Ex- U.S. diplomat speaks today for old Shanghai

Decade-long effort documents history of colonial-era buildings

February 17, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI, China -- For hundreds of foreign visitors, the search for Old Shanghai begins at a yellow stucco apartment building along a narrow alley in the heart of the city's French Concession.

People seek out the Art Deco structure not for its beauty, but for the woman who lives on the third floor: retired U.S. diplomat and author, Tess Johnston. Some come from as far away as England and Russia looking for the colonial homes they grew up in during Shanghai's illustrious past. Others -- journalists, tour book writers and historians -- come to explore the city's eclectic architectural heritage.

Johnston, a fixture in the Shanghai expatriate community for most of the past two decades, has built a second career researching, photographing and trying to preserve the Western colonial buildings of her adopted home. Wrapped in an afghan on a couch in her chilly home, she laments the destruction of this "Spanish Colonial Revival" or the last remaining "German Renaissance" while railing against the modern, tile-covered behemoths that rise in their place.

During a recent chat, though, she sounded more optimistic about the city's old architecture than she has in years.

The real estate glut that followed Shanghai's property boom of the 1990s has slowed the pace of destruction. This year or next, the city is supposed to release a list of 500 protected homes -- a larger number than ever before.

And in the past few weeks, Johnston says, she has stumbled across small, comforting signs that Shanghainese may be developing a greater appreciation for the architecture they inherited from their former foreign masters.

In one case, owners tore down a faux-marble facade from a Classic Revival building and restored the ironwork and plaster that lay beneath. In another, developers renovating an old Anglican church removed a gas meter that had been drilled through a marble plaque and resealed the hole.

"I'm just so grateful," says Johnston, who served tours in Berlin, Vietnam, Paris, Delhi and Laos. "It just shows that somebody, somewhere cared enough."

Johnston cares deeply about the Shanghai of legend, a city that in the 1920s and 1930s was among the most exciting on Earth. A Treaty Port pried open by foreigners to trade with the Middle Kingdom, Shanghai attracted a wealth of characters, including Chinese gangsters, White Russian refugees, Communist spies and beautiful showgirls. The city's notoriety was such that its name became a verb for drugging and abducting a sailor.

Westerners lived under their own laws and designed their own districts, creating an architectural landscape of striking diversity which ranged from the red tiled roofs of Mediterranean villas to the columns of the neo-classical banks that line the waterfront known as The Bund.

When Johnston arrived here in 1981 to work for the U.S. Consulate, she was fascinated by the architecture but couldn't find any books about it. She left in 1986. After a stint in Paris, she returned in 1989 and decided to write the book herself.

The result is a handsome, coffee table book called "A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai," filled with photographs shot by her Chinese collaborator, Deke Erh. The two have gone on to publish five other books focusing on colonial architecture in China.

The pair's final book will focus on Johnston's home district, the French Concession. Finishing it is taking longer than she expected, though. Erh is busy designing Web pages related to Old Shanghai and doesn't have much time to take photos.

Concerned that much of the city's best architecture may not survive, Johnston has tried to capture what remains on film. Using maps purchased from bookstores and antique markets, she walks block-by-block through the historic areas photographing alleys and homes with a beat-up automatic camera. When friends and colleagues call to tell her a building is slated for demolition, she races out to photograph the structure.

"There are heartbreaking times when we get there too late," says Johnston, 68.

Gaining access to some of the old homes takes a little ingenuity. When owners or security guards resist, Johnston will chat them up "in my bad Chinese," or come up with appealing stories.

To enter an old church, she might say that she was married there. To get into a colonial home, "we pass me off as the lady who lived here in the '30s," Johnston says.

Johnston lives off Huaihai Street, which used to be called Avenue Joffre and was home to cafes and boutiques offering Paris fashions in the early decades of the 20th century. Her apartment is a blend of East and West.

Chinese scrolls hang from the walls and a fan painted with the likeness of her dachshund, ChaCha, sits on a nearby table. Among the books and magazines which line her shelves and clutter her coffee table are "Policing Shanghai, 1927-37" and a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review.

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