As I was flipping in the pages of "Chin chin" (青青电影), a Shanghai late 1930s cinema magazine, I was attracted by the many pictures of movie stars photographed at the swimming pool. I have already written the story of Yang Xiuqiong, the famous Chinese mermaid, who won swimming competitions during the 1930s. I did not realize, however, how much swimming was in style in those years. Actually almost every life and culture magazine had a section dedicated to pool activities, portraying young beautiful ladies in swimming suit or even male celebrities at the pool.
After China organized the 6th national games in 1935, olympic-sized equipments were available in Shanghai. I finally discovered that Yang Xiuqiong in my previous article was pictured at the 1935 Jiangwan swimming pool, this one still operating today. After indulging myself with a 50 meters long swim there, I was pleased to climb up the original copper ladder to get off the pool. Art Deco depth signs were still visible on the two sides of the pool as well as the iconic three arches. strictly identical to their 1935 shape. Such a treat! Only difference is the pool is now covered by a roof whereas it was an open air one back in the 1930s.
The "Isolated island"
In late 1937, when Japanese invaded China, most of these equipments were in the Shanghai occupied part and therefore used by the Japanese themselves. Chinese cinema industry suffered from the war when filming studios were destroyed during the bombing of Zhabei. Some more lucky filming companies, however, were located in the foreign settlements like Xinhua Studios of Zhang Shankun (张善琨). The period was later called, the "Isolated Island" (“gudao“ 孤岛), as all of Shanghai was occupied, except for the foreign settlements. With less competition and an urging need of the Chinese people to forget about war hardships, Xinhua activities simply boomed. In the sole year 1939, they produced 24 films!
New movie stars emerged like Bai Yang, Li Hong or Li Zhuozhuo. In order to promote their films, cinema studios sponsored a new type of press dedicated to this industry, film fanzines telling about movie stars gossips and featuring a dream world very much inspired by the American exemple of Hollywood. Luxury cars and new sports like golfing, horse riding and swimming were definitely part of this decorum. In August 1938, the Head of Shanghai Municipal Police Chinese Squad and Green Gang member Lu Liankui (陆连奎) launched a swimming pool right in the middle of the settlement at 580 Bubbling Well Road, today Nanjing West Road.
Paramount on water
Lu Liankui logically called it Dalu or Dalo swimming pool (大陆) in Shanghainese, after his own name, meaning "Great Lu" and also "Continent". (Advertising above). The swimming pool was a lavish one, equipped with a diving platform, 50 meters long and 20 meters large, bordered with a restaurant, a concrete stand able to accommodate 400 people, two round shaped shallow water areas with fountains and a large piece of grass to lay in the sun. The policeman and gangster, whatever you name him, survived only two months to his creation as he was stabbed to death, victim of his most dangerous activities. His son inherited the swimming pool but was such a bad manager that he had to sell it in June 1941 to Zhang Shankun, the Xinhua Studio tycoon, who made it a natural extension of his existing businesses. Zhang renamed the place "Zhang Garden" (张园）and added to the existing premises a dance floor to launch parties till five in the morning. This new trendy venue was inaugurated by "Chinese movie queen" Chen Yunchang (Nancy Chan).
She wore high heels and heavy make-up for the occasion, her bodyguards said to protect her even in the swimming pool! The place soon became nicknamed "water Paramount" in a comparison with the famous ballroom located in "Shanghai badlands", the western limit of the international settlement. In the pages of Chin Chin magazine, I found several photos of swimming female film stars and also male celebrities exercising on the diving platform. Interesting enough is a photo of a young White Russian photographed there in Hennie Warinner's bio. This is obviously the Dalo Swimming Pool diving plateform but the 1934 date seems incorrect, so I will have to check this later. Among other fashionable swimming pools of the time was also the Lido, located 306 Medhurst Road (today Taixing Road), which opened in July 1936. We find many photos taken there too in cinema magazines of the "isolated island" period of Shanghai. After the Japanese had taken over the International Settlement, the Dalo Swimming Pool remained open for two more years but Zhang Shankun filming company was merged into in a Japanese propaganda group. This led to his arrest by the Guomingdang in 1946.
Zhang eventually emigrated to Hong Kong. In 1953 the swimming pool reopened under communist rule. It was available for public use in very different conditions. Students could swim there during summertime if they presented "health coupons" for one hour time and it was only filled with only to the half. No need to say that the shallow areas were not covered nor the fountains working. The concrete stand had disappeared and the restaurant turned into a ping-pong hall. The former glory of the place was long gone! In 1993, it was definitely destroyed to make way to a commercial building, until recently the Nanjing Road fake market! Last year, the fake market was closed and the future project is still unknown.
Shanghai is always full of interesting surprises for one eager to dig them out. There, personal stories do meet with larger history, making every single destiny a reflection of changing times and cultural habits.
As I was having xiaolongbao, a Shanghai type of dumpling, in a tea house called Lao Shanghai on East Fangbang Road, my attention was caught by an exhibited 1930s Art Deco magazine cover. It showed a young lady wearing a bikini-type swimming suit. This outfit is not common on Shanghai magazines as ladies often wear qipaos. However, swimming was quite fashionable, representing modernity in the 1930s. So I thought that this cover was just another way to attract the readers attention with the new type of healthy beauty (jianmei), a mark for woman emancipation, influenced by Hollywood. At this time, Tarzan movies, starring olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, were very popular. His female partners playing Jane on screen also wore bikinis. Considering the swimming pool in the background, I was intrigued as I had been looking for historic pools but could not recognize this one. From the floor tiles and the Art Deco letters behind the girl, I first thought of the YMCA near the race course, but when I compared with the photos I took there, those would not match. Then I realized that this could be an outdoor pool, from the balustrade on top of the arches.
Hongkou swimming pool
Coincidentally this week, I had the opportunity to discover the only remaining historic outdoor swimming pool in Hongkou, dating 1922. Hongkou swimming pool was initially built by the British and called Municipal Council Swimming Pool. There were two swimming pools in this area, the other one located on North Sichuan Road. A famous story tells us a lot about the atmosphere in those years. One day, two Chinese youngsters tricked the British guards with speaking Japanese words at the entrance. They were expelled later from the pool because of shouting at each other in Chinese. There was indeed a harsh racial prejudice against the Chinese, which apparently did not apply to the Japanese. From 1937 on, the Japanese army precisely took the swimming pool for themselves after invading China. In 1946, it became the territory of the Chinese Republican bourgeois elite before opening to a larger public with the New China era.
The Hongkou swimming pool remained for a long period the largest open air swimming pool in Shanghai and also a famous place for athletes to train. When I was swimming there, it reminded me of my visit at the Piscine Molitor in Paris, although the latest renovation transformed the place into a far more luxurious venue than Hongkou. However, they have in common the large size, the fact that both were turned into ice skating rings during the winter season and that many famous athletes showed up in both pools, including Johnny Weissmuller in Paris where he was a swimming teacher! Unluckily for my research, the configuration of the site did not quite resemble the one in the swimming goddess picture.
China's little mermaid
The mystery was partially elucidated when I found the name of the lady: Yang Xiuqiong written in small characters below the picture. Yang Xiuqiong was born in Dongguan near Canton in 1918. Her father taught her swimming, for which she showed some talent. She moved to Hong Kong in 1928 where she could improve her training and won two gold medals with 50 meters and 100 meters freestyle at the Hong Kong Swimming Open in 1930. In 1933, she participated in the Nanjing fifth national games and set four new national records.
She was then only 15 years old and made such a great impression that she was invited to meet with Chiang Kai Shek and wife Soong Meiling, who adopted her as foster daughter. She had already earned the nickname of "China's Mermaid" (meirenyu), spread by media, looking for symbols of national pride. Her fame was at its utmost the next year, when she participated in the 10th Far Eastern Games in Manila. There, she won three individual gold medals and one together with her team. She got her picture on the front page of Liangyou, popular among the new bourgeois-type Republican elites.
She was quoted as one of the ten most outstanding women of the day. The year after, she participated in demonstrations in Nanjing, Nanchang or Xiamen for Chiang's New Life Movement. The monthly magazine Zhong Hua on which I spoted her picture was issued in October 1935. My final guess is that the swimming pool is in Nanjing (fourth picture). In an online Chinese article however, the Art-Deco depth sign is visible on a photo (above), taken at the Manila games, they say, which I doubt would have used Chinese characters! The luck of the little mermaid was about to change however. In 1936, she set out from Shanghai for the Berlin Olympic Games. As the journey took her 17 days, she had no time to train on arrival. The outcome was a series of failures. On her return to China, the same press that had made her a national hero, bashed her, angry at her results. With war starting with Japan, her carreer was put to a halt. However, she could join a competition in Chongqing where she won eight gold medals! Unfortunately, this performance attracted a warlord's attention, who forced her into becoming his 18th wife! Unhappy with this union, she went into opium to the point that her body became unrecognizable. This led her husband to abandon her. She lived in Shanghai (photo at Hongkou pool below) before leaving for Hongkong then Vancouver, where she died in 1982.
This sad story reminds us of those of other female celebrities of these years, the most tragic being film star Ryan Lingyu committing suicide at only twenty-five years old after the Shanghai press had damaged her reputation. Another similar destiny is actor Hu Die, forced into a sex relation with Chiang Kai Shek's head of secret police Daili. She eventually immigrated to Vancouver, exactly like our "China's mermaid".
Those stories show how ephemeral was the fame in those years and the rising role of mass media. Just like in Hollywood, 1930s Shanghai press could make stars in one day and throw them away the minute after!
When I first came to Shanghai in 2010 for the World Expo, I remember being impressed by the remastering of the Huangpu banks from a messy industrial area into a modern and clean designed visitors park. At some point, I crossed to the West side D zone to see pavilions dedicated to technology. Then I walked on an elevated pathway overlooking a plaza containing three longs dry docks. I could not imagine at that time that those were the last traces of one of China's earliest shipyards.
History of the arsenal
When the Westerners won the Opium War in 1842, they surprised the Qing Dynasty army with their overwhelming firing power. This gap became even more obvious when the Empire faced the Taiping Rebellion in 1850 and would have most probably collapsed if the Western powers had not helped them out. The British indeed chose to secure their positions in China by standing at the Emperor's side against the Taiping. So they authorized the Qing to recruit experienced Western military mercenaries like Frederick Ward or Chinese Gordon who lead some of the Emperor's armies into battle. This elite corp was nicknamed "the Ever Victorious Army", due to its successes at war. Those soldiers were equipped with British riffles and trained into Western military discipline and helped raising consciences about the need for China to modernize. Among the promoters of technical cooperation with the West was Li Hongzhang (nearby), a prominent figure during the second part of the 19th century. In 1861, he joined other local officials and launched, with tacit agreement of Beijing, a policy called the "Self Strengthening Movement".
This was an attempt to fill China's gap with the West in terms industry, with priorities given to military arsenals and shipbuilding dockyards. In Shanghai, the Jiangnan arsenal was created in 1865, with a production of 4200 Remington type rifles by 1873. Chinese warships came out from its initial two dockyards, which become five in 1900, accommodating ships up to 500 feet long and 25 feet deep. The site covered 800 000 meters square. However, Chinese weapons and ships could not rival their Western competitors both in cost and quality. Reasons were the heavy bureaucracy and the plethoric use of foreign experts, who were not always skilled and could not be challenged by the Chinese. The failure of the modernization policy was completed by the rise to power of the conservative wing supported by Empress Dowager Cixi. This missed opportunity led to the fall of the Qing at the beginning of the following century, consecutively beaten by Japan and Russia before been overthrown by the 1912 revolution.
Republican and Mao eras
During the 1920s, the Jiangnan arsenal was run by the new Chinese Republic, with help of private foreign investments, and considered as a strategic asset by the new Chinese leaders. In 1937, the Japanese took over the premises although most of the production had been transferred to Chongqing by retreating Chiang Kai Shek. With the founding of "New China", the Jiangnan Shipbuilding Yard became one of China major ship production sites, then integrated in the state-owned CSSC Group. They produced numerous military destroyers, tracking ships but also gas carriers, bulk carriers and crude oil tankers.
For the 2010 Shanghai Expo, production was transferred to Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze. The area was redesigned and named "Jiangnan Square", dedicated to companies like Coca Cola, China Railway and of course CSSC. A theatre was built in one of the docks and a children space in the other. The main purpose of the square was to connect the pavilions to ferry services and subway to the other bank. The three dry docks were circled by the elevated pathway that I used on the day of my visit, giving a unique view on the China Pavillon and the rest of the pavilions. When the Expo was over, however, I was never able to access again this site as it was closed to the public until 1st July 2017!
Rediscovering the old shipyard
For some time now, there was something going on in this area with a new alley for pedestrians and bikes ready to open but under constant surveillance of security guards. When talking with some of them, I learned about the official opening of the path. No need to say I wanted to be among the first to go there and discover the new site. I was definitely pleased with this brand new public space. The interesting aspect of this new urban project is that the whole West Bank of the Huangpu River is now accessible for walkers, runners or cyclists, going from the West Bund Cool Docks complex, to the other side of the Olympic Water Stadium, way down South, along what used to be the Longhua airport.
The new promenade runs over some ten kilometers in a continuous river view. At the level of the former arsenal, the three remaining dry docks are visible at short distance from the top the 2010 Expo passerelle connecting them. In one of the docks, there is a military observatory vessel called Yuan Wang 1, which was built here in 1977 and reminds us of the industrial past of the site. This one is not open for visit at the moment but it migh well be one day, who knows. This type of ship is part of a series of seven military boats aiming at tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles and the course of military and communication satellites. The latest of this series were used for China's first man inhabited space program.
Inside the other ship slide, some of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo booths are stored like in a cemetery, giving another insight of the history of the site. The last dock is still in its Shanghai Expo configuration, showing access staircases to an inner theater. If you complete the view with the circling elevated pathway still around the former dock, you get a good feeling of the atmosphere of the 2010 Expo. If you want to know more about this event, you can always visit the nearby Shanghai 2010 World Expo Museum. It is a fantastic evocation not only of the 2010 Expo but of the expos ever taking place around the world. The 2010 thrill still floats there, reminding us of those exciting moments.
Walking along the new pathway along the Huangpu, I was impressed by the capacity of Shanghai to reinvent itself. The Jiangnan arsenal site is a perfect exemple of a this amazing energy into the future.
If you are still not convinced that Shanghai is a lifelong love, then you should read the story of Anna Michaels-Gaudreau, a New Yorker who spent her childhood in wartime Shanghai and now teaches to Chinese students there. Anna was born on 11st February 1943 at Shanghai Country Hospital, a masterpiece by Hungarian architect Lazlo Hudec, now Huashan Hospital. Her father, Franco Montanaro, was an Italian Merchant Marine Captain and her mother Lidia Teimoffov, presumably of Jewish Russian origin, although Anna herself was baptized, was singer and dancer. Lidia was born in Harbin in the 1908 and left it for Shanghai in the mid 1920's. She first married with a Harbin German Jewish merchant named Carl Fritz Wittsack. who created a company in Shanghai. Together they had a son, George, fifteen years older than Anna.
As a singer, Lidia performed all over China. After remarrying Franco Montanaro in 1937, the couple lived in Tower Apartments at 1033 Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Road), right in front of today's Xiangyang Park, near the Weida Hotel. This building was torn down in the 1990s and replaced by today's IAPM shopping mall. It was ideally located in the part of the French Concession labelled "Little Russia", or "Boulevard Moscow", a nickname for Avenue Joffre, as the quarter was densely populated with Russian immigrants. The situation of Anna's father was an enviable one, as he had a steady job. Franco was familiar with the nearby Cercle Sportif Français, where Anna remembers celebrating her sixth birthday with an afternoon cake. At the same period, Anna also attended the trendy College Municipal Français on former route Vallon, had already been renamed Nanchang Road, as the Chinese had already retaken the area. However, the family could not avoid the hardships of these troubled years. Let us remember that the world was at war with the Japanese invading China in 1937, those eventually attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941.
After Italy capitulated on 9th September 1943, Anna says her father was taken off his boat in Dalian, and sent to a Japanese prison camp in Manchuria together with other Italian crew members. It is not quite clear when and how he regained liberty as part of the region was reconquered by Soviet troops but when he eventually returned to Shanghai, he was very weakened, according to Anna's brother's memories. Then after the war, most probably because the financial situation of the family had seriously deteriorated in this context and additional difficulties to get employed by American shipping companies for Italian citizens who previously worked with the Axis, they stayed a couple of years in Hongkou. The family stayed near Seymour Road tells Anna, in what used to be the Japanese administrated "Designated Area". This place had indeed become the temporary home of many Central European Jewish refugees coming to China after 1937 to flee Nazi Germany. Most of them waited there for visa opportunities.
At some point, probably by 1948, they returned to the former French Concession, Anna's brother leaving for US. When the Communists entered Shanghai in 1949, the rest of the family stayed for a while, before leaving for Hong Kong in 1950 and San Francisco in 1951. Later, Anna became an actress. She even started a theatre company in Hollywood and directed plays in Los Angeles and New York. Today, she teaches psychology at the New York Institute of Technology and often comes to Shanghai to train Chinese students.
Anna Michaels-Gaudreau recently published a course book called "Acting Drama in English" with a grant from Tongji University, a tribute from Shanghai to a remote family member, she humorously comments.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Among 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.
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.
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.
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!
After 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.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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."
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."
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.
After 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.
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?
Last 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
Born 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.
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.
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!
I 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
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!
The 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.
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.
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.
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!