Shanghai Culture Tours

Shanghai time machine

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As I was having a drink at The Fellas Terrace for my birthday this 20th May, I could enjoy an unusual view which focal point was neither the former British Bund nore Pudong towers but... the Gutzlaff semaphore!

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The Gutzlaff tower is a not so frequently commented among the riverside landmarks. It actually stands on the former French Bund, once called Quai de France. Build in 1907 in its present shape, this column crowned by a mast provided informations to the ships stationed on the Huangpu including weather forecasts, by the means of small flags on its top. Another function of the semaphore was providing a reliable time reference. This was essential for ships to caliber their marine chronometers and obtain the latitude parameter when they went at sea.

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The tower was monitored by the Jesuit observatory of Zikawei (present Xujiahui) which catholic scholars collected observations from the coastal stations along the China coasts in order to draw daily weather maps. As for time calculation, it was based on the positions of stars. The "timeball" located on top of the 50 meters high mast gave a visual signal to the boats by falling down at noon. This ingenious invention was actually the one of Portsmouth based Captain Wauchope in 1819, and later  adopted by the famous Greenwich observatory. Then, this technology was adopted by most port cities in the world, like Japanese Kobe or American Boston. It was introduced in Shanghai by the Jesuits in 1884 in the form of a simple wood mast. It eventually collapsed during a violent typhoon in 1905 and therefore was replaced by a brick version the year after. 

A landmark in Shanghai

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Because of its specific position between the two settlements, the tower was the site of interesting events. Let us not forget that Yan An Elevated road which faces now the semaphore used to be a canal in the first place called Yangqqingbang. For this reason, it became a natural boundary to separate the early French settlers accompanying the consul De Montigny from the British followers of Sir George Balfour. It took a small bridge to cross the shallow water filled ditch. Interesting enough, the tower was named after Karl Gützlaff, a German missionary in China who decided to keep a blind eye on the smuggling of opium to seize this opportunity to spread christianity while working as an interpreter for the British. 

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When Yangqingbang was eventually filled, the newly created Avenue Edouard VII  became the playground for thieves who could escape each settlement's police forces by running to the other side. In the International Settlement, policemen were Indian Sikhs whereas the French hired Anamites from their Indochina colony. In 1941, when the Empire of Japan invaded Shanghai one the day after Pearl Harbor attack, their armed convoy was stopped there by a sIngle French army officer, patiently sitting on a folding chair. He explained that they could get into trouble with their German allies who controlled France at that time if they went any further. The event was long remembered by the Chinese who had been suffering from the Japanese occupation since 1937 as an act of bold heroism. Close to the French controlled semaphore was the British memorial of WWI representing a winged goddess of victory. It was distroyed by the Japanese during the months which followed this event. It is not clear however if this was an act of retaliation by the Japanese or a mere need of the metal for their war effort. 

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The development of radio transmissions progressively made visual observation of time irrelevant for ships staying in harbors and the Shanghai semaphore totally ceased to be used in 1956. At that date, some report it was turned into a police station. Following Deng Xiaoping reforms, the construction of a broader road on the Bund in 1993 led to the transfer of the tower seventy feet South East to give way to the traffic, a real technological challenge! For a while, the Bund Museum was occupied the ground floor and a cafe opened with access to the terrace, right at the base of the column. Today, the lighting of the building together with the rest of the old Bund makes the view from the Fellas Terrace where I was seating for my birthday an amazing one. The foreground actually reminds us of the first Foreigners coming to Shanghai whereas in the background one can appreciate some of the most modern skyscrapers in China. 

When taking a picture of the electric "520" numbers on Pudong towers (I was born on Lovers Day as my date spells like "I love you" in mandarin), I realized I used an iPhone. Today, weather forecasts, pollution indexes, not to mention local time for every single city, have become basic functions. I could then make a one hundred and fifty years time travel in a single shot and get a glimpse of Shanghai eternal modernity! 

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Posté par Shanghai Tours à 08:54 - Commentaires [0] - Permalien [#]


Meeting with Arnold Vissière's descendant

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FullSizeRenderAmong the famous photographs representing the meeting between East and West in China, there is one of a gentleman smoking with a Qing Dynasty official. He looks at the Chinese man in a friendly way as this one gently smiles at the camera. This exceptional picture represents French interpreter Arnorld Vissière with Luo Fenglu, the secretary of Li Hong Zhang, one of the most powerful ministers of the Qing. So when the French Consul transferred an email from Thomas Carpentier, a young man who claimed to be the grand grand nephew of Arnold Vissiere looking for traces of his ancestor, our small group of French Old Shanghai aficionados was more than happy to help.

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Born in 1858, Arnold Vissière is part of the group of the diplomat-interpreters who accompanied the French presence in China at the end of the nineteenth century. His translating skills were valued so high that the French minister denied him the possibility from returning to France for a long period to make sure he would finish the negotiations of some important peace treaties. The profession of interpreter was not standard when Arnold Vissière started his career. Even if the first Jesuits missionaries had started to codify Mandarin through methods like Wade-Giles or the Ricci dictionary, there was a world between understanding Chinese and been able to negotiate in Chinese, avoiding making Chinese lose face and using diplomatic idioms when meeting important characters. At the difference between his predecessors who often chose the job of interpreter as an easiest way to enter a diplomatic career (some like Kleczkowski did not even speak a single word of Chinese when they applied!), Arnold Vissière was truly fascinated by Chinese characters, which he started to study by himself at the Le Havre Library. He later graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales.

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In 1880 he was nominated at the Pekin Brazilian legation as a detached member of the French Foreign Ministry then two years later as an interpreter at the French Beijing legation. Very soon, he was involved in solving conflicts between France and the Chinese Empire. Although the opium war had been won by the British, the presence of Westerners in China was constantly threatened by instability or search for control over former territories including Indochina or Korea. Vissière was directly associated with peace negotiations after the Sino-French 1881-1885 war for Indochina which resulted into  the 1885 Tianjin Treaty. On this occasion, he got close to Li Hongzhang, like Chinese Gordon did twenty years earlier.

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For all these reasons, he made himself indispensable to the French government. Many visitors to China praised his deep knowledge of the language and culture or help into accessing powerful characters. Chinese documents also mention his name as they took him in great esteem. Among the documents shown by Thomas Carpentier during our meeting was the birth certificate of Henri Vissière, the son of Arnold, born in Shanghai in 1892. On this certificate is noted the name of his wife, Marie, which Arnold probably met in France in the late 1880s or early 1890s, finally being able to take a leave after securing the Tianjin treaty. He was at that time administrator of the French Consulate in Shanghai and for this reason probably staying in the neighborhood of the early rue du Consulat, between the Chinese walled city and Yangqingbang Creek, which became later Yan An Elevated Road, near the Quai de France, the Huangpu River French side wharf. In 1899, Arnold Vissière definitely came back to France when the use of highly skilled interpreters was not so important anymore, Chinese diplomatic staff being more and more trained into English or French languages. From then on, he devoted himself to sinology, documenting the edge of the Chinese Empire, one his most famous disciples being French explorer Victor Segalen. Arnold Vissière died in Paris in 1930.

When Thomas visited us, we realized he was a China lover himself, his girlfriend being originary from Sichuan. This is probably a sign of the deep and unconscious connection between his family and China!

Posté par Shanghai Tours à 06:26 - Commentaires [0] - Permalien [#]
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Shanghai diaries

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IMG_3061After reading Taras Grescoe's wonderful book "Shanghai Grand" about the love triangle between legendary Shanghai tycoon Victor Sassoon, American journalist Mickey Hahn and Chinese poet Shao Xunmei, I realized how important personal accounts are in understanding Old Shanghai history. The talented Canadian author Grescoe indeed largely bases his novel on Victor Sassoon's thirty-five journals stored at DeGolyer Library in Dallas. Actually before the internet age, those diaries look like my own blog on Shanghai as they mix events and photos with personal thoughts (Can't you see how pretentious I am? Ha ha!). Among the amazing stories recorded in Sir Victor's diaries is his decision to invest the Sassoon family fortune in Shanghai after spending a memorable 28th April 1928 night. This night escape included a boxing match at the Carlton Cafe, a few drinks at Del Monte cabaret and a dancing show at the Black Cat, in the "Entertainment District" near the Race Course, today's People Square.

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Convinced that a city which could keep a man approaching fifty awake so late was worth investing in, he noted in his journal: "Definitely decided on Hotel. Wilson the architect is a good man", in a reference to the Cathay Hotel, today's Peace Hotel, which opened only a few months later. Other vivid details come with the description of broken-hearted Victor Sassoon, who could never marry the woman he loved in England as being rejected as Jewish, meeting with the adventurer Mickey, two fancy characters in their own particular way on 12th April 1935. He was atracted by her wildness, short haircut and hardly any commitment but enjoying life. Both were soon to be seen in Sir Victor's private box at the Race Course or on his yacht called Eve, after his initials Ellice Victor Elias, during trips on the Huangpu River (Photo next). Sassoon's account of Shanghai is a businessman one, concerned with investment opportunities and the coming threat of Japan. His appetite for women is obvious as he documents every female encounter: age, married or not, "gold-digger", ... He illustrates his diary with thousands of photographs bringing a unique testimony of 1930s Shanghai's trendy life style.

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At the same time with coming out of "Shanghai Grand", two other books based on diaries are been published. One is Betty Barr's "Ruth's record" telling about her mother's detention years in the Shanghai Longwa camp, where JG Ballard, the famous author of "The Empire of the Sun", was also detained. Betty Barr mother's diary (photo nearby) aims at filling the long days in camp and keep a routine there as well as maintaining hope during those dark days. The last book in the form of a diary is Japanese-born Keiko Itoh's "My Shanghai 1942-1946: a novel" based the author's mother life, Eiko Kishimoto, who spent four of her young wife and mother years in Japanese occupied Shanghai (photo below). Although the book looks like a journal, most of the details are imaginary. It is however a rare account of the Japanese elite side staying in Shanghai during the war. Keiko Itoh's grandfather was a banker and diplomat, who was imprisoned on the Isle of Man by the British, bringing an interesting parallel with Betty Barr's parents who were detained by the Japanese in Shanghai. The exact opposite situation! As the writer explains in a British radio interview, the novel is a way for her to trace down family memories.

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Both books by Keiko Itoh and Taras Grescoe tell about the making of a woman, the first one being Keiko's mother, accessing a form of liberty through marriage in the Japanese culture. Same context for Mickey Hahn who enjoys both numerous male conquests and adventurous Asian experiences including opium and Chinese intellectual circles. Although characters like Victor Sassoon, Emily Hahn, Shao Xunmei, Ruth Barr and Eiko Kishimoto are very different from each other, as they all belong to different backgrounds and cultures, the simultaneous reading of these books by the Shanghai addict that I am, definitely helped me to make a clearer idea of daily lives of people living in Old Shanghai. I definitely prefer personal stories over big history, so journals give a direct account of historical events with many details on how people reacted to them.

Big history, often written by victors, is elyptic of fears, hopes and daily realities. From personal experiences, we can more easily draw lessons for our own lives as well as better understand historical events like those happening in Shanghai.

Posté par Shanghai Tours à 02:59 - Commentaires [0] - Permalien [#]

Shanghai Great World

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IMG_2635On the occasion of the reopening of the Great World Amusement Hall last week, I think it is more than time for me to tell about the history of this amazing place. The Great World(Da Shijie 大世界)) was first opened in July 1917 by Huang Chujiu, a businessman from Ningbo region who made a fortune by tricking customers into buying local medicine at the price of imports. The 14 700 meter square large five storey building was initially designed to provide cheap traditional Chinese entertainments which included story telling, food shops, theaters, puppet shows, wrestling and sing-song girls. The most popular performance  was Shaoxing opera, an adapted form of rural ballads mixed with Beijing opera. This type of show introduced stage scenery as well as dramatic characters like lovers or betrayed women. It was much appreciated among maids, grandmothers or shop assistants.

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When Huang Chujiu went broke in 1931, the place was acquired by gang boss Huang Jinrong, "pock-marked Huang". Under the racketeer's management, the Great World soon extended its activities to gambling and prostitution. After loosing their last copper, unfortunate patrons were said to jump to their death from the top floor! When visiting the place in September 1936, Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) placed the following comment: "On the first floor were gaming tables, singsong girls, magicians, pick-pockets, slot machines, fireworks, birdcages, fans, stick incense, acrobats, and ginger. One flight up were… actors, crickets and cages, pimps, midwives, barbers, and earwax extractors. The third floor had jugglers, herb medicines, ice cream parlors, a new bevy of girls, their high collared gowns slit to reveal their hips, in case one had passed up the more modest ones below who merely flashed their thighs."

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French reporter and adventurer Lucien Bodard also gave this stunning description : "This hell on earth is scientifically designed to attract all kind of people, punks and thieves but also respectable Chinese, honorable women. The Great World is a factory where everything burns and sinks. The gamblIng rage. Windows are grilled to avoid suicides, not by pity but in a concern for order. Desperate players then would climb on the roof where there is no railing to prevent them from jumping. There is much shouting and flashing lights all around, coming either from the Chinese opera or from the hords of pimps and girls, who are classified into some twenty categories but still equally make a great deal of their butts."

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On 14th August 1937, during the first days of the Japanese attack on Shanghai, two bombs fell on the crowd packed in front of the Great World, causing two thousands casualties. Some said the bombs were intentionally dropped from a Republican plane, in an attempt by Chiang Kai Shek to attract Western powers into the conflict. They preferred, however, to stay neutral in what they considered at that time an Asian war. During the Battle of Shanghai, the Great World served as a shelter for the Chinese refugees who fled the devastated zones (photo above). Japan was defeated in 1945 gambling restarted, although only for a short period as the Chiang Kai Shek regime tried to control nightlife more strictly. 

IMG_2650After the communist takeover, it became the "People's Amusement Arcade" and renouned for children activities like the twelve deforming mirrors. those dating from the 1917 hall, or circus performances. It also staged revolutionary plays in the upper rooms. Of course, the gloomy days of gangsters, opium smokers and fortunetellers were long gone. In the heat of the Cultural Revolution, the center closed its doors between 1966 and 1973. In the 1980s, an updated version included karaoke and motion pictures. In 2003, because of the SARS pandemic, the arcade closed again.

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For a couple of years, there were ongoing rumors of transferring the Traditional Handicraft Museum exhibits into the Great World. The building itself was undergoing a drastic face lifting but it was not clear what would eventually come out of it. I had the privilege to visit it on the very day of its reopening, last 31st March. Crowds of old Shanghainese had been queuing at the front door from early morning on, showing an obvious curiosity in the renovatIon. Many of them probably knew the place from their young age! When stepping in the doorway I noticed that the fun fair mirrors were still there. Inside the large piazza, now covered by a transparent roof, Chinese opera actors were also performing, just like in the past. The Chinese pavilion which faced the stage in the 1930s, however, had long disappeared as well as the window fences described by Lucien Bodard. On the upper floors, augmented-reality screens provided much excitation to the elderly as young children prefered to participate into drawing contests.

After pressing the top button of the elevator, I found a chain blocking the way to the roof. A security guard opened it and explained that I was the first visitor of the day in thIs part of the building. He told me about Huang Jinrong, happy to share his knowledge. Then, facing the iconic tower of the Great World, I thought of the unlucky gamblers who jumped from it. Who remembers them in a city that keeps transforming itself?

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Posté par Shanghai Tours à 05:44 - Commentaires [0] - Permalien [#]

Maryse Hilsz in Shanghai

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IMG_2423Last month I had the opportunity to meet with the daughter of former French Consul General Meyrier, 90 years old Jacqueline Meyrier (nearby). During the fascinating discussion with the group of Old Shanghai fans invited by the current Consul Général Axel Cruau, Jacqueline Meyrier explained that, when she was young, she met with Maryse Hilsz, one of the female aviators of the time, on her way to Tokyo from Paris. As I did not know her, I first decided to google her name to learn about this ususual figure and the event described by Jacqueline Meyrier.

Maryse Hilsz story

IMG_2430Born in 1901, Maryse Hilsz belongs to the group of women who came to the front page in the 1920s 1930s for piloting planes. This group also included Hélène Boucher or Maryse Bastié. At this time, choosing mechanic sports for women sent a strong message to the European male dominated societies. Hélène Boucher, for instance, involved herself in the fight for women's rights. As during WWI, women often replaced men in the factories, they soon learned how to get control of their own destinies. During the "crazy years" also,  there was this wind of change, a seek for modernity, symbolized by the Art Deco style in architecture or surrealism in painting. This gave even more opportunities to daring women like Maryse Hilsz to live up to their dream. She first experienced jumping in parachute in 1924 then decided to fly airplanes, eventually becoming a pilot in 1930. In 1932, she won the female record of altitude. As she was aware of the risks of the pilot carreer, she chose not to mary Andre Sahel, another talented aviator. Their relationship ended dramatically when Andre died at the commands of his plane in June 1934, which left Maryse devastated. She nevertheless went on with piloting. In 1935 and 1936, she won the Hélène Boucher Cup between Paris and Cannes. During WWII she helped the French Resistance and enlisted in the French Air Force after the war. She created the first French female flying squadron on the same model with USSR. In 1946 she died in a plane crash.

IMG_2451The pilot and the young girl

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In 1933, Maryse Hilsz had undertaken to fly from Paris to Tokyo, a two weeks raid, making many stops on the way. After French Indochina Hanoï, she arrived in Shanghai on the 14th April, before heading to Seoul and finally Tokyo. To find more information on this Shanghai halt, I went to the Zikawei Library to look for the French newspaper of the next day. Bingo! I found a two pages article commenting the visit of the famous air pionnier. On the front page, a group photo of a smiling woman holding flowers in front of her plane surrounded by officials and a young girl. When reading carefully the article, I discovered that the characters on the picture were Jacques Meyrier, Jacqueline's father, her mother Edmée and herself at the age of six! No wonder, when looking at the fascinated expression of hers on both photos nearby and below, that the coming of the famous flying lady in her blue Farman F-291 (above) became a lifetime memory.

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The journalist also describes Hongqiao airport, a muddy grass airfield at that time,  very far from today's modern transportation hub connected to high speed train and Shanghai subway! He also mentions that Maryse Hilsz changed clothes as soon as she got off her plane, which reminds us of the social position of women in those years. Whatever their achievements, they had to remain attractive in a male dominated world. Interesting too is the reference to her "Parisian elegance" and accent that, he writes, the "Shanghai French community misses so much". At that period, French people living in Shanghai French Concession were hardly 2500! No wonder that remembering French roots in the prevailing British culture (Britons were nearly 10 000) was important to these early "expats". When thinking of the one month journey by boat back to France, not need to say that these were scarce. Last but not the least, the description of the official reception process including a press conference at the French Consulate, another at the Alliance Francaise within the College Municipal Français and finally an evening party at the Cercle Sportif Français. A real flavor of the French Concession type of life! Again, I am grateful to the French Consulate to have organized this meeting with an old Shanghai lady, whose young age memories took us back to the fascinating years of Shanghai 1930s! 

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Posté par Shanghai Tours à 13:32 - Commentaires [0] - Permalien [#]


Tracing memories in Shanghai

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IMG_2204I recently received the visit of Bob King, a retired Canadian high school administrator (right on the photo, his son in the center with partner) whose father worked in the Shanghai Municipal Police during the 1930s. Like many people with Shanghai roots, Bob told me many stories, some of them joyful and others sadder as related to the internment of American and British citizens by the Japanese. Interesting enough, Bob's visit came at the moment of the publication by Betty Barr, an eye witness of the Japanese camps, of the detention diary of her mother. Betty and her parents stayed in Longwa camp together with JG Ballard who wrote "The Empire of the Sun", the novel turned into a movie by Stephen Spielberg. 

Mark and Tulita story

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Bob's father, Mark King came to Shanghai in 1933 from Canada. As many young people, Mark was attracted by roaring Shanghai. He joined the Shanghai Municipal Police after responding to an ad in the newspaper. As a new recruit, he probably received his instruction at the Gordon Depot, named after famous Charles "Chinese" Gordon. This place also became the training grounds of the world's first "riot squads" created by William Ewart Fairnbairn. Mark King was eventually promoted to a sergeant, based at Bubbling Well Road Police Station, at the end of today's Nanjing West Road, right in front of the Paramount dance hall (Photo next second row second from the right). As a member of the "vice squad" dealing with night life criminality, this location near "Shanghai badlands", on the West border of the International Settlement was clearly relevant. In December 1937 Mark married with Bob's mother, Tulita True, a Philippines American whose parents had come to Shanghai when she was quite young. Well educated, Tulita first worked as the secretary to the US district attorney at Shanghai American consulate before becoming China's first Asian American woman deputy marshal, a source of pride for Bob!

IMG_3985The American Consulate, where Tulita worked, was located on the North side of the Suzhou River along with the Japanese one. Tulita was a real China lover, Bob remembers, and used to play with Chinese children in her young age, which was not so common as racial prejudice was the standard back then. The family stayed on Nanjing West Road at Majestic Apartments, an Art Deco heritage building still standing today. The invasion of China by Japan late 1937 however made the situation of Westerners more difficult. The Japanese military had gone up to the Suzhou River that played the role of a natural border (read my article "a Bridge too close"). During the years of confrontation, Mark was involved in a dispute on the Garden Bridge (first photo) between drunken Japanese soldiers coming from the "trenches", one of the brothel area North of Suzhou Creek. This ended dramatically for  Mark was badly beaten by the Japanese soldiers and therefore sent to hospital.

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After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 8th December 1941, starting a war with US, the situation got worse for Mark and Tulita. Westerners had to identify themselves according to their country of origin, wearing a red arm band in the case of British and American citizens. Starting from 1943, they were sent to prison camps. Bob's mother was interned in Ash Camp (remaining building on photo nearby), along today's Yan An Road along with some 450 civilians as Mark had already been put into custody in 1942 in Haiphong Road camp, a special camp for police and military who were considered as potential spies or fighters by the Japanese. The treatment back there was tougher as detainees were regularly dragged to the Kampeitai (political police) center located in Bridge House (photo below) for interrogation. Reports of tortures, beatings and even deaths made the place of ill memory. Bridge house still exist today, although it has been turned by the communist authorities into the living quarters for thousands of Chinese, who probably have no idea of the terrible things that happened there.

Tracing memories 

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Before Bob arrived, I researched the informations that he sent to find current addresses of the places where his parents stayed. With help of old maps, I could successfully find all these places. Haiphong camp was destroyed to make way to cheap community apartments in the 60s and Ash camp grounds are used by a school today. However Bob insisted to see those places. Bridge House came as a shock to everyone as the heavy atmosphere is still everywhere. US Consulate on the Huangpu and Bubbling well Road Police Station are long gone, both replaced by more recent buildings. The most emotional moment for Bob and his son was visiting Majestic Apartments. Although we had the original number of Mark and Tulita King's apartment, those have changed during the Mao era with splitting of places to accommodate more Chinese families.

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Next to the new numbers however, we could find some of the original ones on the old doors. After asking around, we finally located Bob's family's apartment. We knocked out  the door untill an old Shanghainese lady opened. With help of neighbors who could speak Mandarin and one even English, we were admitted in. To our great surprise, the apartment was untouched. The neighbors explained that this one was the only apartment in the whole building not to have been split, with the same family living there since 1952. When we compared the dates, we suddenly realized they actually occupied the house not long after the King family had left it in. Both Chinese and Canadians were so moved by this reunion after some 65 years of parallel history that everybody went for a group photo. The lady who helped us with translating said she remembered playing with a Western boy. As Bob was three back then, "this might just have been you" she said!

Fascinating Old Shanghai stories still echo into present times and trenscend language or cultural barreers!

Shanghai Gordon

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IMG_2125I recently found a picture in one of the old photo books at Deke Ehr's Old China Hand bookstore on Shaoxing Road. It represented a deep-blue-eyed Englishman wearing a Turkish fez on his head with the mysterious title "Gordon Pasha". I probably stayed five minutes contemplating this fascinating face, puzzled by the association between the oriental type of his clothes and honorific title and the English spelling of his name as well as his staring at the camera.

This is not the first time I hear the Turkish title of "Pasha" applied to a Western figure. When I was young I indeed used to watch a Franco-German TV series called ”Omar Pasha” (Click to watch). It narated the adventures of a Serbian origin former officer in the Austrian army who converted to Islam and became one of the most talented generals in the whole Ottoman Empire. This fiction was inspired by a real character called Michael Latas (photo below) who lived between 1806 and 1871 and eventually became the governor of Libanon, Bagdad and later the Minister of War of the Sultan. So this name of Gordon Pasha intrigued me to the point that I decided to know more about this charismatic figure. It eventually revealed to be closely connected to Shanghai history, to my surprise! 

French légion d'honneur

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Charles Georges Gordon actually was born in London in 1833. After serving in the Crimean war against the Russian Empire in 1855, he was eventually granted the title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honnor by the French who became impressed by this daring participation in the siege of Sevastopol. Back then, he already made a reputation of being brave and capable. The French used to say said about him: "If you want to know what the Russians are up to, send for Charlie Gordon." Strange enough, I discover that the Omar Pasha from my child memory also fought during the same Crimean war against the Russians. This is five years later however that Charles Gordon will achieve his most decisive military success and this will happen in Chinese Shanghai!

Chinese Gordon

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Gordon was dying for action, so he made several requests to the British Ministry of War, and was finally sent to China in 1860 to fight the Taiping rebellion. At that time, the charismatic madman called Hong Xiuquan, pretending himself the brother of Jesus, had declared war on the Qing Emperors, raising an army of 500 000 men. Those rebels had already conquered almost the whole of South East China, which were the richest regions. Massacres and destructions had reached a level which was hardly bearable for both population and existing authorities. In Shanghai, the foreign settlements were under threat, so the British and French decided to support the Qing Dynasty in fighting the rebels. In this unforeseen collaboration between the Chinese and the Westerners, the American mercenary Frederick Ward led the Chinese troops into battle. Bringing western military skills as well as modern equipments, Ward successfully contained the rebels with help of his militia which became "the ever victorious army". He got killed in 1862 after ensuring the victory in the battle of Cixi. 

IMG_2198Ward's successor, an American called Burgevine, was disliked by the Emperor for his heavy drinking, racism and extreme greediness. The name of Gordon was proposed, as he had a reputation for being honest and incorruptible, qualities that hardly applied to the Chinese officers themselves. In his command of the Ever Victorious Army, for which he designed the uniforms (photo above), "Chinese Gordon", as he would soon be called by his compatriots, brought discipline, even ordering summary executions for soldiers who sold themselves to the Taiping. He eventually regained the important cities of Kunshan and Suzhou, leading to the fall of the Taiping in 1864. He made friend with Li Hongzhang who later became the powerful Minister of Industry and Communication and early moderniser of Imperial China. For his outstanding contribution to the rescue of the Qing Empire, Gordon was awarded with the title of tidu (提督), the equivalent of field marshall, and received the "imperial yellow jacket" (photo). After the Chinese episode, Charles Gordon returned to England where he devoted himself to charity work as well as religious quest for a couple of years, showing  another aspect of his personality.

Gordon Pasha

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In 1874 he accidentally met with Egyptian Prime Minister in Constantinople who proposed him to serve under the Khedive (viceroy in the Ottoman Empire) of Egypt. At that time, this part of the Ottoman Empire was deeply influenced by Europe as the Canal of Suez had been recently opened (1869) and the viceroy himself was French educated. Although a devoted Muslim, he was said to like Italian and French wines, imposed French language at his court and tried to modernize his country on the model of Europe. After negotiations, the British officer was eventually appointed governor of a South Egypt province called "Equatoria" which included today's South Sudan and the Great Lakes region near North Uganda. In his mission, Gordon quickly made ennemies when fighting the slave trade in the region, as this was profiting to local officials. In 1876, the Khedive made him Governor-General of the entire Sudan with the honorific rank of a "pasha" in the Ottoman aristocracy. In this position, he deeply reformed the local cruel ottoman laws, abolishing torture as well as public floggings. However his efforts to fight corruption remained fruitless and the power of slave traders became even stronger after 1876 when the Egyptian economic crisis made financing of his reforms more difficult. This led a deeply depressed Gordon to return to England in 1879. 

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The last episode of the life of Gordon is probably better known as it is depicted in the 1966 movie "Khartoum" with Charlton Heston (above) and also immortalized in Victorian painter George William Joy's "Gordon last stand" (nearby). Gordon was called back to Sudan in 1884. At that time, the Egyptian government was facing a military coup in Cairo and the British had increased their influence in the Suez Canal region. The remote conquests of the Khadive became of smaller interest. This was precisely the moment chosen by the Dervishes of the "Mahdi" to launch an Islamic revolt.

The Gordon of those years, however, was not the same man anymore according to  many witnesses. He had become erratic and unpredictable. So, his decision to hold Khartoum against received order to evacuate the city is often commented as an unconscious act of suicide. He would eventually die on 26th January 1885, in arms, contradicting the version given by the press of the time of a defenseless martyr, a sort of Christ sacrificing for men's sins. This allegory is even strengthened in both painting and movie showing a Muslim throwing his spear, just like the Roman soldier at the dying Christ!

Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha or Gordon of Khartoum as you prefer is just another amazing Shanghai character who embodied the synthesis between East and West. His multiple personality as a man of faith fighting for social justice and a military leader at the same time even added to the legend.

Meeting with Jacqueline Meyrier

French version

IMG_3661Among the people who actually knew Shanghai 1930s, my recent meeting with Jacqueline Meyrier, the daughter of Consul General Jacques Meyrier, is a special one. We did had the opportunity to discuss with the 90 years old lady who specially came to Shanghai to celebrate her birthday after more than 67 years of absence. This unique event happened at the Villa Basset, the French Consul General residence.

Villa Basset (last photo) is well-known by the French community in Shanghai as it is the place to celebrate the 14th of July. This wonderful house was built in 1921 for a French Exchange Broker named Lucien Basset in a Basque Art Nouveau style. The lovely tiles representing flowers under its flat roof, looking like one in the Collège Municipal Français definitely make this place a great piece of architecture. It became the residence of a famous American-born crook in 1931, Franck Raven, who stole millions from the local missionaries. After the scandal was eventually revealed, the house was seized but only restituted to France, long after diplomatic relations with New China were restored. 

Consul Meyrier

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Consul Jacques Meyrier was born in 1922 in New Orleans, the son to famous diplomat Gustave Meyrier. The latter was Deputy Consul in Turkey then in Armenia where he alerted the world opinion on the shameful Turkish massacres. This is precisely in Constantinople that his son Jacques started his carreer as Deputy Consul in 1916. Then he was appointed to China Shanghai with the same position in 1924 before becoming Consul in Tianjin in 1929. In 1932, the French authorities granted him with the mission of replacing Shanghai Consul General Koechlin, whose collusion with local Green Gang boss Du Yuesheng had become notorious. His task was then to clean up the French Concession from opium trafficking as well as replace corrupted officers within the French Police (read this story fom my other article about Inspector Joseph Hsieh). He would eventually leave Shanghai for Beyruth in 1936 then Rabat in 1942, under French Protectorat, in an effort to restore Free France authority. In 1945 however, he came back to China as the French Ambassador where he frequently met with Chiang Kai Shek and was even made friend with Zhou En Lai. When we met with Jacqueline Meyrier, she proudly showed us her father's photo standing with General Chiang and his Ministers on the steps of Nanjing Government House (first photo). In 1950, like many foreigners, he had to leave China and became eventually the French Ambassador in Spain. Jacques Meyrier died in 1963.

Chinese memories

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At the time when Jacqueline Meyrier was born, at Shanghai Sainte Marie Hospital Maternity on 6th February 1927, her family stayed at the French Consulate near the Bund (photo next). She remembers going to church on Sunday's at nearby Saint Joseph Church or attending school at the Charity Sister's Institute. "I did not have many friends", she admits, as diplomats' children's life is often a seclude one. She remembers the noise coming from the Quai de France which was always filled with coolies carrying loads off the boats. Her most vivid memories come however with the smells in those years, when "cities were far thilthier than today". This explains why when her family landed after the war on an American DC3 at Chongqing airport, located in the middle of the Yangtse River, she bursted out with a :"This smells like we are back in China!". 

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There were rats running around, she adds, and those could be found in our humble bamboo house back then. When the Meyrier family came back to China, Jacqueline met with her future husband, a Dutch executive working for the Nippon Line ocean liners company. He would eventually make a diplomat of himself. One of Jacqueline's strongest memories was when Chiang Kai Shek's wife, Soon Mei Ling (nearby photo with husband), offered to have her personal taylor to make her wedding dress. This was a long collar qipao, with short sleeves and slit on the leg! Soong Mei Ling told her: "You were born in China like me and now also marry in China, so you are half Chinese!". In 1946, Jacqueline left China to follow her husband, this one eventually becoming the Dutch Consul General in Belgian Congo, among other countries! She only stayed two years in France in her entire life, including one in 1944 at the Liberation of Paris, an unforgettable moment she says, as French people were so happy to regain their freedom. She moved up to 23 times in total!

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Not surpringly when she is asked about why she never returned to China till now, she answers she was simply too busy visiting her children living in Italy or Argentina. For her 90 years birthday, however, she could not resist to see her childhood place again. When staying at the Okura Garden Hotel, she suddenly realized she used to come there as a child, then the Cercle Sportif Français. Aged six at that time, her "amah" used to take her in the garden as adults were enjoying lunch or dinner inside. From China, she also recollects the taste of "baijiu" which she had during official venues in the 1940s. She decided to have a glass of it for her 90th birthday. So happy Shanghai birthday Jacqueline!

Happy new year, Shanghai roosters!

Version Française

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On the occasion of the coming of the Chinese Year of the Fire Rooster, I would like to remind my dear readers that the rooster is also the French national emblem. For quite a long period in Shanghai, it was associated with the French Sports Club , today's Okura Garden Hotel located on today's Maoming Road, previously called rue du Cardinal Mercier by the French. Completed in 1926, this wonderful building is the masterpiece of two young and talented architects Alexandre Leonard and Paul Veysseyre who launched their career on this specific occasion. Veysseyre was actually 27 years old when Minutti, the architect design office who employed him, was awarded the contract in 1923 by the French Municipal Council which also employed Jacques Mayol's father, Laurent. Very soon, members of the Municipality were impressed by his ingenious skills, ended the contract with Minutti and handed it over to the pair of brillant employees. For a time, it was still possible to find cutlery in the antique and flee markets of Shanghai bearing the French rooster of the Cercle Sportif Français. A friend of mine who is antique collector, recently got rid of a menu with this sign. When someone was actually joining the Club for the weekend dancing parties, they would climb the stairs, once surrounded by Art Deco stained glass and be welcome by a statue of the French rooster.

Chicken stories

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The first person to associate the French with the rooster was Julius Caesar in his Commentaries. At that time the Celtic tribes staying in today's France kept fighting each other, giving a great opportunity for the ambitious Roman general to look for fame. He sent his legions across the Alps and and finally defeated everyone in the town of Alesia. During his campaign, Julius Caesar wrote his own self-aggrandizing version of events. To ridicule the Celts, he called them "Galli", meaning chicken, an Latin insult for cowards! This word actually became the only one to describe the French tribes based on the then conquered territory and therefore known as the "Gauls". This reputation, however, was anything but true, as Gauls were fierce warriors, whose only superstition was the fall of the sky as funnily described by the cartoonist Uderzo in his famous series Asterix. The Gauls were actually known to fight naked, a way to show they did not fear enemies, and usually ran onto them with a single sword, yelling at them!

Another often reference to the rooster in France comes from Christianism, as most French churches have a small rooster shaped wind sign - weather cock- on their steeples. This symbolizes Christ finding his way against contrary winds, the choice of the rooster as announcing the daylight after the night, an image of truth and good triumphing over darkness and evil. The tradition for early Christians was also to gather for the first prayer at the morning crowing of the rooster. For my Belgian friends, I would like to mention this joke about the French reputed for being infatuated with themselves. The reason, Belgians say, to select the rooster as their national symbol: an animal able to sing everyday with their feet on a stinky pile of, er, let's call it compost - an another image of a declining country and still proud of itself! We, the French, of course, don't mind one bit. Indeed, we currently confront our international competitors with little or no clothes on. Not litterally of course! Another cocktail? 

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Sources et photos:

  • Shanghai's Art Deco Master, Paul Veysseyre's Architecture in the French Concession, authors Spencer Dodington & Charles Lagrange: Earnshaw 2014
  • Commentarii de Bello Gallico, author Julius Caesar, 50BC, TheLatinLibrary.com, 2008
  • Asterix the Gaul, authors René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Dargaud 1959

Deda, Russian cafe culture

Version Française

IMG_3062There are many places in Shanghai that definitely feel like Europe. However, some are so much part of the local history that even the Shanghainese feel at home there. This is the case of Deda Cafe (德大). The original cafe was founded by Russians in 1897 at 177 Tanggu Road in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. In 1949, the cafe was relocated in to 359 Sichuan North Road, which was the most popular location in old Shanghainese memories. There are two Deda Cafes today. One is in on Nanjing West Road at 473, dating from 2007 and the other is located on Yunnan Road, right at the intersection with Yan An elevated Road. This is in the latter where I happened to have a cup of coffee.

Old time memories 

IMG_3061First I was surprised by the ambiance: a mixture of a Central European cafe and Shanghai old-timers’ meeting place. It is very unusual to see people speaking Shanghainese dialect and reading the newspapers in a cafe decorated with wooden panels, 1930s-style floor tiles and a cashier resembling those American candy stores. Not too different either from my French memories when I was ten and my grandfather took me to the café-tobacconist to buy his cigarettes, sip a coffee and buy me one of the small Dinky Toys cars sold at the counter. I remember the smell of heavy smokers there and the many retired people playing cards or chatting. I also remember the smell of freshly milled coffee beans, as the expresso-type coffee was not yet popular. At the that time it would take more than 5 five minutes to be served with a real fragrant cup of coffee as it was hand-made by slowly pouring water onto the freshly milled powder.

You get a very similar feeling indeed when taking a break at Deda Cafe. They have no modern equipment to make high-pressure expressos or complex latte. The coffee comes in an old-style thick porcelain cup, just like those in my grandmother’s kitchen, and the milk is there for you to pour yourself from a can of condensed sugared milk. These kinds of cans were also common in the past when people were not used to buying fresh milk and would store the more easily conserved condensed milk. As you slowly sip from your cup, flavours close to Turkish coffee come to your mouth, probably due to the selection of the beans used by the Deda brand. At the the entrance of the cafe there are more old objects on display, further strengthening the impression of stepping into the past.

Russian heritage

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Russian origin cafes, restaurants and bakeries were common in Shanghai as the population of Russian immigrants was large in the 1920s and 1930s. The first émigrés came at the end of the 19th century to escape the pogroms in Russia, because of their Jewish religion. However, the vast majority of the Chinese Russian population were the White Russians who fled their country after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In total, there were around 20,000 Russians living in Shanghai between the two world wars, most of them in the French Concession, where for some, the language was familiar as it was spoken at the Court of St Petersburg. They arrived with hardly any money, destitute and had to start from scratch, capitalising on the expansion of the French Concession to create small businesses. The cafe culture became very popular among the Russians who went to DD’s or Arcadia, both near Avenue Joffre (today’s Huaihai Road) to drink and listen to Russian music (read my article on Vertinsky). There were also famous bakeries like the ones founded by the Tchakalian Brothers, who fled from Armenia then settled in Russia before ending up in Shanghai. These bakeries still exist today under the Chinese name of Lao Da Chang (老大昌). Many of today’s Chinese cake recipes are of Russian origin, as the Chinese bakers were originally trained by the Russian founders. But for the Shanghainese, those old bakeries are full of childhood memories since they continued to run during the Mao era.

A family venue

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When I talked to my Shanghainese friends about my experience in Deda, they immediately associated the place with borsch (luosong tang 罗崧汤), the famous Russian soup. They actually often go there with their family, just to enjoy this dish. Funny enough, the menu in Deda, like in other restaurants of Russian origin, serves borsch but with French fries or Italian pizza, looking like Western food to the Shanghainese but not really Russian. This is an international city after all!

So, if you are like me, not totally Chinese and sometimes nostalgic for old fashioned flavours and Central European tastes, Deda is the place for you.

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