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[What Remains]: Tess Johnston on Shanghai in the 1980s

The prolific writer, researcher and lecturer shares her memories of Shanghai after more than thirty years with the Foreign Service.
Last updated: 2019-05-22

Tess Johnston first came to Shanghai in 1981 to work at the American Consulate General. In 1996, after over thirty years in the diplomatic service, she retired and stayed on to research, write, and lecture. She and her co-author, Shanghai photographer Deke Erh (Erh Dongqiang), have published 25 books, including fifteen volumes on Western architecture and the expatriate experience in old China. She also co-founded Historic Shanghai. This story is her, in her own words.


Photo by Frank Langfitt.

On Arrival

When I first arrived in 1981, I was staying in what used to be the Shanghai Mansions, now the Jinjiang Hotel. It looked like it was in a time-warp. The bedroom suites had antimacassar (do you know what those are? They're the doilies on the back of armchairs), lampshades with fringes, elaborate satin bedspreads and aspidistra plants in pots on stands... It was like walking onto a film set, like time stood still in 1939, which is probably when it actually did stand still. It reminded me of the houses I lived in when I was young, but I wanted to get out. The hotel didn't allow pets!


Jinjiang Hotel's older building, once the Grosvenor House, built in the 1930s. The newer tower is visible behind it.

Working At The American Consulate

I was posted to the United States Consulate in Shanghai, which is a lovely old building. It was very much like staying in an old villa, with the winding staircase and the stained glass window above it, and a large dining room and living room, which became our representational room where we entertained guests and gave lectures and so on. My office was in the master bedroom. Reconfigured, of course!

Actually, when I first came, the master bedroom and the dressing room was still the residence of the Consul General, so he literally lived over the shop! In the morning, it wasn't a matter of driving his car up and coming up the stairs, it was simply a matter of opening the door to the bedroom and saying "good morning, how are you?"

It was lovely. I served under seven Consuls General, including Donald Andersen, who died recently in Washington.


Secretaries are jacks of all trades. I was doing all the planning and scheduling, I had to keep his calendar, I had to prepare for representational events. A secretary is always far more than a secretary. It was a multi-faceted job, which is why I loved it.

I never had the slightest desire to be an officer in the Foreign Service. I couldn't be the budget fiscal officer since I hate responsibility, I couldn't be the personnel officer since I don't like people, but I always liked the position of secretary because it was all the fun and none of the responsibility.

We did everything. We handled visitors, we answered the phones, we even did the super secret stuff. We had code clearance, so we would translate the telegrams that came in into various folders. Gradually I was allowed to write an occasional telegram myself. You see, when they hire a diplomat, they're always under observation, whereas I'm sure they couldn't be bothered to follow us lower mites while we were out antique shopping and so on.

We had much more flexibility getting around without being observed, so we could see things the diplomats were not privileged to see, what with the protocol and the VIP seats and being sequestered. I wrote a couple cablegrams about experiences I had that they would never have been able to see. We were always treated as colleagues with interesting information that they needed, never just as secretaries.

What made a good secretary? Flexibility. Some knowledge of social aspects, how to pour tea and serve and be courteous and so on, and of course you had to have a working knowledge of Chinese. Mine has been described as weird and wonderful, because I speak with a Southern American accent and no tones. The trick I tell to anyone out there who wants to learn to speak Chinese and doesn't have much ability, is "speak very fast." If you speak slow, you better have it right, if you go fast, your mistaken tones aren't so easily perceived!


The Gascoigne Apartments

We all lived in the Gascoigne, apart from the Consul General. That's where all the diplomatic staff stayed. There were five consulates there, as I recall, except the Russians and the Poles, with whom we could have no contact. Back then the Gascoigne was absolutely in its original form. You won't find it now. When they renovated, they destroyed every element of the wonderful Art Deco interior, just utterly destroyed it. That happens all over the world, of course, not just China.


The Gascoigne building has a five-story front building, facing directly onto Huaihai Lu and a rear building with twelve floors. Tess stayed in five apartments throughout, eventually ending up in a tenth-floor penthouse suite.

It was a fine old building, with every luxury you could imagine. We were one of maybe ten buildings who retained their heating system. All the radiators had been melted down for the war or what came after, but in the Gascoigne, they left the radiators alone. We had round-the-clock stokers in the basement, three shifts a day, scraping their shovels into the big pile of coal in the back. Any heating back then came from brown coal, so there was a level of pollution even then, but nothing like the industrial pollution that came later.


The rear lot of the Gascoigne still holds the offices of the building's maintenance staff.

Celebrating National Day

All the Consulates General would have a National Day party and the best, of course, was the French, but the Fourth of July was great. Americans were known for their fireworks.


I remember one Fourth of July, we were shooting fireworks from the building. Right in front of the Gascoigne was what was called the Little Gascoigne, a beautiful building that was all Chinese residents. It had big windows facing us, so there we were, fifty yards across the street from this building with the windows open, and we're shooting off rockets and dropping firecrackers.


And of course these diplomatic party boys all smoked, so they were leaning over a box of firecrackers with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of their mouths. It's a wonder we didn't incinerate the building or blow ourselves up or kill anyone watching across the street! The only thing that saved us from trouble was the fact that the Chinese loved fireworks as much as us.

Was there every any trouble? No, I don't think so, it was all just harmless fun, I don't think we ever did anything accountable. Not me, I didn't drink! We behaved ourselves within the privacy of our confines.


On Keeping Dogs in Shanghai

My pair of black tan dachshunds were the hit of the Gascoigne. There's an alley behind the Gascoigne going into the next street, and I used to walk them down that lane, or the ayi would. Once a man stopped me and asked "what are they? Are they pigs?"

He'd never seen any creature that looked like a dachshund. Feisty little devils. They stopped traffic everywhere they went. On the main streets, people would shriek in terror and leap back. They were terrified of dogs because of the campaigns to eradicate rabies, which the country dogs were spreading.


The alley behind the Gascoigne, where Tess (or her ayi) would've taken the dogs.

They didn't see much difference between a country dog and a city dog. If they could even recognize them as dogs at all. And nobody else had dogs! To have a pet in Shanghai, you had to get a permit. If you had a pet in Shanghai, you were a very privileged person.

The Warehouse and the Friendship Stores

We did our shopping at the Friendship Stores and a warehouse up in Hongkou district where they'd take us for staples. At the Friendship Stores, you'd have canned food and stuff, but the warehouse was really something.

The food was brought in that morning by three-wheel cart, the vegetables were fresh, the meat was practically still pulsating, especially the chickens! I'm an animal lover, so I had a terrible time eating meat because I always saw how the animals lived and how they died. I almost became a vegan in China.

They'd have some frozen chickens stretched out, intact, and they were so skinny they looked like baseball bats. Had about as much good meat on them too, I guess. If we wanted flour, grains, rice, sugar, whatever, they'd give you a kilo or half a kilo in your little paper bag, and they'd close them in such a clever way that they'd be hard to open. Never could figure out how they did it.

It was just north of Suzhou Creek, but I can't remember just where. I'm sure it's been replaced by an 80-story high-rise by now.

The Red House

The Red House was our French restaurant. Chez Louis! [Ed's Note: Not that one] We were told it was run by a Corsican gangster, there were all sorts of stories like that back then, but it was the place that we went for French food, because it was very, very good.


The Red House has skipped around town several times, including. The one on Huaihai Lu claims to be the successor.

There's the legendary anecdote of the banquet for [French President Francois] Mitterrand when he visited. We're not sure if it really happened, but it's a great story. The French Consul General was worried that his cook wasn't good enough for Mitterrand, so he decided to host at the Red House, because obviously, their cook was going to be better. At the end of a banquet, it's customary to bring out the chef so you can applaud him. Who comes out but the cook from the French Consulate! The Red House had decided that their cook wasn't good enough for Mitterrand, so they invited the chef from the French Consulate.


Or, as I called it, Sunday morning! Down to Huating Road. It was all laid out on the ground on newspapers. People didn't value the old, they wanted the new, so they would sell all these fantastic pieces of furniture and china, absolute treasures. They weren't very well cared for but it was everything along the spectrum. The antique dealers used to get their stuff from Shanghai, and gradually they'd have to go further out in the countryside to get it, and then farther and farther afield. Gradually the well dried up. Now it's discards, recycling or fakes. I got in there at the right time!

I live in Washington DC now, down to a two-bedroom apartment from my vast Gascoigne spread. I've auctioned off three thousand pounds of Chinese antiques. All I had was vernacular stuff, didn't make a dime on it. Americans just want Ming or Qing furniture.


Although the Huating Road antique market is long gone, the last major antique shopping street was tourist-favorite Dongtai Lu.


It occupied the crossroads around Dongtai and Zizhong Lu, barely three minutes from Xintiandi.


Slated for demolition in 2015, it's all gone now.

But books! I bought so many Shanghai directories at the antique market, all from 1931 to 49. I think the most I ever paid was 100 kuai for a 1945. For them, a beat-up old Shanghai directory from 1945 had as much value as scrap paper by weight. I still have them. People come to my reference library in DC to look up where their grandmother and grandfather lived, where they worked, who their secretary was, who their neighbors were.

You're lucky if you caught the final years of the antique market, because it's all gone now. End of an era, for me at least.


Into the 21st Century

I lived through a very interesting period of Shanghai's history. I saw it going up from just five years after the events of the 60s and 70s, to 1981, to now. By the time I'd finished my Consulate mission, China had moved with a vengeance into the 21st (22nd!) century. The city has moved on, but the architecture remains. I'm looking out as we speak on lovely old buildings [on Anfu Lu]. In the next 20 years, all of these will go, and it'll become another New York, Paris, London, Rome... luckily, I'm 88 years old so I won't have to live to see it.

The world moves on. I like to think little islands of the old charm will remain, but China's moving into the future, and the Chinese deserve it. They're looking forward, and they have a great future ahead of them.


Tess Johnston currently lives in Washington DC. You can find more information about her and her many, many books on her website.