Research Services
Old China Hand Gazette

Tess Johnston
3003 Van Ness St NW #W-1108
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 248-0942


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Thanks to her extensive library of old books and historical documents, Tess also serves as a consultant on matters pertaining to the Western presence in old Shanghai.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.



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 "bread baskets".

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. Stay tuned!

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.


Why I write.
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?
No, 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 (amah), 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 ability?
The former, 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?
Right 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. Marvelously evocative.

Favorite book?
Almost 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! .

Favorite writer?
Harry A Franck, a travel writer from the 1920-30s, long dead and much missed.

The book you know you should have read but haven't?
Have 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 here.
For information on Tess' lectures about Shanghai, click here.
Tess Johnston, June 2016. All Rights Reserved.