The French Concession
The former French Concession has always been a bit of a hideaway from downtown and remains so today, despite its plethora of sights, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. In the 1920s and 1930s while the French nominally ruled the roost, the area was effectively controlled by the notorious gangster Du Yuesheng and the French Concession was the center of Shanghai’s drug and prostitution racket.
Despite lax law enforcement, the district still enjoyed the security of the international community and as a result it served as home to many of the Chinese revolutionaries of the day.
Today the French Concession is a charming part of town to visit and during the day its quiet tree-lined avenues and parks make for a wonderfully refreshing stroll and there are plenty of cafés where you can stop and refuel. By night the scene is transformed and the streets come alive to a hedonist beat, albeit with a somewhat more restrained and chic style than in days of old.
The Art and Crafts Museum and Propaganda Poster Art Center are also worth checking out for a flavor of China’s diverse arts scene.
Subway line #1 runs through the French Concession.
Former Residence of Sun Yatsen, 7 Xiangshan Lu
(daily, ; ¥8; Shanxi Nan Lu subway).
This gray, simple mansion sits in the southwest corner of Fuxing Park. With a British- style lawn, flanked by tall trees and high walls, the house seems more suited to a suburb of London than Shanghai. Dr. Sun Yatsen and his wife Soong Qingling moved to the house in June 1918, shortly after his return from Japan, and it was from here that he became China’s first leader in 1923.
The contents have remained untouched and letters, books and photos remain, while the outside has recently undergone a much needed facelift.
Former Residence of Zhou Enlai, 73 Sinan Lu
(Mon, Wed & Fri, & ; ¥5; Shanxi Nan Lu subway).
On a quiet street just down from Sun Yatsen’s, the façade of this French mansion is engulfed in ivy and the building is fringed by hedges. The house served as the secret operational base of Shanghai’s Communist movement in the late 1940s although little evidence remains of this today.
♥♥ Former Residence of Soong Qingling, 1848 Huaihai Zhong Lu
(daily, ; ¥8; Hengshan Lu subway).
The most charming of Shanghai’s collection of former residences, this house was built in the 1920s by a German ship owner. From 1948 to 1963 this was the main residence of Soong Qingling, widow of Dr. Sun Yatsen, and has been left as it was, giving a fascinating insight into one of China’s most famous women.
Photos of Soong with her husband, family and important officials (notably Mao Zedong) hang on the walls and there are over 4,000 books, which tells you something about Soong’s intellectual bent. Soong’s bedroom is also worth a look as it houses the furniture her parents gave as a dowry. In the garage is a limousine given to the family by Stalin. Other exhibits include a red carpet from Mao and next door you’ll find a small museum containing more photos, including Soong and Sun’s wedding pictures.
Xintiandi literally means New Heaven and Earth and is the result of Shanghai starting to appreciate some of its historic architecture. Its shikumen houses have been gentrified to form one of Shanghai’s trendiest eating and shopping districts. Although it’s decidedly contrived, the area is attractive and gives some idea of what much of Shanghai looked like 80 years ago.
Xintiandi also holds a couple of historic monuments of note and its location halfway between the Old City and the French Concession makes it an ideal spot to stop for a drink. It is served by Huangpi Nan Lu subway station on line #1.
♥ Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, 374 Huangpi Nan Lu
(daily , last entry one hour before closing; ¥3).
Easily spotted by the large numbers of Chinese tourists clustered outside taking photos, this small museum pays homage to the formation of China’s Communist party. On July 23rd, 1921, 13 members of secret Communist cells (including Mao Zedong) met to discuss the founding of a new national party – the Chinese Communist Party.
Opened in 1949, the contents have remained untouched, other than the addition of a wax model showing Mao and his comrades in the meeting. There is an upstairs exhibition that evokes the mood of the time and features some interesting anti-imperial propaganda.
Shikumen Open House Museum, 25 Lane 181, Taicang Lu
(Sun-Thurs , Fri & Sat ; ¥20).
This small museum celebrates the shikumen architecture of 1920s Shanghai and sets the scene for a
foray into the surrounding area. The lobby is also a good place to pick up information and listings for Shanghai.
Shikumen housing used to cover much of Shanghai. Developed in the 19th century, the style, which literally means “stone gate,” shows a unique mix of east and west. The houses, which were originally designed as middle-class residential quarters, typically had black wooden doors set inside a stone gateway that opened up into a small enclosed courtyard. These days there are few examples of shikumen housing left. Xintiandi sensationalizes shikumen architecture with its bars, restaurants and shops.
The Old City
While the colonials were busy reconstructing their homelands on the Bund and in the French Concession, the Chinese lived within a walled city to the south. The Old City has a 2,000-year history and was originally a fishing village. In the middle of the 16th century it was walled to defend against Japanese pirates, and these walls remained until 1911. During the colonial era the Old City was perceived as a strange and savage place where few foreigners ventured, until Thomas Cook began leading tours there in 1872.
These days the Old City is very new in parts – all the Ming- and Qing-style buildings in the Yuyuan Bazaar, which surrounds Yu Gardens, have been completely rebuilt or at least heavily restored. When combined with the legion of souvenir shops and hordes of tourists, it gives this part of the Old City a decidedly contrived and Disney feel.
Still, it’s a fun place to visit and the central lake, crossed by the Bridge of Nine Turns (impassable to ghosts who can only travel in straight lines…), is very picturesque in a kitsch way – especially as the sun goes down and the curved eaves of the buildings are illuminated. Halfway along the bridge you’ll reach the famous Huxinting teahouse, while over on the other side of the lake you’ll find Nanxiang, a great dumpling restaurant.
The City God Temple (daily ; ¥5), in the center of the bazaar, is also worth a quick peek. The temple, which pays tribute to the old city’s resident god, dates from the 15th century and has been restored after a period of neglect. The reason most people come here, though, is to see the acclaimed Yu Gardens.
But a stroll through the genuine antiquity and characterful markets of some of the nearby streets, such as Fangbang Zhong Lu, and maybe a trip to Dongtai Antiques Market (just outside the Old City boundary), are also recommended. There are no convenient subway lines for the Old City but it’s not too far to walk down from the Bund or Nanjing Lu; otherwise get a taxi.
♥♥ Yu Gardens, Yuyuan Bazaar
(daily ; ¥40). Despite being one of the most frequented sights in Shanghai, the Yu Gardens make for a pleasant diversion from the bustle of the Old City. First constructed during the Ming dynasty for the governor of Szechuan (Pan Yunduan), these classical gardens contain pavilions, bridges, chambers, towers, ponds, rockeries and white-washed walls capped by fierce dragons. If you happen to be visiting during the Chinese Lantern Festival then you’ll see the gardens beautifully illuminated by 10,000 lanterns.
Getting to Shanghai, Getting around
The Bund, Renmin square, Jade Buddha Temple
Pudong, Xujiahui, Longhua Temple, Water Towns
Shopping, Nightlife and Festivals
maps of Shanghai
Travel guide to Suzhou
Shanghai Travel guide homepage
Cities and regions of China homepage
China Travel Guide homepage