Ten years ago, when I moved to Shanghai from Siberia, I had no idea I’d end up living in a community of Russians—or rather, amid the phantom presence of a Russian city.
In the 1920s and ’30s, a large Russian diaspora occupied central Shanghai; now I am walking in their footsteps, attempting to conjure what this Russian town in China was like.
Refugees fled from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the civil war that followed. Many settled in Harbin, benefiting from the economy of the China Eastern Railway.
Eventually, many moved on to Shanghai, attracted by the opportunities of the port city. By World War II about 27,000 Russians resided in Shanghai, making up the largest Western expatriate community in this cosmopolitan city.
Most emigrants were poor, stateless, language-challenged and with large families to support—quite unlike the well-groomed, well-connected British, Americans and French making their fortune along the Bund.
But the Russians made this city their home and transformed its face forever.
TASTE OF HOME
The best place to start a journey across Russian Shanghai is the corner of Huaihai and Maoming roads. The Cathay Cinema, a glamorous art-deco edifice, anchors a block lined with historic storefronts.
Back in the ’30s almost all of these shops were Russian enterprises—bakeries, haberdasheries, jewelers, watchmakers, pharmacies, shoe shops and libraries.
Cozy Russian tearooms created a craze for afternoon tea with sweets and pastries; boisterous restaurants served traditional soups, pies and grilled meats accompanied by shots of ice-cold vodka from local distilleries.
Today the occupants of these storefronts are mostly global chains, but some ‘patriarchs’ survive, like the Red House Restaurant at 847 Huaihai Road, opposite the cinema.
Once called Chez Louis, it kept international cuisine alive through the years of Communism, and still serves adaptations of Western food, including borscht.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
Walking past Red House, we continue along Huaihai Road toward the cast-iron gate at No 833. It leads to Linda Terrace, a housing complex built in 1922 by the Russian architect Alexander Yaron and that served the Russian community for more than 30 years.
Its proprietors would rent out rooms and beds, with meals or without. Sometimes even storage cabinets under the stairs were rented for lodging. Poorer tenants would find themselves in a windowless ‘pencil case’ the width of a wooden plank serving as a bed.
Houses in Linda Terrace doubled as home offices for Russian professionals—barbers, tailors, dentists, teachers, translators and fortune-tellers.
The alley passing through Linda Terrace opens to Nanchang Road, once nicknamed Nahalovka (‘the squats’ in Russian), where we turn left.
Nanchang Road was once lined with Russian-language signs for shops selling traditional dairy products, liquor, canned snacks and sausages—produced in Shanghai or imported from Manchuria.
At the intersection with Ruijin Road look diagonally across, at the green marquee of the Chinese bakery Laodachang.
Like many local brands, it is a successor of an old Russian enterprise. Opened in the 1920s by the brothers Tchakalian, this bakery made the best French pastries and bread in town.
Skirting along the right side of the bakery, we follow Ruijin Road for half a block, until a little street appears on the left.
Gaolan Road is one of the prettiest alleys in the city. It is quiet and lined with imposing villas, some of which have become shared apartments while others have been converted back into homes for affluent families.
Following Gaolan Road we soon get to the Kinloch coffee house, at No 16. Its wooden open-air terrace is shaded by the abandoned Orthodox church, with unmistakable onion-shaped domes.
The church was built in 1934 with contributions from the Russian community and dedicated to the memory of the last tsar, Nicholas II. As soon as the building was completed it became a spiritual heart of Russian Shanghai.
For years I’ve been walking past this abandoned church and one spring morning in 2010, I arrived for the first Orthodox mass to be held here in 50 years. A children’s choir animated the space with an otherworldly vibe, their voices reverberating within the cavernous whitewashed walls.
The old Russians may have long departed (the community disbanded after 1945) but a handful of Russian visitors, all recent expatriates, fixed their gaze on a priest in golden robes, standing before a row of pleather sofas, beneath a suspended disco ball left by the last tenant, a French restaurant.
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Photos: Main image-Alamy; other images-Katya Knyazeva