Poy Gum Lee’s lost building

Today’s Nanjing Xi Lu in 1910

I have often heard or read that in Old Shanghai, the business district was in the International Settlement, and the higher class residential in the calmer streets of the French Concession. Although most of it has now disappeared, the International Settlement although had its select residential district. Bubbling Well (today Nanjing Xi lu), was originally a countryside road with large mansion along with their massive gardens on its side, including the former Majestic Hotel. In the 1920s and 1930s, these large properties were sold and new buildings were erected in a much denser fashion. The residential streets moved up North, along Avenue Road (today Beijing Xi Lu). Although this part of Jing An has been massively built over in the last 20 or 30 years, a few villas have resisted in this area, they include the Laszlo Hudec Hu Mansion (the Green house), the former Pei Mansion and a few houses around the corner of today Changde Lu and Beijing Xi Lu.

Hidden Art Deco on Wuding Lu

Another street further North with a number of large villas was the Western section of Wuding Lu, although very little information available about them. Large houses seem only to have been in that section of the street as opposed to the (now gone) shikumen and factories that lined the more Eastern section. This stretch of a few hundred meters really feels like other residential streets in the French Concession or around Yu Yuan Lu, making it a pleasant stroll. Although each house is a different style, they all seem to have been built in the 1930s. From a neighboring rooftop, I could see them all and noticed one in particular, an Art Deco mansion, behind a modern school building. Although I could only see part of it, I always thought this house was special.

It’s only a few years later, while visiting the Ordinary Metropolis exhibition in 2016, that I discovered the true identity of this house, in a section dedicated to Chinese modernist architects. One of them was American architect Chinese Poy Gum Lee / 李锦沛 (see in-depth article about him on Shanghai Art Deco blog). He worked, among others, on the Chinese YMCA building in Shanghai (today Marcopolo Hotel on people square), on Sun-Yat-Sen memorial in Nanjing and later on buildings in New York’s China Town. I first heard about him during 2015 Shanghai Art Deco World Congress. Blue prints of a house designed by him were used as an example of Chinese modern design in the exhibition.

The revealing rendering

I thought the design looked familiar, but did not really knew from where until seeing the rendering. The Yan Mansion designed by Poy Gum Lee and built in 1934, is actually the house I saw from the rooftop. This was further confirmed by an old picture, although original balconies have been glassed over and the ornamental doors and windows are long gone. Lastly, a map of the location was provided showing it located on “Wuting Road”, today’s Wuding lu.

Original picture of the Yan Mansion

Although there is no historic plate on the building, it is without a doubt, the Yan Mansion designed by Poy Gum Lee, located on today’s 932 Wuding lu. Unfortunately, most of the garden has been eaten by a new building masking it from the street. Being a school also makes it off limits for most people. Funny enough, the exhibition showed its blue print but did not show any current picture, nor mentioned that the building still stands. Hopefully, one day it will be recognized and protected. In the meantime, its current use should keep it standing for long.


Gordon Road Police Station

IMG_4168Although I now have spent nearly 12 years in the city, Old Shanghai still offers surprises for me. One of the latest one was my recent rediscovery of Gordon Road Police Station on Jiangning Lu (former Gordon Road). A walk in the North part of the International Settlement, looking for a famous new restaurant (The Commune Social) took me there. This is when I ran into what is called “The Design Republic Commune“, a major design store and display. The colonial style of the building was quite clear, surely a former colonial administration building, in the former Shanghai International Settlement. The style different, but the overall look is pretty similar to Hong Kong Central Police Station, currently under renovation. Like for many renovation in Shanghai, the interior of the building has been totally gutted to make space for the new usage of the space. In any case, the external cleaning makes it stand out in the area.

Gordon police station was a special place in the Shanghai municipal police organisation, as it was the place were all freshly arrived police officers were sent for training after arrival in Shanghai. The plate on the building mentions “about 1910’s” as a construction date., however the Shanghai Municipal Gazette of 20th March 1908, shows the completion of the “Police training school” Gordon Road to be completed in February of the same year. Since the area at that time was not densely urbanized, this massive police station and the police training school were probably the same building. It is mentioned in Robert Bickers'”Empire made me” (2003) as “Gordon Road Training (or Western) Depot”. As explained in the book, the building had a “large parade ground”. The training and drilling ground is long gone,  but at construction and during the 1920’s the area was pretty much countryside, with factories and houses being built around in the 1930’s. Sikhs and Chinese police officers were also stationed there for training, staying in dorms that have long disappeared. It is difficult to imagine the size of the ground surrounding the police station, but it was surely massive.

British Police ShanghaiFrom 1909, all police force arriving in Shanghai was sent to the Gordon Road Depot for a few months of training before being sent the operation. This was a new organisation, pioneered by the London Metropolitan, opening it’s first depot a year before. The training was close to military training, along with class about the city, police procedures and the Shanghai dialect. Free time as only allowed after diner, until the 1 am curfew. Learning Shanghai dialect was done using “Lessons in Shanghai dialect” by F.L Hawks Pott, president of Saint John University and author of “A short history of Shanghai“. Mastering Shanghainese was essential for promotion as most of the population that the police dealt with did not speak English… nor Mandarine Chinese.

After training, the police officers were sent to various police station around the International Settlement. Wearing the same uniform as in England, the “bobbies” were a familiar sight of Shanghai, with Sihks policemen as subordinates. Although pictures of the later are pretty common, the pictures of English policeman on the Bund is pretty rare.

Classic cars on the Bund

1920's Packard on the Bund
1920’s Packard on the Bund

The very special history of China and Shanghai has been essential at preserving 1920’s and 1930’s architecture, making Shanghai one the world Art Deco hotspot (with the World Art Deco congress coming to Shanghai in 2015). As late as the 1990’s, most original Shanghai buildings had remained pretty much untouched. With clever restoration, the remaining ones have taken back a new life as private mansion, company’s headquarters or bars and restaurants. Old Shanghai dresses have also been coming back, either as part of classic parties (see pictures for my own 40’s birthday party in 2012) or as part of today’s fashion brand such as Shanghai Tang. The only thing really missing is classic cars, as most of them were either taken by owners when they left Shanghai, or destroyed during the war or later. Bringing classic cars back in Shanghai is the aim of the Bund Classic event, for one weekend at least.

BundClassic started in 2013 and the 2014 edition was really nice, under a fantastic weather. As the only classic car event in mainland China, it attracted collectors and classic cars admirers. It was a unique opportunity to actually see cars from Bund building’s  period on this location. Due to Chinese regulations on old cars, they could do not really be driven (apart from a short parade), but the photo opportunities were great.

Not all cars were pre WW2, but a few of them really looked just at the right place in front the former British Consulate building. I particularly like the beige Packard that looked pretty much like 1920’s pictures of the Bund, before the Cathay Hotel (Peace hotel today) was built. I am not sure this actual make was ever on the Bund, but it clearly had close cousins right here.

Hudson Terraplane
Hudson Terraplane

The 1930’s Terraplane coupé was also just in the right place. It is clear that this particular make was imported in Shanghai, as the brand was really popular in the 1930’s in America. Coupé were also seen in Shanghai, a symbol of money and modernity for the youth of rich Shanghainese. I also liked the French Traction Avant, which was surely imported to China, at least for the administration of the ” Concession Française de Changhai”. Although the one on display was red and white, the original color for this model was black only, until the 1950’s.

shanghai-girlThis short trip to Shanghai glorious past was really enjoyable, sometimes feeling straight out old Shanghai movies or Beverly Jackson’s book ” Shanghai girl gets all dressed up”. Classic cars collection seems to a be trend amongst China’s superrich, so more cars will surely being brought in. However, there is little hope of ever seen one driving down the streets of the former French Concession as they are way too old to be allowed on today’s roads.

Shanghai Saga, John Pal

One of the few copies available
One of the few copies available

John Pal arrived in Shanghai from the UK to be employed by the Imperial Customs in 1920. At that time customs administration was delegated to foreigners, initially under the control of Sir Robert Hart. All of the customs officers were foreigners mostly British but also French, Italians, Scandinavians and Japanese. John Pal’s experience of the customs services organisation and his daily life make the book a really interesting read. China had only a 5% duty for import AND export thus, “Any Tom, Dick or Harry could afford to drink the finest wines and puff the choicest of imported cigards” and “liquor was so cheap that rum runners came from the United States” to buy liquor in Shanghai to export it back to the USA. At the same time, Shanghai saw a massive smuggling activity, mostly for opium and other drugs. John Pal certainly gives a first had account on trying to stop smuggling “continually up against some of the world’s trickiest smugglers”. “Ships from certain countries, or port of call, were always suspected of bringing narcotics” including Vladivostock and Haiphong in French IndoChina (today Vietnam). In his duty, John Pal also worked on the export side, inspecting ships departing and making sure that only the declared goods were loaded in.

Author John Pal
Author John Pal

John Pal left the customs administration in 1927, as China was taking back control of its administration… but his story does not stop here. He then became a reporter for the Shanghai Times, being invited to many parties and official celebrations. Each country was throwing parties for national days of celebration and other opportunities. “If a man cared to, he could live on the free handouts from Shanghai’s annual celebration – and live high. The numerous nationals of our city magnified their celebrative days into grandiose fireworks and champagne binges.” This does not seem so different from today permanent corporate and national parties occupying a lot of people’s social agenda. He also took a job as kernel manager for the French Canidrome, getting involved in the grey world of gambling in Shanghai. John Pal left Shanghai in 1939 as the War in Europe seemed inevitable and he could see how Japan would turn on Shanghai. I don’t think he lived long enough to see the new Shanghai as it is today. I am sure he would be amazed of the difference between Old Shanghai and the city nowadays but also of some the striking similarities. Somehow Shanghai spirit just never changed.

Shanghailanders leaving the city in the late 1930’s and 1940’s often left a home that they could never return to. Exiled from their Shanghai motherland, they recreated a life in other places, back in their original home country or moving on to new places like the USA and Australia. Life in Shanghai had such a strong mark on them that they could never forger the incredible city they left. Many wrote memoirs, creating books that were a true picture of Shanghai life, or sometimes mere fiction mixed with a few true facts. Besides Shanghai Saga, I also reviewed Sin City from North China Daily News reporter Ralph Shaw in an earlier post. It turned out that both Brits were probably competitors.

Shanghai Saga is an excellent source for information about Old Shanghai, although it was very rare and difficult to find. The book has been reprinted by Earnshaw books. More details in post “Shanghai Saga republished“.

Somebody finally got it

Master house on Weihai lu
Master house on Weihai lu

Having lived in Shanghai for more than 6 years, I have seen a clear evolution of the vision of Shanghainese people and the Shanghai municipality. A few years ago, only foreigners were complaining about the destruction of the Shanghai architectural heritage. The fashion was about new, new, new and the past and its remains had no importance whatsoever. Shanghai was supposed to become another version of Hong Kong and Singapore where only a few trophy buildings remain within the everlasting paradise the skyscrapers and other “high level real estate developments”, i.e. brand new building of average quality, lots of marketing and nor more personality than the neighbor.  I have seen the evolution with a few of the main buildings being kept away from demolition by the municipality, but the EXPO has clearly accelerated the process.

First of all, most Shanghai facades have been now renovated. This is often limited to the front row of a lane and not always of best quality, but it is clearly a step forward. The face lift given to building gives a much better look to the city and will show to the inhabitants that old does not mean necessarily shabby. Until now, the renovation is mostly limited to the exterior, but I am sure that it will extend to the interior as well.  In other part of the world well built and maintained buildings can survive through the ages, while being transformed for various usage.  Like in Europe in the 1960’s I hope this will be a turning point for Shanghai.

Brand new information
Brand new information

Secondly, plates and explanation about local history have been put in a number of places just before the expo. Besides giving information to tourists, they also have a lot value for the local people. They are often extremely surprised to learn that the old rotten shag where they think they live in, is actual a wonder of Art Deco or neo-classic architecture.

Thirdly, the whole image of 1920’s and 30’s Shanghai has changed in a few years, thanks to a large number of articles and TV programs about the topic. I always find it kind of funny when I see a sign celebrating the 100th anniversary of various things in Shanghai (transport systems, parks, hospital, university) where no mention is made that actually often foreigners brought these novelties to Shanghai.  Once a taboo or forgotten period, old Shanghai is now a common topic of conversation and of pride for Shanghainese, at least some of them. At the same time, the image of foreigners in this period is also changing as Shanghai revisits its own history. Last but not least, the whole image of the Republican period is also changing slowly at least in Shanghai.

Master house engulfed
Master house engulfed

Finally, more and more buildings are being protected. One of the latest turn seems to be to keep of the old while building new. In the development I have seen in the past, all buildings on the site were destroyed. During construction, a master house was often built first with a very large garden around, as ground was cheap then. A few years or decades later, the owner would sell part of his garden for a very high price, as the city had extended and a shikumen would be built. The master house would be engulfed into it and is often still there, lost in the middle. The new trend in real estate development is to keep this master house while destroying the shikumen around. In Jing An district where I work, there are 3 massive real estate development that started with destroying the shikumen on the location but keping the master house. I guess they will use it as the club house, taking advantage of the space offered while adding value to the compound. In one of them (picture on the top), the master house as even been moved 100 meters towards Wei Hai Road to give space for real estate development and preserve it at the same time.

This form of preservation is clearly a new trend and probably imposed by new regulation on the developers.  Old buildings will become more trendy and more expensive, fueling investment in this new segment. Somebody finally realized how to combine profit and heritage preservation in Shanghai and this is great news.