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  • Writer's pictureShanghai Expat Association

Looking Back: SEA Art & Architecture Study Group

By Carolyn Robertson

When my young family and I arrived in Shanghai in the fall of 2004, I noticed

that the Shanghai Expatriate Association was asking members to start new clubs.

I wondered if I could gather a monthly group to discuss art and architecture—and

to my surprise, it worked!


The first SEA Art & Architecture walk took place on June 7, 2005 with only a handful of curious SEA members, including my good friend and positive-energy supporter Atie van der Wulp. We met at Sasha’s and zig-zagged from streets to

lanes, examining eclectic garden villas, Art Deco apartments, and traditional Shanghai li longs until we ended our walk at the Soong Ching Ling house museum at Huaihai Lu and Wukang Lu; (little did I know that ten years later, with my children off to college, I would be living in the

Wukang Lu neighborhood).


Thanks to the support of the Courier, I was given the opportunity to publish my October 2005 SEA Art & Architecture walk A Walk in the Old French Concession: Living in Shanghai

1920s-1930s in the February 2006 issue of the magazine. The walk began at the Old China Hand Reading Room on Shaoxing Lu—a book store/cafe owned by the photographer Deke Erh,

who worked with Tess Johnston on many of her books on Shanghai. Back in those days, people

still used landlines, and one day my phone rang and it was Tess Johnston calling to ask if I was interested in writing a book of walks on Old Shanghai. Yes!—and the first edition Six Shanghai Walks book was published by the SEA

in 2007. Led by Tess, with the help of many coauthors,

the Shanghai Walks series continued,

with the fifth and last book in the series The Final

Five Shanghai Walks published by the Old China

Hand Press in the spring of 2016. I also became

the principal photographer for Shanghai Walks

Books I and V. Only in Shanghai!


It was time for me to leave Shanghai in 2007, but thankfully, Veronique Saunier took over the management of the Art and Architecture study group, followed by a series of other SEA members. When I returned to Shanghai in 2014, it was so good to see the group still going strong, then led by Donna Howlett and Ann Donakey. With the departure of Donna from Shanghai in 2015, Ann asked me to

help her manage the group again.

Ann and I met for lunch to discuss the study group and to share ideas for the future. The group, now almost 30 SEA members, was originally designed

for 12-15 people, with everyone contributing one walk per year. Another key component of the study group was to end the walk near a cafe for a simple

lunch—not easy to do with 30 people. Ann and I agreed that our highest priority was to gradually get the group back to a manageable size and make it just

about architecture—and this was the beginning of

the SEA Architecture Study Group (minus the Art).


Over the past few years, the current study group has studied architecture in every corner of Shanghai, including the former French Concession around the areas of Julu Lu, Wukang Lu, Kangping Lu, and from the French Bund to Xintiandi; the former International Settlement—around the Racecourse, behind the Bund, the old lanes in Jing’an, historic

hotels, along Suzhou Creek, Hongkou, and the Bund at night (with cocktails); and the areas outside of the former concessions—Yu Yuan Lu, Lixi Lu, Xujiahui, Lujiazui, and more. The most recent walk, in May of this year, led by Edee Simon-Israel, focused on the Tai Koo Hui area and its elegant new designs alongside a historic restoration project within the context of the Wujiang Lu area. Looking back, I am very grateful to the SEA for including a Small Groups component in the club and for all the SEA members who joined (or managed) the group and researched, wrote, and led walks. Through this group I’ve met (and continue

to meet) long-lasting friends, book co-authors, and a wonderful array of SEA members—a creative collection of adventurous architecture enthusiasts from many different countries and many unique worldly perspectives.

About the author:

Carolyn Herd Robertson graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Master’s degree in Architecture and worked in architecture firms in Cincinnati, Princeton and London. She has moved back and forth between Princeton and China since the 1990s. When not volunteering as a Co-librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society Library, she resides on a leafy street in the Former French Concession and can be contacted at:

Original Courier publish date: June, 2018

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