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Shanghai Vintage Tea

September 13, 2011

Shanghai Vintage Tea and Yum Cha  September, 2011

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Photograph: Jacqueline Mitelman

I have always been in love with Shanghai of the 20s 30s, a sophisticated, decadent but excitingly dangerous time to live in China. An essentially “open” city in the 1920s and 30s (no visa was required to enter Shanghai), the roots of this decadence grew out of the British Colonial trading of opium for tea in the late 1800s. I chose to come in a copy of a 30s Vionnet dress (the original now sell for £475,000) and a hat by designer and milliner John Rochas from Paris a la 30s. The cream silk jacket was my creation made from my wedding dress and embroidered for me in Vietnam many moons ago.

I conceived an idea for a vintage Shanghai tea where Australians could learn the etiquette of Yum Cha and some background on Shanghai of that time and the colourful eccentrics that lived there. Shanghai was so far from the rest of the world that you could be what ever you wanted to be in the 20s and 30s – it was an exotic place to reinvent yourself.

I approached vintage stylist, the glamorous Candice de Ville to conduct a workshop on etiquette and yum Cha for me and to talk about the Chinese approach to tea. The art of tea is an intrinsic part of culture in China, dating back 4,000 years. In fact, tea is a culture in itself, with its own rituals and aesthetics. Tea is associated with tranquillity, calligraphy, painting, poetry and music as well as being medicinal. I concentrated on preparing a brief talk about the history of Shanghai and the eccentrics that lived there in the 20s and 30s.

On the actual day it was wonderful to see that everyone came to The Oriental Tea House in the city in vintage dress – largely in Cheongsams.  The stylish and often tight-fitting cheongsam or qipao (chipao) that is most often associated with Chinese dress today was created in the 1920s in Shanghai and made fashionable by socialites and upper-class women.

Candice looked exotic in her Cheongsam and certainly enlightened many with her informative workshop on tea and the etiquette of Yum Cha.  A wonderfully way to spend a delicious Sunday afternoon. Thank you all for coming.

My Talk: Background on Shanghai in the 20’s and 30’s

As one of China`s treaty ports in the 19th century, Shanghai was exposed to many international influences. By the 1920s Shanghai had an expatriate population of 60,000. Most of the foreigners were British but there were also sizable populations of Americans, French and Russians. Between World War 1 and 11 tens of thousands of European refugees fleeing Bolshevism and Fascism and equally large number of Chinese refugees fleeing civil strife and the Japanese invasion flooded into Shanghai

Shanghai in the 20s and 30s was the most sophisticated city in Asia. The city was often referred to as the Paris of Asia. It was the era of beautiful people in fashionable clothes attending exotic afternoon teas in art deco buildings and rubbing shoulders with gangsters in ritzy night clubs, all with an exotic Shanghai-style glamour.

Famous European and American architects were commissioned by wealthy merchants, bankers and buccaneers to bring to Shanghai the extravagance of colonial living. “The sensuous opium dens and lively tea-houses, the opulent high-walled courtyard homes of the rich Chinese juxtaposed with grimy, deprived neighbourhoods,” The city was a cacophony of foreign languages, of sophistication and grandeur, of grime and poverty, of the perpetual sweet smell of  urine and opium and it reeked of corruption and decadence.

Many a bored European socialite became addicted to opium – it passed the time and kept them thin so they could wear the latest fashion from Paris.  Certainly in all the leading hotels including the grandest of them all the beautiful art deco “Cathay” you could get opium with room service. ‘The Cathay’, Sir Victor Sassoon’s luxurious hotel was where Oscar Wilde waited out a bout of malaria and Noel Coward wrote perhaps his finest play, “Private Lives.

The famous English writer Aldous Huxley described Shanghai in the 1920s. ‘Nothing more intensely living can be imagined,’ he wrote, feeling the city to be so ‘tenaciously alive’ that it would last for ‘a thousand years hence’. Huxley also wrote the well known book Brave New World an apt description of Shanghai today.

Alcott the famous American journalist who lived in Shanghai wrote for the Shanghai Post in 1928 and broke stories, notably about the opium business, German gunrunners and Japanese aggression in China; he dined with a warlord in Yantai while the blood of his recently executed enemies dripped from the floor above into his noodles and shredded beef.” Alcott revelled in, noting that a typical day “involved as many as three murder trials, a gang shooting, half a dozen armed robberies, a jewel theft, and a couple of kidnappings’.

At that time the Shanghai police were controlled by Chinese gangsters, the British brought in the Sikhs from India to control the traffic (so many expensive Packard’s) Vietnamese troops were  brought in by the French to maintain order in the French Concession and Japanese Bluejackets were brought in to protect Shanghai from possible Chinese aggression

“Shanghai was magical,” says Alcott. “We were a proud group of people, a diverse group, bound by a special camaraderie. We had theater, culture, sports, everything. We didn’t know we were magical then, but we were.”

In 1930s Shanghai the city’s heart beat to the sound of African American jazz. The coolest music emanated from the Paramount, host to international film starts and global travelers like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. “But the parties at Alphonso Zhu’s house, a Spanish mission-style mansion with two tennis courts and an oversized ballroom, were also the talk of the town. Between waltzes, guests feasted on lobster, drank champagne punch and gossiped in English, Chinese and French. Alphonso’s father had studied at the Sorbonne, and the son would have gone to Paris, too the “Shanghai of the West,” as the joke went had hostilities with Japan not intervened”

Eccentrics of Shanghai  – I had time to only speak about one eccentric  – the colorful and clever Emily Hahn

Emily Hahn

“I have deliberately chosen the uncertain path whenever I had the choice . . . A more important freedom was that which made it possible to travel,” wrote Emily Hahn in China to Me (1944).

I have always been interested in Chinese history from an anthropological and historical point of view.  When I stumbled upon American writer  Emily Hahns book” China to Me” and learnt more about her time in Shanghai in the 30s I was hooked.

Born in 1905 in USA to an enlightened mother and a salesman father, Emily Hahn fervently believed a woman could do anything a man could do. And she did it long before the word “feminism” was even invented. Hahn took words like “no,” “can’t,” and “shouldn’t” as a personal challenge to prove that she could and she would. She was always Mickey to her friends

What a woman –  she drove with her girlfriend across America both disguised as men.  In 1926 she was the first women to receive a degree from the University of Wisconsin in Mining Engineering—It was a testament to her intelligence and persistence that her lab partner grudgingly admitted, “you ain’t so dumb!”

Later she traveled to the Belgium Congo, where she worked for the Red Cross, and lived with a Pygamy tribe for two years, before crossing Central Africa alone on foot.

Her first book, Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of  seduction A Beginner’s Handbook (1930), was a tongue-in-cheek exploration of how men court women.

She moved to London but soon got bored. She decided to try Shanghai, which was “the place to be” in the 1930s. Jobs were plentiful, and many foreigners were able to live a lifestyle they could only dream of back home.

Her years in Shanghai from 1935 to 1941 were the most tumultuous of her life. There she became involved with prominent Shanghai figures, such as the wealthy Sir Victor Sassoon, and was in the habit of taking her pet gibbon Mr. Mills, with her to dinner parties, dressed in a diaper and a minute white dinner jacket.  In winter Mr Mills was dressed in a tailored sable coat. This may seem extravagant but Emily was always practical. She cut down her own sable coat and used the rest of the bits of sable for Mr Mills bed.  Shanghai in Winter could be terribly cold.

Through her long term love affair with Chinese intellectual, poet and publisher Shao Xunmei  she was able to get very close to the  controversial Soong family, a political dynasty in China in the early 20th century.  Hahn gained an intimate view of Shanghainese life that few other outsiders could observe, or would dare to participate in.

Her lover Shao, a Cambridge educated, wealthy, wildean dandy, Emily particularly liked for” his overwhelming curiosity about everything”. When he went on a brief trip to Hong Kong in European dress she was disappointed to see that “he had short plump legs”which were not becoming in European trousers.  Hahn lived in an apartment in the red light district and enjoyed visits from “a grubby, earnest” young Mao Zedong and the ever-dapper Zhou Enlai. She soon became addicted to opium through her Chinese lover  but cured  her addiction years later through a hypnotist.

Emily Hahn died at the age of 92 in New York in 1997 – her eulogy was given by her granddaughter.

“Chances are, your grandmother didn’t smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment”, said her granddaughter Alfia Vecchio Wallace in her affectionate eulogy of Hahn. “Chances are that she didn’t teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn’t start whooping passionately at the top her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you … your grandmother was not Emily Hahn.”

Soong May-ling, China’s First lady and one of the Soong sisters.

Soong May-ling or Soong Mei-ling, also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek was First Lady of the Republic of China (ROC), the wife of former President Chiang Kai-shek. She was a politician and painter. The youngest and the last surviving of the three Soong sisters, she played a prominent role in the politics of the Republic of China and was the sister-in-law of Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Republic of China preceding her husband.


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