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Vivian

The Former French Concession: A Walking Tour

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Whether a first time visitor or long-term resident, it is easy to be charmed by the atmosphere of downtown Shanghai.

Quiet, tree-lined avenues criss-crossed by bustling lanes lined with almost every imaginable variety of architecture form what was and remains the essence of Shanghai. This version of Shanghai is best exemplified by the area of the old French Concession, still called by the Shanghainese “Fazu Jie,” or Frenchtown.

Shanghai’s French Concession was born out of French Consul M. Montigny’s agreement with the Chinese authorities on April 6, 1849, to establish a French settlement on the Huangpu River, nestling cozily between the walled Chinese city to the south and the British settlement to the north. Shanghai’s explosive growth over the subsequent years led to the settlement’s expansion westwards. Over the next century, the area south of Boulevard Edouard VII (today’s Yan’an Lu) was a district characterised by tastefully designed parks, handsome villas and Russian brothels. Unlike their Anglo-Saxon neighbours to the north, the French always knew how to enjoy the best of life.

Much of Frenchtown’s distinctive flavor remains today. At the core of Shanghai’s former French Concession lies today’s Huaihai Lu (once known as Avenue Joffre), now celebrating its centennial. Among Shanghainese, this, and not the touristy Nanjing Lu, is the street to be seen on: Day and night, the trend-setting youth of Shanghai throng the Huaihai strip, scouting out endless boutiques in search of the latest in urban living. More than just a glitzy manifestation of global consumer culture, Huaihai Lu crosses some of the most interesting neighbourhoods of Old Shanghai. Those willing to venture a bit further from the main strip will be rewarded with glimpses of Shanghai life barely touched by the ravaging development of the late ’90s.

Huaihai Lu stretches seven kilometers across central Shanghai, from the former walled Chinese city in the East, to Hongqiao Lu in the West. Most of the key sights, however, are strung out along the middle portion (Huaihai Zhonglu) and are within easy walking distance from the three Metro stops that serve it. A few years ago, the eastern stretch of Huaihai Zhong Lu, near the Huangpi Lu Station, was a massive construction site. Now the scaffolding has come off to reveal a string of shiny new office-mall developments. Venture just a couple of blocks south from Huaihai Lu, however, and you’ll find yourself back in 1920s shikumen territory. These buildings, recognisable by the ornately carved stone arches that mark the entrances to their alleys or longtangs are unique to Shanghai, and were built by foreign developers around the turn of the century to accommodate the massive influx of Chinese migrants. Enjoy these neighbourhoods while you can, as many are slated for destruction. A plan drawn up by Chicago architecture firm SOM calls for their replacement by yet more shiny office towers. Only the area around the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be partially conserved, in the form of an upscale shopping development.

Westward along Huaihai Lu, past the impressive new elevated highway, lies the shopping avenue’s more intimate side. Street front boutiques, restaurants, and bakeries harken back to when Avenue Joffre was the favourite haunt of Shanghai’s leisure class. Yandang Lu, leading into Fuxing Park, was fully pedestrianised a few years ago and quickly taken over by trendy Taiwan-style tea houses. Plenty of local color remains as, on warm nights, families emerge from the nearby longtangs to playing cards or mahjong on folding tables. Fuxing Park, formerly called the French Park, in the early morning becomes a riot of dancing couples, moonwalking men and strangely agitated retirees (don’t worry, they’re only practicing qigong). If you’re lucky, you might catch an impromptu jam session among neighbourhood musicians or an old-school storyteller. Outside the west entrance of the park is a tranquil neighbourhood of art-deco villas, now subdivided and shared among multiple families. Nearby are the former residences of revolutionary hero Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and the late Premier Zhou Enlai.

The area immediately around the Shanxi Nan Lu Station is a non-stop swirl of activity, where Shanghai’s consumer frenzy reaches its peak. The pace doesn’t slack even when you venture deeper into the surrounding neighborhoods. Dodge bicycles along Nanchang Lu on a weekday morning and head for the produce market between Shanxi Lu and Xiangyang Lu, where residents stock up daily groceries. Xiangyang Lu itself offers a great taste of the pre-mall shopping experience in Shanghai and is littered with a bizarre assortment of shops, including a two-story electronic-goods bazaar at Xiangyang and Fuxing Roads where you can get your very own pre-owned cell phone at a suspiciously low price. At night, head to Maoming Nan Lu, south of Fuxing Lu, currently the epicenter of Shanghai’s young club scene. Clutch a cheap bottle of beer from the Lawson’s round the corner and enjoy the people watching. Despite all this hustle and bustle, residents continue to live in the typically laid-back, if congested, Shanghai style. Wander down Lane 987 of Huaihai Lu for a view of this lifestyle.

Huaihai Lu becomes a little more relaxed around the Changshu Lu Station, except for the carnival of Huating Lu. This infamous street market is a great place for cheap clothes and brand-name knock-offs, but shopping here can be an uncomfortable exercise at the height of summer. Shanghai authorities have decided to move the stalls into a bland, air-conditioned concrete mall in the near future, so experience it while you can, and hold on to your wallet while you do. Nearby on Donghu Lu sits the Donghu Hotel, formerly an opium warehouse, a movie studio and the haunt of Du Yuesheng, Shanghai’s greatest gangster and philanthropist. Today, lesser pleasures can be obtained along Julu Lu, near Huashan Lu, where a cluster of bars of varying degrees of seediness have sprung up to serve the expat pub-going crowd. More local color can be found down maze of back alleys behind Huaihai Lu and Fuxing Lu.

Enter through Fuxing Lu Lane 10, across from the park, or Huaihai Lu Lane 1412. The area around the French consulate on Huaihai Lu used to be an exclusive, upscale neighborhood, and many of the old garden mansions are still standing, though they’ve seen better days. Along Dongping Lu, however, some of these grand houses have been beautifully restored and turned into restaurants and bars where you can rest your feet and treat yourself to some of Shanghai’s reemerging international flavor.

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