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Katya Knyazeva's scrapbook

Shanghai history and architecture

Sinan Mansions-2019

TimeOut has a new article about the cluster of old villas on former Rue Massenet, now known as the Sinan Mansions, which uses some of my photos and research.

And here is an older feature written after a sobering encounter with Shanghai-style heritage management: Part 1 and Part 2. Also, here is a map from around 1920 snatched from the redevelopment office of Hotel Massenet.

Edited volume with my chapter coming out soon
The chapter is on the Russian food culture in Shanghai – from flavors and seasonings to business models and famous establishments. Description of the book at Taylor & Francis.

Image: Black and White Budget, 1900.

This deserves to be seen again (1926)

#136 Shanghai Architecture Series: Blackstone Apartments 黑石公寓

The luxurious curves of this historic apartment house, at 1331 Middle Fuxing Road, stir the imagination. The name "Blackstone Apartments," confusingly translated into Chinese as 黑石公寓, has produced some guesswork along the lines of "black stones imported from England." In reality, this was one of the few buildings in Shanghai – although not the only – to be named after its architect.

For 1924, this was a quite a revolutionary project. The western part of the French Concession consisted of long roads lined with plane tree saplings and endless bamboo thatch fences of rich foreign residences. In between, there were rural Chinese hamlets, gardens, farms and multiple creeks. The new apartment house would infuse this pastoral setting with the dynamism of the city. The architects were an American amateur, James Harry Blackstone, and an English professional, George Alexander Johnson, of the firm Lester, Johnson & Morris. They chose to design a building in the baroque style, popular with offices and institutional buildings at the time. Special pride was taken in the fact that this was "one of the first buildings to be built without a Chinese contractor" – although the real trick would be to build it without any Chinese workers.

James Harry Blackstone (1879–1965) started as a Protestant missionary in China's provinces and then inherited an enviable position from his father: he became a sole agent of a multi-million private fund that the Californian magnate Milton Stewart bequeathed for the education of Chinese children. The management of this fund took J. H. Blackstone into various parts of China, where he dabbed in architecture; some of his known projects include dormitories and an exhibition pavilion in Peitaiho (Beidaihe). It is not known whether J. H. Blackstone's contribution to the Blackstone Apartments in Shanghai consisted less of the design and more of the financing.

Blackstone Apartments in February 1925. Image: Shanghai Sunday Times

In an anticipatory writeup in June 1924, the North-China Daily Herald proclaimed the new apartment house on Rue Lafayette to be "the largest of its kind this side of San Francisco." There were 31 apartments total: "20 large apartments containing four rooms together with a pantry and a kitchen, 3 medium-sized apartments consisting of three large rooms with kitchen and a pantry, and 8 small apartments composed of a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen, suitable for single ladies or bachelors." The description goes on: ""All bedrooms have adjoining them bathrooms with hot and cold water in abundance, and the latest modern conveniences. The kitchens are fitted with ice boxes, gas rings, fireless cookers, and small laundry tubs." Fireless cookers were turn-of-the-century contraptions resembling thermoses: boiling pots would be placed inside wooden boxes lined with hay, and the cooking finished slowly using the retained heat. The floors in the apartments were of parquetry set in pitch on a concrete foundation, while the hallways were covered with mosaic and terrazzo in various patterns, which are still preserved in many places.

Ad from 1925. Image: China Press

All apartments had direct phone line to the downstairs entrance hall. The servants lived in a separate building and were supposed to be summoned by the phone. Residents could phone and order meals into the rooms. The concept of self-contained living continued in the shared areas: there was a swimming pool for the residents, a clubhouse, a conservatory and a green roof terrace that offered envious views over the sprawling Ezra estate next door. The garden on the south side of the the building accommodated 3 tennis courts and 12 garages. Thanks to its multiple amenities, the Blackstone Apartments was a popular location for high-end social events and private gatherings. Shanghai Missionary Association carried its meetings on the roof terrace – no doubt, thanks to J. H. Blackstone's influence.

"A very cheerful tennis-swimming-dancing party given by Mr. John Huxley to a number of his friends. The picture was taken on the lawn of the Apartments." October, 1925. Image: Shanghai Sunday Times

Swimming pool for the residents. Image: Shanghai Sunday Times

Only foreigners were allowed to live in the building. The elevator was reserved for their use; the Chinese had to use the stairs. For many years the manager of the building was the Swiss lady Marie Therese Stadtmann, who, according to the W. M. Roger Louis, boasted that "she had refused to rent an apartment to Mme. Wellington Koo, the wife of the distinguished diplomat V. K. Wellington Koo, because Mme. Koo was Chinese." After the war the bastion of racism fell: Betty Barr Wang recalled having Chinese neighbors in 1946–1947.

In the 1950s, the last foreigners left and the Blackstone Apartments became completely Chinese. One of the notable residents was the historian Pan Guang 潘光, an expert on China's Jews, who grew up in the building. He recalled how neighbor kids gathered on the roof terrace and told scary stories about the house. There was a creepy tale about the locked boiler room, where even the adults do not dare to go because of the hanged man in the stove. (I presume, the boiler room was locked because central heating was incompatible with high Communism, and all the radiators must have been scrapped for the metal). The Blackstone Apartments is now known as Fuxing Apartments 复兴公寓, and it remains one of the best old houses to live in the city.

Professor Pan Guang in front of his home. Image source

This image from a real estate site shows the repainted, but original, wooden paneling on the walls and partitions, and the built-in cabinets. Image: 58同城

This article was written for the Russian-language series on Shanghai architecture in Magazeta: https://magazeta.com/arc-blackstone-apartments/

Top image: 58同城

To my climate change denialist friends...
For whatever reason you're doing it – scepticism, fatalism, nihilism, principled neutrality – you allied yourself with a group that does not have a single sympathetic politician or public figure among them. You're among bigots, bullies and liars. Only 1 scientist out of 100 joined you. Are you sure you're in the right company?

Russian Orthodox Church of the Epiphany on Paoshan Road (Богоявленская церковь)

This text is a work in progress and it will be substantially edited for my presentation in Syndey next month.

The ground was broken for the Church of the Epiphany in Paoshan district in February 1903, and the church took one and a half years to build. Upon the admission of the monks, the process lacked professional supervision and the resulting building left much to be desired. The inauguration was postponed until the end of the Russo-Japanese War and until a visit of the Archimandrite Innokentiy was scheduled; the opening took place on 1 February 1905. The neighborhood was unevenly unpopulated, penetrated by many creeks and dotted by small lakes, as shown on the images above. The last push to complete and sanctify the building happened in the connection with the arrival in Shanghai in August 1904 of several hundred refugees from Port Arthur, the northern Chinese port that capitulated to the Japanese.

Refugees from Port Arthur land in Shanghai in 1904. Image: Getty


This early Russian community mostly dissolved by 1906, leaving only several hundred immigrants in Shanghai. When refugees from the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 began to trickle to Shanghai, the church became an anchor of the early Russian settlement in Shanghai. Dozens of refugees rented small cubbies in the mission buildings. and in March 1920, a western visitor to these homes found them inadequate: "They are living, fearfully overcrowded, in what appears to be the servants' quarters of a fairly large house. [...] The refugees rent these tiny little rooms for a small sum, all of them are in a very ramshackle condition, and the priest lives in one of them, no better and no bigger than the rest, just the kind of room our Chinese servants live in. The curious part of the whole affair is that the big house, empty, furnished, is kept unused and locked up. No one is allowed to live in any part of it, even the priest [...] by command of some church dignitary in Peking." (NCDN, 11 March 1920). Another account recalled that "in the old and dingy place on Paoshan Road there were five tiny rooms none of which scarcely was fit for one man to sleep in, let alone seven as there were one one occasion. The walls were filthy with dirt and damp stains, and the floors badly wanted covering to hide their defects." (TCP, 29 August 1926)

While living on the mission premises, Russians were desperately looking for work – and some lost all hope. In January 1920, unable to find a job to feed himself, a Russian man leaped on to the tracks in front of the moving train. The discovery of his mutilated corpse on the train tracks near the Church of the Epiphany stirred a wave of foreigners' concern for the well-being of Russian refugees. Job solicitations appeared in local newspapers, listing the professions of the refugees: 2 ships officers, 3 lawyers, 7 bridge building engineers, 4 children's nurses, 1 newspaper editor, 1 printer, 1 carpenter, 5 theatrical artistes, 4 chemists, 1 mechanical engineer, 1 monumental mason, 2 electricians, 2 motor mechanics, 2 tailors, 2 shipyard mechanics, 1 waiter, 5 sailors, 3 bookkeepers, 1 hairdresser, 2 bakers, 1 draughtsman, 5 teachers, 2 firemen, 1 engine driver, 1 ship cook, 1 boxmaker (total 65 persons with identifiable professions in search of work). One week prior, an arrangement was made for 29 men to find employment on the vessel Gwenneth heading for the Baltic Sea ports. Altogether, however, there were between two and three thousand Russian refugees in Shanghai, and the numbers were increasing.

Relief work was carried out in three locations, all fairly removed from each other – the Church of the Epiphany, the shelter near the port, at 24 Ward Road, and the former Kelly and Walsh publishing office on the Bund. The latter was a condemned building awaiting demolition, and its new owner, the HSBC, agreed to waive the rent, allowing the soup kitchen in the ramshackle structure to serve 1000 meals to refugees weekly; there was a clothing dispensary in the back rooms. This central location was considered much nearer to the refugees' settlement in the north than the older address on Bubbling Well Road, which would necessitate spending on a tram fare.

The Union of the Russian Army and Navy Men, which formed in June 1920 and derived its income from the businesses operated by its members and their wives ("stores, auto service stations, fashion salons"), sponsored the creation of a charity hostel for impoverished army men, since many were by then seen sleeping on benches in public parks. The union rented a mansion on Wangpang Road, next to the Church of the Epiphany at an exceptionally low price of 50 taels a month. "They hired a cook and furnished a dining room in the conservatory, where in the mornings tea was served with bread and butter and lunches and dinners consisted of two courses each. Starting with thirty lunches a day, one month later the kitchen was serving fifty." (Zhiganov, 1936) In the atmosphere of uncertainty, exacerbated by the severance of diplomatic ties between China and Bolshevik Russia and the stripping of the expatriate Russians of their citizenship, the military hostel was a lifeline and a social circle for stranded military Russians, where "visitors from the city" brought gifts on weekends. (Zhiganov, 1936)

The arrival of several thousands of Russians with the Imperial Siberian Fleet from Vladivostok intensified the urgency of the housing problem. The Chapei district government pleaded with foreign authorities to find shelter for the new arrivals, or else they will freeze in winter: "During the summer months they sold all their winter clothes and now have nothing left." (NCDN, 1 October 1923) These expressions of sympathy were a thin veil for the "continued uneasiness" brought on by the refugee presence in this suburban area where farmland and rural hamlets were interspersed with lucrative recreational and educational facilities, such as the Italian Circle (Circolo Italiano), a public school for boys, a golf club and the Chinese YMCA recreation ground. Taking charge of the placement of military men and their families, the Union of the Russian Army and Navy Men rented a villa at the western edge of the French Concession, at 115 Route de Zikawei, where at any given time 100–150 people were sojourning and benefitting from free or low-price meals; it remained functional until 1928. (Zhiganov, 1936) In 1928, following the relocation of the Russians to the French Concession and the simultaneous decrease of military men in need, the Union downsized its premises but improved the quality of the services provided. By 1931 it operated two dormitories in the central French Concession: one for 28–30 bachelors, and one 5-room mansion for family men.

The clash between the Nationalist troops and local warlord armies in Chapei in January 1927 made the church unusable for a while, but the Russians managed to get a restitution from the Kuomintang and restored the building. In January 1932, however, the Chapei neighborhood, where the church was situated, was in trouble again. The Japanese and the Chinese troops were engaged in urban warfare all around the church. Apparently, the Japanese forces took the church bell tower for an observation post and fired at it nonstop, and the Chinese forces responded with the fire in the same direction. People ran in the direction of the settlements, and the Russians lef too. On January 31, the last person to leave the Church of the Epiphany was the Rev. Eliah Wen. He took the cross and the sacred vessels and left the perilous area; he was thankfully unharmed. The building was not used as a church again.


This text is a work in progress and it will be substantially edited for my presentation in Syndey next month.

Here is Bishop Simon and clergy posing in front of the church:

Here is the wedding of Mr. F. Marsch and Mrs. D. Egereff that took place in the church in May 1927:

And here is a funeral procession going from the church to the cemetery; the train tracks are visible on the right:

Here is what was left of the church after the artillery fire in 1932:

Beautiful colorized postcards in the collection of the Salem State Archives
Walter George Whitman's collection of postcards from his travels in Asia. Based on rather famous views, some postcards have been colorized very intensely:

St. Andrew's Church on Baoshan Road:

The south building of the New World amusement center seen from the Racecourse:

The interior of a Chinese theatre, from a well-known photograph, which I've not been able to identify thus far:

The well-known view, originating either from Boerschmann, or earlier:


See the collection on flickr.

Then and Now: Estrella Apartments and Kavkaz restaurant, 67 years apart
1948 vs 2015:

Images: Jack Birns and Baidu

Below is the interior of the Kavkaz restaurant (that building no longer exists):

Jack Garofalo's Shanghai (1981)
A nice collection of photographs by Jack Garofalo, a photographer for Paris Match, taken in Shanghai in 1981. The photos documenting the resurgence of traditional and religious customs and also the economic revival show the interiors of Shanghai's Catholic churches, some former French Concession villas, street views and park settings.

Getty Images

Shanghai Evening Post in 1943

Shanghai's English-language newspapers closed during the darkest years of the Japanese occupation, and there was practically no foreign press in the years 1942–1945. The Shanghai Evening Post, however, briefly reapeared in September 1943 to announce the end of the Great Asian War and to offer a medical issue with articles like Population and Eugenics, by Dr. Hiroshi Yasui. Thankfully, the voices of the Japanese doctors were not heard from until the end of the occupation.

The building of the Shanghai Evening Post, at the corner of Avenue Edward VII (now east Yan'an Road) and Rue Montauban (now South Sichuan Road):