20 Jun Shanghai French Concession, like a taste of homeland
by Arnaud Frattini from France
I often associate Shanghai with two main impressions. The first is the idea of being a city of light, the most advanced one in China, wealthy and huge. It is usually the images of Pudong’s skyscrapers that first come up to my mind. In short, this first impression of Shanghai is the city today. But the second impression is the Shanghai of the past, the Shanghai in the 1930s. The city was nicknamed le Paris de l’Orient, which could be translated as the Oriental Paris. It was very attractive and people from all over the world were coming in order to do business, or just to explore the rest of China. Businessmen, bankers, traders, adventurers, artists, they all came here during the 1930s with the strong hope of making money. It was a global financial centre, and also a place where White Russians, who has fled the Revolution in their country, came to seek refuge. I mentioned earlier the skyscrapers on Pudong, and the best place to enjoy them are on the Bund. It is at this very place that you just have to turn around and appreciate the full view of colonial period’s banks and hotels. I think the Bund is definitely an amazing place where you have these two very different sides of the city which are just facing each other. When I am standing on this place, I feel that the past and the present are confronting themselves in the landscape, but also are contemplating each other, accepting their beautiful differences.
The Bund is probably the most well-known place in Shanghai, and tourists are legions there. Willing to avoid a noisy crowd, I preferred to go and explore another part of the city, where I would be able to enjoy that feeling I expressed earlier. I wanted to feel like I was in Old Shanghai, deep in the 1930s. And there is one place in Shanghai where I was sure to find it: Former French Concession. This part of the City is still full of that impression, where Shanghai was a city of promise, where anyone could become rich, or start a new life there. This area of the city is quite big and is located just north-west to Xujiahui, north to the old city of Shanghai (the one which was already standing before the Westerners’ coming), and south to the Former International Concession. Before I arrived in China, a French friend told me that to appreciate this area of the city, I just have to take the subway to Shaanxi Nan Lu Metro Station on Line 1, or Hengshan Lu Metro Station, Xintiandi Metro Station on Line 10. Then, I just have to stroll in the streets, among the trees, to enjoy the full beauty and quietness of this place. This piece of advice was indeed very useful and while I was walking among Chinese people and tourists as like, I truly lived one of the most beautiful parts of my travel in Shanghai. Today, the Former Concession is still one of my favourite places, and I hoped to be able to settle and live there one day.
To truly understand the beauty and the exceptionality of this part of the city, I have to introduce you a bit of Shanghai History. After the end of the First Opium War against the British people, China had to open to trade some of its coastal cities, like Qingdao, Guangzhou or Ningbo. Shanghai was among them, and the British were the first to settle there, quickly followed by the French people at the end of the 1840s. The French Concession was founded at this moment and it was a small area compared to the huge British Concession just north of it. Through several wars against China or other “agreements”, the French Concession, as well as the British Concession, grew in size. The British and the American Concessions associated themselves to form the International Concession. The French Concession was truly small compared to this huge part of the city known for welcoming businessmen, bankers, and traders. The Bund that I just detailed earlier is located in the International Concessions, and still shows today the attractive power of that part of the city. Affairs and investment were mainly made in this part of the city, but the French Concession, who wanted to maintain autonomy, was attractive thanks to its charming streets, famous restaurants, and high-standing hotels. The Concession was a place where life was sweet, and people wanted to settle.
Many European style houses were indeed built there, and I was quite astonished when I first saw them. I had that feeling of being in a familiar place, and it reminded me of the many houses that are standing around Paris, on the West part of its outskirts especially. The roofs were not curved as it was in traditional Chinese houses, and tiles were not black but orange. The windows were very large, and I recognised some of them as Bow Windows: they were coming out of the wall in an octagonal form in order to bring more light into the house. Also, grey bricks were used to build houses walls. They were two or three floors high, and each one had windows. I enjoyed the Former French Concession’s streets: they were not so wide, and rows of Plane Trees were standing along with them, on the pavement. French People usually plant those trees, and it is a common sight on French city’s streets. They have grown up since they were planted during the colonial period, and they are so high now that they are covering up the streets. It protected me against Shanghai’s warm weather as well as against heavy rains that could occur on Summer. Walking among the trees was definitely a wonderful experience which reminded me of my homeland.
Spending some time walking in the streets, I observed many short alleys that were connected to main streets covered with trees. Those alleys led me to some ancient Lilong, ancient buildings made of red bricks. They look like the ones I saw near the Jade Buddha Temple (see article Jade Buddha Temple): the interior is quite old and poor. There is a current debate in Shanghai of they have to be destroyed or not. People are telling that they have to be destroyed. They are old, and even dangerous for its inhabitants. Destroying them and building some high towers and buildings instead would allow housing more people in comfortable flats. Other people are defending them and telling that they are a part of the city’s history, and they have to be preserved, for example by transforming them into shops or cafés like they did in Zhujiajiao (see article Zhujiajiao). It is the case of Tianzifang, next to Dapuqiao Metro Station. There, Lilong were preserved and converted into many shops, restaurants, cafés or bars. It is a very touristic place, but also quite charming. A large number of electric cables linking one side of the street to another are doing what looks like a giant web just above my head. Red bricks walls were covered with fancy posters, and diverse products are hanging along stores’ doors. Because of the small space, they could use, most of the shops are occupying the upper floor, which is accessible through tiny stairs, which make them charming. It is a pleasure to walk the streets, looking into the many shops, buying some of them, and taking pictures. Tianzifang kept its charms, and succeeded in turning it into a place that knows how to attract tourists, and saved itself thanks to a large amount of money it generates.
Strolling among the streets, I discovered a foreign bookstore among the various shops that are now settled inside former colonial houses. Driven by curiosity, I came in to see what kind of books they were selling. I always love reading books, and I usually consider them with great respect, because I have that feeling knowledge are dwelling inside. That’s why I love bookstores and didn’t hesitate to go and check inside. Most of the books are written in English, but I found a couple of written in Chinese, and even one of them were in French. They were all about the history of Shanghai and China, as well as some bestsellers that you would usually find in American bookshop: How to find self-confidence, or How to cook quick snacks. The bookstore was run by Chinese people, but they definitely understood the types of books foreigners are likely to read. I managed to find a book explaining how to cook some Chinese dishes, bought an ice cream that the owners were also running, and begin to read it after I found a table.
That type of small pleasure made me spend a good afternoon in the French Concession, especially after I followed my exploration of the area and found a park. It was the Fuxing Park, built by the French People during the colonial period. Today, there was only Chinese people who were enjoying the end of the afternoon, and the cooler weather. Chinese old persons enjoyed dancing in the big crowd, listening to music that came from a big speaker sound place nearby. By doing so they are going outside to breathe some fresh air and doing some sports, instead of staying at home watching TV. They also enjoyed dancing by couples in this type of public places. The event attracted many curious people to watch them as they are laughing and dancing. I spotted an old man flying some kite, which was very high in the sky. I was able to see the kite thanks to the lights it was equipped by the old man. Flying kite is common there, and people usually enjoy it because it is a source of cultural pride as it was invented in China hundreds of years ago. Public parks in China are mainly occupied by old people, but it is also possible to see young couples going out there with their children after spending the entire day at work. When they are too young to go to school, Chinese children are left to the grandparents who are taking care of them. Old people are not spending the day alone, and the children spend times with their grandparents. The family is indeed quite important in Chinese society.
Although the houses and the streets clearly showed that the area has not been Chinese until quite recently, the area is today firmly inhabited by Chinese people, which make it definitely more enjoyable. Many little restaurants are popping on street corners and crossroads at nightfall, selling some Chinese foods and snacks. It was there that I truly enjoyed those little snacks that are both cheap and delicious. Most of them are among the best food you could taste in China, simply because it is made by people who spent their entire life making it and are now some expert of this type of fast-food. On tables, I found Mantou, a sort of bread, along with Baozi, the same sort of bread filled with juicy meat. Those are my favourite, and I couldn’t resist to the spicy one (when they are not too much spicy, which you can’t know unless you taste it). Further, I found a woman making and his husband selling Jianbing, a kind of pancake filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, and different sauces. By mixing different sauces, you can truly enjoy it that hot snack. Kebab was also present and made by a couple of Uighurs, and I couldn’t resist buying some, remembering from my trip in Xinjiang Province how delicious they were. Lamb meat are the most common, for Uighur people are Muslim and don’t eat pork, but you can also find some chickens, fish and octopus as well.
Although that part of Chinese cooking is quite popular among Chinese people itself and foreign people, they are threatened by the new legislation of Xuhui District, one of Shanghai Administrative District in charge of Xujiahui and a part of the Former French Concession. Because some of those street cookers and sellers did not respect the sanitary basic conditions, some people got ill and the District decided to close those who didn’t have the right license. This means that a lot of them, despite they are following the sanitary regulation or not, will be forced to close very soon. It will be definitely a great loss for Shanghai nightlife’s charms. Another field is threatened by Xuhui District new legislation: bars that opened at nightfall, especially the ones in Yongkang Lu. I had to meet a couple of friends there and decided to go and take some pictures. That street is one of the most famous in Shanghai among people who want to have fun at night. Next to Changshu Lu Metro Station on Line 1, Yongkang Lu is full of bars, and I was amazed to see that a street was gathering so many of this establishment just on a short street. Among them, you will find Le Café des Stagiaires, the most popular among French expats in Shanghai, because its services are both in French and in English. I enjoyed spending my time in this bar along with my friends, talking about our different experiences spent in China.
In the middle of the night, after people have drunk a couple of glass, the atmosphere changed quite a lot, and went completely mad: many people were laughing, fighting, and throwing up in the street. One of my friends explained to me that it was quite normal to see these type of event, here in Yongkang Lu, at such an hour in the night. I was wondering whether the streets’ neighbours were satisfied by all this mess and noise. However, whatever they were thinking, the District recently decided that bars and pubs who didn’t have the right license will have to close in the next weeks. For the expat’s community, it was quite a shock. The street is well-known for various and funny bars, as well as for its mad atmosphere during the night. People were disappointed to know that the place where they spent some of the best moment in Shanghai will soon close. The expats’ life in China is indeed not easy if you are not used to the Chinese society and don’t speak Chinese, which some of the foreign people don’t do. Most of the foreign expats are here in Shanghai in order to work for their national company’s local division a couple of years, then going back home, so they don’t see the point to begin to learn a rather difficult-to-study language. Therefore, they spent most of their time at work, then in the bars with other expats like them.
It is for sure a social issue, especially when some of them discovered once they are in China that are really not fond of Chinese culture, food, or society. In bars, I found that most of them were exchange students or employees in companies. But I have learnt that high-salary employees are suffering from the same “cultural shock”. They came here attracted by the quite high income promised by their national companies’ bosses, brought their wives, husbands and children. But once they arrived in China, they found that they do not appreciate the society in which they are living and their lives in Shanghai. That’s’ why parties and alcohol became a convenient solution to spend times that left in China. It could be indeed really hard to immerse yourself into the Chinese society, and even if you try hard you will never completely succeed. Although Chinese people are welcoming and truly kind persons, their society is quite hermetic to non-Chinese people and it is really hard to integrate yourself with it. None of the Chinese society or the foreign expats has to be blamed for such social issue. It is one of the high risks that go along with expatriation. And I keep that in mind as I am planning to soon go to China and to settle in.
Former French Concession is definitely a place where many lives were made in the past, as well as today. It is the part of the city that I enjoy the most, and I couldn’t highly recommend you to go there, spend some good times, tasting Chinese food, strolling among its streets and parks, or having a drink in its bars. Despite the end of the colonial period and the leaving of the French people who created that place, Former Concession is still a lively place, and now a mix of Chinese society and foreign people that give to him a rich atmosphere.
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