Skip to navigationSkip to content

A house for Mr. Tata: An old Shanghai tale

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.
Photo courtesy of the Tata family
A Navjote ceremony at Avan Villa, 1941

Editors note: On May 16, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi will speak to thousands of Indians in Shanghai, one of the final events in his three-day tour of China. Shanghai has been home to Indian families for generations.

One blistering morning in early July in Shanghai, I stood on a busy street called Wulumuqi North Road, at no. 458. It was an eight-story office building, across the road from the Shanghai Hotel. The ground floor appeared to house the Herbalife office.

The office building had sprung up on the site of what used to be, circa 1935, Avan Villa, a grand family home, housing two generations of a Tata clan. The cluster of four smaller villas behind what used to be the big house, accessed from inside the next-door Lane 468 still remain, at nos 24, 26, 28 and 30, and these are what I had come to see.

By the first week of July, according to the Chinese solar calendar, the period of ‘xiaoshu’ or Lesser Heat had just begun. Humidity suffocated the city and the cicadas cried ceaselessly in seeming despair. Even the briefest of outings left one’s shirt drenched.

Inside Lane 468, after walking past the communal garbage bins, past the lackadaisical guard at the main gate, I saw that subsequent additions to the properties—dividing walls, added rooms on top, haphazard tree-planting in the inner gardens—had given the four semi-detached houses a higgledy-piggledy feel. Air-conditioning units that were installed later, external electricity lines, somebody’s washing hanging out to dry added to the visual clutter.

The clean lines of the four original edifices had blurred with the add-ons.

The unresolved story of the Tatas’ house in Shanghai whirled in my head.

The story of Avan Villa tentacles through space and time

Once upon a time, the entire estate before me—the office building and the four villas behind it—was cordoned off and a brass plaque indicated it was Indian property. At China’s present property prices, the office building alone is now worth well over US$50 million, not to mention the price of the four homes behind it.

The story of Avan Villa tentacles through space and time: over the Pacific, to San Francisco in the present day and across the Himalayas to Bombay, over a hundred years ago. Geography and history collide in the diminutive, frail body of a persistent old Parsi, Jehangir Bejan Tata, born in 1919, now legally blind and prone to falls.

‘They call me the fall guy,’ he joked, sitting straight up on a sofa in his San Francisco house, holding close a walking stick. I had gone to see him in December 2012, and met his Russian wife, Lydia.

Mr Tata’s English was courteous and old-world: ‘with all due respect’, and ‘if you don’t mind’, and his sentence construction had a familiar China coast hint. His voice was firm, despite its edge of an old-age tremour. He addressed me as ‘Ms Saran’.

Before his vision failed, he could find his way to the local barber shop, staying on the safe side of the road. He could make a left and reach it. But no longer. Even when he gets out into the sun, he cannot see a thing. Then there are his falls, inside the house, and outside. He is not too vain to use a walker—he always uses a walker—but the pavement is cracked. Sometimes you get jammed on it, he said.

His body’s inexorable decline has not prevented Mr Tata—who describes himself as quite an obstinate and stubborn man—from shaking his fist at history and demanding some answers about what happened to the Tata family property in Shanghai.

‘They tell me you must get a lawyer, you must get a lawyer, but all I want to know, all I want to know is what is the status of our property … the families of all my brothers are here and my twin sister is still alive. I just want to find out the status of our property. Why cannot the Government of India find out, what’s the big deal …’

The Tatas live in north-west San Francisco’s Richmond district. They live around the corner from a vast Russian Orthodox Church with gilded domes that float above ordinary San Francisco streets. When my husband turned the car onto Geary Street and we drove by the church on the way to see the Tatas, my heart clenched, for it was a replica of the Russian Orthodox Church in Shanghai’s former French Concession; I recognized its curves and accents with a sort of spatial sixth sense.

Shanghai’s former French Concession had been flooded with Russians escaping the 1917 Russian Revolution via China’s northern border with Russia. They fled first to the city of Harbin and then, when Japan pressed into Manchuria, they moved further south to settle in Shanghai. Later, when life in Shanghai became difficult for foreigners under the Communists, many Russians migrated to this corner of San Francisco.

Their church is called the Holy Virgin Cathedral, ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow’, and its founder is St. John. His full name is the Archbishop St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, for he arrived in Shanghai as a young bishop in November 1935 and became a leading light for the Russian community there. He, too, fled to San Francisco.

Lydia Tata remembers how Russian women in Shanghai would mutter about providing yet another pair of shoes for Bishop John, because, seeing a beggar, Bishop John once again had taken off his shoes and given them away.

Many of the Tatas’ Richmond neighbours are families who once used to live in Shanghai. Such refugees often came to the United States with their China dream in tatters, entire fortunes abandoned in haste in 1949, when the Communists won the civil war against the Nationalists.

When Parsis came to Shanghai, they usually stayed for life

‘I remember that it was all disarray as far as the business was concerned. Because my father really—with all due respect to everything—[my father] was a broken man when he had to leave Shanghai. He died [in Hong Kong] when he was not even eighty at that time—in my opinion, relatively young,’ Jehangir said.

‘Ms Saran, my father came to Shanghai in 1904. At that time, when Parsis came over, they usually stayed for life, you know … At that time he was with Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata[‘s trading company], then he went on his own. He was very successful in managing two cotton mills—over a few thousand workers total … and he managed the mills—buying the materials, raw cotton, to produce the actual yarn and bed sheets in those days … and everything in between. And then aside from that, he’d made some very good friends among the Chinese, he really made very good friends. And he also invested in the Chinese companies and all that. And then, in those days, when there was a contract, it was a twenty-year contract.’

Courtesy of the Tata family
Bejan Dadabhoy Tata

The family shared with me a sepia-toned photo portrait of his father, Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, who was born in Surat, India, in 1874. In the photograph, he is dressed formally, in a collared shirt, a cravat, waistcoat and jacket. The ensemble is topped by a stylish fedora.

His bushy eyebrows—the right one slightly cocked—frame the top of round glasses popular at that time. The spectacles are poised on the bridge of a generous nose, then comes a wide philtrum and thin lips, set in a well-defined bow-shape. The effect is of a man certain of his morals. A faint forward tilt of his shoulders hints at a yen for adventure. But his eyes hold a skittish look, as though he already suspected events might get the better of him.

Bejan Dadabhoy Tata was a distant cousin of his boss Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (R.D. Tata), who himself was a first cousin of India’s tycoon Jamshedji Tata.

In the summer of 1904, the same year B.D. Tata sailed east to help expand his cousin’s business, R.D. Tata’s French wife gave birth in Paris to their Eurasian son. They would name that boy Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata—J.R.D. Tata.

The Parsis in India had been involved in the China trade of opium and cotton right alongside the British, as early as 1756. The Parsis were keen ship builders, they were financially adroit, and entrepreneurial to their bones. The China trade had even given rise to Parsi surnames like Chenoy and Chinai, and the traditional clothes that Parsi women wear to this day are exquisitely embroidered with Chinese motifs.

On 26 January 1841, the British planted a flag on Hong Kong soil. It was soil wrested from the Qing dynasty in the Opium War—though the treaty that would conclude the war and cede swathes of land in Shanghai and other ports over to the British had yet to be signed. On that January day, also present with the British were the Parsi gentlemen Pestonjee Cowasjee, Rustomjee Dhunjishaw and Framjee Talati. Right alongside the British, the Parsis made significant land purchases at Hong Kong’s first land auction held in June that same year.

From Hong Kong, some Parsis soon migrated northwards to Shanghai, even before the French government had negotiated with the Qing dynasty for its own wedge of land that would be called the French Concession.

By 1854, the Parsis had established a Zoroastrian cemetery in Shanghai on Fuzhou Road. In 1866, right next to the cemetery, they built a fire temple at No. 538, Fuzhou Road.

Fast forward four decades and innumerable clipper voyages, to alight on Shanghai’s riverfront, in the early twentieth century, right behind the house of the French consul general, at No. 8, Rue du Consulat.

Bejan Dadabhoy Tata has prospered in the east, he has married and had children; his wife Naja and their older boys have settled here in Shanghai. On 20 May 1919, Naja gave birth to her last two children, a pair of boy–girl twins, Jehangir Bejan Tata and Aloo Bejan Tata. The Chinese term such a birth dragon–phoenix twins, the best combination of all.

Around them, Shanghai was exploding with construction.

The British-dominated, de-facto government of this tiny slice of land was a body known as the Municipal Council. It was busy paving over winding creeks, expanding roads, establishing the infrastructure of a major city. The British slab of waterfront, the Bund, was the bustling hub of commerce.  The park bordering the river was called the Bund Garden and a Municipal Council Orchestra, created in 1922, performed in a pavilion-shaped stage lit with gaslights.

Bejan Dadabhoy Tata and Naja hired a Chinese amah to look after their brood and take them to play in the park by the river. The Tata couple tried their best to impose their native Gujarati language at home, but their children answered in English. The youngest boy, the dragon twin Jehangir Bejan Tata remembers the Bund Garden, the music. He even recalls a fight.

‘When I was about five years old … even younger than that, my twin sister (Aloo) and I … you know they presently call it the Bund, formerly it was known as the Bund Garden, and … I used to go with my sister, with the amah … They used to have a bandstand there, they used to play music, I don’t know what kind of band—military music? This I remember very well … One day there was a sand box and we were playing and an English girl threw some sand in my face, this I cannot forget, but I got very angry and I did not say anything and when she wasn’t looking, I put some sand in her sandwich. Then there was a big commotion … and it ended up with the amahs fighting each other … When we got home, I told my mother what happened and my mother said “Oh you naughty boy,” and then the amah said, “No, she threw the sand first.”’

Jehangir’s mother Naja dominated the household. She did not speak Chinese, neither did his father, but there was no need, as the local Chinese staff spoke pidgin English. His father was kind to his children but he didn’t fuss around the family much. Work kept him busy.

An ancient Indian vision—of a main house, plus a house for each of his sons

By 1926, B.D. Tata was doing well enough in China to think about acquiring land and building a home on it. He picked an area further inland, a district still developing on the western outskirts of the International Settlement. The total area, in Chinese terms, was over three mu, or about 28,000 sq. ft. B.D. Tata could rent the land in perpetuity.

B.D. Tata had a vision—an ancient Indian vision—of a main house, plus a house for each of his sons. In his mind’s eye, he saw a large, gracious villa, with four smaller, semi-detached houses at the back. Lawns would surround the dwellings.

He hired prominent Shanghai-based British architects Davies Brook and Gran. The firm often favoured a style called Moderne—spare lines, curved-edge balconies, a streamlined look reminiscent of ocean liners and airplanes. The firm designed several Shanghai landmarks that are still extant, and a house for B.D. Tata.

The five buildings of B.D. Tata’s estate were completed in 1935. He named the big house Avan Villa, after his mother. The Tata family moved west across the International Settlement, past the Racecourse, into their grand new residence.

Jehangir Bejan Tata remembers every inch of the house:

‘It was a seven-bedroom house with five bathrooms. It was three floors, the ground floor, first floor and second floor and the roof. The ground floor[had] parquet flooring, and as you entered the small hall [and turned] to the left, [there] was a bigger hall, then my mother had a prayer room. The first floor consisted of four bedrooms. My mother and father had a bedroom each with an adjoining passage, which served as a closet for clothes, and then my eldest brother had one there.

‘There was a study, and from there, there was a large room—now we call it the living room—we used to call it the sitting room, and next to the sitting room was the dining room. And there were two beautiful murals, one known as a bas-relief, was like a sculpture on the wall, it was done by a [well-known Shanghai-based] Russian artist by the name of Poudgoursky. One was a mural in the dining room. And I think that if these two things were still there, I think the murals in that would be worth in the millions. I’m not joking, Ms Saran, I’m not joking.’

‘And we also had the servants’ quarters too … off the kitchen. The servants’ quarters consisted of an area where the servants could dine and another floor where they had rooms, because we did have a boy, we did have a cook, and I believe we did have what was known as a coolie at that time. These were the permanent ones in the house.’

The Tata home with its roof garden and four semi-detached houses, with their elegant lines, located on Tifeng Road, as Wulumuqi North Road was called then, was featured in an architectural magazine at that time.

Rumbles of war in China began early, when Japan attacked Manchuria on 18 September 1931. It was part of a Japanese military plan to take over China, Southeast Asia and then the world. To prosperous, swinging Shanghai, the attack seemed a far-away nuisance in the north, until it reached their doorstep in 1937. The wider world only paid attention when Japan targeted Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941.

Jehangir was just finishing school in 1937 when the Japanese planes bombed Shanghai.

‘I remember the Japanese barracks were right across [from] the school. You know, I must say [the situation] was not as bad as Hong Kong or Singapore. My father was concerned that we maybe would be put into [Japanese internment] camps, because we all had British passports at that time. I had a British passport, a lot of us had a proper British passport.’

That meant the Tata passports were the real deal, not the second-class passports issued to citizens of British protectorates. But, the Japanese had classified all Indians, including the Tatas, as ‘friendly enemies’, and they were to be spared the prison camps.

In Shanghai, the Japanese confiscated the Chinese mills run by B.D. Tata and all work came to a halt. The young Jehangir, who had been working for his father out at the mills, was suddenly at a loose end. He focused on his hobbies—exercising, body-building. He took singing lessons. He had a thought he might become an entertainer, as he was good at amateur theatricals.

To make ends meet in the war years, people did a brisk speculative trade in hard-to-find commodities. There was rationing of sugar, eggs, milk, flour.

Old orders around the globe collapsed one by one.

In China, under the Nationalist Kuomintang regime, led by Chiang Kai-shek, the foreigners’ extraterritorial rights in the Treaty Ports, including Shanghai, had been abolished. The sole agency agreement that Jehangir’s father had negotiated with the two Chinese cotton mills had to be relinquished.

Across the Himalayas, the Dominion of India dissolved and on 15 August 1947, India gained her independence.

Jehangir’s older brother Sam, a photographer, had left Shanghai for India to document events there. At an exhibition of his work in Bombay in 1948, he met the already famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The two men would become lifelong friends and Cartier-Bresson’s revolutionary style of ‘pouncing’ with his 35 mm lens on unfolding, candid street scenes shaped Sam Tata’s work. The two men worked together in India.

Sam came home to Shanghai and focused his camera on a turning point in China’s history: the Kuomintang’s downfall and the Communist troops entering Shanghai. When Cartier-Bresson arrived in Shanghai to help capture that same history in the making, he stayed with his friend Sam Tata, at Avan Villa.

Sam frequented the artistic circles that populated the French Concession, not far from the Tata house. That is where he met a lovely Russian teenager, Lydia, and invited her over, not knowing that she would later marry his younger brother.

The Tatas felt a new era lapping at their feet.

Jehangir’s British passport was expiring, and he went to the British consulate to renew it.

‘So I went to the British consulate and—I’ll never forget—they refused. They said, you are now Indian. They said that ‘India is now independent’ and all that. So I took up the Indian passport—the whole family took up the Indian passport at that time … and to this day I still hold an Indian passport.’

Many of Shanghai’s expatriate community refused to believe the Communists would win the civil war against the Nationalist Kuomintang army.

But Jehangir’s father, armed with his fresh Indian passport, read the writing on the wall.

He and Naja left Shanghai in early 1949, in despair, looking over their shoulder at beautiful Avan Villa, the estate they had constructed with their blood and bare hands. Jehangir’s father was unable to reconcile the enormity of what he had lost—an entire life built over half a century: impossible to pack up a villa and four semi-detached houses on 28,000 sq. ft of land, impossible to pack a lifetime of friends and adventure and take it with you on a ship. His sons stayed on to wind up matters.

A city dismantled itself.

Jehangir Bejan Tata’s thirtieth birthday on 20 May 1949 was a non-event. He does not remember it. His parents had left town; tension and uncertainty swirled through the city as Communist battalions surrounded it.

Six days later, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), clad in their cloth shoes and peasant clothes, had taken over the grand, glittering cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. Things changed overnight, and the shining metropolis the Tatas once knew vanished under a layer of fear.

‘My cook came to me with tears in his eyes, he had to report everything I [was doing],’ Jehangir said.

Local citizens were forced to watch executions of landlords and capitalists. People were made to confess. Many committed suicide, jumping off buildings. Whole families jumped, for the children were forced to report on their parents.

Jehangir and Lydia began a tense, two-year struggle with the Communist bureaucracy to obtain a marriage certificate.

Sam and Jehangir wound up the Tata family affairs as best as they could. Sam took the precaution of photographing the property deeds on glass negatives, as the original deed had to stay in Shanghai. Many foreigners had abandoned their properties by default, due to the great hassles of complying with all the regulations.

Jehangir actually rented Avan Villa to the Public Health Bureau of the People’s Government of Shanghai. He signed a tenancy agreement in Chinese and English, a document dated 17 September 1952.

At the end of 1952, Jehangir appointed a British company, Platt, Hanson & Co., as managing agent for the Tata property in Shanghai. Then Jehangir and his new bride boarded a ship for Hong Kong on new year’s eve.

Two years later, in July 1954, the Tatas heard that by order of the Shanghai Municipal Government, all foreign real estate agencies had ceased operation.

That news must have shocked Bejan Dadabhoy Tata to his core. He died the very next month, in August in Hong Kong, perhaps engulfed in sorrow and foreboding. The realization must have sunk in, for him and for scores of others, that they would never return to China, that the dream was over.

The Tata heirs managed to locate long distance a Chinese man, Mr C.L. Tang, who used to work for the Parsis at the temple on Shanghai’s Fuzhou Road and they asked him to take on the task of managing their estate. The appointment was approved by the Communist government’s House and Land Control Bureau in December 1954.

It was that year, Jehangir recalls, that C. L. Tang said he had to submit all property deeds and land documents to the Land Bureau.

‘And he submitted all the documents, some of them were copies and some of them were real, so I don’t have any original documents at all, all I have are copies that I made before I left Shanghai … So my question is, somewhere along the line, they must have a record of our property, a file number, don’t you think?’

All the Tatas have in hand is a copy of Sam’s photograph, printed from the glass negative.

C.L. Tang regularly sent to the Tatas correspondence and statements of accounts, including rental income, land and property tax deductions that the House and Land Bureau’s Rent Office had made, as well as details of repair costs. C.L. Tang was the guardian of the income—he deducted his own payment from that income—but not a single cent of funds was ever remitted overseas.

C.L. Tang, however, kept sending the Tatas information on their Shanghai property. The government, too, sent via the agent a stream of requests for documentation and payments, taxes, special assessments, repair accounts. Every time the income balance grew too large, the family noticed that a special tax or repair assessment was made on the property.

Still, Naja and her children, now scattered all over the world, complied with all the requests.

Then, a decade later, in 1966, all correspondence from C.L. Tang abruptly ceased.

Horrific news of China’s Cultural Revolution trickled to the Tatas in Hong Kong. China was drowned in a political and social chaos that historians would later describe as China’s lost decade.

It was clear to the Tatas that if their loyal agent had not already been killed, tainted by his connection to foreigners, he might be at any moment. An attempt to contact him might jeopardize his life. The Tatas decided that no matter how much they loved their house, and worried over its fate, it was not worth more than a man’s life. They abandoned efforts to track down their home.

After a decade, the Cultural Revolution’s madness ebbed. Ever so tentatively, a wounded China cracked open her doors to let the outside world back in.

Eventually, Jehangir contacted the Indian consulate in Shanghai. He wrote letter after letter, asking for news of his estate. His two girls, Claudia and Irene, grew up and went to college in the United States. They married and had children there.

Jehangir and Lydia moved to the United States in 1993 to be closer to Lydia’s mother and to the girls, and Jehangir resumed writing his letters, faxing them across the oceans. Over the decades, his handwriting in the faxes gets smaller, and shakier.

In 2001, at the age of eighty-two, Jehangir Bejan Tata made a trip to Shanghai with his daughter Irene.

Incredibly, Avan Villa was still there.

Somebody had turned the ground floor into an antique shop. The upper floors appeared empty. The store manager quite proudly showed the Tatas around. He explained he was renovating the building, that the house had belonged to an Indian, that the four smaller houses were for his sons.

‘I know,’ Jehangir might have snapped.

Behind the big house, the Tatas met one Mr Wang, a tenant of the Tatas for many years. Initially, Wang’s father had rented one of the back semi-detached houses—all of it. Then, in 1966, the Communist Party began jamming increasing numbers of families into each of the houses. The Wangs then shared the house with five or six other families. Wang said that for many years there was a plaque in the alley that said the properties were owned by Indians.

Irene Tata and her father finally managed to track down C.L. Tang—who turned out to have moved to New York City—but Tang was in his nineties already. He was dying of cancer, he suffered from asthma. He told his visitors that the Communists had arrested him in July 1966. The authorities had also seized all the papers and files and correspondence relating to the Tata property, as well as the rental income that he was holding.

C.L. Tang’s brothers and friends who had dealings with foreigners were also arrested and sent to camps for hard labour. Tang was heartbroken, for his brothers had not made it out of the camps alive. He wondered why he was alive himself.

‘So I did not press the issue,’ Jehangir said. ‘I don’t think I have any right to press the issue, so he was there and every time on [Chinese] new year, I’d phone him up and wish him for the new year, but I couldn’t contact him for the last two or three years and he passed away, unfortunately.’

A few years later—it must have been around 2004—a family friend returning from Shanghai told them that Avan Villa had been torn down and in its place stood a graceless box of an office building.

Jehangir protested via his fax machine. Nobody had asked his permission to tear down Avan Villa, let alone informed him the house was gone.

He would still like to know what happened to his father’s dream house in Shanghai

Jehangir Bejan Tata kept up his faxes to the Indian consulate to try and find out the status of his property, but consul generals come and go and his faxes are addressed to a whole succession of names.

He would still like to know what happened to his father’s dream house in Shanghai.

In his old-world, courteous way, he is essentially saying, if the Communists were going to snatch away his property, at the very least, he’d like to have a receipt. He would like some sort of document to put an end to the torture of not-knowing. The Tatas say that some overseas Chinese have received significant compensation for their properties, or had them returned. Some British families, too, have received compensation, although the word is, the amounts were not nearly enough.

I’m in awe of this fragile man, in his tenth decade of life, pointing a finger at a powerful political regime and asking for accountability.

‘The main thing is, would it show that it originally belonged to my mother and her five children? And the original names of the owner … Again I’m somewhat emphasizing on the fact that the ownership, the original ownership should be stated somewhere along the line.’

I telephoned a lawyer friend in Shanghai, and she put me in touch with an elderly Chinese para-legal who had experience with the tangled issue of old family homes taken over by the Communists.

The man spent days in mysterious offices I never knew the names of. He said he’d pulled numerous strings, called on contacts, seen documents, but could not possibly photocopy them to show me.

Only one thing was clear: Avan Villa belonged to the government.

A document? Could we see some sort of document?

He told me tales of senior, overseas Chinese who had escaped from Shanghai in 1949. Now they return and beg the Communist government for their homes back. The government shrugs and tells them, ‘If you invest tens of millions of dollars in China, we might get your house back for you.’

But often the homes were inhabited by multiple families, for the Communists sub-divided single-family villas and parcelled out sections. They used complex rules of semi-ownership, or ‘renting’ or ‘right to use’ and gradually—ironically—China allowed its people to purchase property outright.

As for Avan Villa, there is still no sign of an actual file.

The family has a photograph of the big house, dated 29 June 1941, taken by a hired studio photographer on the occasion of a formal and lavish Shanghai-style Navjote ceremony celebration. Nearly 150 guests dressed in formal attire have collected on the grass. The Parsi women are clad in saris, the men—Parsi, Western and some Chinese—wear Western-style suits. Western female guests sport dresses and hats. Other Chinese men wear the changshan—a traditional collarless long gown with slits and generous sleeves. A row of children sit cross-legged in front.

It is a snapshot of the multinational mix the city used to be.

Behind them rises Avan Villa, with her airy, confident lines. A side veranda gives out on to the lawn, a capacious balcony graces the upper floor. The overhang above the balcony features the signature Moderne—curved edges. French windows give access to the balcony and some of them have been left open for the party. Their angled panes reflect the summer skies of seventy-odd years ago.

Meanwhile, Jehangir Bejan Tata has had another fall, Lydia Tata told me last week on the phone from San Francisco. He has lost a lot of weight.

In May 2014, Jehangir Bejan Tata will turn ninety-five. He has begun to talk about dying, which is terribly upsetting to his family.

‘Hang on,’ I beg him telepathically from across the oceans. ‘We might find that piece of paper yet.’

This July, a typhoon crashed into Taiwan and South China, but its flicking tail swept Shanghai skies clean and the city is domed daily in silkscreen blue. A golden afternoon light dips amidst the roadside plane trees the French planted a hundred years ago and the cicadas, for the moment, are silent.

(Jehangir Bejan Tata died in San Francisco in November 2013.)

This article was first published as “A House for Mr. Tata, An Old Shanghai Tale,” in Travelling In, Travelling Out: A Book of Unexpected Journeys, edited by Namita Gokhale, 90-107. India: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. You can read more of the author’s work at

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.