Shanghai customs house 1860

Travel books from the late 19th century are a good source of information about Shanghai at the time. However, the engraving that come with them are often wrong or invented. I recently receive the picture below, a extract from French review “Le tour du Monde” (around the World) from 1860. Unlike some others in the same review, this one seems pretty true to the original scene.

The above engraving was made from a painting from Pierre-Eug`ene Grandsire (1825-1905), a well known French painter. As the painter did not travel, it was made from a description or an earlier drawing from French marin officer M de Trévise. The picture must have been a great success, as it was later used for other publications in the UK.

Published in 1860, the picture is a reflection of 1858 or 1859. Control of the Chinese customs was handed to the British in 1854, and in 1857 the Shanghai authorities spent 6800 taels to built the customs office that was located on the Bund. From some sources, it seems that the building was originally a temple on the river side. The engraving is quite similar to the few pictures of the building that there taken later. The shape of the building was kept, though the actual proportions and size of the building is somewhat flawed.

A picture of the early Shanghai customs house, courtesy of https://www.hpcbristol.net/

In 1893, it was replaced by a more western building, as seen below. That building was demolished in 1925 and replaced by the current customs house in 1927.

The 1893 Shanghai Bund customs house (Shanghailander.net own collection)

Shanghai new Gudao

The word of Gudao 孤岛(or isolated island) for Shanghai is usually associated with the 1937 to 1941 period. From the July 1937 to December 1941, both the International Settlement and the French Concession were surrounded by the Japanese army, but not occupied. Foreigners were still in control inside the concessions, but outside the population was ruled by the Japanese. Crossing in out the foreign settlements was difficult and dangerous, and population suffered. All people who lived through this period underline the strong feeling of isolation that people felt in Shanghai at the time. Supply was far from secure and many people died of hunger in city’s streets. Most of all, the city and it inhabitants were totally isolated from the rest of China.

After years of studying Shanghai history, I never thought that I would live through a period of time that is so similar. The last 2 years of CoVid epidemic have seen several periods when it was strongly recommended or sometimes forbidden to leave the city. As CoVid passed its second anniversary, it seemed that the epidemic was fading away… but it came back to the city with a vengeance. Although some districts started earlier, the lockdown started on 1st April on Puxi (4 days earlier in Pudong). It officially ended on 1st June, although some districts were still put under lockdown later on.

One of the strong reminder of the Gudao period, was that districts were separated from each other, with physical barriers being erected. Although the city’s administration has been largely changed since the late 1930s, some strong similarities remain. The most striking one for an Old Shanghai lover was surely the crossing point over the river on Szechuen Road (today Sichuan Lu).

Then and now

Besides the similar images, this lockdown also created similar feelings. In particular food in Shanghai was scarce in the early weeks of the lockdown, as logistics chains were heavily disrupted. Food supply was also a massive issue in the Gudao era.

Similarly, during the Gudao, inhabitants felt locked in this little strip of land and getting out was really difficult if not impossible. As similar sens of enclosure captured Shanghainese and foreigners alike. Many foreigners left if they could in the Gudao era, and very few came back in the year after the war. In a similar ways, many foreigners in Shanghai have already left or are considering doing it, even if the full lockdown is now lifted.

Life in Shanghai remains unsettled and the usual optimism and forward thinking of the city has been severely shaken. Hopefully the city vibe will come back in the coming months, and the city will surely be in full swing again by then.

M on the Bund closure

Michelle Garnaut’s place, M on the Bund, was the original Bund’s renaissance restaurant. Open in 2002, it was then the only high level independent restaurant on the Bund. A staple of Shanghai nightlife as well as one of the most Old Shanghai evocative place in the city, the restaurant has announced in closure for 15th February 2022. With its unique style mixing modernity and old colonial atmosphere, it has been one of the top spot for Old Shanghai lovers and will be sadly missed.

Located in the former NKK Building, on Bund N5 at the Cross of Canton Road (Guangdong lu) and the Bund, M on the Bund occupies the top floor, including the small but really nice terrasse. Besides the location in the heart of Old Shanghai’s Bund, the whole decor and atmosphere feels like high class dining in Old Shanghai.

Lunch at M

Furniture, accessories and decor have been carefully curated to carry the real sense of class, sophistication and timelessness that makes great places. Staff has been trained and retained for years, creating a service level that is both very effective and nearly invisible. M’s brunch is still a favorite, along with its legendary Pavlova, but M on the Bund has been far more than a restaurant.

Michel Garnaut has been instrumental to bring culture to Shanghai, a place that was so much lacking of it. M was the main organiser and location of the now defunct Shanghai Literary Festival (See 2007 post “Quelques grammes de culture dans un monde de brutes“). The Glamour Bar (see post from 2009 “An old favorite the Glamour Bar“), was the place to present books about Old Shanghai in a timeless atmosphere. Many book reviews in this blog started with such a Saturday afternoon event or a lunch presentation at the Literary festival. My most vivid memory of those times is a presentation by the three ladies of Old Shanghai, Tess Johnston, Lynn Pan and Rena Krasno, probably around 2008. Since M on the Bund will close down in mid Feb, it’s the right to pay a last visit and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this legendary place.

Unfortunately, M on the Bund was not the only foreign place to close this winter. Famous Shanghai franchise Element Fresh, French veteran Le Café des stagiaires as well as Wine bar and terrasse favorite Kartel have already closed down in the last weeks.

Old Shanghai short movie

Movies about Old Shanghai have been very rare and difficult to see in the early years of this blog. In the last years, more and more old movies have been found on internet videos website. This has allowed some of the 1930s Shanghai original amateur movies to be viewed again, after all those years.

One of the easiest to find on Youtube is “Old Shanghai 1930s”, on the StephendelRoser account. This is a 8 minutes movies depicting street scenes in Shanghai, probably early 1930s as judged from the cars and vehicle pictured. Scenes are mostly filmed on Nanjing Road and on the Bund, including in front of Astor House hotel. They include a number of road traffic scenes, with cars and rickshaws including the Sikhs policemen of the International Settlement.

The movie also includes a long part that was filmed on a small boat on the Yangpu river, as well as the Suzhou Creek, which was really crowded then. Final scenes include a short part in an airfield and a long stretch filmed from a tramway.

It was probably shot by a foreigner and also includes some family fun scenes. The movie quality is not the best, but it is rare enough to make interesting to watch if one is interested in Old Shanghai. It can be found at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dba67SLBQzM&t=171s
A short part of about 1:40 can also be found on Chinese video sharing website Youku: https://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTA5MjQ4NTIwOA==.html?spm=a2h0c.8166622.PhoneSokuUgc_1.dtitle

Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand

Shanghai Grand Book Cover

Searching for “Shanghai Grand” on the internet leads directly to a Hong Kong action movie from 1996 set in Shanghai. Much more interesting is the new book from Canadian travel writer and journalist Tara Grescoe, focusing on the life and relationships of New Yorker writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn during her stay in Shanghai in the 1930’s.

Many books have been written about Old Shanghai and not all of them are good or interesting. Although published in mid 2016, Shanghai Grand only came to the attention of Old Shanghai lovers based in Shanghai, when Grescoe presented his book during the 2017 M Literary festival in Shanghai. I have to admit that I was very skeptical about an Old Shanghai book written by an author mostly known for his work about public transports and World overfishing and who never spent more than a few weeks in Shanghai. The presentation itself was of high interest, while the book turns out to be one of the best written and best documented book about Shanghai in the 1930’s and some of its memorable characters.

Emily (Mickey) Hahn, and her gibbon Mr Mills

Shanghai Grand tell the story of the most crazy years of foreign Shanghai, the late 1930’s. Emily (Mickey) Hahn arrived in Shanghai  in 1935, and through chances and connection got quickly in touch with Sir Victor Sassoon and the highest class of foreign society. As free and adventurous women, she defied conventions with her interest of the Chinese Society, that was exposed to her through her liaison with Chinese Poet Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmei in modern PinYin, 邵洵美 in Chinese characters). The books centers on the love triangle between the three of them, while exploring Sir Victor Sassoon’s thoughts about the Shanghai political situation in those troubled times. 1930’s  Shanghai was a booming city,  but the party was abruptly interrupted by the Japanese invasion, Saturday 14th August 1937, that changed the city forever. Life conditions deteriorated rapidly and Emily (Mickey) Hahn left for Hong Kong, then taking a trip to Chongqing and write her first famous book, the Soong Sisters. She stayed in Hong Kong until repatriation in the US in 1943.

Sir Victor Sassoon

Instead of using local information and archives about the city, Grescoe focused on researching foreign based sources. He primarily used the hand written notebooks from Sir Victor Sassoon (now stored in a library in Dallas, Texas) that where previously unheard of by most people studying Old Shanghai. Another major source was writings by Emily (Mickey) Hahn for the New Yorker written during her time in Shanghai (1935 to 1939), her books written about China and the many letters she wrote back to her family as well as unpublished works, that Grescoe is probably the first person to have researched intensively.

Besides the main characters, Grescoe also cast a light on a few secondary characters that he managed to find new information about. Maurice “Two Guns” Cohen is definitely one of them as little was known about him apart from his work as body guard for Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Bernardine Szold-Fritz, who introduced Mickey Hahn to the Shanghai social life is also an exotic character. The background of Shao Xunmei is exposed thanks to his relatives who are still in Shanghai today. The background of the whole story, and nearly a character in itself it the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel) on the Bund.

While researching the book, Grescoe also received support from Old Shanghai experts like Peter Hibbard and Andrew Field, as well as actually meeting with numerous authors of books about Old Shanghai or the life of his central characters. He also used a number of books written by Shanghai foreigners about their life in the 1930’s, most of them being mostly unknown or really difficult to find. The body of data collected is enormous and a large part of the work was surely to compile it, summarize it and cross references. Thanks to great writing skills, the result is a highly readable book that will satisfy readers that are not familiar with Shanghai history. At the same time, the depth of the research is a treat for Old Shanghai connoisseurs as the author has spread details and references all along the book, making it a great start for further research.

Closing the Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco

WCAD 001The World Congress on Art Deco in Shanghai had been years in the making (see post Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco from 2012) and turned out to be a great event. Most of the organisation and preparation was done by Patrick Cranley (See article from New York Times about him) and his wife Tina, who are also running the Historic Shanghai association. The organisation was supported by an army of volunteers, including myself.

The World Congress on Art Deco is promoted by the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies. Started in Miami in 1991, it has grown into a worldwide organisation promoting awarness and preservation of Art Deco architecture and history. The Shanghai Congress brought together people from several cities in the USA and Australia, as well as France, Hungary, and South America. After two congresses in South America (Rio in 2011 and Havanna in 2013), the first congress in Asia really makes the organisation global. For a week, Shanghai was the center of attention for Art Deco lovers and the best place to exchange ideas about it. Although originated from France with the Exposition des Art Decoratifs of 1925, it was so far mostly celebrated in the US as well as Australia / New Zealand. After South America picking up, it is now the time of Europe as Art Deco societies are emerging in European cities, with Paris, Perpignan and Budapest being represented at the congress.
Besides the social aspect, the congress was really a place for discussion on Art Deco from various places. Conferences took place every morning with tours every afternoon, so workload was pretty tough for the ones attending every bit of it.

IMG_2770WCAD 002Being in charge of taking care of the French speaking delegates, we managed to make a small gathering of the French speaking Art Deco delegates. This unplanned event happened at the Cercle Sportif Français (today’s Okura hotel) after the presentation and dinner in the Art Deco ballroom. We took a detour on the old terrace that used to be an open air dance hall and went for a drink. As it should be with French events, it was full of discussion, drinks and Joie de vivre. Art Deco started in 1925 in Paris, so we all dream of making a 2025 Art Deco Congress in Paris to celebrate the 100 years of the exhibition, and maybe one more in another French Art Deco city before that. Lot’s of work in the planning.

WCAD 003From a Shanghai perspective, the real success of the congress was to bring together the largest panel of people interested in Old Shanghai ever. Old Shanghai fanatics all know about each other more or less, but this was a unique opportunity to have most of us together in one place and exchange about our favorite topic. The list was really impressive, including “Old Shanghai rediscoverer” Tess Johnston, Bund and Cathay hotel specialist Peter Hibbard, Shanghai Art Deco architect Spencer Doddington, French Concession specialist Charles Lagrange, Haipai researcher and author of “Shanghai Style” Lynn Pann as well as Shanghai White Russian specialists Katya Knyazeva were among the speakers, and I am surely forgetting some of them. Art Deco Shanghai furniture (and some previously unseen Art Deco Shanghai carpets) where on display, helping to look at Art Deco on various crafts.

The really surprising and maybe most interesting part was to see conferences on topics related to Shanghai, but about which little is known here. They included research about Old Shanghai Department stores on Nanking Road (including Wing On), tracking and giving great details about their roots back to Australia’s department stores. Another great surprise was research about Old Shanghai Chinese architect, including Liu Jipiao, who designed the China pavillon at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 and organised the 1st West Lake exhibition in Hangzhou in 1929, modeled after the Paris one. It also included a presentation of Old Shanghai architect Poy Gum Lee, who was part of the team who designed the Chinese YMCA building (today Metropolo hotel on people square) and later continued his career in New York’s China town.

WCAD 004The World Congress on Art Deco could not be over without an Art Deco closing party, that took place at the Art Deco masterpiece, the Sassoon House, host of the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel). This was the opportunity to celebrate in style and to say goodbye to the Art Deco community. See you in Cleveland in 2017 for the next World Congress on Art Deco!

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.

Peter Hibbard’s Peace at the Cathay

Peter Hibbard's new book
Book cover

Peter Hibbard has long been one of the leading scholars on Old Shanghai. He wrote the best (if not only) guide to the Bund: “The Bund Shanghai: China faces the West”, as well the privately published book celebrating the opening of Shanghai Peninsula, covering the history of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotel corporation. Peter Hibbard is also known to have revived the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , an association that was at the center of cultural and intellectual life of Old Shanghai and has come back to life in recent years. With his years in Shanghai and is long term interest for city’s history, Peter always mentioned several book projects, with the most exciting surely an history of the Cathay Hotel (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel). Having started researching in the mid 80’s, the book has finally become reality.

Author Peter Hibbard
Author Peter Hibbard

With in-depth knowledge, historical photos, documents never seen before and years of passion in the making, Peace at the Cathay is the definitive guide to what is now known as The Peace Hotel. The book covers the history of the spot of its predecessor, the Central Hotel, as well as the competitor on the other side of the street, the Palace Hotel (now Swatch Peace Hotel). This is where is learned that the Palace Hotel was renovated in 1925 by Spanish architect, Abelardo Lafuente.

Obviously, the main part is focused on what became known as the Sasoon House (still known under this name in Shanghainese), and its most well known host, the Cathay Hotel that opened in 1929. With its revolutionary design, highest end service and luxury shops  offering the very best available at the time, the Cathay quickly became the center of the high class social life in Shanghai and a magnet for international tourists. Owner Victor Sassoon, with his office in the building and private apartments on the top of it, probably became the most famous Shanghailander ever and many celebrities stayed at the Cathay, as Shanghai was becoming part of the international scene.

Metropole Hotel
Metropole Hotel

Sasoon hotels also opened the Metropole Hotel n 1932 (and its sister building the Hamilton House). They completed the existing Cathay apartments in the French Concession, and were joined by another Art Deco icon of Shanghai, the Grosvenor house in 1935. All of them are also covered in the book, as well as the later use of the building after 1949.

Despite the in-depth research and the quantity of information it brings, the book makes a good read as well as a pretty coffee table book. Unfortunately, only a few hundreds of copies were made in the first print, so people interested in it should buy it fast (as far as I know, it can be bought at shop in the hotel itself as well as by contacting the author). Hopefully, as second print will be made on a larger scale, making the original copies even more valuable.

Peace at the Cathay is definitely the book about the Cathay Hotel, from the best source. We are lucky it is finally available.