Searching for Shanghai, Old and New

I went to Shanghai in search of Mirabel, the character in my latest novel, Little Paradise. I walked the winding tree-lined streets of the old French and International concessions and pushed through the crowds of Nanjing Road and the Bund. But much of what used to exist in her time – post World War Two when Little Paradise is set, has been swept away. Little Paradise was based on my mother and her life during that period.

I lived in China from 1984 to 1986 while I was studying Chinese painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art  in Hangzhou. Once a month I would travel to Shanghai by train to stock up on Nescafe instant coffee. The only place you could buy western coffee then was in the Peace Hotel lobby. There were no sketch books so we all had to sew our own. Hot water was rationed, so was heating in winter. Life was simple, very simple. Now 20 years later, Shanghai is once again an international city. I would never have imagined it back then.

I stayed in a guest house in the Shanghai library grounds, smack dab in the area where the old French concession used to be. Chinese millionaires and the Shanghai government are preserving all the old mansions. Some are stunning – the ones you can see that is. Many are hidden behind high walls with old trees and huge gardens, quiet refuges for the birds of this noisy city.

This house was where the infamous Wang Jing Wei lived. He was a traitor and sided with the Japanese during the war. At the back of this house was where my mother and father squatted. In those days, during the forties, they couldn’t see the house, but their windows looked into the huge back garden.

My parents squatted on the top floor of this house in the International Settlement. They had no running water. It used to belong to a wealthy family who had fled Shanghai maybe because of the Japanese or maybe because of the threat of the Communist armies coming. It was very rundown then and still is today.

My parents were lucky, they had the top floor with a balcony. There were about five families squatting there.

This is a side view of the house. My parents were lucky, they had the top floor with a balcony. But even though they were squatting they employed two amahs. Servants were very cheap in those days. There were about five or six other families living there, some occupying just one room.

We walked along the Bund.

My daughter, Lei Lei and I on the Bund
And we dined at the famous, M on the Bund where the Shanghai Writers' Festival is held.

We also spent a day at Shanghai World Expo 2010. Some pavilions like the Japan and Saudi Arabian pavilions, had queues with 4 hour wait times. So my daughter and I just walked around and looked at the amazing architecture.

Here are my two favourites, Spain and Great Britain.

This building was amazing! It looked like a creature from another world.

This was Great Britain's pavilion and was equally beautiful.

And here are some random shots

And I can’t leave out the China and Australian Pavilions.

This was a huge structure

I saw white cats all over Shanghai. If you've read Little Paradise you would know the significance.
And don't you just love this little girl with her tiny shoes? My niece made the funny comment that they must be bound.
And what would a Chinese city be without its yummy restaurants? I miss the food, especially the baozi (steamed buns) that I would buy everyday from a hole in the wall near my hotel.

6 thoughts on “Searching for Shanghai, Old and New

  1. I only remember old Shanghai. I was there in 1991. I don’t think I’d recognise it now… but I recognise some of your photos. It was still quaint in 1991, the restaurants would only open for lunch and dinner and then shut, so I kept missing out, and there were no english translations of menus. I could read about 300 characters at the time thanks to Japanese, so I could see what animal was being served… just not which part of it! Mostly I’d order a plate of something appealing from the neighbouring tables. I hear it’s a very different place now… but I think I’d prefer the 1991 version.

    1. I felt the same way, Bren. But I must say, I loved it this time. I think it depends on where you stay. If you’re down the busy touristy end of town near Nanjing Road it can be unpleasant. It’s nice to visit there then return to the quiet of the suburbs.

  2. Dear Ms Wang,

    I am very curious about Wang Jingwei. Can you tell me the address of the house he lived in? It looks quite impressive from the photo you have…

    With thanks,
    Jonathan

  3. Thank you for this. I will try to have a look when I visit Shanghai next month. I am a graduate student doing research on the Second World War in China, so this kind of thing is really interesting to me…

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