In post Shanghai Milkman, I wrote about milk delivery in Old Shanghai, and Culty Dairy, a farm located in the former French Concession. Culty dairy was advertising its products in the “Journal de Shanghai”, the French newspaper in Old Shanghai. Below ad is from 8th December 1928. “Culty milk. Drink it daily brings good health”. Simple but effective!
Spending a staycation around the Yu Garden area became a great way to enjoy an overlooked part of Old Shanghai, before it disappears. Bordering the Renmin Lu (former Boulevard des deux Républiques), the building hosting the hotel occupied a complete block, with a great view in all directions.
Above map shows the location of the block, at the cross Renmin Lu, Xinyong’an Lu and Yong An lu. Although the hotel is mostly known for its proximity to Yu Garden, it’s view on the former French concession that really interested me.
Renmin lu was originally a canal, like many streets in Shanghai including today’s Yanan Lu (see post “Crossing the Yang Jing Bang” for more details). As the South border of the French Concession, it was called “Quai des fossés”, meaning “pit quay” in English), and was facing the North part of the Shanghai city wall. The city wall was teared down in 1912, the canal was filled and turned into a street called “Boulevard des deux Républiques”, meaning two republics Boulevard, i.e. the French Republic and the newly formed Chinese Republic. The Chinese name was and still ease “Renmin Lu”, republic street. Along with Zhong Hua lu, litteraly China street, making a circle following the former city wall, they form “Zhong Hua Ren Min”, meaning “The people of China”.
Xinyong’an Lu, was one of the early roads of the early French Concession, called “Rue Colbert”. One block down from the main road Rue du Consulat (today Jinling Road), it was the original seat of the Shanghai General hospital. Xinyong Lu was called “Rue Laguerre”, after French Commodore Adolphe Laguerre, who helped liberate Shanghai city from the Small Swords Society in 1855.
The whole area was covered with lanes, or Lilong housing many people and shops. In 1937, the block where the hotel is now located had 1200 inhabitants, with 33 Europeans and 70 shops. Shaped as a triangle, it could offer a very long line of shops. The building was on the border between the Chinese city and the back street of the French Bund. Located close to the Northern gate of the Chinese city, it must have been a great location for shops.
The opposite block was much larger, housed 2000 people including 49 Europeans and only 30 shops. Those Europeans were mostly living in the Saint-Anne building, a long 6 storey building on the side of Rue du Consulat, that was the highest building on this part of the French Concession.
It was great to give a last look to this area that is now scheduled for redevelopment, as the opposite corner has already been emptied of its inhabitants and will surely massively change in the coming years. The other side of Route Colbert must have been built with similar kind of housing. A few year ago, this stretch of the street was a great spot for being ribbons, knots, fabrics and was needed for sewing.
Above picture shows the half way between de rue Laguerre corner and the river. The first building is the back of the Butterfield & Swire godown (warehouse). Being close to the French Bund, or Quai de France, and with a major trading company this part of the street must have been busy with warehouses and coolies. This is very different nowadays as the river front is not used for unloading cargo anymore. Route Colbert nowadays is a much quieter street.
French journalist Bruno Birolli was stationed in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Beijing for more than 23 years. After two non-fictions book about Asia history, he published “Le musical-hall des espions” in France in 2017. I have read and written about quite a number of Old Shanghai novels like The master of rain” or “Night in Shanghai“, as well a Paul French book on Shanghai Gangsters, City of devils. Since I also love reading crime novels, one taking place in Old Shanghai could only attract my attention.
Birolli novel’s title, ” Le music-hall des espions”, could be best translated as “Theater of spies”. The novels takes place from 1930 to 1932 and focuses on French man René Desfossées, who is sent to political unit of the Shanghai French Concession Police. Main characters include his boss, Commandant Léo Fiorini along with Archibald Swindown, a colleague from the International Settlement police. As historical events unfold in Shanghai, their police work will make them meet various people including the chief of police for the Kuomingtang government, other members of the French police, a magician, and many more. The action is mainly located in Shanghai, the city could be considered also as one of the main characters, along with a short part in Hankou’s French Concession.
The author has spent years in Asia and it definitely shows in the book. I often found that Old Shanghai novels lack the climate, noise and smells of the city. They are all here. The dampness of the city after the rain, cold waves that freeze it a few days a year and other mentions of the city’s weather just feel like the real thing. Neither are missing the smell of Chinese food or of coal burning, the noise of people shouting in the streets and the honks of cars, giving a vivid portrait of the city.
Birolli’s interest in early 20th century’s Asian history and journalistic experience is also showing. This makes his version of Old Shanghai very accurate, taking into account the time of constructions of various roads and buildings. Actual historical events are developing in the background and are fully integrated in the story. One can also find numerous references to real history characters of the time, the most obvious one being the Commandant Fiorini, whose name is a direct reference to the real Captain Etienne Fiori who ran the French Concession police from 1920 to 1932. Characters have deep personality and there own history influences their actions and decisions in a very realistic way. Probably a little more explanations would be welcome by readers unfamiliar with the settings and Shanghai history, but the novel is making it a very enjoyable trip to Old Shanghai.
Although the background, historical events and characters are very credible, the books feels sometimes more like a photograph of an era, than a real crime novel. Having read many of those, I was expecting more speed in the story as well as a more sophisticated intrigue. Writing style is still very journalistic, as opposed the punch that one could expect from great noir novels, like “Perfidia” by James Ellroy or an historical spy novel like “Carnival of Spies” by Robert Moss.
In any case, I enjoyed reading the book and it highly recommended to anybody interested in Shanghai history. Unfortunately, it is only available in French so far.
British author Paul French has lived in Shanghai for many years, and is vastly knowledgeable about Old Shanghai. Known for his in-depth research, he is also the author of The Old Shanghai A-Z , a reference book for anyone researching Shanghai history. French turning to crime solving inquiry in previous book Midnight in Peking, turned to be really interesting. Being passionate of both crime novels and Old Shanghai, I could only be interested in his new book, City of Devils, a Shanghai Noir.
Just like Midnight in Peking, City of Devils is not a novel. French takes a character that attracts his interest and research it in all directions possible. City of Devils is the story two characters of the Shanghai underworld. Jack Riley was the king of the slot machines in Shanghai, while Joe Farren was running entertainment shows at the top places like the Canidrome ballroom and the Paramount. Their course in Shanghai crime met numerous times, while they became allied, fell out and got in business again. The stories of both characters is really fascinating, showing the opportunities and the lawlessness of Shanghai in that period.
Little was known about the two central characters before French started his research. Information from a great many different sources have been put together, starting the local press of the time, North-China Daily News, JB Powell’s China Weekly Review and (never heard of before) blackmailing newspaper Shopping News. Although the book does not include a bibliography, they are references to many books about the period or written by people who lived through it, including Ralph Shaw’s Sin City, Bernard Wasserstein’s secret war in Shanghai, Frederic’s Wakeman The Shanghai Badlands and many more. He also search the official records from the Shanghai Municipal police, and other Shanghai institutions as well as archives from foreign countries consulates that are stored in their home country. A number of well known Shanghai researchers have also contributed sometimes unpublished information that have been incorporated the book, including Prof Robert Bickers, Russian researcher Katya Knyazeva and many more authors on the topic. The amount of information and the number of sources is quite extraordinary. Researching this books must have been like a real police inquiry, with attention to all possible details.
Beside those larger than life characters, the most interesting part is the description of Shanghai foreign underworld including numerous people or location that are mentioned in books of the period but on which little was known. This creates a great picture of the darker side of Shanghai that mixes well with French detailed knowledge. From the known facts he create an entertaining story, by bridging the missing parts with very plausible and well informed details. City of Devils is an entertaining read about a side of Shanghai that is lesser known. It is also a very deep research that is presented in a very entertaining way.
With its mix of influence, Old Shanghai had bits of pieces coming from all over the World including Beaux Arts style, Art Deco, Andalusian, Mexican revival, New Normand, German, traditional Japanese to name a few. They all added up and sometimes got inspired by traditional local style or its modern incarnation, neo confusion (sometimes called Republican style). While walking around in Old Shanghai, it’s sometimes surprising to see details that are heavily influenced by another place.
I have been fascinated by the floor tiling pattern in the picture up, since I discovered it a few years ago. The original picture was taken on the ground floor of the FONCIM D building (1933) at the corner of Jian Guo lu and Gao An lu. The building was designed by the firm Leonard, Vesseyre & Kruze (or LVK) (See post ” Shanghai Art Deco master” for more details or my article, in French, in Lepetitjournal.com Shanghai edition). The firm was highly creative and the building was designed for their largest client, the FONCIM real estate investment firm, so I first assumed it was unique.
The only other similar pattern I found was in a villa on Yong Jia Lu, a few hundred meters from the FONCIM building. The area was built by the LVK firm (Leonard and Vesseyre’s personal homes are nearly opposite from this building), including this one, probably from the mid 30’s. The tiling shape is slightly different, with the beige stripe wider, but still very similar. This was the only place were I saw this pattern until a recent trip. A later found a similar pattern with different colors in a building on Hunan Lu (see post more on tile patterns).
Having diner in Paris a few days ago, I realized that the early 1900’s building had been extended by an Art Deco part with the tiling on the picture right. It took a while to retrieve the Shanghai picture, but when confronting both, the similarity was striking. So the Shanghai Art Deco pattern was probably not the invention of LVK, but probably imported from France. Looking for more about this pattern, I received a big help from my friends of the France Art Deco Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/franceartdeco).
A similar pattern was used for the flooring of the kitchen of flagship cruiser SS Normandie. Launched in 1935, SS Normandie was the largest cruise ship of its time, a floating palace fully designed in Art Deco Style. Because of WW2, it only operated a few years before sinking in New York in 1942, but it is still a legend in term of cruise ships, technological achievement and as an Art Deco masterpiece. Exemple of the ship’s decoration was shown in the Paris Art Deco exhibition in 2014 (see post “1925, when art deco dazzled the World” for more details).
Unfortunately, all pictures of the Normandie are black and white, so it’s impossible to know the original color of the kitchen tiling, but in any case it looked quite similar to the one used by LVK on Jian Guo Lu. As the pattern originated from France and it is so rare in Shanghai, it is likely that the actual tilling was imported from France. Shanghai was a modern city, in touch with the latest fashion in the World… just like it is today.
In previous post “China General Omnibus Company“, I got interested in Old Shanghai bus networks in the former International Settlement. After some more research, I found the complete list of the bus network in all three parts of the city.
This is an extract from a 1931 short guide to transport in Shanghai. The tourists guides did not really address buses network, as I guess tourists of the time were travelling in luxury. This particular guide was dedicated to service men, published by the Navy YMCA. Route N1 was following a communication line of Shanghai then, and of Shanghai today: Bubbling Well (Jing An Temple today) to Hongkew Park (today Hong Kou Gong Yuan). It went down Nanking Road (today Nanjing Road), the Bund, North Soochow (today Bei Suzhou Lu) and North Szechuen Road (Today Sichuan Bei lu), to reach Hong Kou Park.
Others roads included a few surprises. First of all, there was a bus line driving up Hong Qiao road, ending close to Hong Qiao airport. This route 4, from Siccawei (today Xu Jia Hui, English spelling, French spelling was Zikawei) to Monument road (today Suining lu, next to Hong Qiao airport). Although Hong Qiao Road was already lined with villas in the 1930s (including Eve the one of Sir Victor Sassoon, see post “Shanghai Grand” for more details), it is still surprising to see public transportation go that far West.
The other interesting part is that there was Express Route for buses, on the top of the normal routes. The four of them were ending at the Bund, starting from Jessfield Park (today ZhongShan Park) or Brenan Piece (in the North of the international settlement). They took the main West-East roads of Shanghai, being today’s Nanjing Road (Bubbling Well Road followed by Nanking Road), and today’s Yannan Road (Avenue Foch, followed by Avenue Edouard VII). Express Route A was competing with a tramway track (see post “Old Shanghai Tramways” for more details) and is very much following today’s metro #2.
Bus N21 was going from the very East to the very West of the French Concession, from the French Bund to Zikawei (today Xu Jia Hui, French spelling). It had the same start and finish than the main tramway line of the French Concession (see post “Old Shanghai Tramways” for more details).
Bus N22 was loop route from the French Bund and back to it. I went through the small street of the French Concession including Route des Soeurs (today Ruijin Lu, see post “Brooklyn Court, Route des soeurs“), Route Lafayette (today Fuxing Lu), Route Frelupt (today Jiang Guo Xi Lu), Route Dufour (today Wulumuqi Nan Lu, see post “Shanghailander Cafe and Bakery“). This is probably the stop where the original inhabitant of my former home, or rather their staff, would take the bus (see post “Leaving route Kauffmann” for more details). The bus would then go back on Avenue Pétain (today Hengshan Lu), Route Pottier (today Baoqing Lu, where my first home was located, see post “first home in Old Shanghai” for details) and then back to Route Lafayette all the way to the Bund.
Most residence at the furthest point of this loop were built in the late 1920s or 1930s creating need to transport people from and to an area that was previously not really developed, so the line must have been pretty recent in 1931. Cars and buses were driving left-hand side (this changed only in January 1946), so a number of road the bus took are now one-way streets, in the wrong direction. Similarly, Route Lafayette was driven in both ways, when it is now mostly a one-way-street. Traffic direction and driving side may have changed, but the main lines of communication in today’s Shanghai are still similar to the ones in Old Shanghai.
Riding newly opened trolley 71 from the west of Shanghai to the Bund is very practical, and always makes me think about Old Shanghai. Tramways were installed in Shanghai first in the International Settlement in 1908, then in the French Concession and the Chinese city (see post Old Shanghai tramways for more details). If tramways were the most modern urban transport in the 1900s and 1910s, by the 1920s and even more the 1930s, they were taken over in modernity by buses.
The China General Omnibus company was incorporated in Hong Kong in 1923, like many companies in Shanghai at that time, to operate bus services in Shanghai. Part of the Sasoon group, it ran bus routes in the International Settlement and beyond. The first routes were opened in 1924, to increase to about 20 lines in the 1930s. Those routes mostly followed main roads and are quite similar to today’s bus line. Buses in the French Concession were separately operated by the “compagnie française de tramways & d’éclairage électrique de Shanghai” which was also operating the tramways.
Picture left is a list of some of the bus routes (the second page is missing), with some being very familiar, starting with Route 1 from Jessfield Park (today Zhong Shan Park) to the Bund. This is actually pretty close to parts of today metro line 2, and was also following Tram route N2 (see post Old Shanghai Tramways for more details). Route 9 had the same beginning and end, but was going Avenue Foch and Avenue Edouard VII (both streets are now Yannan Lu). This is quite similar the eastern part of today’s 71 bus line. As the road was the border between the International Settlement and the French Concession, there was no tramway line.
Above map is a full route map of the China General Omnibus Company. The network was very extensive, allowing to travel all over the international settlement and other areas controlled or managed by the Shanghai Municipal Council. It is a very rare map, hardly seen online. Although edges are missing, it gives a clear view of the bus network. According to documents found with it, it is from 1937.
Another feature of the CGOC that attracts today’s collectors, are the bus tokens issued by the company in the 1920s and 1930s. As Shanghai coins value was fluctuating a lot, the bus company created token that could be purchased in advance and used to pay the bus fees. There was several issues of various token in 1924, 1926 and 1939. They have now become collection pieces highly sought after. For more information about them, best is to have a look at the China Mint website (see following link for more information). Although they have now been replaced by a electronic card, taking the bus at night through the streets of Old Shanghai still feels like a bit of a time travel.
The post is focused on my first Old Shanghai house, nearly 13 years ago. The Shanghailander blog did not exist at this time, but this place was surely and inspiration.
I reached Shanghai in early 2004, and after sharing a flat in a concrete block for 8 months, I just could not resist trying the Old Shanghai adventure, living in real Shanghai historic villa. The house was one of a series located in a small compound, at the corner of Route Pottier (today Baoqing Lu, an extension of HengShan Lu) and Rue Lafayette (today Fuxing Lu). The compound had clearly been of high luxury, with 3 level houses following a very European pattern. Houses had been subdivided after the communist takeover in 1949 and the lady upstairs had been living there ever since. The old tenants said that these houses had originally built by a German bank.
After long search, I found a land registry from the early 1930s, showing that the land belonged to French Bank, Banque de l’Indochine, with its seat on the Bund. It was probably built to house the bank directors. No wonder it was luxurious! I never found the construction date, but from the location and the style I would guess late 1910s, or early 1920s. The style is very classical European from the pre WW1 period.
The flat I moved in was on the ground floor, occupying about 70 sqm. It had 2 large rooms, one being a huge dining room with kitchen and the other one subdivided into a study and a sleeping room. The house entrance led to a corridor, opening to the doors rooms, including the one to my flat. The original bathroom and toilet, that had seen no changed and was still in common use for the house inhabitants (fortunately not for me, I had my own!). The first foreign tenant (2 years before me) had attempted to renovate the flat. Some parts were really well done like the elevated floor in the sleeping /study room. Unfortunately, the original fish bone wood floor in the dining room had been sanded with the wrong equipment and was seriously damaged.
The kitchen / dining room of my time was certainly the dining room of the original house. The walls were covered with dark wood panels, as was the fashion of the day. The original setting must have been really dark, but fortunately, they had been painted white. The large French style window overlooked Route Pottier (today Baoqing lu). This dining room had an interesting side door, enclosing a small double door, about 50 cm by 50 cm, 1 meter from the floor. This small door was certainly designed to deliver dishes from the kitchen to the dining room and then having a butler serving the master’s table. The room behind the door was originally a service room leading to the underground kitchen. It had been later used as a bedroom before being turned into my own bathroom, so the little door was not supposed to open anymore (though I did manage to do it once). This certainly gave a feeling of grandeur in the original setting, perfect for a bankers home.
Next to this door was a display niche. The original glass windows have disappeared for a long time but the railing and the upper cupboard door was still there. This was clearly the place to show some expensive pieces to the guest in the dining room. On the right hand side, opposite to the large window looking on the street was a door and a fireplace. The door was originally communicating to the next room (now the neighbors apartment) that had been walled up.
Like most fireplaces in Shanghai, mine had been filled up with concrete after 1949. I dreamed about opening it up during my stay in that flat, but that is not allowed in Shanghai anymore.
The back wall was opened with large french doors. They were really beautiful, but the small windows were nearly impossible to change if damaged, thus some of the windows were broken and left unrepaired. It must originally have been possible to open the top windows to give some fresh air, but after 60 years without being used, I was never able to do it.
The study / sleeping room was divided in two parts with a very clever cupboard / wall left by the architect tenant. The original room had been extended from original construction, probably enclosing a terrace as the room was located half under the 2nd floor and half under it’s own little extension roof. Insulation was very poor and it was extremely cold in the winter (to bad I only noticed that when winter came). There was door from this room to the garden, which was very large and must have originally very nice. Unfortunately, people living in the house never really maintained it and it became half jungle and half junk yard with people dropping all kind of rubbish in it (including an old bath tab).
Avenue Pétain (today Hengshan Lu) and Route Pottier (today Baoqing Lu) is a major way into Shanghai and (further down) became a major entertainment street, thus the road in front of my flat was a 24 hours traffic jam. With taxis and buses honking at any time of the day and night, it was really difficult to sleep. Along with the cold, it made it impossible to stay and I happily left after my first year, moving to a flat on Route Kauffman (today Anting lu) where I stayed for 11 years. The flat on Route Pottier has now been turned into a cafe. Although it still has an atmosphere, many of the original parts have been removed.
I recently came across this amazing picture of flooded street of Shanghai in 1933.
Although considered as subtropical, Shanghai climate really has very different seasons with steep differences in temperature. Winter can be very cold, with snow (see post “Feeling like European winter” and “Snow in Shanghai” for more details). Summer are very hot and humid, giving an equatorial feeling to the city with Cicadas sound (See post “Shanghai heat“, and “Singing trees“). Another feature of Shanghai climate is tropical rain. As the city is not tropical enough to received massive rain all year around, like Hong Kong or Taipei, it always seems to be taken by surprise every time a typhoon hits the city.
Pictures in this article is taken from 11th November 1933 issue of French newspaper L’illustration. The caption is “One of the main streets of Shanghai after the typhoon”. French readers will notice that Shanghai is spelled “Changhaï” as it was spelled in French then. I have not been able to identify the street shown, but it looks very much like a large street in the Chinese city, as main Concessions streets in the 1930’s were already lined up with much higher stone building.
The pictures were actually taken during 20th September 1933 typhoon that flooded the city. It mentions that Chinese city wooden houses are very exposed to the typhoon, but the main body of the article is focused on the Jesuits weather forecast network based in Xu Jia Hui, collecting information from all over Asia to predict the weather. It is nowadays Shanghai weather forecast institute in Xu Jia Hui, still on the same location.
Once it was sure that a Typhoon was coming, the information was broadcasted by radio to ships at sea. The article also mention that canons shot were used at the harbor as the usual way of warning ships. Although it is not mentioned in the article, flags were probably raised on the Shanghai Bund Semaphore, also called Gutzlaff tower (see post “Best view on the French Bund” for more details). Flags were a usual way to give instructions and warning to ships at that time.
Shanghai sewage network has been upgraded in the last years, so flooding when a typhoon comes to the city do not seem to happen to that extend anymore. This is quite a recent development, as similar scenes were a regular feature in the former French Concession… as seen in enclosed picture taken in July 2009.