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Expat's decades-long love affair with Shanghai's Western architecture

(People's Daily Online)    14:02, April 12, 2016

File photo of Tess Johnston

Tess Johnston is an acclaimed author who writes about Shanghai’s historic Western architecture. A former U.S. diplomat, Johnston published 20 books on the city’s Western architecture during her 35 years in Shanghai, and the historic materials she has collected are currently stored at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Royal Asiatic Society.

Ahead of her repatriation to the U.S., ThePaper.cn arranged an interview with Johnston to discuss her life and work in Shanghai.

Johnston arrived in Shanghai in 1981 with the U.S. Foreign Service. She faced mandatory retirement in 1996 after 33 years in the Foreign Service, but instead of going back to the U.S she chose to remain in Shanghai.

Johnston made this decision based largely on her love of documenting the Western presence in old Shanghai. In 1993, Johnston and the photographer Erh Dongqiang (Deke Erh) jointly published a book, “A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai,” which has been reprinted four times. They have since co-authored 20 books on Western architecture in Shanghai and other treaty ports in China. 

Johnston said that the French Concession, a region of the city governed by France for nearly a century, is home to the most beautiful historic Western buildings, many of which were designed by Chinese architects. 

In order to help expats find their roots in Shanghai, Johnston collected materials on old Shanghai and built an archive in her house, which is open and free to the public. More than 100 people have visited the archive so far.

In 1998, Johnston co-founded a club for enthusiasts of historic buildings in Shanghai with an architecture expert, Ke Weiwen, and his wife. As of 2013, more than 300 foreigners had joined the club.

Through the club, Johnston and her co-founders invited researchers and scholars to give presentations on various buildings in Shanghai and tell the interesting stories of their history. 

Apart from documenting life in China, Johnston also gives lectures, travels, attends concerts and more. 

After repatriating to the U.S., Johnston plans to compile and publish some 50 articles that she wrote during her time in China.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Ma Xiaochun,Bianji)

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