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

The First Avenue Hotel, Holborn – London Most Chinoiserie Hotel Lobby (in 1900)

Posted: January 11th, 2015 | No Comments »

Frederick Gordon’s hotel group once owned some of the best hotel properties in London, across England’s resorts and on the continent. A self-made Brit, Gordon made a big deal about working to attract the American traveler to Europe and building hotels that appealed to them. However, his Gordon Hotel Group’s premier flagship property was The First Avenue in Holborn, which opened in 1883 and survived until 1940 when it was completely gutted and destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz (as ever, thanks Germany!!). The hotel’s name shows how keen Gordon was to attract American patronage – below is a picture of the exterior of the hotel from the First World War (thanks again Germany!!) showing the bunting with American flags.

However, maybe Gordon had a Chinese fascination going on – just check out the Chinese entrance hall of The First Avenue Hotel (in 1900) complete with moon gate, Chinese roof tiles and Qing Dynasty furniture. Never did a London hotel (or a Chinese one for that matter!!) have such a Chinese lobby!





1907 Ad Gordon Hotels of Europe

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Truth or Fiction – Did Tony Keswick Drive Al Capone’s Bulletproof Limo round Shanghai in 1941?

Posted: January 10th, 2015 | No Comments »

OK – a little Shanghai mystery I’d like to get to the bottom of – did Tony Kewsick, seen below, (fully Sir William Johnstone Keswick, 1903-1990 – they say it kind of like “Kezzick”), Shanghai taipan of Jardine Matheson from 1935-1941, Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council just before the Japanese invasion and head of SOE for the Far East during WW2 actually ever own and drive (or be driven) around Shanghai in a bulletproof limousine formerly owned by Al Capone? It’s a great tale but I’m just not sure. Certainly Keswick needed a bulletproof limo – in January 1941 Keswick was shot twice by an aggrieved Japanese ratepayer. Keswick’s wounds, one to the left side of his chest and the other to his left forearm, were not considered serious, with doctors commenting that his heavy coat had probably saved his life.


And so to the tale – it appears un-footnoted in a couple of publications. Ashley Jackson, in his 2006 book The British Empire and the Second World War claims that, after the 1941 shooting ‘Keswick drove around in a bulletproof car once owned by Al Capone.’ The tale is retold in Leroy Thompson’s 2012 The World’s First SWAT Team – WE Fairbairn and the Shanghai Municipal Police. 

Now it could be possible – we are probably talking about Capone’s 1928 V-8 Cadillac Sedan (below) which has sparked many a rumour including that FDR rode around in it at the time of Pearl Harbor (disproved). Funnily enough this car came up for auction in 2012 with a provenance attached. Sadly there is no mention of Keswick buying the car and shipping it to Sjhanghai for his personal use. That provenance has the car’s history noted as ‘well-known and heavily documented. ‘

“After being shipped to New York and shipped to England, it was displayed at the Southend-On-Sea amusement park and later at the Blackpool Fun Fair. Dance hall owner Tony Stuart purchased the car for $510 at an auction in February of 1958 and sold it months later to Harley Nielson, a businessman and car enthusiast from Todmorden, Ontario. Neilson undertook a comprehensive restoration, and in the process, most of the heavy armor plating was removed, but other features, including the bulletproof glass and drop-down rear window, were retained. In a Letter to the Editor of Esquire, Neilson explained that in 1939, the U.S. government asked the British government to intervene and take the car off display because of the “poor public relations it could cause by pointing up American Gangsterism.” ”

No record whatsoever of the car going to Shanghai

So, either a) the authors above are wrong; b) we’re talking about another car once owned by Capone that appears to have never been commented on much

Any leads much appreciated? Until then it appears to be a great tale, but sadly not a true tale!


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Some China Books to Look Forward to in the First Half of 2015

Posted: January 9th, 2015 | No Comments »

A few China books out in the first half of 2015 that grabbed my attention….

Where Chiang Kai-Shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948 – Harold Tanner – detailing a break through moment in Chinese history…


Flood of Fire – Amitav Ghosh – Book 3 of the Sea of Poppies Trilogy & the opium wars approach….


Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army – Phyllis Birnbaum – a story well known to many China Rhymers I expect, but worth telling again and there just aren’t enough China books that include cross dressing characters (despite my attempts to up the number from zero to one)…


The Porcelain Thief - Huan Hsu – remarkable story of a collection of porcelain saved both from the Japanese invaders and the Communist philistines….


The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures – Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac – how the great US collections were built…


and finally….but then on second thoughts perhaps not!…






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Remembering Pamela Werner

Posted: January 8th, 2015 | No Comments »

Pamela Werner – 7/2/17 – 8/1/37

Pamela 1936 studio portrait

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Royal Asiatic Society Shanghai – Jie Li on Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives – 8/1/15

Posted: January 7th, 2015 | No Comments »


Thursday 8 January 2015

 7:00 PM for 7:15 PM start

The Tavern, Radisson Blu Plaza Xingguo Hotel

78 XingGuo Road, Shanghai


Jie Li on

Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives

Jie Li, assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, will speak about her book Shanghai Homes: Palimpsest of Private Lives.


  Jie Li is assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. As a scholar of literary, film, and cultural studies, Jie Li’s research interests center on the mediation of memories in modern China. Her first book, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (Columbia, 2014), excavates a century of memories embedded in two alleyway neighborhoods destined for demolition.

 Ms. Li’s current book project, Utopian Ruins: A Memory Museum of the Mao Era, explores contemporary cultural memories of the 1950s to the 1970s through textual, audiovisual, and material artifacts, including police files, photographs, documentary films, and museums. Li has co-edited a volume entitled Red Legacies: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution (Harvard Asia Center, forthcoming). Two ongoing research projects deal with the transnational cinematic history of Manchuria and mobile movie projection units from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Li’s recent publications in journals and edited volumes include: “Discolored Vestiges of History: Black-and-White in the Age of Color Cinema” (Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 2012), “A National Cinema for a Puppet State: The Manchurian Motion Picture Association (Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas, 2013), “Phantasmagoric Manchukuo: Documentaries Produced by the South Manchurian Railway Company, 1932-1940″ (positions: east asia cultures critique, 2014), and “From Landlord Manor to Red Memorabilia: Reincarnations of a Chinese Museum Town” (Modern China, forthcoming). Li earned an A.B. in East Asian Studies at Harvard, and studied English literature at the University of Cambridge and German literature at the University of Heidelberg before returning to Harvard for a Ph.D., earned in 2010 in modern Chinese literature and film studies. In 2012-2013 she was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton’s Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. Li teaches courses on East Asian Cinema and on Chinese media cultures.


(from Columbia Press)

In the dazzling global metropolis of Shanghai, what has it meant to call this city home? In this account – part microhistory, part memoir – Jie Li salvages intimate recollections by successive generations of inhabitants of two vibrant, culturally mixed Shanghai alleyways from the Republican, Maoist, and post-Mao eras. Exploring three dimensions of private life – territories, artifacts, and gossip – Li re-creates the sounds, smells, look, and feel of home over a tumultuous century.

 First built by British and Japanese companies in 1915 and 1927, the two homes at the center of this narrative were located in an industrial part of the former “International Settlement.” Before their recent demolition, they were nestled in Shanghai’s labyrinthine alleyways, which housed more than half of the city’s population from the Sino-Japanese War to the Cultural Revolution.

Through interviews with her own family members as well as their neighbors, classmates, and co-workers, Li weaves a complex social tapestry reflecting the lived experiences of ordinary people struggling to absorb and adapt to major historical change. These voices include workers, intellectuals, Communists, Nationalists, foreigners, compradors, wives, concubines, and children who all fought for a foothold and haven in this city, witnessing spectacles so full of farce and pathos they could only be whispered as secret histories.

Copies of the book will be available at the lecture.

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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Remembering Denmark Street in 1934…the Nanking Restaurant and the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association

Posted: January 6th, 2015 | No Comments »

It seems that the usual combination of philistine developers and a venal local Council have decreed that London’s old Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, will be bulldozed. Though whole specialist streets have been awarded heritage preservation status in London (Hatton Garden and Saville Row for instance), Tin Pan Alley will not be preserved. As well as being the heart of the popular music industry in London the street actually dates back to the seventeenth century so the vandalism is massive. As a small contribution to memories of the road I’m here reposting a blog piece I put up a few years ago on the old Nanking Restaurant in Denmark Street that was one of the capital’s best known Chinese restaurants between the wars and also the place where the left wing Indian Progressive Writers’ Association was formed….


An interesting story involves the once well known the Nanking Restaurant on Denmark Street, off the Charing Cross Road. In November 1934 Indian activists in London (many later to become communists) including MD Taseer, Mulk Raj Anand, Jyoti Ghosh, Pramod Sengupta and Syed Sajjad Zahir met in a back room at the Nanking to form the left wing and anti-imperialist Indian Progressive Writers’ Association.The Nanking is often described as being in Soho (but is not, to me anyway, as it’s slightly east of Charing Cross Road) though Denmark Street was London’s original “Tin Pan Alley”, though in 1932 the street was mostly Asian restaurants. Here’s a little more on the Nanking from The Queenslander newspaper in 1932 that reviewed the London Chinese restaurant scene….

“….enter Denmark Street, which is now almost wholly given over to Chinese and Japanese restaurants and emporia. Undoubtedly the most amusing of these places is The Nanking, presided over by Mr. Fung Saw. Mr. Fung is some thing of a politician, and to his restaurant come many of the more youthful of the budding Parliamentarians. These, together with composers and song writers, their publishers and film artists, comprise the chief of Mr. Fung’s clientele. The hall of feasting is reached by long, steep steps, which lead to an exceptionally large, light, and lofty basement. There is another and a mere prosaic entrance through a hall door on the ground floor, but somehow no one ever seems to notice it, and so we descend the more picturesque steps. Inside, the decorations are reminiscent of a Chinese junk, and the walls are decorated in vermilion and in greens and yellows, which only a Chinese artist is able to use to Oriental perfection. On the opposite side of the road are two Japanese restaurants, and just round the corner we can enter the banqueting hall of Wah Yeng, who contents himself with catering, to the exclusion of everything else. Mr. Yeng explained that he had a largo back room, which he reserved for Chinese business men, but as Chinese merchants do not so often come to London the hall at the back is usually thrown open to all.”


Denmark Street in 1964 – by then the epicentre of the London music scene…

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Pondicherry’s Hotel de Ville – Worse than I thought….

Posted: January 5th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Shortly before the end of last year I blogged on Pondicherry in the former French controlled part of India and preservation issues. Thanks to everyone for comments – however it appears that things are far worse than I suspected – basically the former Hotel de Ville is not simply damaged but basically destroyed, as the photos below taken this week indicate clearly.

To paraphrase some current visitors and those more familiar with the city than me it seems that while Pondicherry is a truly remarkable place, and its French architectural legacy is genuinely special, just how it garnered any accolade for “heritage preservation” is mystifying. Of course anyone who has seen how easily UNESCO hand out awards in China and then fail to do any  follow up or apply any sanction on post-award destruction, will be familiar with this!! This has been a global UNESCO failing for many years now. Pondicherry, it seems to be agreed, does have a handful of truly beautiful old buildings, but they are decayed, closed and rotting in the hot sun. Several have been smashed down completely. Those that have been renovated have been done so with an unnecessarily heavy hand. “Preservation” is not the correct word, as they have been restyled with little regard to the original architectural nuances – windows and door frames have been replaced with cheap copies and the entire facades have been slathered in a thick layer of new concrete and then painted in garish colours.

Oh well…but for the record here’s the Hotel de Ville….





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Remembering Shanghai’s Rokusan Gardens

Posted: January 4th, 2015 | No Comments »

I came across a couple of references recently to the Rokusan Gardens in Shanghai, a park who’s existence I was not previously aware of. The Rokusan Gardens were laid out in 1896 at the north end of North Szechuan Road (Sichuan Road North nowadays) which was itself laid out and planned in the late 1860s. The North Szechuan Road was a popular gathering place for the International Settlement’s Japanese community, it was home to the small Uchiyama Shoten bookshop owned by the Japanese intellectual Kanza Uchiyama, which was where Lu Xun often bought books. Also the nearby Gongfei Coffee Shop on the second floor of a North Szechuan Road building was a salon where Chinese and Japanese writers and intellectuals met to discuss literature and the arts before the second world war. I am assuming the Gardens were at the northern end of the road and probably just outside the official Settlement borders in Chapei (Zhabei). The Gardens were small as they don’t appear on many maps. The Gardens apparently included a small Japanese Shinto shrine surrounded by a small artificial pond and flowering shrubs. There was also a small Japanese-style tea house within the grounds.

the Gardens were also adjacent to a Japanese restaurant, also called Rokusan,which was the most popular Japanese restaurant with westerners in Shanghai (and opened in 1912 I think) until it was destroyed in the Shanghai War of 1932 and never rebuilt. In 1932 the Gardens were the scene of fierce fighting when Chinese shock troops arrived from Canton (Guangzhou) pinned down elements of the second and fifth battalions of the Japanese Marines in the Gardens and a significant fire fight occurred – enough to be reported in American newspapers. I believe the Rokusan Restaurant closed after 1932 though the building remained and is the one on North Sichuan Road below – though far from sure I’ve got this right!!

1_b1916b51d407f5f7c1977e64b67d6458The Rokusan Gardens shortly before it was devastated in the Shanghai War of 1932


The former Rokusan Restaurant buidling – the ugly modern block to the left is on the site of the former Rokusan Gardens (I think…)

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