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

AmCham Shanghai 100th Anniversary – A Few Extras #1 – Sterling Fessenden’s Murderous Deal and his White Russian Mistress

Posted: June 23rd, 2015 | No Comments »

The American Chamber of Commerce is celebrating its 100th anniversary (in fact they just had a bash in Shanghai) and has been posting rather a lot of interesting articles on the glorious history of Americans in Shanghai. But they’ve been rather judiciously edited to prevent any talk of disagreements among the Americans in Shanghai. It seems worthwhile telling a few extra tales that somehow slipped off the official record!

Today, Sterling Fessenden, the American who ran the Municipal Council for many years – the article is here. However, Mr Fessenden was also known for a few other things in Shanghai that somehow didn’t make the AmCham cut; among them his somewhat scandalous love life and primarily his role as one of the butchers of 1927…


Now Fessenden was an interesting chap and well connected – indeed he had come to Shanghai to practise law with none other than the former US Consul General in Shanghai Thomas Jernigan. Jernigan (who got a road named after him in Shanghai) was an American Civil War veteran (he fought with the Confederates). In general Fessenden was popular but not with everyone – some disapproved of his rather different private life. Fessenden is invariably described as a “lifelong bachelor” but in fact had a long standing White Russian mistress, called Olga, which rather scandalised some of the more conservative among the American elite in the city who saw him dancing with the much taller Olga at various city nightclubs.

But tippy-toeing around Shanghai’s ballrooms with Olga is not why we should pause for a great deal of thought before lavishing quite so much praise on Sterling Fessenden….

Also omitted is Fessenden’s role in the Shanghai Massacre of 1927. Now an American Judge may well have praised Fessenden’s “Discretion, Courage and Integrity” in times of trouble but I doubt anybody on the Shanghai Left would have agreed. Fessenden it was who brokered the infamous deal between Green Gang boss Du Yuesheng (Big Eared Du) and the French authorities in their concession (in the form of the hopelessly corrupt Captain Fiori who was reputedly in the pay of the Chinese gangs, various gambling interests and probably Corsican and Marseilles Mafia interests in France’s Far East empire) to allow Green Gang thugs and sharp shooters to attack the Left and trade unions. Thanks to Fessenden’s insistence the French agreed to supply Du’s thugs with 5,000 rifles, ammunition and free passage for their trucks through the French Concession to attack striking workers. It was a bloody time. A conservative opinion is that over 1,000 Communists were arrested, some 300 were officially executed and more than 5,000 went missing – the Left in Shanghai offered figures far in excess of these. Whatever the number, it was a massacre, and one made possible by Fessenden’s conniving.


Left Wing blood on the streets – partly courtesy of Sterling Fessenden – American “Lord Mayor of Shanghai”

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RAS Beijing – Great Wall Style: Repurposing Old Buildings & Materials – 24/6/15

Posted: June 22nd, 2015 | No Comments »

Talk by Jim Spear


This talk, organized by the Courtyard Institute, will be based on experiences detailed in Spear’s recently published book, Great Wall Style, an inspiring work that relates Spear’s building restoration projects across four villages near the Mutianyu Great Wall area (Huairou District of Beijing).

The book is based on Spear’s extensive personal experience and insights, chronicling the process of how he initially restored the Schoolhouse into a breathtaking restaurant, later the Brickyard into a boutique hotel, and several additional projects designing dozens of homes for clients in the area around Mutianyu. The Schoolhouse and Brickyard are sustainable tourism destinations that offer visitors a chance to experience Chinese rural life in the peace and comfort of sensitively and thoughtfully restored village buildings.

About the speaker: 
Jim Spear, fluent in Chinese and educated at the University of California, Berkeley, spent nearly 20 years doing business in China prior to moving full-time to his vacation house at Mutianyu Great Wall in 2005. He expanded and upgraded the home, turning it into a year round retreat. Spear’s passion for designing and building country houses became a business and today he has completed over 30 homes for clients from around the world. His projects have been featured in many Chinese and international publications, including Architectural Digest. When the mayor of his village asked him to help the local community, Spear and his wife and business partner Liang Tang founded The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu Great Wall, a for-profit sustainable tourism enterprise which has grown to include three restaurants, an art glass studio, a gallery, a unique resort comprised of rental homes dispersed across two villages, and an eco-retreat created from a re-purposed glazed tile factory, all designed by Spear. The Schoolhouse earned recognition for best responsible tourism practices in China in 2012 from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and was previously selected best tourism enterprise in Beijing’s scenic Huairou District in 2010 and won the HICAP Sustainable Communities Award in 2009.

Doors open at 7 and the talk will be from 7.30 to 8.30pm, after which there will be time for Q&A. Some light snacks and refreshments will also be provided.

Wednesday, June 24th, 7:30pm – 9:30pm
Courtyard Institute (No.28 Zhonglao Hutong, Dongcheng District) MAP
Please RSVP as seating is limited: https://yoopay.cn/event/89723561
50 RMB regular ticket
20 RMB with valid student ID

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RAS Shanghai – LILIANE WILLENS on The White Russian Diaspora in Asia – 1900-1949 – 23/6/15

Posted: June 22nd, 2015 | No Comments »


Tuesday 23 June 2015

7:00 PM for 7:15 PM start

Radisson Blu Plaza Xingguo Hotel, Tavern Bar

78 XingGuo Road, Shanghai



The White Russian Diaspora in Asia – 1900-1949


In this lecture, Dr. Liliane Willens will discuss “The White Russian Diaspora in Asia, 1900-1949,” focusing on the lives of the Russian Orthodox settlers in Harbin in the early 1900s who worked for the Chinese Eastern Railroad; the flight during the Bolshevik Revolution of Russian refugees to Harbin; later to Shanghai and the difficulties these émigrés encountered prior to, during and after the Japanese occupation; finally their hurried departure to the Philippines in early 1949 before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Liliane Willens, of Russian parentage, was born and raised in the former French Concession of Shanghai where she attended a French lycée.  She, her parents and siblings – all stateless – experienced World War II under the Japanese occupation, the bombing by American planes and the return of the Chiang Kai-shek government.  Because of difficulties to immigrate to the United States, she remained in Shanghai during the first two years of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Talk Cost: RMB 70.00 (RAS members) and RMB 100.00 (non-members). Includes glass of wine or soft drink. Those unable to make the donation but wishing to attend may contact us for exemption.

Membership applications and membership renewals will be available at this event.  Those unable to make the donation but wishing to attend may contact us for exemption.

RAS Monographs: Series 1 & 2 will be available for sale at this event. RMB 100 each (cash sale only).To RSVP:  Please “Reply” to this email or write to RAS Bookings at: bookings@royalasiaticsociety.org.cn

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Nina Barsamova – the White Russian “Movie Queen of Shanghai”

Posted: June 21st, 2015 | No Comments »

Nina Barsamova was a bit of a celebrity in the 1930s. Like many White Russians she claimed her family were something special back in the tme of the Romanoffs but had come into exile in China. They lived in Harbin until about 1930 or thereabouts and then, after her father’s death, Nina, her mother and sister moved to Shanghai. Around early 1933 she won a beauty pageant at the Shanghai Canidrome aimed at raising money for a White Russian orphans in the city.

Nina decided to trade up after the pageant and took the liner the President Hoover to America (it might be that the trip was the First Prize – it’s a bit unclear), arriving in San Francisco in July 1933 declaring herself looking to “crash” into the movies in Hollywood. Talking to the press it appears she hinted at Russian noble blood and somehow got called the “Movie Queen of Shanghai”. According to the papers she was not in Hollywood long before she was approached by a film producer and director called Buddy DeSylva, who wanted her to take a screen test. DeSylva claimed Nina had a delectable accent and was “exactly what I want”. It’s not clear if she ever made any films (or why she was called the “Movie Queen of Shanghai” as she doesn’t appear to have made any there either – The China Monthly Review claimed the San Francisco press dubbed her with the sobriquet but it may have been the title bestowed by the pageant – good PR I guess?) but she did get her photo in the September 1933 issue of New Movie magazine.

Fast forward 18 months and we find Nina in Jan 1935 boarding a ship returning to Shanghai. The problem seems to have been that “she had been in Hollywood as long as the law permitted” and had now outstayed her visa. So, so long Hollywood; Hello, once again, Shanghai. That appeared to be the end of Nina’s Hollywood career. But not of her life…

However, it appears in 1936 Nina married a Basque Spanish hai-alai player (they were generally considered extremely good looking chaps usually and thought of as catches!)  called Paulino Ituarte y Elordi. And it also seems she had two children – Natalia and Elena, thought to have moved to California. The records are a bit unclear but I think Paulino Ituarte y Elordi was born in 1901 and died in 1989 in California, known as Paulino Ituarte (Elordi having been his mother’s maiden name?).

And that’s all I’ve got – but she was very beautiful and she had some adventures and if anyone knows anymore please let me know?



The_Fresno_Bee_The_Republican_Sun__Jun_25__1933_Barsamova in July 1933 arriving in America from Shanghai


Barsamova in Jan 1935 departing America for Shanghai

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RAS Beijing Film Showing – The Soong Sisters – 23/7/15

Posted: June 20th, 2015 | No Comments »

The Royal Asiatic Society and the Courtyard Institute invite for a viewing of The Soong Sisters, an historical drama film based on the lives of three legendary sisters who influenced Chinese politics to a startling degree from 1911 to 1949. Each married a key historical figure — father of the Chinese republic Sun Yat-sen, Kuomintang Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and prominent banker Kung Hsiang-hsi (Kong Xiangxi) — making their family the focal point of Chinese decisionmaking at the top during that period. It’s been said that “one married for power, one married for money, and one married for China”.

Directed by Mabel Cheung, the film was released in Hong Kong in 1997 and contains some allusions to Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty that year.



Tuesday, June 23, 7:30-9:30 PM


Courtyard Institute (No.28 Zhonglao Hutong, Dongcheng District) MAP


email events@rasbj.org and let us know how many seats to reserve for you.


40 RMB regular ticket
20 RMB for RAS Members


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Indo-Chinese in Occupied Paris – one small memoir

Posted: June 19th, 2015 | No Comments »

This week is the 75th anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Paris in June 1940. When Paris fell and the collaborationist Vichy government, headed by Marshal Petain, took titular control of France there were obviously ramifications for France’s overseas empire. Both Indo-China and the French Concession of Shanghai went overwhelmingly with Petain with Vichy and had only small resistance organisations – the one in Shanghai very small and largely arrested while the resistance in Indo-China was largely British-sponsored. But what of those Indo-Chinese in Paris in Jun 1940? How did they react to the occupation. Probably the best daily record of life during the occupation is that of the teacher and writer Jean Guehenno who interacted with several Indo-Chinese students in Paris at the time and recorded it in his Diary of the Dark Years. Of course the conversations he records do not reflect all opinions at the time and the students he spoke too tended to be privileged, having been sent to France to study at elite ecoles, and were also now seeing the French as defeated rather than conquerors, but still interesting I think….


“January 12, 1941

A visit from N…he is a young Indo-Chinese man, astute, elegant and studious. He wrote French with a kind of love, the same meticulous care he probably exercises when he paints his Chinese characters. Yesterday I could feel he was disturbed and had clearly come for help. He no longer knows where he stands. He told me what France meant for him and his friends in the Saigon lycee four years ago, how they loved her with a romantic love, so strong and at the same time so vague and so endangered. So far away, and what a paradise she was, according to the dreams they had as they read beautiful books and flawless poems together. He talks of this slowly, taking the time to reflect between every sentence. He loves FRance still, he wants to love her. But am I aware of the wretchedness of his fellow countrymen now in France? How they have been abandoned, living only on the aid of the Red Cross and the SAlvation Army? And over there, in Indo-China, am I aware that any willingness to do something is suspect and watched over suspiciously, and how they treat young, cultivated Indo-Chinese, what care they take to maintain them in inferior positions…? And suddenly his face lights up, his eyes shine, his cheeks grow pink, and it is only now that I feel he is abslutely sincere. “You can’t understand what Japan means to us.” That’s what had been so hard for him to tell me: what he had just told me – this new love, no less romantic than his love for France had been. He explains to me that Japan isn’t what it is thought to be in Europe. There is the shining hard Samurai, but there is another Japan, one which has not forgotten the tender, humane lessons of the Buddha…And I listen to N…somewhat embarassed and ashamed. I am obliged to feel that we have not done our whole duty, and that since France had not believed strongly enough in herself – in her essence – she missed her chance for greatness and disappointed, I fear, the love of so many young people whom she could have turned into free men, our equals and our brothers. We’re paying for this lack of faith, we’re expiating this sin. How can we expect these young Indo-Chinese men to defend the empire against Siam and Japan? They would be generous indeed if they didn’t take some pleasure in seeing us humiliated by an occupier as they were by us.”



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The Shanghai Floods of 1940

Posted: June 18th, 2015 | No Comments »

Shanghai is currently undergoing the plum rains. They appear to be heavier than normal this year and have caused extensive flooding. It happens every so often and always has. I suspect that things get a bit backed up these days as my theory is that despite massive population increase and all those new apartment blocks not as much sewer and drainage piping has been added. Certainly my observation of new blocks going up in the French Concession in the 1990s was that they just connected to the old French installed piping. A lot more people + same pipes = a lot of backing up!

Still, there have been bad years before – 1940 was a famous flood and followed 1939 which many had thought the worst on record, but 1940 was worse…

Hers is the French Ambassador in 1940 Henri Cosme (for the record a complete shit: the representative of the Vichyite collaborationist French government in China and later their ambassador to Tokyo) in a sampan on a Shanghai Street. Aahh, the old days, I wouldn’t give much for the chances of the current French Ambassador punting down a Shanghai street in a sampan to check French citizens in Shanghai are all OK?!

So here’s today’s challenge old Shanghai hands – where is he? Behind him is a sign that probably says “Palace”. the building is not big enough to be the Palace Hotel but there was a Palace Dance Hall on the Avenue Edward VII (Yanan Lu now), the road that marked the boundary between the Settlement and Frenchtown – seems logical he might have gone to the borders of Frenchtown to survey the damage? But, any other suggestions.


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RIP Christopher Lee – 1922-2015

Posted: June 17th, 2015 | No Comments »

Of course, among his many other roles, Christopher Lee donned yellow face to become Fu Manchu a whole bunch of times….







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