Scuffing, chafing and scouring Shanghai

By | Category: Travel destinations

 

French Concession in Shanghai

French Concession in Shanghai

Shanghai is undoubtedly the most forward-looking, international face of China, symbolising all that’s shiny, modern and new in the People’s Republic. My own first impressions, from the vantage point of my airport taxi window, were of a bustling metropolis, its roads clogged with Friday rush-hour traffic, as the hard-working citizens of Shanghai were all heading home after a long day at the office. Choosing to leave skyscrapers and the likes behind, I was instead continuing on to an area known as French Concession, in the south-western part of town, a leafy neighbourhood full of pleasant low-rise villas, dating from a different era altogether.

Shanghai was declared a market town as early as 1074, during the Song Dynasty, so this city is no spring chicken, or should I say spring roll? Originally a small fishing village strategically located near the mouth of the Yangtze River and the East China Sea, it continually grew in size and importance, eventually turning into today’s mega-metropolis, home to some 23 million souls. In the 19th century Europeans and also Americans took a keen interest in the city and its port. Many of the foreigners ended up settling outside the then walled centre, in so-called “concessions” – land conceded to them by the Chinese. The French had their own, in the southwest and this was where I was taking up residence for my two-week stay, living in one of the busiest and liveliest streets in the area, Huaihai Lu (with the rather giggle-worthy pronunciation “Why High Loo”).

street scene in the French Concession

street scene in the French Concession

Huaihai Lu runs right through the area that belonged to the French for almost 100 years, 1849 – 1946, and which to a large extent has kept its distinctive character and charm. Although I could see the onslaught of steel, glass and chrome high-rises from my bedroom window, none-too-distantly, the immediate vicinity offered quite a different, more picturesque, prospect. Many of the French Concession buildings, only a few storeys high, are protected as heritage architecture and a couple of neighbourhood strolls revealed a Shanghai that seemed little altered in the last hundred-odd years, with the exception of more motorised vehicles. “Pre-liberation”, as the Chinese tourist board brochure loves to call it (i.e. before 1949), many poets, writers and intellectuals made this area their home. “Maoist liberation” notwithstanding, those of a more artistic bent are now being celebrated once more, proud plaques to past residents adorning their abodes in several languages.

French Concession is one of the most pleasant areas in Shanghai to just amble – traffic isn’t as busy or as noisy as in the centre, the streets instead quiet and leafy for the most part and finding somewhere for a pit stop is never a problem. Despite its old-world charm and quaint European-style buildings, in one respect French Concession is decidedly modern – the food and bar scene. Shanghai’s long-standing international vibe is perhaps most prominent in its restaurants and this part of town is positively teeming with beautiful foodie places, from upmarket dining, French boulangeries and cubbyhole noodle bars to regional Chinese cuisine, Mexican cantinas and authentic pizzerias. The nightlife isn’t bad either – in fact the bright red house next door to former president Chiang Kai-Shek’s home has been turned into Sasha’s, a drinking establishment with three floors’ worth of beautiful surroundings, as well as a picturesque garden.

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai skyline

Having been suitably introduced to the Shanghai of old, if not ancient, and ascertained that it truly does exist, whatever James Bond might have to say about it, the time had come to get closer to those skyscrapers, while firmly keeping one foot at least, in old Europe. Shanghai’s showcase riverfront, mixing the grand old and the spanking new to great effect, is known as The Bund. This embankment follows the Huangpu River, running through the heart of Shanghai and has all of 52 historical buildings in varying styles, dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fascinating and noteworthy though they are, what makes The Bund today such a spectacular viewing platform is the contrasting of the sedate and stately architecture along the western shore, with the phenomenal developments that have been taking place across the river in the Pudong district to the east. Shanghai’s newest district has almost risen up overnight, it seems. Less than two decades ago there was little more here than a few houses and some farmland – now Pudong is home to the astounding plethora of skyscrapers that has Shanghai’s skyline rivalling that of Manhattan.

on the ferry as the sun sets

on the ferry as the sun sets

A good way to see the sights at a leisurely pace, be they skyscrapers or old trade institutions, is to take to the waters for a cruise on the Huangpu River. They’re not big on customer services in China as yet or on English for that matter, but as the determined sort of traveller I am, I bravely ventured forth to the ferry ticket counter at Shiliupu Pier, where the following conversation took place:

Woman: 3 o’clock

Me: But I haven’t even asked you a question yet.

Woman: 3 o’clock

Me: What sort of cruises do you do?

Woman:?

Me: How long are the cruises?

Woman: Ah! 50 minutes.

Me: Do you do longer cruises?

Woman: Yes, 90 minutes, next counter.

Me: What parts of Shanghai can you see on the cruise? Where do the long and short cruises go?

Woman: You go upstairs, you can see the boat.

Me: Sigh! OK, what time is the next cruise?

Woman: 3 o’clock

Which was of course what she’d been trying to tell me all along, had I not been so troublesome, her look seemed to be saying…

at the end of the day

at the end of the day

The cruise, once it got going, was far more pleasant than the cruise company staff, who “merrily” indulged in the “Maoist barking of orders” or alternatively blew whistles at us poor, innocent visitors whose Mandarin didn’t stretch to the grasping of such subtle orders, to get us to comply with their pre-boarding requirements. Once we were onboard, luckily the mood changed to more relaxed. We travelled up river taking in all the riverfront sights along The Bund and in Pudong, at a gentle pace, all accompanied by beautiful late afternoon sunshine and splendid city views, returning, not 50, not 90, but 65 minutes later.

China may not be the land of “yes please” and “you’re very welcome, thank you”, but Shanghai manages to pull off a fascinating mix of old and new, remaining refreshingly unapologetic about it all. Underneath this shiny gleam of progress, old China lingers on and it’s none-too-hard to find – sometimes only the tiniest of surface scratches brings it out, be it in the form of food, philosophy or living history. I was very much looking forward to some quality time scuffing, chafing and scouring that surface further during the rest of my stay.

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