After Decades, A Shanghai Preservationist Heads Home To America : Parallels Retired American diplomat Tess Johnston, 84, made a second career working to preserve the rich colonial architecture of Shanghai.
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After Decades, A Shanghai Preservationist Heads Home To America

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After Decades, A Shanghai Preservationist Heads Home To America

After Decades, A Shanghai Preservationist Heads Home To America

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We're going to say in China for a moment to meet an American who has spent decades documenting Shanghai's rich colonial architecture sometime just before it was replaced by high rises.


Tess Johnston has written nine books about Shanghai's heritage. Later this month, the 84-year-old will move back to America. NPR's Frank Langfitt recently visited Johnston's apartment.


TESS JOHNSTON: Hi, come on in.

LANGFITT: Thank you. That is a lot of boxes.

JOHNSTON: Oh, that's books.

LANGFITT: That's all books.

Dozens of boxes stacked nearly 4 feet high fill the living room of Johnston's place here in Shanghai's former French Concession. Johnston's a retired U.S. diplomat, and she spent years collecting historical books while trying to preserve the city's European-style buildings.

JOHNSTON: OK, well, right here are the treasures. These are telephone directories and so forth starting 1921 to 1941. And over there's two of them from '48 and '49.

LANGFITT: Johnston used the directories to find out who lived in the city's old homes when Shanghai was among the world's most cosmopolitan cities.

LANGFITT: Where will these books go?

JOHNSTON: A percentage of them will go to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. A percentage of them will go to the Royal Asiatic Society library.

LANGFITT: To appreciate why Johnston has devoted so much time to documenting this area, all you have to do is look out her fifth-floor balcony window at the varied architecture outside.

JOHNSTON: So right down at the end of the street here, you see the Russian Orthodox Church, one of two in Shanghai. But when I first came here, it was a motorcycle repair shop, so there was grease all over the floor.

LANGFITT: The church, which has five blue domes topped with polished brass tips, has been cleaned up since then. Shanghai's architecture ranges from columned, neoclassical banks that line a river front that looks like the Thames to Spanish colonial villas with wrought iron balconies and terra-cotta roofs. Johnston used to live in an Art Deco building across the street.

JOHNSTON: High ceilings, crown moldings, parquet floors - oh, it was just a gorgeous apartment.

LANGFITT: But when Tina Kanagaratnam arrived here back in 1997...

TINA KANAGARATNAM: Most of these buildings were in terrible shape.

LANGFITT: Kanagaratnam is a Singaporean businesswoman. She helped found Historic Shanghai, a local heritage society, with Johnston.

KANAGARATNAM: They were still incredibly beautiful, but there was - nobody valued them. People wanted to live in new apartments

LANGFITT: For some, the buildings were also a reminder of a humiliating past. After China lost the 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 1993, Johnston wrote "A Last Look: Western Architecture In Old Shanghai," which is illustrated by Chinese photographer Erh Deke. The book was the first to educate people about the old buildings, and Kanagaratnam says, revive interest.

KANAGARATNAM: You did walk around going what is this? You know, why does it look like it comes from London? And, you know, and Tess's book would tell you. I think that in some ways, she gave Shanghai back its history.

LANGFITT: Johnston first came to work at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai in 1981. She says the city's tallest building then was just 22 stories. When Johnston leaves in April, she'll leave behind a city with three skyscrapers taller than the Empire State Building. Johnston thinks her greatest contribution was documenting Shanghai before China's economic boom transformed it.

JOHNSTON: I'm grateful that I could be here and see it as it was just to capture one little view of it before anything went.

LANGFITT: After 35 years here, Johnston will resettle in Washington, D.C. More than a thousand colonial structures still survive in Shanghai, and as Kanagaratnam says, Tess has a lot to do with that. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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