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!
I 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
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!
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.
Ward'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.
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.
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.
Among 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 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.
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!".
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!
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!
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.
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?
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
There 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
First 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 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
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.
I just finished the memoirs of Joseph Shieh (Xue Gengxin 薛耕莘 in Chinese) written with help of French journalist Marie Holzman. This is actually the kind of readings that leaves you with dozens, not to say thousands of questions.
Hired by the Shanghai French Police in 1930, Joseph Shieh made his way through those troubled years marked by the control of gangs on the French Concession, the fierce fight between Communist Party and Kuomintang party and later the Japanese invasion. He ended his life in 2008 at the age of 104, having passed 25 years of his life in Mao's prisons due to his "support of colonialists and Kuomintang", although he claims his role also benefited to many communists hiding in the French Concession.
Educated in the catholic faith by the French Jesuits in Zikawei (read my article about Father Jacquinot and Chang Chongren to know more about them), his mother was half English half Chinese, which contributed to his multicultural background in the first place. He was particularly skilled to bear with the Shanghai multiracial context of those years. To describe the French Police, Robert Jobez, who was its Vice-Director in 1933 writes in his book "Être Français libre", it was composed of 244 French staff, 3 Russian squads, a battalion of Anamites coming from the Indochina Native Guard, mainly composed of Thos, and some 1800 Chinese agents, translators and secretaries. When looking at the names of the French Police officers in the 1936 Hong Book, one clearly realizes that no Chinese was on the list, mostly used as field detectives. Their role, however, was decisive in the handling of the various situations that the French could not cope with within the complex Shanghai underworld, both for language and cultural reasons.
A good exemple can be given with Green Gang boss Huang Jinrong who acted at the same time as chief detective in the French Police, a good way for the Foreigners to maintain public order through the use of such powerful allies. Of course the counterpart was to keep a blind eye on the running opium traffic, gambling houses and prostitution. About the collusion of Police and gangs, Joseph Shieh writes in his memoirs : It was impossible to be absolutely honest if you were a policeman in Shanghai 1930s. Not long after I joined, I was contacted by some emissaries of the mafia bosses who gave me 80 Yuans per month as "opium and gambling house indemnity". I received this indemnity for five months. Then M. Fiori was replaced by Colonel Fabre and the situation got a little cleaner.
The main interest of Joseph Shieh's memoirs is that he tells a lot about the methods used to solve the problems in the French Concession. A major difficulty came with the replacement of Capitaine Fiori by Colonel Fabre (read about it in my article about Albert Londres). This latter decided to close gambling houses and ban opium from the French Concession, which was a direct attack on Green Gang boss Du Yuesheng. Du first tried to bribe Fabre who refused and asked Du to publicly admit his attempt, which meant a lost of face for a Gang boss. Instead of that, the Green Gang chose to start a strike in the French Tramway company which blocked the French Concession for two months. A solution had to be found. Shieh writes that he persuaded Fabre to renounce his public apology in exchange of a promise from Du not to trouble the public order any more.
Thanks to Shieh's initiative, the famous gangster eventually put an end to the strike within one day and remained grateful to the inspector for helping him saving face. This is a typical exemple of the Chinese way of solving problems, very different from the tougher methods in the International Settlement (read my article about Fairnbairn). Many others cases are mentioned by Joseph Shieh, who had to deal with personalities' security or even privacy as well as large scale robbery from corporations. Each time, the soft way was prefered!
In 1937 things became different with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and the set up of the Wang Jingwei puppet regime. Secret or private armies were at work in the Foreign Concessions, including assassins based on 76 Jessfield Road working for the collaborationist government or Chiang Kai Shek's violent Blue Shirts (read the Auxion De Ruffe affair). It became even more difficult for the French Police members to maintain the public security as political crimes had become a daily routine. At some point, even our inspector feared for his life after refusing, he said, to help Wang Jingwei. He then became member of the Green Gang, who was allied with the Blue Shirts, in order to be protected.
We have then interesting details on the admission rites within the Chinese triads given by Shieh. In 1943, as the French lost control of the Concession, Joseph got promoted as Chief of Security of Police Station number 3 then Head of Poste Mallet. He had to work closely with the Japanese commander Goto. In 1945, Chiang Kai Shek came back to power and things turned out badly for him with a first 3 years in Tilanqiao jail. Eventually released in 1948, the truce was short as 1951 Mao's anti rightist movement sent him to labor camps for 25 years!
Joseph Shieh got released in 1976 but his full honor was only regained in 1990, clearing him from all previous political accusations. His late life pride was to be become member of the prestigious Shanghai Cultural and Historical Institute after translating some Zicawei bibliotheca Jesuits manuscripts into Chinese. Joseph Shieh remained until his death one of the latest eye witnesses of the former Police of the French Concession with a unique point of view on daily interaction with Shanghai underworld. So his memoirs are a must-read!
Art Deco is a word coming from the 1925 Paris Salon des Arts Decoratifs. This architecture trend is deeply related to the Shanghai landscape where Western influencies met with Asian culture. This style describes a way of life too, reflecting 1920s eagerness for modernity, speed and lightness. As WWI was over, fashion designers, artists as well as architects looked for a brand new way of shaping daily life of people. As Shanghai was a the midth of an economic boom, it immediately adopted the new wave as a strong symbol of its ambitions
Although it is difficult to pick a choice between the many buildings still standing in Shanghai showing Art Deco features, I tried to make a selection to help short term visitors in the city. The huge variety of the constructions in the "Paris of the East" include from early-stage Art Deco like in the Cercle Sportif Français to Modern Style, used for the Green House by Le Hudec on Tongren Road. My good friend Hugues Martin even thinks there is a last trend called "Frankenstein Art Deco", represented by Communist era buildings which designers had been earlier influenced by Western Art Deco from the 1930s 1940s! So you can make your own choice!
N°1 Peace Hotel, the most luxurious one
Built in 1928 for magnate Victor Sassoon, the materials used for the former "Sassoon House" include marble and cristal glass. The interior decoration is particularly sophisticated like for instance on the 8th floor ballroom, leading experts to rank the building in the top list of the world Art Deco gems. I also like the Bund galery which used to be the hotel entrance, for its wonderful geometric shapes. One says that the ego of the proprietary was such that he added a roof extension when nearby Bank of China was finished to remain the highest building on the Bund!
N°2 Okura Garden Hotel, the French splendeur
The 1926 Cercle Sportif Français, which is used by the hotel today, aimed at impress the Foreign community with the French way of life. One could swim in 54 meters long swimming pool, the city's longest, play cards or snooker and enjoy delicious French food in the restaurant rooms. The place was also famous for its large day-light ballroom, which floor was supported by thousands of small springs and ceiling is still decorated by a 15 meters long piece of stained glass. In the original entrance on Maoming Road, the wonderful mosaic decored wall can be seen today.
N°3 Bank of China: Chinese Art Deco
This symbol of Chiang Kai Shek regime on th Bund was completed in 1937 by Chinese architect Lu Qianshou. It is a combination of Western Art Deco and typically Chinese shapes, such as the roof one, the "zhong" character inside the windows on the facace or the stylized lions at the gates. Many Chinese designers like Lu Qianshou were actually trained in Amercican architect offices before creating their own vision of Art Deco.
N°4 Peninsula Hotel: The Art Deco Revival
I did not always fancy the Shanghai tendency to copy Art Deco features within modern buildings, also called Fako and The Peninsula on the Bund (2000) was no exception. However, I progressively got used to it and even started to appreciate the interiors of the luxury hotel. The main hall dining room for instance is quite similar to the 1935 French ocean liner "HSS Normandy" and the large wall panels in it could also remind you of the views of the Cercle Sportif Français initial decoration. Zigzag motives are very characteristic too. If you add the exquisite atmosphere of afternoon teas, you can definitely think you back in time at the haydays of Shanghai 1930s.
Dating 1934, Park Hotel is inspired by the American Building in New York Manhattan. It is the masterpiece of Hungarian architect Lazlo Hudec. Until the 1990s, it remained the tallest building in Shanghai measuring 84 meters. Using modern techniques of steel skeleton to overtop the nearby race track and the rest of the city, it was a great venue in the 1930s offering a removable roof facility for dancing unders the stars!
N°6 Hamilton House, the lighest
This is another Sassoon property, built in 1932 on the model of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" film (read Vertical village). In order to save time and materials, Palmer and Turner architects decided to use aeroconcrete, a special mix of concrete and ashes, further diminishing the overall weight of the structure. The symetry of the arches and fluid lines of the structure make the crossroad quite impressive as the opposite Metropole Hotel and Commercial Bank of China shapes are rather similar. Hamilton House was composed of offices together with luxurious apartments.
N°7 Grand Theatre, Hollywood in Shanghai
Hudec's sense of esthetics and technical genius can definitely be seen in this 1933 cinema. The trianglar shape of space available to build this cinema made this project a real challenge for the Hungarian architect. He succeded however by combining cubes on different levels and creating an harmonious perspective from the street. Renovation has been completed recently in the building and even better underlined Art Deco details like copper monograms on the ground or wonderfully twisted ballustrades in the staircases!
Architects Veysseyre, Leonard and Kruze signed this 1935 building, which pure lines and light yellow color can be seen from former Avenue Joffre, (today's Huaihai Road) at number 1212. Each floor had only three occupants so that each flat got windows on all sides of the building. Unfortunately, the recent "ruinovation" of the original lobby. On the North side however, one can get an idea of the former glory looking at the bright mosaics in the doorways.
N°9 Cathay cinema, the landmark
At the heart of the Former French Concession, Cathay Theatre was built in 1932 by another Hungarian, C.H. Gonda. Speed lines as well as the roof arrow are distinctive feature of Art Deco. This was the largest cinema of the French Settlement with 1000 seats, showing American comedies and action movies. During the Cultural Revolution era, it was used for propaganda purposes. The 2013 renovation work brings an additionnal Californian touch in the lobby and a connection with the Shanghai Tang clothes shop willing to anchor their image in the roaring 1930s!
N°10 Astrid Apartments, the Egyptian
Sunrays at the entrance of Astrid Apartments (first photo) situated at the intersection between Nanchang Road and Maoming South Road are definitely inspired by Ancient Egypt. This reference is often used in Art Deco since jewelers were influenced by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun tomb in the first place. Then similar shaps were used in architecture design. Egyptian haircuts was another trademark of 1930s fashion! Built in 1932 by Russian origined Levin, Astrid Apartment is the first of the tall Art Deco buildings in the Former French Concession, showing bright yellow and green colors on its facade.
However this selection is based of my own taste and perception of most caracteritic Art Deco buildings in Shanghai, I hope it gave you the envy to check it all by yourselves!
- Didier Pujol, Shanghai Culture Tours
- +86 15021769130
L'Art Deco, ce mouvement architectural né du Salon des Arts Décoratifs de Paris en 1925 à marqué durablement de son empreinte le paysage de Shanghai en y apportant le mélange unique entre influences chinoises et occidentales. Plutôt qu'une série de critères bien définis, ce style est plus un mode de vie. En effet, au début des années 1920, la tendance générale est à l'optimisme et à la modernité. Le premier conflit mondial achevé, le monde cherche en effet à se refonder dans le domine des arts, du design et de la mode. Shanghai est alors en plein développement et adopte massivement cette nouvelle vague qui symbolise ses ambitions.
Bien qu'il soit difficile de choisir vu le grand nombre de bâtiments et leur extrême variété, allant de l'early art-deco (Cercle Sportif Francais) au Modern Style (Maison Verte de Le Hudec rue Tongren), ou encore certains bâtiments tardifs de l'ère communiste influencés par l'école Art Deco (Frankenstein Art Deco Style selon le terme de mon ami Hugues Martin), voici ma sélection des dix bâtiments les plus représentatifs de l'Art Deco à Shanghai, selon moi. Une possibilité donc d'aller à l'essentiel pour les visiteurs de courte durée!
N°1 Le Peace Hotel, le plus luxueux
Construit en 1928 pour Victor Sassoon, les matériaux utilisés sont particulièrement luxueux et la richesse de la décoration intérieure comme par exemple dans la salle de bal du 8ème en font l'un des bâtiments mondiaux Art Deco de référence. Votre serviteur goûte également avec joie l'ancienne entrée et sa galerie du côté du Bund où les formes géométriques sont harmonieusement associées. On raconte que quand la Banque de Chine a été achevée, Victor Sassoon a fait rajouter le clocheton sur le toit de l'hôtel afin de rester le bâtiment le plus haut du Bund!
N°2 L'Okura Garden, le joyau français
Construit en 1926, le Cercle Sportif Français qui sert de base à l'hôtel actuel se voulait la vitrine de l'art de vivre à la Française. On y trouvait la plus grande piscine couverte de Shanghai (54m) ainsi que de multiples salles dédiées à la restauration et au jeu. La somptueuse salle de bal en lumière du jour faisait aussi la renommée du lieu avec un parquet monté sur ressorts et un plafond, encore visible, orné d'une verrière de 15 mètres aux motifs géométriques multicolores. L'entrée se trouvait côté Maoming Road et comporte toujours son élégante vasque en mosaïque.
N°3 La Banque de Chine ou l'Art Deco Chinois
Symbole de la puissance du régime de Chiang Kai Shek sur le Bund, ce bâtiment achevé en 1937 est l'œuvre de l'architecte Chinois Lu Qianshou. Il intègre les techniques occidentales de l'art deco avec des formes typiquement chinoises comme celles du toit rappelant les temples, les embrasures de fenêtres en forme de "double bonheur" ou encore les lions de l'entrée stylisés de façon moderne. De nombreux architectes Chinois ont été formés dans des cabinets AmeriCain avant de créer leur propre vision de l'Art Deco.
N°4 Le Peninsula: Art Deco Revival
Je n'ai pas toujours goûté cette tentative récente (année 2000) de reprendre les standards de l'Art Deco (on utilise souvent le terme Fako) dans un hotel ultra moderne. Pourtant il faut bien avouer que le résultat est très convaincant. J'apprécie tout particulièrement la salle à manger qui aurait pu se trouver sur le paquebot Normandie en 1935. Les immenses panneaux muraux rappellent aussi ceux qui ornaient autrefois le Cercle Sportif Français et les décorations en zigzag sont caractéristiques. Ajoutons le service délicat lors des afternoon tea et l'illusion d'un voyage dans le temps aux années d'or de Shanghai est absolument parfaite!
Achevé en 1934, le Park Hotel est inspiré de la American Buidlding situé à Manhattan et le fruit du génial architecte Hongrois Lazlo Hudec. Le bâtiment reste jusqu'au début des années 1990 le plus haut de la ville avec 84 mètres d'élévation. Cette tour résolument moderne utilise les techniques d'ossature métallique américaines pour s'élever bien au dessus de la ville avec vue sur l'hippodrome (aujourd'hui People Square). On trouve dans le hall le point zéro de la ville de Shanghai, un peu comme à Paris sur le parvis de Notre Dame. Le dernier étage disposait d'un toit amovible pour permettre aux élégantes de danser sous les étoiles!
N°6 Hamilton House, le plus léger
Voici encore un bâtiment du patrimoine Sassoon, construit en 1932 un peu à la manière de la cité imaginaire de Fritz Lang dans "Metropolis" (lire mon autre article "Le village vertical"). Pour gagner en hauteur et en vitesse de réalisation, le cabinet Palmer et Turner va utiliser de l'aeroconcrete, un mélange de ciment et de cendres de charbon, diminuant l'emprise au sol. Les lignes du bâtiment ainsi que les arches sont très élégantes, créant la symétrie au carrefour par réplication des formes de l'Hotel Métropole et de la Commercial Bank of China voisins. L'ensemble comprenait bureaux et appartements de luxe aux surfaces inédites.
N°7 Le Grand Theatre, les fastes d'Hollywood
Avec ce bâtiment de 1933, le génie esthétique et technique de Le Hudec s'exprime pleinement. Aujourd'hui encore, après une rénovation de grande qualité, l'éclairage nocturne souligne les lignes et les cubes de la façade dans un spectacle tout à fait hollywoodien. Les balustrades intérieures et les incrustations en cuivre de monogrammes dans le sol de marbre noir sont splendides. Le pari n'était pas gagné d'avance pour Le Hudec qui parvirnt finalement à imbriquer les structures sur plusieurs niveaux dans un terrain triangulaire!
Réalisation de Veysseyre Léonard et Kruze, cet immeuble de 1935 se distingue par son élévation et ses lignes pures le long de l'ancienne avenue Joffre (Huaihai Road aujourd'hui au numéro 1212). Destinés à capter la lumière, les étages ne comportent que trois logements à l'époque, chacun occupant toute la largeur de l'édifice. La dernière "ruinovation" du lobby en particulier ne laisse malheureusement que peu de trace des superbes finitions initiales. On peut cependant en avoir une idée dans les cages d'escalier Nord encore délicatement ornées de leurs mosaïques aux couleurs chaudes.
N°9 Le Cathay, quel cinéma!
En plein cœur de l'ancienne Concession Française, ce cinema est l'œuvre d'un autre Hongrois, C.H. Gonda en 1932. Les formes de la façade combinent lignes de vitesse et flèche de toit. C'est à l'époque le plus grand cinéma de la Concession Française (1000 places assises) où l'on projette comédies et films d'action américains. Pendant la Révolution Culturelle, on continuera d'utiliser le cinéma pour programmer les films de propagande. La rénovation de 2013 apporte une nouvelle touche californienne de bon aloi au hall et signe la volonté de la marque Shanghai Tang d'ancrer son story telling autour des années 1930.
N°10 Astrid Apartments, l'Egyptien
Les rayons solaires qui ornent l'entrée de Astrid Apartments (première photo) au croisement de Nanchang Road et Maoming South sont inspirées de l'Egypte antique. C'est un thème que l'on retrouve beaucoup dans l'Art Deco car les joailliers ont tout d'abord été influencés par les bijoux trouvés dans la tombe de Toutankhamon en 1922. Cette mode s'est ensuite transmise à l'architecture. La fameuse coupe de cheveux carrée des femmes des années 1930 est aussi issue des motifs égyptiens. Construite en 1932 par l'architecte d'origine Russe Levin, la résidence Astrid est le premier des grands immeubles Art Deco de la Concession Française et s'impose par sa flèche caractéristique et les couleurs vives vertes et jaunes de sa façade.
Bien entendu, cette sélection est toute personnelle car il y a bien d'autres bâtiments Art Deco intéressants à Shanghai. J'espère cependant vous avoir donné envie d'aller voir par vous même pour vous faire une idée.
- Didier Pujol, Shanghai Culture Tours
- +86 15021769130