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 罗宋汤), 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.