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March 11, 2010

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Recording the city for 28 years

HISTORIAN and preservationist Tess Johnston has released her memoirs, "Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century." Nancy Zhang reports.

All expats have a story to tell, but few can match Tess Johnston, who has lived in Shanghai for 28 years, dedicated to telling its stories.

Johnston has made Shanghai's history, architecture and culture her enduring passion and subject of her continuing research. In the process, she has written 25 books with Shanghainese photographer Deke Erh, many of the earliest works on Western architecture here. She pioneered the Shanghai walks so beloved by visitors today.

Last Saturday Johnston launched her memoirs, "Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century." It chronicles 45 years of adventurers with the American Foreign Service, starting as a fresh-eyed young woman from the South, and traveling through cities such as Berlin, Saigon, New Delhi, Tehran, and finally Shanghai.

With her Old China Hand Press and research archives, Johnston has tirelessly collected information on the lives of expats here in bygone days. Now it is time for her to tell her own expat story.

Q: You have been to so many countries. What was it about Shanghai that made you come back, and stay for so long?

A: At first it was my job with the American Consulate General. But when I retired I was still in the process of producing two more books on Shanghai with Deke Erh - so I just stayed on. Shanghai seems to have something, some mystique that grabs foreigners and makes it hard to leave - so I didn't!

Q: Were other cities attractive long-term?

A: I can think of only one or two other places - Berlin and London. But in London I could not have had my beloved dogs with me - so that was out. I think Berlin shares many of Shanghai's characteristics. I return there every year to keep up my German fluency and just to enjoy that electric city. Berlin has also changed dramatically in only a decade or two.

Q: Why have Shanghai's Western architecture and the lives of expats captured your interest?

A: It was 1981 when I first came to China, and I found on arrival this perfectly preserved Western-looking city sitting here on the improbable shores of China! I wanted to learn more about who designed and built these wonderful old buildings but there was nothing available here in English (or Chinese I was told at the time). I had to start collecting, on my own, whatever I could find about the Westerners' presence and their architecture here. Once Deke Erh and I published our volumes on the Western architecture here, books by others soon followed - and it is now a "hot" topic.

My library has now grown into a large and valuable research resource and will eventually be divided between the Royal Asiatic Society library here and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in the United States.

Q: What are your favorite stories of expats past and present? The most memorable or inspiring?

A: I love the stories of just ordinary Shanghailanders - I edited three for our "Old China Hand Histories" series. I remember two in particular: an American small town housewife (featured in "Missy's China"); and a beautiful, wealthy and privileged American daughter of a navy commander (featured in "Peking Sun Shanghai Moon"). Their lives were quite contrasting, but in both I found how they adapted to China and how they managed their lives here interesting. It was also historically and sociologically valuable. I'm also interested in the stories of the bad old days, because crime and vice are infinitely more interesting than the more saintly aspects of history.

Q: In your time in China there have of course been great changes in cities. What architecture are you most sad about losing in Shanghai in this process?

A: I'm sad about almost all of the losses. Of course a great deal remains, but I fear the character of the city is being lost to faceless and soulless skyscrapers. I suppose that is the price of progress and as China is progressing so very rapidly, alas, we will continue to lose more and more grand old buildings.

Q: What was your most enjoyable architecture book, and why?

A: Frenchtown Shanghai. Not only have I lived in the former French Concession during my more than two decades here, but it has always remained for me the most evocative section of the city. Also here the destruction has been a bit slower, and it has somehow managed to retain, still, a bit of its charm and character. Walk through its smaller side streets and see for yourself!

Q: Advice to expats in Shanghai?

A: You may never find another city quite like it in your lifetimes so find something that grabs you here and then go for it. For me it was Shanghai's Western architecture, for others it is China's cuisine, or its antiques, or its cultural offerings. There's something here for everyone, trust me. Enjoy!


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