Shanghai Exodus

cover Shanghai exodus
DVD cover – Shanghai Exodus

As the reach of this blog grows year after year (Shanghailander.net is now more than 6 years old), so does the number of readers. Through it I have received a few mails from researchers and met a few  people who actually lived in Old Shanghai, including (among others) Liliane Willens, Lynn Pan, Isabelle and Raymond Chao (who died this year) and  Rena Krasno (who died in 2009). Many of them have a passion for the city they call their home, although many had not been back since the late 40’s and quite a number have written books about their experience, their life in Shanghai and their families. Shanghai Exodus came to me through this blog and I don’t think I would have known it otherwise.

This documentary movie was made with the collaboration of many old Shanghailanders. It is their story and their link to the city they grew up in and that they love so much still. The 2009 movie includes a brief history of Shanghai, but is mostly interesting in the many snips of interviews of Old Shanghailanders. Many of them now live in the USA, but they and their family came from various countries including the UK, Russia and other European countries. Being from various level of society, they did not all live in the privileged world that is often associated with foreigners in old Shanghai but they all kept a very strong link to the city that can be felt throughout the movie. The movie also tells the fate of these people during WWII and how they managed to leave Shanghai in the laste 1940’s.

Although Shanghai Exodus is mostly about their life in Old Shanghai, one of the most moving part is seeing these people, coming back to their home city. The Shanghai they left has little to do with the Shanghai they come back to but some manage to find their root back to the city that they left so long ago. It is also very clear that many of them kept in touch in their new homes and feel that they lived in a very special place at a very special time. Growing in Old Shanghai is an extremely important part of their life and having to leave Shanghai left a scar in them. It is then really nice to see them closing the loop and finding back their roots. In a way, this is also the story of Shanghai and the rediscovery of its past by both Chinese and foreigners coming back to it.

About 15 minutes is available on www.shanghaiexodus.com as a trailer.

China 1932, a tourist movie

1932 tourist movie
1932 tourist movie

Photographs of Old Shanghai rarely seen in the city a few years ago are now quite common again. Exhibited in collections, used to illustrate books or by marketing companies to create a nostalgia feeling, most of the one seen are always the same. The most well known show the Bund at different period of time, as well as Nanking Road (Nanjing Dong Lu today) and Foochow Road (today’s Fuzhou lu). Old movies of Shanghai are much rarer as not that many where made and conservation was always an issue, because of the process used them as well as historical events that lead to the destruction of many.

The movie that recently appeared on YouTube (sorry you’ll need a VPN to see it): China, the flowery Kindgom, dates from 1932 and is quite enjoyable for that matter. Altough the sequence about Shanghai is only a portion of the film, it is still nice to see how little arrival on the river has changed. It reminds me of taking the ferry to or from Pudong which is always a little voyage in the city.

The movie seems to have been made by American tourists, or seamen on a tour to China. The departure from Shanghai shows a floating American flag, and they were regularly at call in Shanghai port I guess the ones making the movie were military. The other part I like is the view of camels in the streets of Beijing, that it surely not seen anymore. The time is not so long when caravans of camels would cross China and central Asia along the silk road. Xian was the original departure when it was capital of China, but the road was extended all the way to Beijing when it became the capital. This reminded of Lao She‘s novel, Richshaw boy that describe similar scenes.

Bundwalk empire

boardwalk_empire_2010_intertitleThe roaring twenties was a period of economic growth and recovery from the horrors of WWI. WWI fueled Shanghai growth by cutting supplies from Europe and the return of links with Europe brought new opportunities to the city. In the USA, it was also the time of alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Manufacturing and transportation of alcohol was forbidden, creating enormous wealth for gangs controlling this highly profitable traffic. This is the background of the TV series Boardwalk Empire. The show is based on the real story of Atlantic City godfather’s and county treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. The series’ main character is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. Supported by a mob of gangsters and other shaddy characters, he fight to maintain his grip over the city. Like most series nowadays, the show has many sub-plots including love and hate stories and many unexpected events. It is highly popular and a great series to watch.

Boardwalk Empire set
Boardwalk Empire set

The show’s main attraction for me was obviously the look and feel of the show, taking place at the same period than the one interesting me in Shanghai. An enormous amount of work as been done to recreate the roaring twenties look and style, as well as a 1920’s Atlantic city. With famous director Martin Scorsese and broascast on a major Channel in the US (HBO), the budget for the series was one of the largest at about 18 million USD for the pilot… and it really shows. Exterior scenes were shot on a rebuilt boardwalk complete by a lot of CGI as shown in the short movie Boardwalk Empire VFX Breakdowns of Season 1. In depth research was used for rebuilding the 20’s atmosphere through decors, costumes and accessories… and it really shows. Roaming through a bygone era’s Atlantic city, I barely can stop thinking how great a Shanghai series with the same money and attention to details spent in would be. As I wrote before, there has been several TV series themed after Old Shanghai, like the excellent Shanghai Shanghai, but Boardwalk empire is still steps further.

Du Yue Sheng
Du Yue Sheng

Beyond the time period, the story of Boardwalk empire also has parallels in Shanghai. As alcohol trafficking generated immense profits for gangs in America, opium trafficking generated immense profits for gangs in Shanghai. The master of Shanghai was Du Yue Sheng, who was reigning over the city’s underworld as well as becoming a well respected anchor of the community. Just like Nucky Thompson, he managed to rise in the political system becoming one of the Chinese members of the Municipal council of the French Concession. Number of books have been written about him and he still is very well known in Shanghai. Similarly, he was known as a benefactor of the city to many, covering the dark side of his activity with largesses and a iron fist holding his “Bundwalk Empire”. However, the fascination for the USA for their roaring twenties gangster is not so popular in Shanghai and we have yet to see a movie or a tv series where the hero would be a Shanghai gangster.

Shanghai – the movie

Shanghai,the movie
Shanghai,the movie

As old Shanghai is getting more and more popular, so do movies about the period. Following the steps of “Empire of the Sun“,” Tian Tang Kou” and “Lust caution“, this Hollywood old Shanghai movie comes with very high expectations. Recently presented at the Shanghai International Film festival, it is already shown in theaters in Shanghai but will only see its debut in America in September. Just like the Majestic theater was the perfect setting for viewing a 1930’s themed musical (see post about 42nd street), the best place to see the an Old Shanghai movie is surely the Grand Theater on People Square.

John Cusack plays an American agent posing as a pro-Nazis journalist coming from Berlin. He comes to Shanghai after the death of his best friend, killed in the Japanese controlled area. Reaching Shanghai just before Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the International Settlement by the Japanese troops, Cusack finds himself in a love triangle with Gong Li and her husband played by Cho Yung Fat. Chased by General Tanaka played by Ken Watanabe, they will go through all the trouble to find the murderer and help the resistance against the Japanese invader. The movies mixes a number of genres such as spy and gangster movie, romance and historical movie. Although not filmed in China but in Thailand, it captures perfectly the atmosphere of Shanghai. Quite a number of scenes are taken under a pouring rain that will be familiar to people actually living in the city. With its film noir atmosphere, it create a kind of wet version of Casablanca perfectly matching the dark image of the period. The Shanghai created in the movie is also pretty good from a visual and historical point of view. The scenarist and set makers have clearly make their homework and there is little in the movie that does not fit right in the look or the history books.

With my strong interest in Old Shanghai, I am surely not the best person to judge this movie independently. A few critics of the movie complained about the confused historical background. For me it was crystal clear, but I’m not sure how easy it is to understand with no prior knowledge about the topic. In any case, it is a great movie to watch, an achievement in term of picture and atmosphere and a true enjoyable time. You can see a trailer with the following link: Trailer

East Wind, Rain poster
East Wind, Rain poster

Shanghai, the movie is not the only large scale movie based on this period. “East Wind, Rain” also takes place in the same background, with spies acting betwen Kuomintang and the Japanese army. The 4 minutes long introduction session is superb, including the re-created dog race just like that one that existed in the French Concession on Rue Cardinal Mercier (Now Shaanxi lu, the building was used as a flower market until being teared down a few years ago). A lot of attention was given to make the movie look good, however the action is far to slow not making the movie really interesting beyond the pretty introductory scene. As a movie, Shanghai is just so much better.

Empire of the Sun

I remember the movie’s poster when it came out in 1987. Steven Spielberg was already famous, though not the star that he is now but the movie was much talked about. I did not see it then, and it’s only recently that I realized its connection with old Shanghai.
Based on life of JG Ballard, Empire of the Sun tells the story of a young English boy left alone in Shanghai during the 1941 Japanese invasion of the International Settlement and his life throughout the war until being re-united with his parents in 1945. The most interesting was that the movie was fully filmed in Shanghai in 1986, before the real estate boom in Shanghai.
The first part of the movie takes place in the city itself and the remake of old Shanghai is simply stunning. The scene on the Suzhou creek bridge is exactly as one can see on the period photographs. The movie makers imported old cars and rebuilt parts that had been destroyed. The scene overlooking the Bund is also amazing with the level of details involved. The Bund used to be a street as well as a parking lot with a little cabin in the middle. The actual movie looks just like the old postcards. They even rebuilt the WWI victory statue that was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the settlement. There is also a scene in front of a theater that is located just behind the Bund and was used as a club called New York New York a few years later. The movie perfectly rebuilt the crowd and atmosphere of the period and its clear that historians were involved to recreate the past. The most stunning was the documentary on the DVD, showing pictures of the Bund in 1986… helping to understand the enormous work involved for the decors. The film also involved hundreds (if not thousand) of people for creating the enormous crowd of refugees and people pushed back by the Japanese army invading the settlement. One scene was even filmed in the Peace hotel overlooking the Bund. The scenes with the Japanese army coming into the settlement are also very impressive, and must have brought back a lot of memories to many Chinese people who went through this period.
With a good knowledge of Shanghai, it’s also easy to spot the points that were not actually filmed on the spot. In particular, what is supposed to be the Cathay Hotel entrance (with a Cathay Hotel sign) is certainly not the actual hotel entrance. The villa where the boy live with his parents is also not in Shanghai. I have not seen any picture of this particular villa in Shanghai, and it would have been in a much too good state after 40 years of bad treatment. Moreover, buildings where built after 1949 in most gardens of the original villas as the density of people increase rapidely. I believe that the villa scenes inside and outside were filmed in England… in villas from the same period. The neighboring villas are Faux-Tudor like the ones in Shanghai and were probably built in the same period as well.
Finally, the camp scenes were not filmed in China. First of all, the sandy desert ground is surely not in the Shanghai region but looks much more like spain (one of the filming location). However, the style of the buildings re-created is very near to the original Shanghai style and the remake of the LongHua Pagoda (near which JG Ballart was actually interned) is also very close to the original. The only thing missing is the LongHua airport terminal that would have been between the tracks and the pagoda… i.e. exactly where the camp is build. One point I am not sure of yet, is where the green house of the ending scene is. It could be the one of the Shanghai botanical garden, but it also could be in many other places.
In any case, the remake of old Shanghai in the city itself is just amazing, and the attention to details given to the other parts of the movie make it a must see for Old Shanghai enthusiasts. For current Shanghai resident, it is amazing to see how Xu Jia Hui looked like before thre real estate boom of the 90’s and later. I wish the more recent movies about old Shanghai would pay such an attention to details.

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.