Tag Archives: Historic Shanghai

Shanghai Flâneur: the Old Town

5 Mar

Some time last October, I discovered a “walking think tank” called Shanghai Flâneur. It promotes the art, you may say, of walking in the city and, one thing leading to another, I have now started to collaborate with the consultancy attached to it, called Constellations. Shanghai Flâneur organises thematic walks to the wider public, generally urban amateurs or professionals, or more corporate clients as part of a wider programme.

To date, I have been on one walk, which focused on the old city of Shanghai. I was particularly curious as I had previously been with a friend to the old city and, much to my dismay, couldn’t find it! We wandered in-between vast construction sites and tall residential buildings. One or two streets were quite popular and picturesque but that was about it.

The Flâneur talk-walk – twalk is probably the best term for it – was led by Katya Knyazeva, a Russian resident of Shanghai, who became passionate with this part of the city and researched it to the point of becoming an expert and now working on a book dedicated to it. There was a whole lot of fantastic information, historical, urban and human, and the discovery of unsuspected treasures. I have tried to filter some of it here in a comprehensible and palatable way, but excuse me in advance for the length of this post – and this is just a part of Katya’s talk.

The first thing to know is that the origins of Shanghai are actually very modest. As its name indicates, the old city is where it all started. However, it used to be a small fishing town built on wetlands, where some of the streets of today were actually a network of canals leading to the far larger Huangpu river and linked to the hinterland. This is why most of the streets in the old town are winding and curvy, following the geology of the land rather than a set plan. The old city was also fortified and, although the wall is no longer, you can guess its trace in the circular road going around what used to be all of the old town.

Adapted from Google Maps

Adapted from Google Maps

Not all that was part of the old town remains today. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of new and prospective development around. However, life in the older neighbourhoods is certainly buzzing and full of artefacts witnessing Shanghai’s history. We started off at Penglai Road and got straight into a daily street market. The street was packed with all sorts of products from fresh and ready made foods to clothing. It was difficult to keep your cool with so many curious things going on and the pedestrian traffic in all directions. We started off with some of those winding streets with very modest buildings, some of which are very very old but, due to various alterations and extensions, bear few marks of their historical importance. If I recall correctly, one of the buildings dates as far back as the early 19th century, but you could never ever tell by its appearance as it’s been mended practically everywhere.


The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

Hand-made pork dumplings

Hand-made pork dumplings


Mending and mending one's house

Mending and mending one’s house

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

After crossing the market, we carried on to slightly wider streets where more imposing, European-inspired houses fronted the street. Some prominent people lived in this area and their presence is indicated by weird plates to the front of the house, written in Chinese only, which sadly limits the appreciation of their importance. We went through the gates of some of the housing blocks, where we discovered beautiful ornamental details and where Katya told us a little bit about the past and current inhabitants and their misfortunes during the hard core Communist times. Like this 70 year-old lady who was the daughter of a poet’s butler and, just for the mere association of her family with a more bourgeois one, was sent to do forced labour for 17 years in the Xinjiang province (the westernmost province in China where conditions are harsh today and were harsher then).

Curving street

Curving street





Entrance into a Shikumen

Entrance into a Shikumen

We then carried on into another neighbourhood, passing on the way by three small trees fenced off from the passage. The reason for this is that these trees are officially listed for being something like a 100 or a 150 years old. This neighbourhood was yet a different world. The various houses and occasional restaurant can be accessed by a network of narrow lanes, where cars cannot circulate. Before we reached our destination, we were shown by our guide these wooden pots/boxes, just lying there.

Guess what these are!

Guess what these are!

Just as I was thinking that they looked quite nice and was wondering whether it would be nice to get one or were used for rice, we were told that they are actually toilet pots! Shanghai may be the wealthiest city of China with an amazing concentration of billionnaires, yet some people still live in houses with no toilets and therefore use these pots, drop them on the street the following day for the “pot cleaning” service to come, empty them, give them a quick rinse and put them back for the owners to use again.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we knocked on a door set in a blank wall and got into what is Shanghai’s best kept secret and the city’s oldest known house. The lady who lives in it is its owner and direct descendent of the original owner, a highly learned ex-bureaucrat, who commissioned the building of the house. Because the owner and Katya know each other, we were able to visit the house, which is in absolute shambles as the owner and her family do not have the means to restore it and the government is lingering on the matter, not seeing the many values of such a house and probably having “grander” plans for the area. The house is organised in three courtyards and throughout the different indoor areas, you can clearly see the remnants of the grandeur of this house, the amazing craftsmanship and how important this family once was. This was further attested by the presence of a “Golden Stone”.

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard





This “stone” looks like a table with a thick top tile on top of it. In reality, it’s everything but that. A “Golden Stone” is a tile similar to the ones found in the paving of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were produced in special workshops in Suzhou and the process of their fabrication used to be (and maybe still is) a very well guarded secret. Those who owned one were particularly lucky and wealthy. It’s meant to just stand and never ever be used as a table. The lady told Katya that when the Red Guards came to pillage the house during the Cultural Revolution and heard about the Golden Stone, harassed her father to give them the stone, thinking it was literally made of gold. Being 15-16 year old uneducated boys, they failed to see any value in a large piece of ceramics and that’s how it still remains in the property of the family.

The Golden Stone

The Golden Stone

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The state of the house and courtyard was obviously very sad to see. What was worse was the fact that a Danish practice had managed to solve the puzzle so to say, by looking at every single beam and piece of wood and understand which piece goes where in the overall structure. They proposed to restore the house and found funds for it but the Shanghai Municipality didn’t let them proceed with it for sheer national pride. They argued that such a project could only be undertaken by a Chinese firm…

Equally sad and weird was to see in what conditions the owner lived, especially coming from such a learned family and whose mother is, we were told, a most refined and well-mannered woman. See for yourselves…

The room where the owner lives

The room where the owner lives


In spite of the enlightenment and wonderful discoveries made on this day, the end of the walk had a bit of a bitter taste. It comforted my theory that Communism is responsible for China and Chinese people losing millennia of culture, manners and finesse, which can be seen in the way they live and sometimes act…

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai


30 Mar

Historic buildings in Shanghai, unless of very high profile like those on the Bund, do not currently have very long life expectancy. The notion of urban regeneration is not really widely practiced here and wholesale redevelopment is generally preferred to re-use or adaptation of the built fabric.

1933 is a welcome and refreshing exception to the current paradigm of Chinese urbanism. It is an ex-slaughterhouse, which has been converted in 2008 by Axon Concepts into a retail venue, with some shops, restaurants, cafés (all of which are independently owned) and a few offices. It is located in northern district of Hóngkǒu.

As its name suggests, the slaughterhouse dates from 1933 and was built by a British architect. Sadly that is as much information I’ve been able to gather from the net and the few books I’ve got about Shanghai and China. The structure is mainly characterised by the use of concrete throughout and by the way it is organised. It consists of originally two fully open buildings, a round one enclosed by a large square one, which are linked by a series of steps (for humans) and ramps (for cattle), which spiral around the structure’s four storeys into a series of bridges between the rotunda and the square, creating amazing views and perspectives. The place is a real Escher-like maze and after visiting it three times, I still get lost but somehow make my way to the roof very smoothly.

Every time I go there, I am amazed by the care put into designing a slaughterhouse (!) and the refinements of the details, such as the “balcony” or passages’ geometric balustrades, the facetted columns (or flowering columns as they are called) or the wrought iron on the windows, which are either original or are faithful replica. The redevelopers have been thoughtful enough to provide some explanation (in both Chinese and English) along the way, but you still feel you need to understand the meta-organisation of the place better. Apart from the segregation between cattle movement and human movement, I still can’t tell where the slaughtering actually took place (logically somewhere on the top floors), then how the meat was channelled and where it was stored and how were the carcasses disposed of.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently seen the movie “Temple Grandin”. Temple Grandin is an American scholar specialised in animal husbandry. She is behind what you could probably call humane slaughtering of animals, i.e. creating stress-free environments for animals before they are slaughtered. Grandin also happens to be autistic and has made use of her condition to understand animals better (she has also written a lot about autism). Visiting 1933, you can clearly see that some of her precepts were applied way before her time, namely through the spiralling internal movement, the sloped ramps and the high barriers, all of which, according to Grandin, replicate the natural moving patterns of cattle and therefore significantly reduces stress. In 1933, they even allowed spaces for animals to rest and feed before they eventually met their fate.

Anti-slippery ramps for cattle

Adjacent neighbourhood

Canal on the other side

The only negative thing I have to say about 1933 is that I am a bit worried it isn’t successful enough. Every time I’ve been there weren’t many people and those who come don’t seem to spend much, however impressed they are by the place. Take me for instance, I’ve only had a cup of tea there. Across the road, there used to be an artist’s residence, which clearly didn’t work out well as it is now only used for private parties. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate being able to enjoy the place without it being over-crowed, but I fear that if it doesn’t pick up it might be stamped with that red character, which I’ve been told translates into “erase”.

Butchery course

15 Feb

I had lunch with my friend C. the other day. The weather was exceptionally beautiful and for once not freezing for a sunny winter day. We then had a bit of time to wander around the French Concession. This area of Shanghai is probably one of the most sought after amongst foreigners to live in. It has retained a lot of its charm and it is very difficult I am told to build tall structures over there. Somehow, many of its original residents still live there and it can have quite a popular feel on many of its streets.

Walking out of the restaurant, we were greeted by the usual profusion of drying of laundry typical of sunny days in Shanghai. Except that in this very street – Jinxian Road, also hanging from the laundry racks, was an abundance of meat and all sorts of it: poultry, pork and fish at least. So much so that it felt like we could’ve had a butchery course on the spot. There were lots of homemade sausages but also gutted duck, goose and chicken, gutted gigantic fish, split pigs’ heads and other things I can’t put a name on. Have a look at the pictures below for colourful details.

Jinxian Lu

Poultry, fish tails and other stuff

Pigs' heads

I was surprised there weren’t many flies around or on the meat itself, even for the ones hanging just above the rubbish bins. I understand that drying meat is part of the local culture and a local necessity to preserve meat for as long as possible. And you don’t find meat drying only in popular streets or areas, you can also find it on the windows of the 15th floor of expensive apartment buildings. I have to say that I find it somehow admirable that in spite of living in one of the largest cities on the planet (16 millions inhabitants), Shanghainese are managing to carry-on and nurture the tradition of homemade foods instead of buying it industrially processed and overly packaged from an impersonal supermarket. Still, I can’t shake the high levels of urban pollution from my hygiene food standards. Instead of having, say, oak-smoked bacon, you’re actually having it kerosene-smoked… Not the best marketing angle or feeling really. But who knows? Maybe it does enhance its taste? Given that I have very limited control over what I eat here, I guess that’s what I have to keep saying to myself for as long as I live in China.

From China to Shanghai

20 Dec

This post is long, long overdue. It’s about a walk I did over a month ago now. I’ve been turning and tossing over it. There are so many things to say that I could write at least four posts about this single day. In fact this is a second post as the “Sun day, laundry day” one was just one element of that day. Anyhow, I have written about it now but have had to filter quite a bit. Other aspects of the walk will inevitably come up in future posts. In the meantime, I hope this makes some sense and conveys at least in part my enthusiasm and the progression from the point of departure to the end destination.

So a while back now, I went on a long walk from our flat on Tai Xing Lu eastwards along Suzhou Creek, the small river running west to east and leading to the Bund and the bigger River Huangpu, both of which I was going to see for the first time. Around that time, we had just moved into our flat and had been too busy flat hunting, getting everything we needed for our new home and taking care of administrative paperwork. So even after two or three weeks, we had never seen the Bund (i.e. river embankment), which is usually the first place newcomers to Shanghai rush to.

My itinerary (overlaid on the Lonely Planet map)

The walk was really great. It took me through all sorts of places and showed me another face of Shanghai than what you would see along Nanjing Road or Huaihai Road and their numerous shopping centres filled with Western brands or the French Concession and its very pleasant, sort of westernish or Parisianish atmosphere.

Following the southern bank of Suzhou Creek was not a continuous path. There are few areas where you can follow the waterfront but inevitably, at many points, particularly where you have bridges, you have to get off it, back on a main road or through a popular neighbourhood to be able to get back to it. Although, I did find it annoying at times, it gave a great insight into life nearby.

It started off with streets near my place which were quiet, mainly filled with drying laundry and some activity. It got busier and busier once I had crossed Changdu Road (the internal highway running north to south). Lots of shops around, many people sitting on their low stools or chairs on the pavement and getting on with various activities. Buzzing traffic everywhere, odd looks directed at me. I was one of the very few non-Chinese people to walk around there. Living conditions also seemed to decline compared to neighbourhoods further west. Everything seemed lower, tighter, denser and messier, and sometimes just simply dirtier.

The way “Chinese” neighbourhoods are organised in Shanghai is like a big block defined by main roads. On the external sides of the block, facing the main roads, are the commercial activities; generally tiny shops and workshops. These long stretches are then broken up by more or less tiny alleyways from which people access their homes. From my observation, it looks like residents only go inside to sleep and maybe eat. I never dare to venture into the heart of neighbourhood. Shanghainese are not very forthcoming so, despite my strong curiosity, I feel it would be a bit too invasive to do it.

Continuing further east, the urban character changed again from local Chinese to colonial. Buildings got taller and newer again and there were gradually more and more non-residential historic buildings, starting with industrial ones and ending up with smarter ones. It started up after Middle Sichuan Road, with the 1929 factory, then the renovated old boathouse and church a bit further along. You could then feel you were arriving to the Bund, with the massive Art Deco-meets-Brutalism Broadway Mansions Hotel first looming in the horizon and the bottle opener and the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong.

I have no clue what this is...

The old boathouse to the left and church

The Broadway Mansions Hotel and the Russian Consulate (in white), with Pujian Hotel (Astor House) behind it

Arriving on the Bund after this walk was probably even more impressive than had I gone through another route. By then, I had seen so many different layers and textures of Shanghai that everything about the Bund and the river seemed grander. Being on the Bund on a glorious day with 1930s, Art Deco Shanghai to the west and the wide Huangpu River and Pudong to the east is not overrated! The western bank shows that Shanghai was leading the regional economy in the early 20th century. Despite what I’ve said in my previous post about Pudong itself (that, on its own, it’s a reductive aspect of the city), the view of Pudong from the Bund is quite extraordinary. I think the fact that it is situated on a natural curve of the eastern bank amplifies its effect.

I guess you have to see it for yourself but hopefully I haven’t ruined the surprise and may even tempt you into following the same route some time…

Where Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu meet

The People's Memorial at the northern end of the Bund

Characterising Shanghai

14 Dec

As a seven-week old resident of Shanghai, I have to say that I find the city very different from the way it is portrayed in Europe. There, Shanghai equals Pudong, which is the newly developed area on the eastern bank of the River Huangpu. It’s about 10 to 15 years old. The Chinese are mainly to blame. Pudong was (and still is I suppose) their way of saying this is what China is now; modern, economically vibrant and competing with the rest of the developed world.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the city is in fact much more diverse and complex that this simplistic message, especially in terms of its skyline and history. Granted there are plenty of tall buildings and their number keeps increasing, but there also are lots of low rises, mostly in the French Concession but elsewhere too. Likewise, Pudong, impressive though it is from the Bund, feels like a big international showcase. There’s a mega-giant mall, an aquarium, iconic architecture and many offices separated by giant avenues, but the core of the activities and what makes Shanghai one of the most exciting cities to live in or to visit still happens in Puxi (the western side of the Huangpu). This is where historic Shanghai developed and, again, as the Chinese do, we have to recognise that this history does not date back very far. Compared to Beijing, which is millennia old, Shanghai really started developing 150 to 200 years back, but it constitutes one of the key places where the history of 20th century China was shaped. The main protagonists, Mao notwithstanding (I visited his house two weeks ago), all lived in Shanghai at one point and many crucial decisions were made here. Similarly, the power struggle with Europeans also started here and then spread elsewhere.

So there you go, it’s full of paradoxes but it’s fascinating. The extremes constantly juxtapose one another and in a way are quite aggressive, to the eye and to the people. Tall buildings are adjacent to low rises; gated compounds sit next to popular neighbourhoods; historic buildings and residential areas face the internal ring roads; if you like walking as much as I do or just have no other choice, you are bound to cross those same ring roads very often; and with all the money spent on Pudong and other iconic landmarks, some people still can’t afford a bicycle and have to use their own body power to drag their overloaded karts. Yet I am surprised that the city is so safe; that street life, domestic and modest, has not been dampened by the brutalising development process and that Shanghainese, except for the impatient behaviour typical to all big city dwellers, are so stoical and rather friendly when spoken to. In other places, they would just be annoyed if not aggressive towards high-income earners and foreigners.

Two of the best known buildings of Pudong

View from one of the apartments I visited

View from another apartment - this felt especially indecent as this neighbourhood looked particularly insalubrious

This guy manoeuvred his kart from the rear

People playing cards - very common

My favourite street so far - the west side of Fengxian Road

Playing badminton on Fengxian Road

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