I’m back in the USA for the summer. This past year, I spent another season in Shanghai—that exotic, endlessly fascinating, and ever-changing city. I’ve compiled the best of the stories and pictures I gathered about social life and travels in China in diary form, and I’ll be posting them from time to time. Here’s another:
Though Shanghai is becoming known for its flashy Lamborghinis and mirrored skyscrapers, it seduces many newcomers with its historic charms—the stately Neoclassical buildings on the Bund, the tree-lined streets of the former French Concession, the beautiful chaos of its teeming lane neighborhoods.
Shanghai’s living past beguiles some of these newcomers to remain for decades and to become passionate advocates for its study and preservation.
Among the foremost examples are Tess Johnson, Patrick Cranley, and Tina Kanagaratnam. Tess, a full-time author retired from the U.S. Foreign Service, has lived here almost continuously since the 1980s, while Patrick and Tina, who run the marketing and communications firm Asia Media, arrived in 1997.
In 1998, the trio established the Shanghai Historic House Association, now called Historic Shanghai. A loose association of mostly expatriates, it is dedicated to raising awareness of the social and architectural heritage of the city through research, publications, programs, and tours.
I refer often to guidebooks edited by Tess (Walking Tours of Shanghai and Still More Shanghai Walk) and to Tina and Patrick’s contributions to Insight Guide Shanghai.
Among the Art Décor gems for which Shanghai is famous:
ART DECO CONFERENCE 2015
Historic Shanghai recently won its bid to host the World Conference on Art Deco in 2015 thanks to Patrick Cranley’s efforts. The Miami Design Preservation League began the organization in 1991 and the conference has taken place in a beautiful city every two years since.
In the ’20s and ’30s, Shanghai, then a prosperous international mecca, enjoyed a building boom. Artists and designers rejected traditional colonial neoclassical style and embraced Art Deco, incorporating Chinese elements to add a geometric twist.
Unfortunately, many architectural treasures have been razed, others are in ruin, and ongoing construction continues to threaten the city’s character, though enough gems remain for the city to be considered a showcase for unique Art Deco architecture. More than 200 experts and thousands of enthusiasts are expected for the 2015 conference.
MORE ART DECO IN SHANGHAI
HISTORIC SHANGHAI’S ART DECO TOUR IN THE FORMER FRENCH CONCESSION
Patrick Cranley leads a monthly tour of some of the Art Deco buildings in the former French Concession, the premiere residential and retail area that has retained much of its character.
Even though I’ve been numerous times, I always go on Patrick’s tour when I’m in town. The walk route changes and I see something new each time.
Historic Shanghai has researched and documented the city’s history, architecture, and urban development, so Patrick’s tours are informative and supply historical and social information about China, Shanghai, and the French Concession.
Since Patrick knows this town and its people well, he opens doors to places you’d never go on your own. On the tour, he explained how the International Settlement and the French Concession came into being.
Shanghai was one of the original five treaty ports established in 1842 by the Treaty of Nanking after the First Opium War (1839–42). After the treaty, the British, Americans, French, and others established and controlled separate areas of settlement. Later, the British and Americans merged to form the International Settlement, while the French remained independent.
In the 1930s, Shanghai’s population of more than 3 million made it the world’s sixth-largest city. Of the 600,000 residents of the French Concession district, a small minority was foreign: just 1,400 French, 2,000 Americans, and 2,500 British, with a sprinkling of other nationalities.
By the 1930s, the largest expatriate population in the French Concession was the group of about 10,000 “White Russians” (distinguished from the “Reds”), about a quarter of whom were Jewish.
Off Wukang Road, we turned into a trendy little alley called 376 Ferguson Lane. It has an art gallery, several restaurants (including the French bistro Franck, a favorite of mine), a flower shop, boutiques such as Mary Ching shoes, a wine bar, and offices.
At the corner of Wulumuqi Road, we passed more shops and restaurants frequented by local residents: small cafes, fruit stands, teashops, and the like.
ANOTHER SUNDAY, ANOTHER TOUR WITH HISTORIC SHANGHAI
When I joined Patrick for another Sunday morning tour along a different route, I learned even more about the former French Concessions.
Amusingly, the French wanted to “do their own thing;” they set up an electrical grid and a streetcar track system unlike the ones that served the rest of Shanghai and the International Concession. As they say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Patrick says young Shanghainese often comment that though they’ve lived here all their lives, the first time they learned about the history of the city was from him.
Here were some of the sights:
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY CHURCH
We stopped at Hengshan Lu, known as Avenue Petain in the time of the French Concession. With its tree-lined, orange-tiled sidewalks, wrought-iron railings, ivy-covered mansions, and bountiful cafes, this is one of Shanghai’s trendier streets.
Patrick recalled for us how all religions coexisted in Shanghai’s French Concession: Protestantism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Judaism.
A SICHUAN LUNCH
When the tour ended at 1 p.m., two Swedish couples and I had lunch at the popular Sichuan restaurant Pin Chuan. When eating Chinese food, it’s best to dine with a large group so you can share more items.
TESS JOHNSON’S BOOK LECTURE
On another day at the Shanghai Community Center, I attended a lecture by Tess Johnson, historian, author, and co-founder of Historic Shanghai. She first came to Shanghai in 1981 to work at the American Consulate General, and retired here in 1996, after more than thirty years in diplomatic service, to research, write, and lecture about the city.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.