The Astrid Apartments

Over a month ago, on a cloudy spring afternoon, I found myself standing in front of a spectacular Art Deco building, all eight floors of mustard yellow and mocha exterior towering over the surrounding low-rises.

The eye was immediately drawn to the apex where an elongated ornament embellished with a spire and sunrise motif sat atop a prominent column.

The Astrid Apartment 08

And like sunrays, the angular façade streaked outwards the length of a block along both Nanchang Lu (南昌路) and Maoming Nan (or ‘south) Lu (茂名南路). Steel-framed windows wrapped around on all sides and glistened ever so slightly as the clouds shifted.

The Astrid Apartment 03

The Astrid Apartment 06

The Astrid Apartment 10

Presently, locals refer to it as Nanchang Building (南昌大楼) though it was originally known as The Astrid Apartments. Built in 1933 by property company Wing On (owned by the Kwok family), the building had been exclusively occupied by foreigners with servants living in the back quarters.

The Astrid was designed by the architect W.Livin-Goldstaedt, though little is known about him. He worked with the shortly lived Eastern Asia Architects and Engineers Corporation and the only other record of his work was the King Albert Apartments, a cluster of elegant four-storey apartments a few blocks away.

Serendipitously, as I stood outside the building entrance writing notes, a young woman exited the locked gates. She looked quizzically at me and thinking I was a visitor, kept it open.

I avoided the creaky elevator and took the stairs, steadily passing doors of small businesses, associations and private residences. With each floor, I discovered eroded floor tiles, rusted windows and dirtied walls in the dim hallways.

The Astrid Apartment 04

The Astrid Apartment 05

Yet the parsimonious elegance of the Art Deco design was evident in the doors marked by the classic geometric header, as were the window grills and moldings.

According to The Astrid’s blueprints, there are three entrances and elevators, and flats ranged from studios, two to four room flats. I had traced each wing via difference entrances and discovered recessed balconies facing another cluster of old housing.

Some flats were boarded up; one had rotting floor and junk strewn about. Otherwise, most were inhabited and renovated with metal gates and linoleum floors. Doors were firmly shut and residents kept to themselves. There was little sign of overcrowding, just the creeping decay and neglect of public housing.

Upon reaching the rooftop, I was greeted by The Astrid’s spire and ornament in a sea of laundry hung out to dry. The eight floors allowed a bird’s eye view of the surrounding neighborhood – a mix of typical Shanghai lilong housing and 1930s low-rise apartments – yet was close enough to observe people going about their daily errands.

The Astrid Apartment 02

The Astrid Apartment 07

The Astrid Apartment 09

With the balmy wind to keep me cool on the roof, I watched scooters weave in and out of traffic; children play in lanes across the street and older residents gossiping along the sidewalks.

Over several weeks, I returned to The Astrid to photograph in better light, and always wound up whiling the afternoon away on the roof. It was a quiet retreat from the buzz of the neighborhood, and Shanghai’s hectic pace. I often wondered if the roof, when it was first built, had been a special place for residents or servants to steal away to as well.

March 2012

Note: For a more compelling visual and historical insight into the influence of Art Deco in Shanghai’s heritage architecture, I recommend Deke Erh and Tess Johnston’s “Shanghai Art Deco” (Old China Hand Press, 2006).

Layout of Astrid Apartments



  • Reply April 23, 2012

    Graham Bond

    Great post. I’ve wandered by the Astrid on many occasion and have photographed it, though only from the oustide. I’m curious, though. Was the exit to the roof not locked? Every apartment block I’ve ever lived in in China (three, I think) has blocked exit to the roof (despite it being an obvious fire escape).

    • Reply April 23, 2012

      Sue Anne

      It’s not locked because there are people living on the roof. They tend to hang all their laundry out there and potter around alot, so we just need to be mindful of their living space. All three exits lead to the roof which has spectacular views. Enjoy!

  • Reply April 24, 2012

    Graham Bond

    Sorry to be a pedant, but when you say ‘living on the roof’, how do you mean? I regularly hung out washing on the roof of my apartment block when living in China, and even used a viewing deck that my father-in-law had built from scrap metal to do some sunbathing on occasion. However, I always needed to have a key (which was a matter of negotiation with the management company).

    More generally speaking, yes, apartment block roofs in China can be wonderful spaces (when not over-managed) to observe domestic habits and to observe a kind of organic community grow independent of the usual forms of social control in China. Perhaps an idea for a project in its own right? Sadly, not one I am in position to undertake myself given I am now living in the UK!

    • Reply April 25, 2012

      Sue Anne

      There are several apartments on the roof, one to two floored rooms that were probably late additions. And I suspect some residents on the upper floors would hang their laundry on the roof as well. I’ve seen my fair share of locked roofs around Shanghai, but it’s always worth a try. Some older housing buildings have recessed balconies which you can walk by without really violating anyone’s personal property for nice views, though I wouldn’t linger too long.

      I know UK has lots of public housing as well, they would be worth a documentary photography project. I’d be very interested.

  • Reply April 25, 2012

    Graham Bond

    Good call – yes, I did exactly that when I got this shot of the Astrid (URL below). I wandered into the block opposite and just climbed the stairs. I was amazed that I could get that kind of access so easily. I came across this man who was happy to be incorporated into my picture. It’s not the world’s best shot, but a happy memory of hunting around Shanghai back in the summer of 20008. I was actually researching a guidebook for Frommer’s at the time and I think this picture was published in the final book.

    As for the UK public housing idea – I have a couple of friends – Mishka Henner and Liz Lock – who have done similar things. I may do a bit myself, if ever I get time!

  • Reply April 28, 2012


    Greet! i Love Art-Deco 2!

  • Reply May 11, 2012


    Should have been shot in colour.

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