“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Good Christmas Present Ideas for China Rhyming #1

Posted: December 3rd, 2014 | No Comments »

#1 – Shanghai pinball – the Chicago Coin Machine Manufacturing Company started making games in 1932. The Shanghai is a 1948 model pinball machine – sorry, can’t quite get a close up of the patterns on this flyer for the machine….I’ll take one though!





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Advent Calendars with a Chinese Literary Twist

Posted: December 2nd, 2014 | No Comments »

Opened December 1st on our Bodleian Library Advent Calendar (I know, I know…) and got Chiang Yee’s The Silent Traveller in Oxford (1944) – the calendar has an Oxford theme rather than a China theme (I think, anyway). Nice start to the month anyway – it is a lovely book. For those not in the know – Chiang Yee spent 1933-1955 in England as a poet, author, painter and calligrapher. His silent traveller series is both a wonderful record of England at that time and during the War, as well as being a fascinating look at England and the English through Chinese eyes. Later Chiang Yee centured further, to America and Japan but his series of books on England are by far the best known. The cover design (first edition below) is by Chiang.




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Monsieur Loo : Le roman d’un marchand d’art asiatique

Posted: December 1st, 2014 | No Comments »

CT Loo keeps popping up into my life. Years ago wandering Paris I discovered his incredible old gallery – now the CT Loo Gallery near the Parc Monseau (see post here) – then various objets that interested traced back to Loo’s collections. More recently I was exploring the connections the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi made while in Peking in 1930 and found that the Loo family were among his friends while he was residing in the city (this piece of research will be out soon hopefully in the new Royal Asiatic Society China’s next Journal when it’s published). And most recently David Piling wrote a long piece on Loo for the Weekend FT (link and some additional information here). Now I note that French speaking Shanghai blogger Hugues Martin has written about Loo too and the French language biography of the man from Geraldine LenainMonsieur Loo – Le Roman d’un Marchand d’art Asiatique. But it’s only in French so any English language publishers reading this post – chase the rights and get it translated pronto please. Loo is a fascinating personage to people with my interests but also a very controversial one in the Chinese art, collecting and heritage world…a fuller understanding of the man and his milieu would be much appreciated and a great read….Mr-Loo-cover-191x300

Stitched PanoramaCT Loo’s 1926 “Pagoda”, now the CT Loo Gallery on rue de Coucelles, Paris



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The Worrying Fate of Manila’s El Hogar Building

Posted: November 30th, 2014 | No Comments »

A slight diversion to the Philippines today to look at the El Hogar building which is, according to Filipino preservationists, currently under threat. The El Hogar was Manila’s first “skyscraper” built in 1914 in the beaux-arts style, popular during the American occupation of the archipelago, and designed by local architects. It was actually constructed as a wedding present for a daughter of the powerful Ayala family. It fronts impressively onto the Pasag River and forms a crucial element of Manila’s skyline still.

To say it is a treasure for Manila is to understate the buildings grandeur and it is preserved supposedly as part of the historic Binondo District and Escolta Street. Preservationists are worried that the building’s new owners have not been named and their intentions are unclear. The city government appears somewhat reticent to say whether a demolition permit has been issued or not. More from the Philippines Daily Enquirer here. Important to note that the Pacific Commercial Company Building nearby and erected in 1922 has been praised as a great example of “adaptive reuse”. The same is clearly possible for El Hogar. Here’s hoping and supporting the Manila preservationists.






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RAS Shanghai Film Club – “Street Angel,” 1937

Posted: November 29th, 2014 | No Comments »



Sunday 30 November

Time: 6.30pm for 7.00pm

 Chai Lounge at Chai Living Gallery, 370 Suzhou Bei Lu. It’s in the Embankment Building close to Henan Lu.

 河滨大楼,苏州北路370底楼 (在四川路河南路之间)


“Street Angel,” “Malu tianshi,” 1937

Directed by Yuan Muzhi

Written by Yuan Muzhi

Produced by Mingxing Film Company

Mandarin with English subtitles

Cinematography: Wu Yinxian

Original music: He Luting, lyrics by Tian Han

Cast: Zhou Xuan (Xiao Hong), Zhao Dan (Xiao Chen), Zhao Huishen (Xiao Yun), Wei Heling (Wang)

One of China’s early sound films, loosely based on Frank Borage’s 1927 silent film “Seventh Heaven,” “Street Angel” is considered a great classic ‘leftist’ melodrama made during Shanghai’s Golden Age of cinema. The story revolves around two sisters (Xiao Yun and Xiao Hong) who have fled the war with Japan in the North to land in Shanghai’s underworld. They live together in a teahouse amongst the slums and barely earn their keep by singing and, for Xiao Yun, prostitution. Xiao Hong is befriended by a street musician, Xiao Chen, who determines to rescue her from her fate of being sold into marriage (and probably prostitution) with the wealthy Mr Gu. An astounding mixture of satire, social realism, slapstick comedy and music, “Street Angel” provides a portrait of street life in 1930’s Shanghai and a glimpse of the creative talent within Shanghai’s film industry.

 “Street Angel” launched the career of its leading lady Zhou Xuan whose voice became synonymous with Shanghai popular music of the day. In the film she sings two of her most famous hits, Song of the Four Seasons and The Wandering Songstress, both of which reference the political turbulence of the late 1930’s through Tian Han’s lyrics. The innovative use of music as a device to convey political messages to the audience and to add to the character of the actors set this film apart from its predecessors.

 Perhaps most often cited for its opening sequence in which Yuan Muzhi made use of the montage technique popularised in the Soviet Union to create a visual and musical portrait of the social conditions prevalent in Shanghai. A travelling night scene in the city, punctuated by a dizzying array of neon signs in English and Chinese accompanied by frenzied music conveys the electrifying energy of Shanghai nightlife. Dissolving into daytime, the camera tilts upwards as it pans an art deco building to rest on a western clock, the icon of modernism. Scenes of automobiles, buses, ships and colonial monuments culminate in a slow shot of the Hong Kong Bank and the Customs House on the Bund. Different types of religious buildings shift the focus from commercial life to spiritual life whilst retaining the influences from all over the world on Shanghai life.

 As clocks continue to chime and dusk falls fireworks cascade over pleasure seekers filling the dance halls and the increasingly frantic musical accompaniment collapses into silence over the title of the film. The result is a feeling that Shanghai, full of competing influences and rushing forwards is fighting against time to shake off its colonialism and to modernise. The perspective and the pace then shifts to street level as the camera follows a traditional Chinese wedding procession into the lanes of Shanghai and away from decadence. Here the houses are densely populated and low-rise. People are lining the street and hanging over balconies to watch the procession with the bride in a palanquin. Amongst the crowd, playing a trumpet appears our first glimpse of Xiao Chen and above him on the balcony emerges Xiao Hong and the dialogue begins. As in the theatre that preceded cinema, the female looks down onto the male actor and catches his attention, drawing the audience into the story. This is the first of several references to theatre that Yuan Mizhu uses within the film to dramatic effect.

 Within these opening moments the director succeeds in displaying Shanghai’s history, it’s social complexity and it’s physical distinctions between colonial and neighbourhood spaces before focusing upon a story that revolves around two related social issues of the time, migration and prostitution.

Running time; 91 minutes

Our evening will be hosted at CHAI Living Gallery.  They kindly provide the venue, equipment, a discount on the menu AND specially prepared popcorn for RAS members to enjoy while watching the movie.

Chai Logo

Donation suggested: RMB 20.00 (RAS members) and RMB 50.00 (non-members). Those unable to make the donation but wishing to attend may contact us for exemption, prior to the RAS Film Club viewing. Membership applications and membership renewals will be available at this event.


RSVP: “Reply” to this email or write to filmclub@royalasiaticsociety.org.cn



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Maurice Sachs – One Man who Wanted to get to Shanghai

Posted: November 28th, 2014 | No Comments »

For reasons I surely do not to elaborate for China Rhyming readers Shanghai was a magnet in the 1930s for those looking to escape from criminal pasts in Europe, who needed to get themselves gone. In the run up to the Second World War Shanghai was of course a paradise for gangsters, adventurers, crooks, conmen and the generally shifty as well as a port of last resort for refugees from war torn Europe, Bolshevik Russia or Nazi antisemitism.

Interestingly throughout the war Shanghai maintained itself as a far off distant dream for many who needed to escape Europe for one reason or another, even after the International Settlement fell to the Japanese following Pearl Harbor (and remembering that the French Concession remained open to many and controlled by the puppet Vichyite government of occupied France).

One who longed to get to Shanghai has interested me for a while since I first heard of him – Maurice Sachs. Sachs was a quite incredible figure, though not a particularly admirable one. He was a Parisian, born in 1906 of Jewish descent. He had spent some time in London and spoke good English. He converted to Catholicism though it didn’t stick and his fairly openly gay lifestyle rather jarred with his adopted religion, so he largely dropped it (the religion, not the lifestyle). He was a conman before the war – masquerading as an art dealer in New York and a jewelery dealer in Paris. He served in the French army briefly at the start of WW2 but was kicked out for his sexual choices. His memoir of the war years, where he manage to stay at liberty in Paris for some time despite his criminal activities and Jewish ancestry – The Hunt – are a fascinating record of the city’s underworld – both bohemian/gay and criminal – during the Nazi occupation. He dealt illegally in gold, smuggled Jewish families out of the city and may have betrayed others to the Gestapo. Being somewhat contrarian he moved to Hamburg when forced to flee Paris – a not necessarily obvious choice in 1942 for a gay criminal French Jew!!

Reading his letters from his Hamburg years he became obsessed with moving on to China, specifically to Shanghai. He imagines Shanghai as a city that would suit him perfectly, forgive his transgressions and allow him to live the lifestyle he liked and provide ample opportunity for grifting and cons. He longed to sail to Shanghai and did actually investigate ways that he might be able to earn the passage and take ship.

To be fair Sachs might well have prospered in Shanghai – plenty like him did. However, before he could make the trip from Europe to Shanghai he was arrested by the Gestapo. Imprisoned, when the British approached, the Germans forced him and other prisoners to walk in atrocious conditions away from the advancing Brits. Sachs was too weak to continue, was shot through the neck and dumped by the side of the road by the Nazis.

Sachs cared little for the Jews, for the fate of France or for anyone really..except whichever man he was infatuated with at any given moment. But in 1945 Shanghai he just might have found a ready reception for talents!!


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Tientsin’s Hotel du Nord

Posted: November 27th, 2014 | No Comments »

Came across this photograph the other day of the Hotel du Nord in Tientsin – it’s dated about 1900 and the picture appears to be of a frontage gate opening onto a courtyard type hotel. Given the presence of a curio shop next to the hotel entrance (very common at hotels where foreigners stayed and needed presents) and its Gothic and German signage I’m assuming this is in the German Concession. Of course the Hotel du Nord in Peking was much better known and features in any number of memoirs and reminiscences of the city but I can find no references to anyone staying in the Hotel Du Nord in Tientsin – perhaps it was just a fake hotel ripping of the better known Peking brand? Still there’s a huddle of rickshaw pullers outside so someone must have been staying there. Any information greatly received….


Hotel du Nord Tientsin

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Jim’s Terrible City – Photographs inspired by JG Ballard’s Shanghai

Posted: November 26th, 2014 | No Comments »

Photographer James H Bollen’s Jim’s Terrible City (a list of stockists here if you don’t do online) is a collection of photographs inspired by reading JG Ballard’s work and his reminiscences of his birthplace Shanghai – with an introduction by Ballard’s eldest daughter, Fay……




Shanghai-based photographer James H. Bollen shares a selection of images from his new book exploring the author’s relationship with his birthplace

“J.G. Ballard believed that human beings are inherently violent. This stemmed from his time in Shanghai, where as a boy he witnessed brutality before and during the period he and his family entered an interment camp in Lunghua, where they were held from 1942 to 1945,” photographer James H. Bollen states in the introduction to his book, Jim’s Terrible City.

Photographing Shanghai, the novelist’s city of birth, Bollen turns his lens on some of the leitmotifs that emerge through Ballard’s work – mannequins, birds, surveillance – as he addresses the landscape of the author’s upbringing, a cityscape dotted with empty and run-down hotels and apartments, abject poverty and extreme violence in Ballard’s day.

What Bollen captures is a version of Shanghai where “the inner world of [Ballard’s] literature and the reality of the outer world of the city meet and merge”, merging and tentatively exploring the threads between the author’s life and his work, removed three-score years, modernised and cultivated

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