California Dreaming

Art Deco in SOMA
Art Deco in SOMA

Having met several delegates from California during the last Shanghai Art Deco Congress was surely part of the decision for a trip to the sunshine state over the latest Chinese New Year. We were really lucky with the weather as the weekend of President Day was the one of blue sky and nicer than normal temperatures in February, best after exceptional good weather in Shanghai in the previous days (see pictures from those days). We had not even reached our destination that Shanghai had already caught with us, with a conference in Standford University by old Shanghai original re-discoverer, Tess Johnston attended by a friend we later visited.

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Alcatraz light tower and prison

Expectations about Art Deco were definitely met from day 1 in San Francisco. The city is mostly famous for its rows of victorian style wooden houses bordering streets going up and down, but Art Deco is very well represented. Art Deco buildings can be found towering the hills of the city and in the Mission district and SOMA area, like the enclosed picture of the office of San Francisco Chronicle. The other major Art Deco sight is on the bay, with some of the piers and docks, Alcatraz prison… and the Golden Gate Bridge.

As expected, California has lot’s of Art Deco just like Shanghai, but another style very common in Shanghai can also be found in California, where it originated. Spanish Colonial Revival style was not so visible in San Francisco, but it only took a short trip South to see much more of it.

Spanish revivals in Palo Alto
Spanish revivals in Palo Alto

California was first scouted by Christian missionaries, who created a line of missions all the way up to San Francisco. The Spanish Colonial style of the 16th century missions, inspired a revival in the 19th and 20th Century. This style was used to make many villas and houses in California, creating a mix of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival style that makes Shanghailanders feel just at home. The same mix can be found in many smaller cities in California like San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara. Having been built in the same time, 20’s – 30’s Shanghai and California, it should not be surprising that both had the same building styles then.

Stanford main corridors
Stanford main corridors

The best example of Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture is the main building of Stanford University, which main building from late 19th century is really inspired from Spanish architecture, overlooked by a very nice Art Deco tower.

Art Deco in San Luis Obispo
Art Deco in San Luis Obispo

One of the many example of great Californian Art Deco, is the San Luis Obispo Court House. It is located very closed to the original Spanish mission and Victorian style wood houses. Another great example of the California mix of architecture, that feels really familiar when coming from Shanghai.

 

Perfidia

perfidia
Book cover

I have been a fan of James Ellroy’s crime novel for years, reading his original “LA quartet” (the black dahlia, The big nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) in the early 90’s at publication. Although not set in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I am so fascinated by, they felt close enough. Ellroy’s novel are often more about the atmosphere and characters than about finding the actual murderer. I recently found latest Ellroy’s novel in a travel bookstore and could not resist reading it, particularly as the central period is getting even closer to my interest.

Perfidia, is located in Los Angeles (as always with Ellroy), during the last day of December 1941. It starts on 5th December 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this is not mentioned in the book, the Japanese army invaded the Shanghai International Settlement on the very same date. This episode is the center of the Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. The Japanese invasion of China, in particular Nanjing massacres are often quoted in the book though Shanghai is not. In any case, the parallel with Shanghai history at the same time makes is an interesting read from a Shanghai perspective. Perfidia is also a song from 1939 that was very fashionable at the time. Becoming a hit in the US, it was also surely heard and played in Shanghai clubs then.

The central murder in the novel is of a Japanese family and a lot of the novel is focused on the reprisals and subsequent internment of Japanese American from early 1942. As always in Ellroy novels, there are many subplots and numerous characters of whom life and action are crisscrossing with unpredictable consequences. International politics and espionage are the new notes added to the usual complexity and dark ambiance.. Characters are never black or white, good or bad, but all of it mixed. The tone is dark and pessimistic, with a general background of corruption in US politics in general, and in LA police in particular.

James Ellroy’s LA often makes me think about the books and information I have read about old Shanghai. Corruption was massive, along with lawlessness, prostitution, gambling and drugs. People all tried to make money as fast as possible in any way they could, often ending up badly. There are not many winners in Ellroy’s novels, but all fight hard for it. The way Ellroy intertwines real life characters and his own fiction is magnificent, giving a real lesson in LA gangster and police history. The same thing with Old Shanghai characters has been tried before, but never really succeeded. I often wish that Ellroy would switch his focus from LA crime history to Old Shanghai. A James Ellroy novel taking place in Old Shanghai would be a perfect match between those two dark universes.