Coquette: Shànghǎi 上海 : Grandmother

Coquette: fashion and style

Natalie Zee Drieu draws from the exquisite reservoir of inspiration her grandmother Amy Wang provides from Shànghǎi 上海 1930s, in Coquette: Ma Grand-mère. Peruse the romantic set of hand-painted photographs she has restored from her family archive.

Amy Wang: Shanghai c.1930: Copyright Natalie Zee Drieu
Amy Wang: Shanghai c.1930: Copyright Natalie Zee Drieu

Coquette: Ma Grand-mère, Mon Inspiration, mirrors my fascination for images of my Russian grandmother from to Shànghǎi 上海, Xenia Vladimirovna. Born in Russia 1908, Xenia made her way on the Trans-Siberian railway 1923, after the Bolshevik revolution, with her mother Eugenia, and three sisters Galya, Helena and Marya to Vladivostok and then Harbin, to find husbands in the East.

Чужие города Strange Cities a portrait of Xenia Vladimirovna (Ermolaeff) by Josepho Schick

“This is a picture of my grandmother, my inspiration, Amy Wang. Taken in Shanghai in the late 1930’s, my grandmother was a Shanghai society girl as well a as fashion designer. In this photo (top) she used the photographer’s cigarette for effect (she didn’t smoke). She was beautiful and I would like to think that I got my artistic/design sense from her. Weirdly enough, I have her hands.”

Natalie Zee Drieu – Coquette: Ma Grand-mère, Mon Inspiration

Natalie’s old Shanghai portraits of Amy Wang have re-awakened a longing, evoked by the nostalgic studio portraits I have of my own #Grand-mère of Xenia Vladimirovna (Ermolaeff) by Josepho Schick from Old Shanghai.

Чужие города Strange Cities a portrait of Xenia Vladimirovna (Ermolaeff) by Josepho Schick

I lament the Fabergé egg necklace Яйца Фаберже́ Xenia is wearing in the portrait above. She gave me these religious jewels when I was a little girl, after one Russian Orthodox Easter service at the St Peter & Paul Cathedral, Vernon Street, Strathfield. The brightly coloured eggs, formed a delicate chain, I believed were magical candy. Wanting to impress my six-year-old best friend Victoria at pre-school, I gave them to her as a precious momento of childish love. It must have amazed her parents, when Victoria arrived home with a pre-revolutionary Russian heirloom. Unbeknown to them, gifted to Xenia by her substantially older first husband, a widowed Vet surgeon, with five sons that called her mother. That is according to the letter I have in old Slavonic. Xenia was 23 years old when she married him. I don’t believe this was a love match, but a desperate attempt for his sons to gain Tsarist aristocratic status. And Xenia’s survival.

Xenia’s fragile beauty, insanity and elegance mesmerised me at age sixteen. Her soft white skin, passionate heart, and sophistication, through barely spoken English, captivated me. Shiny black patent leather shoes, handbag containing coveted Gitane (Gypsywoman) French cigarette’s, seemed out of place in the Australian suburbs… her fingers smelt like tobacco.

Xenia in the ballroom The Park Hotel 國際飯店 Shanghai, 1930s photo by Sergei Ermolaeff

She had a love of black velvet, the fur cuffs to her jackets were so Shanghai-esque. She wore real stockings until her 60s. It obsessed her, memories of the Park Hotel, Shanghai, bon-bons on New Year’s Eve, and the racecourse – Ooh La La. Married to Sergei a Russian recording artist, jazz orchestra leader, she reminisced sipping tea and vodka and flirting with the jazz orchestra band members. The plumbing was good at the Park. It made sense; her love all things French – дорогой dorogoy.

Sergei Ermolaeff permission to drive an automobile in the French Concession: Shanghai
Monsieur Sergei Ermolaeff’s (Russe) Permis de Conducteur d’Automobile
Concession Française Changhai

They lived in the Astor House Hotel, Room 25 for a time. Sergei had a residency as orchestra leader. I wonder if Xenia transported her wondrous collection of corsets, in pink and black satin, lace slips from China. At her vanity, the oval Art Deco mirror in her bedroom, she arranged powders, lipsticks, and perfumes that all appeared to be from another age. Leather and satin gloves. I still have them.

Serge Ermoll (Sergei Ermolaeff) Russian jazz orchestra leader playing for Pathé, Shanghai

Xenia’s love of photographs, combined with repeated opening of her old powder box, containing the portraits, in tissue paper, evoked memories of moments – “Shanghai was unbelievable, it is like something you could never dream…

“All the clothes she wore, she designed and made herself. She also made matching clothes for her sisters. They were the talk of the town in Shanghai back then. I love the whole era of the 30’s and 40’s and she really epitomized the time with her life and these pictures. “

Natalie Zee Drieu – Coquette: Ma Grand-mère, Mon Inspiration

Once, when I lived with my grandparents, after my own parents’ split in the 1970s, for my birthday, Xenia wanted to buy me a velvet suit. Suits were a foreign country to me, recently returned from Nimbin up the coast visiting a Krishna colony… a foreign commodity, it was Kaftans, Sarongs and Ikat. Xenia and Sergei drove me in the vintage 50s Holden, they still kept in the garage, with the red lightening bolt down the side, to David Jones in the city. She made me try on many velvet ‘suits’, but I begged for the deep green velvet suit, a two piece, tight-fitting skirt to the knees and fitted jackets. Stylish. A sense of style was Xenia’s enduring gift to me. And a deep nostalgia for all things past. Xenia lived and breathed Shanghai.

The City: Shànghǎi 上海

When I walked up the Najing Dong Lu to the waterfront Bund, Shanghai, for the first time in the winter of 1996-1997, I fell in love with the Deco metropolis at first sight.

It made sense. Gotham City. A melange of electric lights, neon and old buildings. ShanghaiVegas.

Shanghai electric lights 1997

An American friend, living there took me to the rooftop of his Deco apartment, and we looked across the Shanghai skyscape. Intoxicated with the foreign red wine, his velvet jacket, and the City I fell into a dream I did not want to wake up from. Reality broke through at dawn, when the jazz had worn off, and it was back to work photographing the old ballrooms where my grandfather had once played Russian jazz. The reason I had returned to the place of Xenia and my father Sergei’s birth.

Portrait of Alexander Vertinsky Александр Вертинский by Josepho, Shanghai 1930s

Xenia’s second husband, my grandfather Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll), was a jazz orchestra leader. He had had served as resident band leader in venues around old Shanghai in the 1930s: the demolished Majestic ballroom, Astor House, the French Club, the old Cathay Hotel, the Park Hotel, artistic director The Paramount 百樂門 1932-1933 and underground nightclubs around town like Ladlow’s Casanova…. Non, je ne regrette rien! Sergei collaborated with soviet artist Alexander Vertinsky Александр Вертинский, image above by Josepho Schick, the dark pierrot and originator of black Russian cabaret like from Над розовым морем Over The Rosy Sea/ The Pink Sea – Nad Rosavuim Morem – music and words by Alexander Vertinsky, Serge Ermoll and George Ivanoff, Shanghai 1930s. The B side to Чужие города Strange Cities that have remained staple soviet anthems until today.

Portrait of a Lady: Xenia Vladimirovna: Shanghai 1930: Russian
Чужие города Strange Cities a portrait of Xenia Vladimirovna (Ermolaeff) by Josepho Schick

Natalie’s “…grandmother died of tuberculosis at 33 (my age now) so I never got to know her. But I feel like I do from all her photographs and stories from my dad. To me, she is my inspiration. (So I have added a new category here for that.) I hope these photos can inspire you from an era and time long gone by but magical nonetheless.”

Natalie Zee Drieu – Coquette: Ma Grand-mère, Mon Inspiration
Portrait of a Lady: Xenia Vladimirovna: Shanghai 1930: Russian
Чужие города Strange Cities a portrait of Xenia Vladimirovna (Ermolaeff) by Josepho Schick

“I added more photos of my grandmother up in my flickr Shanghai 1930 set. Thank you to all who have commented on the first post I did back in March on her. She was an amazing stylish and talented woman.”

“Here’s my grandmother in her wedding dress which she designed. I am in awe of her veil and the train. It must have been amazing. Unfortunately, this is the only photo we have of the wedding. There’s none of my grandpa whatsoever. I think her family in Shanghai has the rest and I hope one day I can go back and see the rest of these memories.”

“This is my grandmother and my dad who must have been about five. As a kid looking at this photo, I used to make fun of my dad that he was wearing a dress. He informs me it’s shorts but who knows. Apparently, my grandmother would make a lot of more dress up outfits for my dad. But my dad being a boy would always go out and come home with the outfits completely muddy and dirty. He said he got in trouble a lot for that.”

“Grandma walking the family dog. My dad STILL misses this dog.”

“Posing on a rock in a park somewhere. I love the color tinting treatment on this photo. I’m sure it must have been so novel at the time.”


“This is one of my favorite pictures of my dad as a kid. It reminds me of myself. He’s totally busy doing his thing climbing and seems a bit annoyed his mom wants to take yet another picture. Note the familly dog in the corner who’s around. This dog followed my dad around everywhere. So cute.” Text by Natalie Zee Drieu

More photos here: Shanghai 1930

I have started to dream again about my grandmother Xenia, the Yu Yuan Gardens, Shanghai & Russian Jazz orchestra leader grandfather Sergei : these pictures bring my memories of them alive once more.

Shanghai 1930s

Чужие города Strange Cities a portrait of Xenia Vladimirovna (Ermolaeff) in Harbin, China

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Чужие города Strange Cities

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