Shanghai Exiles

CLAIRE: While researching Remembering Shanghai, I’ve met lovely new friends with a passion for Old Shanghai. One of the first was blogger-raconteur Hugues Martin, author of the popular Shanghailander blog. In Hugues’ words: “When I reached Shanghai in 2004, people seemed to wonder why and how all those foreign buildings ended up in a Chinese city. To be honest, most of the old houses were in very bad condition, and it took some effort to see the beauty in them. My interest came from a mix of Europe nostalgia as well as the experience of seeing cities in similar derelict state springing back to life.”

As Hugues recounts here, not long after he and I met for the first time in Shanghai in 2011, he flew to Hong Kong to meet my parents, Isabel and Raymond Chao. My Pa passed less than a year later, in 2012.

Blogger-raconteur Hugues


HUGUES: “You definitely have to meet my parents. When are you going to Hong Kong?” This was Claire’s question after our first conversation—scheduled for half an hour, it went on for two!

My wife Jiajia and I did just that, and this post is the recollection of our luncheon conversation with Isabel and Raymond in 2011.

Raymond Chao and friends, St. John’s University, late 1940s




Isabel and Raymond were born in Shanghai. “We both went to St. John’s University,” said Isabel. “I used to walk across Jessfield Park every day (today Zhongshan Park) to get there.” Having been to the old St. John’s University (today the Shanghai University of Law) only a few days ago, I showed them my pictures, which they recognized instantly.

     Raymond with siblings at his St. John’s graduation in 1944


“My high school was the McTyeire school (today Shanghai No. 3 Girl’s School), on Edinburgh Road (Jiangsu Lu). Then I went to St. Mary’s School for high school. (The school buildings are today incorporated into Raffles City Changning). It was near St. John’s University and was severely damaged during the Japanese occupation, so class took place in one of the nearby St. John’s University buildings.” It was all clearly still so vivid in Isabel’s memory.

    The greensward of Jessfield Park was within walking distance from McTyeire


        Raymond flanked by his brothers in Jessfield Park in the 1940s


“We were living in a house near Yuyuan Lu, about halfway between the park and Jing’an Temple. I could walk to school and later to University.” Raymond’s parents also lived in this part of the city, the extra-territorial roads that lay west of the International Settlement.

Isabel asked whether we knew about Zhang Ailing’s works. “Zhang Ailing also went to McTyeire School; she was about 11 years older than me. My life was actually quite similar to hers. My teachers were also her teachers, they also thought I would become a writer, unfortunately it did not happen. Maybe I was a bit more practical than she was!” [Claire: At the time of this meeting, my mother and I were still researching and writing Remembering Shanghai, and published it seven years later in 2018.]

She continued, “Shanghai was a happening city, I used to go to dance halls like the Paramount (corner of Huashan Lu and Yuyuan Lu), or Ciro’s (now demolished, it was near People’s Square). I used to go to the movies at the Cathay or the Grand Theater. I liked the Park Hotel a lot! When I was in Shanghai I thought it was so tall then, and now it is so small compared to other buildings.” The Park Hotel was the tallest building in Asia when it opened in 1934, with 25 floors.

The Grand Theater and Park Hotel from Bubbling Well Road in 1937, photographed by Raymond


“I was only 19 when I left Shanghai in 1950, so I did not have so much time to enjoy it. When I was 17 years old, my first boyfriend drove me around on his Harley-Davidson motorbike. We used to drive down the Bund and a lot of people looked at us!” This strangely echoes driving down today’s restored Bund on my own 1930’s sidecar motorbike. I am still amazed that Harley-Davidson motorbikes were imported then, as they only began being imported into China again a couple of years ago.

What Jiajia and I gathered is that Raymond and Isabel knew each other in Shanghai, but probably got married in Hong Kong. [Claire: My father was eight years older than my mother, so their paths didn’t cross until they were both living in Hong Kong.] Coming from the same background, they probably left Shanghai around the same time, recreating their life in similar circles in their new home. Although they both speak Mandarin and Cantonese, they still speak to each other in an old-fashioned Shanghainese, sounding like dialogues in the movie “In the Mood for Love.” Listening to them is reviving a past long gone.

  Raymond and Isabel on their 1956 honeymoon in Tokyo


    Celebrating Raymond’s 88th birthday the year before their meeting with Hugues and Jiajia


Isabel concluded our meeting by saying, “All these memories of the Shanghai I knew I always thought no-one would be telling them again, that they were forgotten forever. It’s amazing that some people are still interested in them and that they have been preserved.”

Isabel Chao, 1940s


This article first appeared in Shanghailander on 22 August 2011.