The French Concession, a region of the city governed by France for nearly a century, has been her home for nearly three decades now. A lover of beautiful architecture, Johnston was captivated by the magnificent Western buildings that, she says, were shabby and neglected when she first saw them, but still added a Western grace and charm to the grim gray cityscape.
When I first saw Shanghai in 1981, it was a city preserved in amber. Nothing had been torn down and nothing had been built.
“When I first saw Shanghai in 1981, it was a city preserved in amber. Nothing had been torn down and nothing had been built,” she told a reporter in 2010.
She soon began writing about Old Shanghai, filling a void left by the Chinese who traditionally focus more on the future than the past. A researcher, an author—she has authored or co-authored 26 books—a lecturer, and an expert on the Western presence in old China, she has been featured by numerous media outlets, including The New York Times in 1998 and more recently in the South China Sunday Morning Post and on the CNN Global Experiences blog.
One reporter noted that Johnston had been documenting Shanghai architecture for so long that much of it no longer exists. Not surprisingly, she bemoans the loss of so many historic buildings being demolished to make way for urban growth and skyscrapers.
Johnston came to the Curry School after a 1950s stint in Berlin with the American Foreign Service. The Charlottesville native enrolled in the Curry School in 1958, as did many other women prior to 1970, primarily because she was barred from the males-only College. Her favorite subjects were English, history, and German, however, and she went on to complete a master’s degree in German in 1963. (Women were allowed in the graduate school.)
She never pursued public school teaching. Instead, she taught German classes here at U.Va. and at The College of William and Mary. In 1967, Tess went to Vietnam for USAID and stayed for seven years during the war. This experience inspired her to rejoin the Foreign Service, which proceeded to take her to Frankfurt, Berlin again, New Dehli, Tehran, and then to Shanghai. After 33 years in the Foreign Service, she faced mandatory retirement in 1996. At that time, she had already published three books with co-author/photographer Deke Erh and, as she puts it, had maybe ten more ideas in her head for more books.
“I loved Shanghai and the Chinese people, no longer had strong ties to the USA—where I had not lived for over three decades—so why not stay here and continue to write books?” she says. “And so I did.”
Johnston’s memoirs, Permanently Temporary – From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century (Old China Hand Press, 2010), highlight her life of international travel with the Foreign Service.
“I never had much ambition, and was just lucky to stumble into a career that perfectly suited my personality,” Johnston said, “one that offered a life of spasmodic adventure and excitement without any responsibility whatsoever for the outcome. A great combination!”
At age 80, she has barely slowed down. “When not busy writing books,” she told us, “I’ve been lecturing, leading architectural tours, and, of course, still researching all sorts of good stuff.” Her current project is Americans in Old Shanghai.
You can find Johnston on the web at tessinshanghai.com