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China: Shanghai Neighborhood Guide
Buddy from MA
Shanghai is a city like few others in the world. It is a complex city full of vibrant neighborhoods that offer visitors unique insights into the Chinese way of life. However, few tourists to Shanghai seem to catch a glimpse of its charming neighborhoods.
Each time someone asks a Shanghai related question on one of the many travel boards, invariably names like the Bund, Jinmao Tower, or Xintiandi, get mentioned. But Shanghai is so much more than the Bund. To prove my point, I decided to write this guide on downtown Shanghai's neighborhoods.
Downtown Shanghai is bounded by Suzhou Creek on the North, Huangpu River on the East, and a circular road called Zhongshan Road on the South and the West. The neighborhoods discussed in this guide are mostly in downtown Shanghai, with the exception of the old Jewish Ghetto, which is just north of the Bund.
On the Shanghai map, first locate People's Park, where Metro 1 and 2 meet. This is the center of downtown Shanghai. The neighborhoods described below will reference People's Park for orientation.
A note on the road names
In Chinese, the word "Lu" means road. Most of the road signs in Shanghai standardize on using the word "Road", but you may occasionally see one that still uses the English transliteration of Lu on the sign.
Some of Shanghai's interesting neighborhoods
1. "Old Shanghai" neighborhood surrounding the Yu Garden, located southeast of People's Park
This area used to be called much worse than "Old Shanghai" by some people in Shanghai, because it was the poorest neighborhood in the city as many immigrants from other parts of China initially settled here. Today it still is an authentic place where an average Chinese person lives.
Try visiting Yu Garden in the morning and have lunch at the landmark Xiao Long Mantou restaurant there (the upstairs part of the restaurant has a shorter queue as the price is higher - worth it to skip the line - it also accepts reservations).
Afterwards, walk the neighborhoods south of the Garden with narrow alleyways full of bicycle shops, barber shops, and people living their lives in the open.
On your map of Shanghai, look for the road Henan Road, a north-south major street in that area. Walk south on this street toward Fuxing Road, an east-west street. Around the intersection, you'll find a Muslim mosque, and not too far to the west, a Confucian temple.
If you walk further southeast, departing from Old Shanghai toward the Bund, there is the gorgeous Dongjiadu Cathedral in a neighborhood called Dongjiadu, which means Dong Family Wharf in Chinese. The Dongjiadu Cathedral, built in 1853, was the first church built by foreigners in Shanghai. It was constructed in the early Spanish Baroque style and is still in use today. For more info on this area, google "Dongjiadu Cathedral". I found an excellent article online - The Lanes Behind Yuyuan: A Walking Tour of Shanghai's Old Chinese City, by Lisa Movius.
2. The former French Concession, located southwest of the People's Square
This is the most bourgeois neighborhood in Shanghai today, though its historical reputation is more mixed as it was the center of Chinese organized crimes in the 1930s.
Start at the heart of the neighborhood, Fuxing Park. Go early in the morning and watch the retirees exercising in the park. Near the southwest corner of the park, look for the quiet lanes surrounding Sun Yat-sen House. Afterwards, wander south toward Shaoxing Road.
Shaoxing Road, formerly Rue Victor-Emmanuel III, is among the most quintessentially Shanghai streets. Barely 400-yards long, it is the publishing center of China, lined with Plane trees, an old Russian Jewish residential quarter, a house with former gangster connections, a performance theater, a traditional Shanghai style building (Shikumen), a German cafe, a Japanese tea house, Shanghai's smallest park (barely 22,000 square feet) and several art galleries.
To gain a flavor of Shanghai's urban life, you could spend some time exploring Shaoxing Road. Below is the guide for this street.
Facing east, the right side of the street:
Left side of the street:
After a visit to Shaoxing Road, you can walk north to get on the famous Huaihai Road, the former Avenue Joffre. It is a street as evocative as the Champs Elysées in Paris. One can easily spend days exploring Huaihai Road and its surrounding streets. There seem to be hundreds of trendy restaurants, bakeries, cafes and night clubs. The streets Julu and Maoming north of Huaihai is club-central in Shanghai. Pick up any English newspaper in Shanghai and you'd find several band performances every night in this neighborhood.
As you walk west on Huaihai Road toward the US Embassy, the neighborhood becomes leafier and the noise quiets down as you pass the triangle area bounded by Huaihai Road and Fuxing Road. Standing at the triangle facing west, take the left folk in the road and that places you on Hengshan Road.
The Shanghai government has designated over 600 historic buildings for protection. A formidable percentage of these buildings can be found on the two-mile long Hengshan Road. Walking west on Hengshan road, you will encounter many European style villas and buildings adorned with preservation plaques. Read these plaques carefully as they reveal pieces of history few visitors get to know. You'll find Shanghai's most prominent Protestant church, housed in a wood and brick structure of modern Gothic architecture, and the former houses belonging to the prominent Song families from Shanghai, whose daughters married the likes of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.
Numerous restaurants and bars line Hengshan Road today. The street is known for its wonderful diversity of food offerings, from Tibetan to American, and a booming night life scene. However, during China's Cultural Revolution, this street was practically the only place in China where one could find Western style restaurants, or even a proper ice cream shop. Many Chinese intellectuals from that era have fond memories of this street, which had served as their only visual link to a world that seemed far removed from their daily lives and dreams.
At the western end of Hengshan Road is Xujiahui, a transportation hub, also home to Shanghai's largest Catholic church, the St. Ignacious Cathedral.
On Yan-an Road, at the northwestern edge of the French concession, stands the Shanghai Exhibition Center. It was called Sino-Russian Friendship Mansion, built at a time when China's relationship with Russia was warmer - a little piece of the Kremlin in Shanghai. If you proceed west on Yan-an Road, you'll encounter more historic mansions including the former Kadoories mansion (the Children's Palace today) and Eric Moller's Norwegian fantasy house.
3. Nanjing Road, the Bund and People's Square in the center of Shanghai
This area is the hub of the former International Concession in Shanghai, where people from every country, except the Chinese, were welcome to gamble for riches in Shanghai. Today it is the tourist central in Shanghai. The Bund is the symbol of Chinese Capitalism - save your restaurant receipt to prove it. There is lots of neon and concrete on Nanjing Road, which seems to be the obligatory walk for tourists as well as the favorite haunt for many touts and scam artists.
On the People's Square stands the excellent Shanghai Museum.
For a walk in this neighborhood, a good alternative to Nanjing road is the parallel Fuzhou Road, a few blocks to the south. You'll find a good collection of book stores, including the Foreigner's Book Store, and many interesting boutique stores.
For a relaxing time in this neighborhood, head for Huangpu Park, the former Public Garden, on the bank of Huangpu River in the northern corner of the Downdown area. This park was famous for being off-limit to Chinese nationals in the 20s, and it gave life to the urban myth of a sign hanging at the front gate reading "No dogs and Chinese are allowed". The real sign read "The Gardens are reserved for the foreign community" with a separate one reading "No dogs are admitted".
4. Old Jewish Ghetto, north of the Bund in the Hongkou District
Just north of the Bund is the old Jewish Ghetto, an area surrounding Tilanqiao (meaning Basket-carrying Bridge in Chinese). Although the bridge is no longer there, the name stuck.
The Ghetto was never the official name of the area. It was more famously known as Little Vienna in the 30s and 40s as many European Jews settled in this area.
The Jewish history in Shanghai is one of the most intriguing stories in Shanghai, a city full of historical intrigues. If you are interested, I recommend taking a Jewish Ghetto tour in this neighborhood as a starting point.
Shanghai was one of few cities in the world offering refuge to Jews during WWII, and there were tens of thousands Jews in Shanghai during the war. However, the history of Jews in Shanghai dates before the war, and the Jewish footprints were all over Shanghai.
The Iraqi and other Sephardic Jews arrived in the 1800s with the opium trade. Some like Sassoon, of the Cathay Hotel (today's Peace Hotel) fame, and Kadoories became prominent figures in Shanghai. Many Russian Jews arrived after the Bolshevik uprising, and the European Jews flooded Shanghai after the start of WWII. During WWII, Jews also endured the Japanese quarantine order and many were ordered to stay in an area in Hongkou. There were numerous stories of human struggles and triumphs during that period. Some of these stories were told in Spielberg's movie "Empire of the Sun", which was shot on location in Hongkou.
The Jewish people also settled all over the city; some built mansions in today's Changnin District, the Russian Jews mostly settled in the apartment complexes (Longtang) in the former French Concession, and of course many Jews were forced to live in the Ghetto in the former Japanese territory during WWII. There were many prominent Jews who had their roots in Shanghai from that period, including Kadoories, whose family went on to found the Peninsula fortune, and Mike Blumenthal who was U.S. Treasury Secretary.
For more information on Jewish history in Shanghai, read The Ghosts of Shanghai, by Ron Gluckman.
5. Suzhou Creek Art District on Moganshan Road, located at the northwest corner of downtown Shanghai
If you are an art lover, check out the Shanghai version of the Meatpacking District set in the middle of an industrial neighborhood on the bank of what used to be most polluted creek in China. Many art studios are housed in former warehouses in this area and together they are creating a bustling art scene in Shanghai.
Shanghai is an excellent city to explore on your own. The streets are safe, the taxis cheap, the street signs bilingual and you won't have to look too hard to find an English speaking person. Bring the business card from your hotel so you can easily find your way back by showing it to someone. Treasure your time in Shanghai and take advantage of its colorful neighborhoods.
Read our Highlights of Shanghai article.
www.movius.us/articles/chinanow/oldcity.html: The Lanes Behind Yuyuan: A Walking Tour of Shanghai's Old Chinese City, by Lisa Movius. Article about the Dongjiadu Cathedral.
www.gluckman.com/ShanghaiJewsChina.html: The Ghosts of Shanghai, by Ron Gluckman. Jewish history in Shanghai.
Get more information from the Wikitravel Shanghai Travel Guide.
© 3po3po.com, 2007
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