mother was a “sophisticated woman of cosmopolitan taste” (as introduced in her biography), partly

Eddington House

educated in England. Her father became an opium addict and locked her up in her room for nearly half a year when she was 18.  Zhang Ailing studied litterature at the University of HongKong due to the war in China and had to come back to Shanghai after 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. She became a real star Shanghai literature in 1943, when she published her first novellas and short stories and left China for Taiwan in 1949, before moving to the US.

Zhang Ailing lived in the Eddington House on Hart Road (now Changde lu). Built in the 1930’s it is a fine example of art deco apartment building. Traffic on Hart Road was surely less noisy and polluted than on today’s Changde lu, so living in this building was probably the mark of high social status. Eddington House still  has a lof of class. Its back is glass covered, now hidden by the brand new Swissotel Jing An. It’s interesting that the proximity of Zhang Ailing’s old apartement to the hotel is used as a marketing tozhangailing003ol by the hotel company.  A bookstors-cafe has just opened at the bottom of the building with 30’s theme… the perfect place to revive old Shanghai with a coffee.

Some of Zhang Ailing’s most significant short stories have been republished by Pinguin in 2007, taking advantage of the success of “Lust, Caution”. I bought this book in Shanghai and read it a few days ago. The short stories take place in Shanghai or in HongKong during war time. “Love in a fallen city” giving its title to the book is the central novella, taking place in HongKong during the Japanese invasion. Zhang Ailing style is precise and touchy, immersing us in this troubled period. The book is both a very enjoyable and essential read for anybody interested in old SHanghai. I particularly liked “Red rose white rose” for its melancholic tone. Ailing Chang was a modern women in old Shanghai, but a number of issues she mentions are still very relevant in today’s Shanghai. Although little known in the West, she is very famous in Taiwan and China. Some of her novels have been turned into movies or theater plays.  Just ask any cultivated Chinese person, he or she will probably have read her books.

All about (old) Shanghai

Cover all about ShanghaiI had read parts of this book over the internet before, as it is available on the Tales of old China website, but having it on paper is a much nicer experience. Recently republished by EarnShaw books, “All about Shanghai and its environs” is a time travel. A reprint of an actual 1934 guide book about Shanghai, it catches the city at its highest point, just before the 1937 Japanese invasion that altered the course of history. While Europe and the US were struggling in the great depression, the guidebook shows a city full of energy and hopes, the most important city in Asia at the time.
Well known old Shanghai expert Peter Hibbard brings his contribution in a great introduction to the original guide. What is striking is how much tourist expectations and reactions over the city remain unchanged after so much political turmoil and redevelopment. Exactly like today, Shanghai was the entry point of many tourists visiting China. Landing on the Bund, they would come looking for the “eternal China” with pagodas, blue porcelain and incense like they always dreamed it. The first mostly found disappointment with Shanghai being a modern western city. They would then try to get a glimpse of their China dream visiting temples and garden (like Yu Yuan garden, Jing An Temple, Jade Buddha Temple or Long Hua Pagoda) before finally seeking refuge in the familiar environment on hotels and bars in the city center.
Just like today, night life was one of the high point of Shanghai with places of all levels catering for every taste. Nightly China encounter was one of the major attraction of Shanghai, from the English Club (#2 on the Bund), the bar of the Cathay hotel (today Peace Hotel) or the French Club (Today’s Garden hotel) to cabarets and male-only establishment on Blood Alley or the back streets of Broadway’s Hong Kou district,
Today’s Shanghai is a shopper’s paradise, just as was old Shanghai. Shopping streets offered a mix of shops bringing foreign goods to China (just like current department stores or City Shop nowadays). Nanking Road (Nanjing Dong Lu) was famous for its department stores as it is today for many Chinese shoppers, Avenue Joffre (Huai Hai Zhong Lu) was famous for its many French and Russian dressmakers as well as cafes, restaurants and bakeries (just like today). Ward Road (current Shi Men Yi lu) was famous for lady’s underwear shops. Some of today’s famous brands such as retailers Wing On and Lane Crawford already had outlets in the city. Bayer chemicals and pharmaceuticals, GE electric products, OTIS lifts and French Champagne already were famous brands in the old Shanghai.
Just like today, tourists and foreign residents were looking for “typical” China products. Tea, silk and jade were offered in many places… with a big warning for jade as its many shapes and colors require an expert eye in order to pay the right price. Hotels had many curios and antics shops… often selling brand new antics to gullible tourists of the time (just like today). This 1934 guidebook is full of warnings about the buying so-called antics that are just brand new. A short visit to today’s Yu Yuan garden shows that not much as changed on this front either.
I usually don’t spend most times reading guidebooks, but reading every details of this one was a great to a trip to Old Shanghai. With the amount of information involved, it is probably not for the old Shanghai beginner. However, with a bit of back ground knowledge it is an extremely enjoyable read about Old Shanghai. After “The Unaltered diary of a Shanghai baby”, the republication of “All about Shanghai” is a great achievement from EarnShaw books.

The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby

I still don’t understand how come I did not see this book in Shanghai… but bought it in Beijing instead. “The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby” is captioned by Graham Earnshaw as his “favorite book on old Shanghai by a long margin”. I knew the name of Graham Earnshaw throught Tales of Old Shanghai website, but I had not heard about the book before. After flipping through the pages for a minute, I bought on the spot and read it over in the train from North Korea.
The book is the mock diary of a one year old baby living with his parents in HongKou district. First published in 1924, it’s a first hand witness of the life of the Shanghailanders. It is a lot of fun to read about the live of the father going to play golf and spending hours drinking at the club or at the race course. Dady probably works to support the family, but little mention is made of it in the book. Mummy’s main occupation is to give away the baby to the Amah (as Ayi were called then) and take care of her appearance. Staying with the family, Auntie (surely Mama’s younger sister) is going out with a boy or another, but does not seem to have a lot of brain. As all the nearby places the baby goes to are located in HongKou district, mainly “HongKew park” (today’s LuShun Gong Yuan),  I guess the family lived in an appartment on Sichuan Bei Lu  or the neighboring streets not far from the Suzhou creek.
Like a number of today’s expatriates in Shanghai, the kid is mainly raised by the Chinese Amah, giving us a great view of the life of the chinese domestics in foreign houses. The story of the houseboy stealing socks from the master, or using the lady’s fine garments and toiletries for cleaning purposes are hillarious… and not so far from stories I have heard in today’s Shanghai. The Chinese servants run every practical aspects of the house with the foreign owners having little control or understanding of it. This is also not so different from today’s foreigners’ life in Shanghai.
The writing is easy to read and very humorous, with Elsie Mc Cormick making fun of foreign life in Shanghai. It is a great introduction to old Shanghai, but also contains many details of the period that make in an invaluable resource for research on this topic. The writer went back to the US in the 1930’s and started to write for the New Yorker later on. As a proof of a writer’s quality, you hardly can get better.

Biased Review

I always try to write unbiased reviews… but this one will be a bit different since I have been involved in creating the book. “Promenades au coeur de l’ancienne concession Francaise” is the new version of an old guide about Shanghai’s French concession. As the original one, this book was made by “A pleines mains” an expat charity in Shanghai. Proceeds are used in various help projects in Shanghai and the surrounding cities. The original guide was published in 2002 and has become out of print since then. It has been transformed into a number of guided walks throughout the French Concession. Each walk is about one hour and can be easily fit into a busy afternoon shopping or as a short break in a business trip. Walks are spread the old French Concession and the adjacent Xu Jia Hui area. One of them passes by the entrance of the lane where I live. Fortunately, my house is not included… which will avoid disturbing the quietness of my little private Shanghai.
The book is both in French and English, ensuring that the information collected within the important French community in the city is spread out to every lover of the old Shanghai. The original text was written in 2001 and the original author interviewed a few remaining Chinese survivors of the Concession time. This adds anecdotes and real stories to the book, making it a lively read. Having been interested in the topic for a few years, I still managed to learn quite a few things from it.

I did not design the walks, but I contributed is by landing some of my own collection of old Shanghai postcards and documents to be used as illustration. I am quite proud of having been part of it as the result is really good, but it’s for you to judge. If you are looking for a practical book about old Shanghai, it’s a good point to start.

Sin City

Book Cover
Book Cover

I am not sure anymore where is the first time I heard about Ralph Shaw. It must have been about about 2006 when getting really interested in Old Shanghai. I heard the story of this ex-journalist from North China Daily News (the most important English Speaking newspaper in Shanghai and the whole of China) and tried to buy a copy of that book. Being not available in any English book store in China, I started to look on the internet. Sin City was displayed on several book sites but was listed as sold out. I finally got a second hand copy,  not of the original publication of 1973, but a reprint in paperback from 1986.

I don’t think the book sold very well, certainly not helped by the cover of the paperback, sleazy and ugly, definitely not representative of the content. Since this book is in the bibliography of most books about Old Shanghai including the biography of Carl Crow I reviewed in a previous article, I was really interested about and really anxious to read it.

Sin City is the memoirs of Ralph Shaw, a Huddersfield (Yorkshire) boy who was sent to Shanghai as part of the UK military force. Incidentally, Huddersfield is the city where I spent nearly 3 years studying back in the UK. Shaw then became journalist then night editor of the North China Daily News, arriving in Shanghai in 1937 and leaving in 1949. Shaw was in his 20s in Shanghai and fully enjoyed all the pleasure that the city could offer in term of nightlife, drinking, partying and enjoying play with women. In Old Shanghai, like many men he found the perfect playground. His life during the period is depicted through a series of portraits, locations and actions. What is so interesting in this book is that he mentions all those people and all those places from the old Shanghai straight out of his memory.

Shaw arrived in Shanghai a few days before the invasion of the Chinese city by the Japanese forces and witnessed the mounting tensions between the British forces and the Japanese, until the invasion of the settlement in December 1941, his arrest the Japanese secret police and incarceration as a prisoner of war. There are many books about this period, but reading the actual experience of somebody who went through it is quite a unique experience.

Shaw does not stop at places and people, his memoirs also include a lot about the vices of the city, prostitution, gambling and corruption. He was definitely well informed and the light he casts on the city is less than flattering. Corruption, prostitution and alcoholism were normal practice for the most men in the  foreign community in Shanghai and it reflects in the book. Once again, Shaw adds first hand details about places and people including portraits and funny anecdotes. The book is really good to take the reader in the Old Shanghai, into the smoky girly bars and opium dents. With cross referencing with other books, the picture of Old Shanghai really gets together while reading it.

What is more questionable and probably less interesting for most reader is the display of his own sexual performance. Although it adds colours to the story, it also takes it away from the plot and take off some of the book’s credibility. Some pages of Sin City would easily find there place in men-only literature. This is where most readers probably get lost. The erotic pages clearly dominated the cover and marketing of the book though they are not that many. It’s a pity such a narrow approach was taken for a book that is so full of first hand details about the old Shanghai.

Another great book written by an eye witness of Shanghai in the same period is John Pal’s Shanghai Saga. For more information about the Old Shanghai underworld, Paul French’s “City of devils” is a sure bet.

The Master of Rain

Book Cover
Book Cover

Field is a young English officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police, freshly arrived from Yorkshire. Through his uncle high in the Shanghai establishment, he is very quickly introduced to both the high Shanghai society, and the less glamorous parts of the megalopolis. The master of Rain is a crime novel based in Shanghai 1927, centered around the resolution of furious murders of  Russian prostitutes. Field tries is best to solve the murder, along with his newly found friend, the American detective Capresi. They are surrounded by a fallen White Russian noble turned into serving men (Natasha Medvedev) and the Taipan of one of the largest trade house (Charles Lewis), all of it under the shadow of the king of Shanghai’s mafia.

Although I bought this book without knowing anything about it, I have loved every page. Tom Bradby was the foreign correspondent for a British TV in China. Based in Hong Kong, he clearly used a lot of time and efforts to research and recreate the old Shanghai in his novel. Characters have the right tone and locations in the city have been thoroughly researched. Only Shanghai experts will notice a few omissions, or inventions but they never deviate too far from documented history. Action flows at a fast pace making this book a real page turner.

Though enjoying the book tremendously, I have to admit that the universe created by Tom Bradby has a lot of sight, but very few sounds, smell or taste. It fails a little to immerse us in the (noisy) streets of Shanghai. There is a also a little too much indulgence in making the characters meet various historical figure (such a Borodin) without any need for the actual story. The actual plot is sometimes bizarre and the book leaves many questions unanswered, which is a bit disappointing for a crime novel. Finally, the sexual serial crime at the center of the novel seems a little odd in the 1930’s.

Nevertheless, The Master of Rain is a great introduction to the old Shanghai, recreating the Paris of the East and illustrating the high life of a few as well as the hard life of many. As a quick introduction to the Old Shanghai, it comes highly recommended.

City of the flat world

"The World is flat" is a book from Thomas Friedman about globalization and the changes it is bringing to the world, companies and individuals. The main point is that the World has become a level playing field on a worldwide basis.
The collapse of Marxist Leninist style of regimes has allowed 3 billions of people (Russia, China, India and others) to join the capitalist system. The Internet and other technologies have made communicating with the whole word something easy. Work flow software allows to cut service work into pieces that can be separated and done anywhere in the world, before being put together. This was previously only possible with production of goods. Manufacturing is now "off-shored" to places like China. Services can be "outsourced offshore". Most people connected to the Internet can "upload" their creations or point of view in such things as this blog, or wikipedia (that is very difficult to access in China because it’s banned). All data and information created by humans can be accessed and searched via search engines and the Internet.
I read this book within a few days mostly in the plane as I was traveling between Asia and Europe. For most people involved in international business, it’s very clear that the world has actually gone flat. Although, the book did not bring much news to me, it’s still enjoyable to read an analysis of this phenomenon that is influencing our lives so greatly. The version I read was the one from 2006, that was already revised, though I think one point was missing. Friedman explain clearly that the information is becoming much more diverse, with a very large share of the Internet being in other languages than English… but the reasoning does not go to the logical conclusion, i.e. that native English speakers should also learn foreign languages instead of waiting for others to learn there, being able to master it along with their own.
During the whole reading, I could not stop thinking about Shanghai today. This city is the center of the business battlefield for the largest market in the world. Any company of a respectable size has to be in China and most multinational companies make it the center of their growth for the next decades. As a consequence, the city is full with foreigners from any nationality you can think of. Shanghai today is one of the metropolis of the flat world… and will maybe become it’s capital though there is still a long way to go. Thanks to Friedman’s "flattening factors" Shanghai is everyday becoming more of a world city.

Building Shanghai

Book cover
Book cover

I had this book stored on my shelf since I bought it a few months ago. Winter coming, bad weather and renewed interest kind of melted together pushing me to open it again. “Building Shanghai” looks at first like of those coffee table books, that you look at every now and then and you leave around just to look nice when people come and visit you. This book is really nice to look at, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a history of Shanghai from an architectural point of view. With several maps of the old Shanghai compared with the new one, I was able to locate quite a number of buildings I had noticed in the street and know about their history and architectural style. What is more fascinating is to look at some of those photograph, and to realize that I passed some great buildings every day without notice them… as they have been covered or altered with terrible expansions or additions that make impossible to recognize anymore.
As much as I am appalled by the current destruction of Shanghai architectural heritage, I also have to admit that destroying grand building a few years old to replace them by something even grander has always been part of the Shanghai history, and that some buildings that we revere today as antics were horrible creations mixing very diverse kind of styles in Frankenstein-like creation. Similarly in the old and new Shanghai, architects are pushed over the limits by landlord willing to deliver a message with their buildings… but only end up showing how bad tastes they have.
Finally I enjoyed in this book the great love of the authors for the old Shanghai and it’s preservation… as well as the love of Shanghai as a modern city and how to continue it’s expansion while avoiding expending it’s monstrous aspect to much. I’m not sure this has been the priority of Shanghai’s planners until now… but hopefully this attitude is already changing in some districts.

Les Français de Shanghai

"Les Français de Shanghai" Book cover
Book cover

The French concession of Shanghai was run by French and under French law, an enclave in the middle of China. Although French people settled it, many more nationalities were added on the way. Portuguese, Russians fleeing the revolutions, Jews fleeing persecutions in Europe and of course Chinese. I recently read a book about the French people that lived in the French concession, “Les Francais de Shanghai” (i.e. “The French people of Shanghai”).

This book is not a novel, it’s not a thesis or a real biography of Shanghai either… it’s a little bit of all. It is  built in many small chapters, each of them telling stories and anecdotes about a particular French person or family of Old Shanghai. The author used a lot of research, old documents and interviews of people who actually lived in the old Shanghai, or their descendants. It gives little snaps of the daily life in old Shanghai, details that have not much importance taken one by one but together create an atmosphere, a moving picture of Old Shanghai.

I read the book within a weekend, losing a lot of sleep on it as I was fascinated by the characters and stories. It is full of information I had never seen before, including the history of famous institutions such as the university, hospitals and churches that one still can see today. It also give great information about the influence of the Jesuites priests in the development of the city, as well as more information about some famous people (de Montigny, Dubai, Moller). I particularly enjoyed the part about police and gangsters in the old Shanghai, discovering that a house very near from mine used to be the “Poste de police Pétain”, complement of the “Poste de Police Joffre” that I already knew of a little further on the road. I was sitting on my sofa while reading, in my 1920’s apartment in the heart of the French concession and I felt like being transported through time.

Readings occupied my mind fully, and when I had to go out for survival shopping it was a shock to re-discover XXIst century cars …when I was expecting 1930’s Renaults or Peugeots. This book was a great travel in itself, making old Shanghai even more vivid. After “Les Français de Shanghai”, I will continue looking for great books like this one, completing my knowledge of the past of this great city.