— Russian Shanghai

Russian Shanghai (Русский Шанхай)

Shanghai, which in Chinese translates to mean  «Above the Sea», was an outpost for the cotton trade until 1842 when the British won the Opium Wars and forced China open to international commerce.

Back in the early 20th century Shanghai was called «Paris of the East» and the city was a magnet for all kinds of people, drawing them there to make their fortune, both legally and illegally 😮

Paris of the East

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At the height of its «golden age» (1920s-30s), the city was divided into three very distinct areas … the International Settlement, the French Concession and Greater Shanghai.

The International Settlement came about after the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1843. It opened up China to foreign trade so the British were quick to establish a settlement there and, hot on their heels, came the Americans and Europeans. The International Settlement was wholly foreign-controlled, with staff of all nationalities, and the British Consul was the de jure authority.

The French Concession was ruled by a Colonial Governor General who was appointed by France and his jurisdiction was a space south of the International Settlement.

Greater Shanghai was governed by the Chinese central administration and enveloped both the foreign zones.


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Since Shanghai was a treaty port, foreigners were free from both Chinese law and any interference by their masters in Europe, but not the Russians. Being stateless, the Russians were subject to Chinese law and if they broke those laws, they would have been thrown into Chinese prisons.

Many Russians came to Shanghai after the fall of Vladivostok, where they had previously established the breakaway anti-Bolshevik Provisional Priamurye Government under Japanese protection, which was withdrawn in 1922.

One of George’s many Nansen passports (Click to enlarge)

Initially a lot of Russians fleeing Vladivostok went to Harbin but were then forced to move to Shanghai once the Soviets took control of the Chinese Eastern Railway.

Having left as refugees, the Russians found that they were also stateless since the Soviet government revoked their citizenship. The only travel document they had was the Nansen passport issued by the League of Nations (now the United Nations).

By the time George and Lila left Shanghai, in 1937, there were about 37,000 Russians living in Shanghai and they formed the largest group of foreigners in the community.

I would have imagined it would have been difficult for a lot of the established Russians to work out if any newly arrived Russians were actually White Russians, fleeing from the horrors of the Revolution, or whether they were Soviet agents, trying to infiltrate the community and cause trouble 😮

The French Concession

Before the 1920s the French Concession was basically a rural area, with Avenue Joffre no bigger than a bridle path with wooden bungalows on either side.  In fact, the street was called Avenue Paul Brunat until the First World War, when they changed it to Joffre.

Ave Paul Brunat before it was changed to Ave Joffre

Ave Paul Brunat before it was changed to Ave Joffre (Click to enlarge)

However things changed dramatically with the appearance of the Russian émigrés in the 1920s.

Since a lot of well-educated Russians were fluent in French, they settled in the French Concession on and around Avenue Joffre, and opened bakeries, cafés, restaurants and various other shops between Avenue Dubail and Avenue de Roi Albert so that by 1928, the area was known as «Little Russia».

Russians walking along Avenue Joffre – and the photos are always taken at the same spot, which is a shame 🙁

So many businesses were started by the émigrés in that decade it brought a new found “buzz” to the French Concession.

One bakery, which was also a café and restaurant, was Tkachenko’s.

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Tkachenko’s Restaurant, situated on Avenue Joffre, at the crossroad with Rue Massenet, was not only popular with the Russian community but also with the expats.

During lunch, it piped local radio programs in the dining room; however in the evenings it turned into a dance hall as well, with gypsy bands playing soulful music, muzzled bears made to dance or child acrobats performing on the dance floor.

The waiters were dressed as Tsarist officers and Russian dishes were featured on the menu, like beef Stroganoff, boiled tongue and Gurievskaya kasha*, washed down by vodka distilled in Shanghai. Their sweets were famous throughout Shanghai and in their bakery, imperfect cookies which couldn’t be sold were donated to the Russian Orthodox Orphanage.

*(There are two versions on who invented Guriev kasha. One legend says that it was invented by Count Dmitri Alexandrovich Guriev, who was Tsar Alexander I’s Minister of Finance, to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812. The other version claims that this dish was the invention of the chef. of Count Alexander Dmitrievich Guriev, who was the governor of Odessa in the early 1880s.)

Tkachenko also had a factory and confectionery shop nearby on Route des Soeurs.

TkachenkoI know George and Lila were friends with the Tkachenkos in Hong Kong and I would have thought that they might have been friends in Shanghai too.

Regrettably a lot of Russians, especially the men, were unable to find suitable jobs so had to get menial work, such as doormen, security guards, or chauffeurs. Likewise, many women who had virtually no skills had to get very demeaning jobs, like being “taxi dancers”. These women used to sit around in the dance halls with a book of tickets, waiting for men to spend money to buy the tickets. Apparently Del Monte was considered to be the best place to work as it was an upmarket establishment but a lot of the other women had to work in seedier places, which must have been soul destroying 🙁

foch pharmacy Koneff


A survey by the League of Nations in 1935 reportedly found that some 22% of Shanghai Russian women between 16 and 45 years of age were engaging in prostitution to some extent.
[Source: Wiki]

To quote from Marcia Reynders Ristaino’s book …

«The League of Nations’s [sic] response to the plight of Russian women was less than expected, given the amount of time and public attention it had focused on the problem. …, the League had made a concerted effort to study and document Russian prostitution, but once this work was complete, it failed to make available any League financial support. Instead, the burden of caring fell on local religious and service organizations already heavily taxed by relief activities. While the League’s decision was a disappointment to many who had expected funding to support shelters, workshops, educational institutions, and other relief efforts, its response followed closely established League policies, which were to develop a working framework within which private agencies could provide the effective assistance. League officials appealed to the “social conscience of right-thinking people” to fund the office of an agent of the League, who could then coordinate the measures necessary “to secure the future of these women of Russian origin.” The League’s recommendation clearly states that these services by its agent “should not involve in the present circumstances any financial charge upon the League.” Not even the administrative costs of maintaining the agent’s office.»

However, looking at the positive, the Russians also brought with them a lot of talent in the fields of the Arts & Literature. The orchestras in Shanghai were made up of mainly Russian classical musicians. The Lyceum Theatre played Russian operas, operettas and ballet and almost every music teacher in Shanghai was Russian, including Balia! The Russians performed plays in their mother language and enjoyed literary circles amongst themselves.

There were singers like Alexander Vertinsky and jazz musicians like Oleg Lundstrem and Serge Ermoll (Ermolaeff). Feodor Chaliapin even gave concerts in Shanghai.

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Incredibly, I have a document from the Archimandrite Nicolas in Shanghai dated September 20, 1933, about George and one of the witnesses who was there was Boris Ermolaeff! I googled the name and found Tatjana Pentes, whose grandfather was the Serge mentioned. I asked if she knew Boris and unfortunately she didn’t 🙁

My guess was that Boris was Sergei’s cousin but I have no idea what he did. Seeing he was George’s witness and obviously a friend, I’d guess he was a musician.


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Talking about ballet, Margo Fonteyn, living in Shanghai as a young girl called Margaret Hookham, learned her craft from George Goncharoff, and there was Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet troupe.

Georgii Avksentievich Sapojnikoff, known as Sapajou, was a well-known cartoonist in Shanghai during both wars, and another artist who spent his youthful years there was Vladimir Tretchikoff.

Hopefully the two Tretchikoff prints my parents bought will stay in the family.  These were bought in South Africa when we were there in 1965 😀

This gives a good indication of what life was like in Shanghai for the majority of Russian émigrés …

«Education was not slighted by the Russian community. At the popular Commercial School, started in 1924 as the School for Poor Russian Children, students received a practical education, preparing them for advancement in the Shanghai business world, including instruction in the French and Chinese languages. Other Russian students attended the First Russian School, founded in 1921. Referred to as a “real” school, it placed emphasis on the sciences rather than offering a classical education in the arts and literature. The Ecole Remi, a French municipal school directed by P Guillemont, which offered a nine-form program as opposed to the usual seven-form schedule, was another well-attended school, with 350 Russian students in 1936. In addition, 100 Russian students attended the French Municipal College, which provided more than one-third of the Russian students with financial assistance to cover tuition costs. The Thomas Hanbury Schools, one for boys and one for girls, also enrolled Russian students, as did the Kaiser Wilhelm School. Two Catholic-run schools that educated Russian students were St Francis Xavier College and St Jeanne d’Arc College. For advanced education, Russian students attended the respected Jesuit Aurora University and St John’s University.

«During the 1930s, the Russian Orthodox community founded two major churches, greatly enhancing the availability of religious services, previously held in private chapels and at the small church in Zhabei (Chapei). The grand Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Rue Paul Henri, with planned seating for 2000 worshippers, began construction in 1932, supported by funding from local Russian subscriptions. St Nicholas Church, located on Rue Corneille and built the same year, was a memorial to Czar Nicholas II and his family, serving mainly Russian ex-officers and their families. Both became major centers of Russian religious life.

«The small Russian church on Henan Road in Zhabei, which had existed as early as 1905, was destroyed by Japanese shells in 1932. The Russian churches provided the refugees with a vital link to tradition and culture, serving as the principal factor in preserving a sense of cultural independence and identity. The elaborate Russian Easter services, often with full illumination of the imposing new edifices, drew broad attendance as well by Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, and other nationalities. There was even a small community of “Old Believers” practicing their religion according to rituals and canons widespread before the reform of the Orthodox Church.

«Life in the Shanghai community also had its sombre side. The language, manners, and customs of the foreign community were unfamiliar. The refugees had to merge into the whirlpool of the Shanghai business world without getting lost of perishing in it. Generally, Russian refugees were not accepted in the socially elite circles of white Shanghai society. They or their children might participate together in the many athletic activities, but refugee Russians did not receive invitations to visit the homes of Shanghai’s white elite. The most fortunate Russians served in departments of the Shanghai Municipal Council, such as on the Orchestra or Food Committees, which offered paid leave and excellent pensions. The Municipal Council, the British Defence Force, and the utility services employed 721 Russians, while 49 persons served the council and utilities in the French Concession. Collectively, they represented the aristocracy of Russian labor in Shanghai. Still, Russians never achieved prominent positions in ruling circles and were not invited to many official social functions. Even in the case of receptions sponsored by the Shanghai municipal or French police, in which Russians served in considerable numbers, they tended to be excluded from guest lists or, if they were invited, Russians were “not seen” by the other guests.»


«Many Russians simply could not adjust to the lowered social status and lack of employment opportunity. Poverty, loneliness, overcrowding and lack of privacy drove some to despair. After a bout of heavy drinking, for example, two idle young officer cadets took poison to end their unhappy lives.»
[Source: “Port of Last Resort, The Diaspora Communities of Shanghai”, by Marcia Reynders Ristaino. Pages 84-87]




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Russian Shanghai

Photos from the French Concession, also known as "Little Russia"

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Interesting articles to read …

All About Shanghai – The Russians


White Russians in Shanghai






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