Tuesday 4 September 2012

Picture post number four - Shanghai Art Deco

Shanghai by Yekkes
Art deco beauty in the French Concession, Shanghai
Shanghai was a pretty wild place during the 1920's and 1930's. Extremely cosmopolitan, with massive disparity between rich and poor, it was a city filled with commerce and trade, feuds between different gangsters and their gangs, jazz music - including home grown musicians and singers, immigrants and refugees first from the Soviet Union and then from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia - most, but not all of them Jewish. There were wild parties, prostitution (some of it forced) and of course, fantastic art deco and modernist architecture.

In the area that is still  referred to as the French Concession, there are still many beautiful examples of architecture produced during this period. Some of it has been badly neglected and is decaying, some has been "renovated" - often badly, but some retains its original beauty. I was lucky enough to visit Shanghai on the way back to London from Australia in April last year and spent a magical morning in the company of a retired American lady called Tess Johnstone who showed me around the Concession and pointed out some of the many fascinating buildings from the 1920's and 1930's. Tess formerly worked in the diplomatic service and had many adventures in that role before retiring and deciding to remain in Shanghai. She is a real advocate for the city and its built heritage and also has some great stories that she shares during her guided walks. She is also a prolific author and you can see reviews of her books on her website here. You can see pictures of the Bucharest modernist buildings here, and of Tel Aviv here.

I particularly liked the residential building pictured above. It features the curves and portholes so beloved of art deco architects as well as having retained, and not closed off the two balconies at the front of the building. The roof terrace has also been retained. The house is protected by a high stone wall which retains some of its original deco features. This building reminded me (and still does) of Tel Aviv with its balconies and roof space whilst the portholes I saw on my recent visit to Bucharest brought this photograph back to mind.

Shanghai is yet another city I would like to explore further. A number of former "residences" have been converted into hotels and retain some of the original art deco features, including the Peace Hotel and the Broadway Mansions, where I spent a short but comfortable stay. Each morning at breakfast I was asked to complete a feedback form, which I did and was duly rewarded with a pretty cardboard box containing a metal egg. I have three of them. Identical.

The city has some great restaurants - I very much liked Le Garcon Chinois, in the French Concession as well as the Cheng Cheng's Art Salon at 164 Nanchang Lu - both serving great food in very stylish surroundings - the former in a  more "traditional" environment (and with no MSG!) and the latter in a small, stylishly Bohemian restaurant which features exhibitions by local contemporary artists. During the three days I spent in Shanghai, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Cotton Club, which features local and overseas jazz artists where I witnessed a more "direct" form of  Chinese customer service when my friend who is a Cantonese speaker who was learning Mandarin(the main language of Shanghai) attempted to order drinks in the language she was learning only to be told "Oh, speak English" !!!  I looked without success for recordings of the great contemporary jazz vocalist Coco Zhao - but later managed to find one on trust Amazon. I also managed to fit in a fascinating tour of Jewish Shanghai - the city was home to a very large Jewish refugee population during the Second World Was as well as to several entrepreneurial families during the "jazz age". Details of the tour which is a bit of a must can be found here.

The Bund is an elegant waterfront boulevard once home to many European owned businesses and banks and scene of a great "robbery" at the end of the civil war between Mao's Communists and Chiang Khai-Shek's Nationalists. The defeated and fleeing Nationalists emptied the vaults of the Bank of China onto boats waiting to take them to Taiwan. These days the Bund throngs with tourists admiring the wonderful late 19th and early 20th Century architecture as well as looking at the futurist skyline across the Huangpo river. I only scratched the surface in the time I was there but saw enough to want to add the city to my list of "must return to's". More Shanghai art deco here.

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