After Decades, A Shanghai Preservationist Heads Home To America
I first met Tess Johnston in the late 1990s in a yellow, stucco apartment building where she lived in Shanghai's former French Concession. As was her habit, she dropped the key from her third-floor window and I let myself in.
Her drafty apartment was crammed with books and street maps. Over tea, Johnston, then in her late 60s, regaled me with her latest adventures, rushing through the city's back alleys to photograph old European-style villas before they succumbed to sledge hammers.
"There are heartbreaking times when we get there too late," she said, curled up beneath an afghan with her dachshund, ChaCha, to ward off the city's damp, winter chill.
Recently, I stopped by Johnston's latest apartment to say goodbye. She is now 84 and has been limping along on tourist visas for several years. Next month, after more than three decades, she'll move back to the U.S. and settle in Washington, D.C.
"My friends mostly have left," said Johnston, surrounded by boxes stacked three high. "You know when it's time to go."
Johnston, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, built a second career documenting and trying to preserve Shanghai's voluminous stock of colonial architecture, which was fast coming down as China's economy took off.
If you wanted to know anything about the city's built European heritage, you had to buy Johnston's signature 1993 coffee table book, A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai, with photographs by Chinese photographer Er Dongqiang. It was the first of its kind in decades and revived interest in something that had been neglected or ignored for most of China's Communist-era.
When Johnston leaves, she will take with her hundreds of history books and pamphlets she's collected over the years, many of which will end up at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the Royal Asiatic Society Library here in Shanghai.
As we chatted in her apartment, Johnston gently leafed through the yellowed pages of her "treasures," Shanghai telephone directories that date to 1921. She used them to find out who lived in the city's old villas and apartments. Foreign children who'd grown up in Shanghai during the colonial era often contacted her, asking for help finding their childhood homes.
In one instance, she received a call from a Jewish man whose family had fled the pogroms in Russia for Shanghai. He described his street, building and apartment number.
Then, Johnston realized: "I'm standing on the balcony of his apartment. I get goosebumps. Just think, he picks me out of a list of people who can help him. We've since become good friends."
To appreciate why Johnston has devoted so much time to documenting the architecture of this era, just glance out her fifth-floor balcony window. On one corner stands a Russian Orthodox church built in 1931. Painted white, it has five blue domes topped with polished brass tips – or finials – as Johnston insists I call them.
"When I first came here, it was a motorcycle repair shop, so there was grease all over the floor," she says. "At one time, it was a nightclub called The Four Apostles. Imagine the insult of that!"
Now, it sits empty, neighbors say, but at least it's still there.
In the distance stands the red-brick Grosvenor House, an Art Deco apartment building from the early 1930s. The building tapers like a layer cake providing penthouse apartments with grand terraces overlooking the city. The building is now part of the state-owned Jin Jiang Hotel.
Shanghai's architecture ranges from columned, neo-classical banks that line the Bund, a riverfront that resembles the Thames, to Spanish colonial villas with wrought-iron balconies and terra-cotta roofs. This eclectic mix springs from the city's rich and tumultuous past.
After China lost the First Opium War in 1842, it ceded control of Shanghai's urban core to Western powers. The British, French, Americans and Russians rebuilt the city in their own image. In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan places on the globe.
In the decades following the Communist take-over in 1949, most of the city's old European buildings fell into disrepair. Multiple families subdivided old French villas. As recently as the late 1990s, store fronts along the Bund were piled high with old furniture and blanketed in dust. Laundry hung from the windows in the old domed Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank along the river.
"Most of these buildings were in terrible shape," recalls Tina Kanagaratnam, who landed here in 1997. "They were still incredibly beautiful, but nobody valued them."
The next year, Kanagaratnam, a Singaporean businesswoman, helped found Historic Shanghai, a local heritage society, with Johnston and Kanagaratnam's husband, Patrick Cranley.
Kanagaratnam says Johnston's books were the first to educate people about and promote the old buildings.
"You did walk around going: 'What is this?'" Kanagaratnam recalled. "Why does it look like it comes from London? And Tess's book would tell you. I think in some ways, she gave Shanghai back its history."
Shanghai still has more than a thousand colonial-era buildings remaining and is the best preserved city in mainland China. Kanagaratnam says Johnston's work is a big reason why.
Johnston first came to work at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai in 1981. Back then, she says, the city's tallest building was just 22 stories. When Johnston departs in April, she'll leave behind a city with three skyscrapers taller than the Empire State Building. Johnston says her greatest contribution was documenting Shanghai before China's economic boom transformed it.
"I'm grateful I was here and could see it as it was," she said as the afternoon light cast a warm glow on the street below. "Just to capture one small view of it before any of it went."
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