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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Albion, China

The period running from the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945 is considered in China to be a century of national humiliation, and the population is constantly reminded of this by their unelected representatives (while the government conveniently ignores the many other centuries where neighboring countries and peoples were brought to heel in the name of Chinese cultural superiority). It was a time when European imperial powers such as Britain, France, Germany and Russia, not to mention the United States and, later, Japan, established settlements in many Chinese cities and administered them under the principle of "extraterritoriality", the idea that foreigners were not subject to local laws, only to those of their home countries. It was during this period that Shànghǎi 上海, with its International Settlement and French Concession, prospered and the legacy of that time lives on in the city's architectural heritage.

The section of the city where we live, Hóngqiáo 红桥, is considered to be in the suburbs, and is noted for its large expat population (like us). Prior to World War II, many wealthy Westerners maintained villas in this area. Although this Saturday was yet another wet and overcast weekend day, I was determined to get out on my new Trek mountain bike and do some exploring. After riding around some back streets for a while (and coming across a small area that surprisingly evoked the swamps of the American South), I found myself on Hongqiao Road 红桥路. Passing by the Cypress Hotel 龙柏饭店, I recalled that this place had a connection to Victor Sassoon, the hotelier and tycoon whose architectural legacy lives on in today's Shanghai (as this CNN article illustrates). Sassoon had a mansion here that he used as a weekend retreat, a building that supposedly looked like this:

I say "supposedly", because I didn't exactly see any buildings that looked like the one in the above photo. What I did find, however, was this small cottage-like structure standing in what looked like an English garden (albeit an English garden with a pond stocked full of hungry Asian carp):

Next door was a fine example of period architecture, the Times' Villa. It was built in "Spanish style" (according to the plaque on the outside wall) sometime in the 1930's for the American-Oriental Banking Corporation:

My trusty new steed, parked in a garden in Shanghai, or possibly Colchester...:

Further along Hongqiao Road is another former home of Victor Sassoon's. This house is currently owned by the local government, which appears to have not yet made up its mind about what to do with the property:

Sassoon wasn't the only man of means to enjoy life in relatively tranquil Hongqiao before the war. H. H. Kung 孔祥熙, a wealthy banker and Kuomintang 中国国民党 politician, also maintained a pair of residences that are still in use today. The first is now a teppanyaki restaurant:

...while the other (built in 1934) has been converted into a medical clinic:

It's easy to understand why many Chinese are resentful of the way Westerners and wealthy Chinese cavorted in Shanghai during the prewar period. But despite the perceived humiliation, credit is due those who have had the foresight to maintain so much of the architectural heritage left behind by the "barbarians" who came to Shanghai through the "open door" to make (and lose) fortunes here. It's what makes exploring this city so enjoyable, and why I'm looking forward to longer and more interesting bike rides as the weather warms up.

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