Since 2011, I have been a member of the group known as Shanghai Flaneur, which organizes walking tours of the the city for a diverse customer base, from individual tourists and residents to corporate organizations. Each walking tour has a theme and they are usually led by one Flaneur, who is an expert in a certain area of the city’s history or development.
Yesterday, the Shanghai Flaneur group held a special event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the organization. Attending the event were around 20 people, most of whom have led walking tours for the organization. We met at 3 pm at the deco style apartments on Changde Road 常德路, which are famous for once being the home of writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing 张爱玲).
The idea behind the event was that different Flaneurs would have the opportunity to give short talks on subjects of interest within the scope of an identified area of town, which stretched from Changde Road all the way to my own neighborhood of Weihai Road/Shimen Road 威海路/石门一路. This is a very rich historic area of the city coinciding with the western part of the former International Settlement.
Once the Flaneur group had gathered at the grounds of the apartment building, the tour began with Annette, who gave us a brief history of the life of the writer Eileen Chang. After that, we walked over to Tongren Road 同仁路 where Maja gave us a history of the prominent Chinese newspaperman Shi Liangcai 史量才, owner of the Shenbao 申报, China’s foremost newspaper in the early 20th century, whose lavish former home is located on that street. I also pointed out that this was an influential bar street that once was home to Malone’s—one of the earliest expat-oriented restaurants and bars in the city where interestingly enough I had my first date with my future wife back in 1997.
After that, it was my turn to lead the walking tour, and as we ambled down Nanyang Road behind the Portman Ritz Carlton, I pointed out the former location of the sports bar Big Bamboo and told the rags-to-riches story of its founder Bryce Jenner, which is in the bar chapter of our book Shanghai Nightscapes. I also drew upon co-author James Farrer’s recent talk at Tongji University about bar streets as a form of cultural heritage and talked about the vicissitudes of bars and bar streets in this neighborhood and others.
Then it was a five or ten minute stroll to the corner of Nanyang Road and Jiangning Road, formerly known as Gordon Road, where I gave a talk on the history of the city’s jazz age of the 1920s-1930s, featuring Whitey Smith and the Majestic Hotel Ballroom (1924-1931), which was torn down and eventually became the grounds of the Metropole Gardens Ballroom of the late 1930s. I showed photos of the ballrooms and played some of Whitey’s tunes—one of them, “Nightime in Old Shanghai” is accompanied by a video of Whitey Smith’s orchestra playing to a group of Chinese dancers at the Majestic Hotel in 1929, which you can find on youtube.
Afterwards, we continued our walk, and Duncan Hewitt took over for a spell as we visited some old lane houses on Beijing Road. We then had a talk by Han Zheng about Chinese innovation as we stood in front of the massive Starbucks Roastery on Nanjing Road and Shimen Road. Following that talk, we walked across the street to an enclosure near the subway entrance where a PhD candidate from Tongji University named Mickey gave us a talk about the two rather unique apartment buildings on that corner as they came alight in the gathering darkness.
Then we walked down Wujiang Road (formerly known as Love Lane in the old days), where we turned south on Maoming North Road and headed to the Sun Court Apartments 太阳公寓. There, as we all stood there in the gloaming amidst the Italian-style courtyard and listened enrapt, a French Flaneur named Remi gave us a talk about history and personal memory, and told us some stories he’d experienced and learned from local residents about this old apartment building which dates back to 1928.
By this point we were all getting quite hungry and tired from the long march of the Flaneurs. The final talk of the evening was Iris who gave us a brief introduction to the micro-preservation efforts of Lilong or lane house neighborhoods in Shanghai as we strolled through one of them on the way back to Nanjing Road. We finished the tour at the Portman where a lovely dinner was waiting for us at the restaurant known as Element Fresh. Following the dinner, founder Katja and Magali of the Shanghai Flaneur group gave a talk thanking us for our contributions to the organization over the years, and then they showed a wonderful slide show designed by Yan Chu, one of the Flaneur organizers. All in all it was an unforgettable event and certainly it gave us all plenty of inspirations as we learned from each other. Let us hope there will be more of these events in future.
Incidentally, the next morning I did some research online about the Sun Court apartments, and discovered a fortuitous connection to my section on the Majestic and Metropole ballrooms. It turns out a real estate magnate named Sun Chunsheng 孙春生 was responsible for both of these properties. I am eager to do more research on this person and find out more about the connections among the various buildings that make up the built and cultural heritage of this part of Shanghai.