Taste of nostalgia

(Shanghai Star) | Jan 16, 2015


Many people wish they could experience the style and sophistication of old Shanghai, now they can, with art critic He Wen using his family heirlooms to evoke a bygone era in a new cafe. Yu Ran reports.

He Wen has turned the old villa where his grandmother used to live into a cultural salon, displaying vintage imported goods including phonographs, clocks and furniture, as his way to re-create the spirit of old Shanghai.

Born and raised in Shanghai, He spent much of his childhood with his grandparents, who ran an imported goods store in the 1920s and owned a collection of antique foreign items. He has been deeply influenced by the style of old Shanghai, which was pursued by locals with good taste and good manners before the revolution.

His grandparents’ store sold phonographs, clocks, music boxes and records to high-class locals who had a ‘petit bourgeoisie’ attachment to these items.

“The spirit of Laokele (meaning old clerk in Shanghai dialect), referring to the refined lifestyle of gentlemen with a good salary and family upbringing, should be passed on through the generations as a cultural heritage which is missing in modern life,” says He, an art critic in his 40s.

He’s grandparents moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s, taking their collection with them. The collection returned to Shanghai in the 1980s when his grandmother moved back to the mainland.

In He’s mind, these old items are not only the things that marked his childhood, but also evoke his family’s legacy of impeccable Shanghai style. He still remembers his grandmother spending a whole afternoon sitting on the European style leather sofa, listening to music played on the phonograph and sipping black coffee in a small ceramic coffee cup.

“These antiques are full of stories, they hint at how people in Shanghai used to live in the 1920s, when people had impeccible taste and were influenced by some of the finer aspects of Western culture,” He says.

In May 2014, in order to give young Shanghainese a glimpse at how the city used to be, He started inviting friends and the public to visit the house.

He soon had about six groups of visitors coming in to see his collection every day. He became the guide in the small house, telling the stories behind each phonograph during the 40-minute tour.

After four months of giving tours, he decided to turn his little private museum into a café in order to create a more leisurely and relaxing atmosphere for people to soak up the old Shanghai lifestyle.

“I prefer to make friends with passersby who are willing to sit on the old sofa and listen to the stories and old traditions passed down from my grandmother,” He says.

Every weekend, He mixes imported tea leaves to make English tea in the traditional way, serves snacks from the old Shanghai brands and plays vinyl records on the phonograph like his grandmother used to do.

“I really identify with the old Shanghai culture, which is in abundance in He’s home, with the smell of incense, dance music and old pieces of furniture on display,” says Shen Fang, a local office worker who is fond of vintage things and a regular customer at He’s cafe.

Shen likes meeting up with close friends at He’s place as she loves the quiet and charming atmosphere, which reminds her of her own childhood, surrounded by historical furniture and melodious rhythm.

To maintain the original condition of the antiques in the salon, He spends a lot of money getting professionals to maintain the phonographs and clocks.

“I am keen to retain the lifestyle of old Shanghai, mixing traditional and Western elements, and I want to share the lifestyle with more people who have similar ideas to me. As a Shanghainese, this is my life’s mission,” He says.

He Wen owns more than 300 phonographs and clocks that are either displayed in the cafe or stored in his home. Every piece of the collection has its own back story and intrinsic value for He, who shares his childhood memories of time spent with his grandmother through these anqitues. The following are three signature items in the salon that He treasures.


A cylinder phonograph from Pathe Records
This is one of the oldest cylinder phonographs that traveled from France to Shanghai. It was manufactured by Pathe Records, a French international record label and producer of phonographs between the 1890s and 1930s. It has a logo of Gallic Rooster heading to the West. It plays cylinder records instead of disc records.


A playable phonographfrom Britain
The phonograph is a highly sought after collectors item. He even received a request from the British Museum to buy it back. It was manufactured in the 1920s with Western mahogany in two parts. On the upper half, it has strings like a harp while the lower part is the record player. The user is able to listen to the music from the phonograph and play music to accompany it.


The gilded clock
This type of gilded clock was manufactured in the late 1880s and early 1890s, prior to the appearance of the phonograph. The clock is gilded with fine gold, which enables it to retain the golden brightness and rich color. There is a silver bell inside the clock that strikes the hour with a clear and melodious sound.


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