Tess Johnston is uniquely qualified to research and write on
the Western presence in old China. She first came to Shanghai
in 1981 to work at the American Consulate General and in 1996,
after over thirty years in the diplomatic service, she retired
and stayed on to research, write, and lecture. She and her
co-author, Shanghai photographer Deke Erh (Erh Dongqiang), have
published 25 books, including fifteen volumes on Western
architecture and the expatriate experience in old China.
Tess is a native of Virginia and her academic back-ground includes a M.A.
from the University of Virginia, where she
subsequently taught. She has lived abroad for more than half a century,
including seven in Germany (both east and west), and more than 40 in
Asia, including 33 in Shanghai and seven in Vietnam (1967-74).
Thanks to her extensive library of old books and historical
documents, Tess also serves as a consultant on matters
pertaining to the Western presence in old Shanghai. She is also
a valuable research resource for visiting scholars and former
residents seeking to trace their Shanghai roots.
Tess has now repatriated to Washington, DC, where she will continue
her research, writing and lecturing. Her new contact info can be found in the box
at the left and she continues to welcome inquiries from all over the world. Her research library also moved with her to her Washington home/office.
LATEST BOOK PROJECT
Having spent a lot of time in Germany, in the
spring of 2012 Tess again traveled to Berlin and then to Schlesien
(in English, Silesia), since the end of WW-II a part of Poland.
Breslau, now Wroclaw, was formerly one of Germany's cultural
centers and Schlesien, thanks to its fertile soil, one of its
In an unspoiled and often empty landscape
are still more than three thousand old German castles and
magnificent manor houses and ancillary buildings of formerly vast
estates. After the end of the war and with the departure of the
German populace these abandoned buildings were left to the mercy
of both people and the elements resulting in, still, a wide array
of architectural gems, some totally burned out, most slowly
sinking into ruin, a few now restored.
Tess had made three
previous trips thru Schlesien with old German friends, one of whom
was an architect, a fantastic photographer -- and from Schlesien!
Now with the enthusiasm of still more German friends, including
two Schlesien scholars, they are working on what will hopefully
emerge as a bilingual volume of old and new photographs and text
about the fabulous Castles and Manor Houses of Old Schlesien/Silesia.
FOR OUR READERS: If there
is anyone out there who has a background of ancestry in Schlesien
(like the von Johnstons who owned "Gross Bresa"), Tess would
welcome any photos, material, first-person narratives or input
about life in Breslau or rural Schlesien.
AN INTERVIEW WITH TESS
Vanity, I guess. I
always think I know something that a lot of people don't -- like
about the Westerners in old China, for instance -- and that I
think they will want to (or should?) know.
Do you write every day? If
so, how many hours?
just when I have a deadline, or a hot idea, or am in the midst of
writing a book or an article. Hey, just answering my emails every
morning before I do anything else makes me do a great deal more
writing than I'm really interested in doing!
Worst source of distraction?
What isn't? (So may I make that sourceS, plural?) The ayi
visitors, telephone calls, attacks of hunger for snacks, desire to
get out for fresh air -- and then the TV (I keep CNN on, low
volume, almost all day, lest I miss something). It's a wonder I
ever get anything written at all.
Best source of inspiration?
A beautiful old building going to seed, or a beautiful old book
that promises, and delivers, much.
How often do you get writers' block/doubt your own
never. The latter, only when I had just read through the first
draft of my memoir.
Contemporary writer in any medium
who you never miss?
now it's Malcolm Gladwell, but this too shall pass.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I don't read Chinese, so it's Lin Yutang. He's from another era,
but he never ceases to charm on Things Chinese.
Best book about China?
An old one, The Years That Were Fat, by George Kates.
impossible to answer; there are simply too many. Lately it was
Noel Coward's Pomp and Circumstance, his only novel and
hilarious -- and right on! .
Harry A Franck, a travel writer from the 1920-30s, long dead and
The book you know you should have
read but haven't?
you got half an hour or so? OK, probably either a Harry Potter, or
maybe one of Dan Brown's, epics, just to see what it is that
grabbed those millions of readers. (But I'd really rather not.)
You look back at the first thing
you had published and think...
Wow, if I hadn't written that book, then I would like to read the
same book, but written by someone else. (It was A Last Look -
Western Architecture in Old Shanghai, with those gorgeous
photographs by Deke Erh.)
Does writing change anything?
Of course some writing
does, but nothing that I write will ever change anything.
What are you working on now and
when is it out?
I'm finishing up my memoir,
Permanently Temporary - From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century,
to be launched at the Literary Festival at M on the Bund on March
13th. (Nothing like publicizing your own book, I always say...)
For a list
of Tess' publications, click
For information on Tess' lectures about Shanghai, click