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Historic and Literary Shanghai's Tina Kanagaratnam

My name is Tina Kanagaratnam. I’m “from” … a whole bunch of places: I’m a third-generation Singaporean of Ceylonese (Sri Lanka) descent, grew up in Washington, D.C., went to grad school in New York City, returned to Singapore to work and fall in love with the man whose work brought us to Beijing in 1995, and Shanghai in 1997. And I am 100% from all those places. Oh, and yes – I have been in Shanghai, uninterrupted, since 1997.


Patrick Cranley, my husband, is the family China geek, but when his company wanted us to repatriate in 2001, neither of us were ready to leave Shanghai. For our kids, who had arrived in China when they were 2.5 and 10 months old, Shanghai was just ‘home.' We’d completely fallen for the city. We both had backgrounds in marketing with Fortune 500 corporates, and I had a journalism background as well – we saw a niche for a boutique PR firm here, and opened AsiaMedia that year.

We worked with some of Shanghai’s earliest brands and entrepreneurs, and had a front row seat to some of the most amazing Shanghai business stories – Kathleen’s on Maoming (later a Blue Frog), ASC Wines, Simply Thai, M on the Bund, the Portman Ritz Carlton, Citi China. I love telling Shanghai’s story, and wrote several guidebooks for Insight Guides, and what may be Shanghai’s first restaurant review book, in 2000 – time capsules now! And along the way, Historic Shanghai, the Shanghai Literary Festival, and Literary Shanghai, were born, too.


I first visited Shanghai in the spring of 1996 and looked around and wondered, what happened here? I have two degrees in International Relations, I knew all about the Opium Wars and the foreign Concessions – but nothing prepared me for the density of grand western architecture, nor for the elderly men and women with their perfect, missionary-school English, nor for the markets, with tantalizing ephemera from another time. Everyone pointed us to Tess Johnston, a US diplomat who had arrived in 1981 and written Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai with the photographer Deke Erh in 1993.

We found a soulmate, and in 1998, we started Historic Shanghai, a heritage society to explore this question of what happened here – and 20 years later, we’re still piecing together the lost and forgotten history of a once-and-again great city. We’re an informal association with no power - we can’t protest or make policy - but from the beginning, our goal has been to raise awareness of Shanghai’s built heritage, because that is the first step in understanding its value, and ultimately preserving it.


Old China Hand Style, where books by Tess Johnston, Deke Erh and Tina herself can be found.

The Shanghai International Literary Festival really came about from missing the world of books, of which there were precious few in English in early 2000s Shanghai. In 2003, Michelle Garnaut made it happen with her connections with the Hong Kong Literary Festival and the generosity of offering her space at M on the Bund, and later, the Glamour Bar. We started small, but for a few years there, it was three weekends, with 60 authors, including several legends: Gore Vidal, for one!

My favorite remains Pico Iyer, though, a writer as thoughtful, articulate and lovely in person as he is on the page, and an absolute dream to interview. In 2015, I parted ways with the Literary Festival, and started something new with a few writers and translators. Literary Shanghai focuses more on local and regional writing, with an online literary journal and events in Chinese and English (and sometimes many other languages, as well!).


Glamour Bar (closed in 2014)

Shanghai captivates me for so many reasons. I feel at home here, because Shanghai is unapologetically east and west, and so am I. Aesthetically, the historic architecture and the plane trees make my heart sing. And there is very little that is more fun than the discovery of a new story, a new piece of the Shanghai jigsaw puzzle, that seems to be around every corner! There is sense of infectious optimism here, that tomorrow will always be better, that anything is possible.

Less captivating are pollution, food safety issues, health care, and the whole internet/VPN thing. But you know, if you fixed all that, then Shanghai would be perfect, and even more people would come …


We cook at home a lot (Avocado Lady and the wet market are steps away). I’m a baker, and love experimenting with local fruits – it’s now yang mei pie and pipa tart season!

There are lots of great places in the neighborhood to eat, though: a small hundun restaurant on Wulumuqi with xiao hundun, vegetable baozi at the stand by the Shanghai Library on Gao’an Lu, Thai green curry at Simply Thai (Dongping Lu), Mr. Williss for that amazing roasted chicken and Eton Mess, mint juleps at Union Trading Company and Peddler’s pop-up gin & tonics at SuitSupply.


Historic Shanghai out on a walk in Laoximen

Further afield, xialongbao perfection at DTF, hundun at a mom-and-pop stall we discovered in the Laoximen lanes on a Historic Shanghai walk, desserts at the Muslim Market, Jean Georges' foie gras brulee and molton chocolate cake, Homeslice pizza, anything Austin Hu cooks, and anything Brian Tan (House of Flour) bakes. And I LOVE pop-ups – especially Nat Alexander’s Yangjingbang and Austin’s. Chefs being creative at its finest.


The changes in Shanghai over the past two decades have been nothing short of transcendental. I hope to be ballroom dancing in Fuxing Park, the old French Park, under the statue of Karl Marx and Fredreich Engels when I’m ancient, and penning “My 60 Years in China” - actual title of a book on our bookshelf!


[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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