Shanghai walking tour: The former French Concession

Shanghai walking tour: The former French Concession

A former French Concession-native threads a path through the city’s most peaceful neighborhood

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourFollow the map to enjoy a slow, peaceful and skyscraper-free Shanghai afternoon.
Foreigners in Shanghai speak of the former French Concession (前法租界) like it’s sacred ground, akin to the windy streets of Montmartre.

Ask locals and they’ll tell you that the neighborhood -- roughly bounded by Ruijin Lu to the East, Yan’an Lu to the North, Zhaojiabang Lu to the South and Huashan Lu to the West -- is quiet, tree-lined and teeming with boutiques, bars and restaurants for Shanghai’s hedonists.

Shanghai former French Concession -- eheartChen dedicates his music to the former French Concession.

Tour with a local

Shanghai native Eheart Chen (Chen Yixin, or 陈意心) lived in the neighborhood for the first 20 years of his life. He grew up on Wuyuan Lu (五原路), a two-block stretch in the heart of the former French Concession, before moving to Hengshan Lu and Xiangyang Nan Lu.

A daytime office executive and nighttime singer, composer and director, 35-year-old Chen says he loves the neighborhood because its streets are filled with memories.

“Shanghai was one of the first true world cities,” Chen says.

“The former French Concession neighborhood is very beautiful -- the buildings, the trees. The curve of Fuxing Xi Lu especially reminds me of Paris.”

We hit the pavement with Chen to map out the best route to tour his home neighborhood.

Stop 1

Little Red House

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourSome of China's best music was produced here.

The walking tour kicks off from the edge of Xujiahui Park (徐家汇公园), at the southern tip of the neighborhood.

The site: Built in 1921, this is the former headquarters of British recording label EMI, which held court until 1949, after which a government-owned music group took over.

Chen says this is where a number of then-famous Chinese singers recorded, such as Zhou Xuan (周旋) and Li Xianglan (李香兰).

The building, known colloquially as “Little Red House,” is now home to Restaurant Martin, run by three-star Spanish Michelin chef Martin Berasategui.

Restaurant Martin, 811 Hengshan Lu, near Yuqing Lu 衡山路811号, 近余庆路, +86 21 6431 6639, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.,

Stop 2

The Normandie (武康大楼)

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourShanghai channeling Paris channeling New York.

Walk east along Hengshan Lu, turn north on Tianping Lu and walk up toward Huaihai Zhong Lu.

The site: Designed in 1924 by Hungarian architect László Hudec, who designed several buildings around Shanghai, The Normandie is a beautifully restored, eight-story apartment building with a rich architectural history.

Chen remembers visiting his artist friends here and says, “Looking at the building is like going back to the 1930s and seeing how the Shanghainese lived then.”

1858 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Wukang Lu 淮海中路1858号, 近武康路

Stop 3

Former residence of Zhang Leping (张乐平故居)

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourThe former residence of Zhang Leping, China's equivalent of Hergé.

Directions: Walk north on Wukang Lu and make a right onto Wuyuan Lu.

The site: Halfway down the block is the former home of Zhang Leping (张乐平), the lauded animator and creator of the Sanmao (“Three Hairs”) cartoon series and title character of the same name.

Zhang started drawing Sanmao in 1935 as a way to portray the Second Sino-Japanese War’s youngest victims, and Sanmao’s three hairs represent malnutrition.

The blocks surrounding Wuyuan Lu have experienced enormous growth and gentrification, especially Anfu Lu, one block north.

“I have mixed emotions about the development,” Chen says.

“I like that it’s returning Shanghai to a world city, but I hate that some of my good memories are being destroyed.

“When I was growing up, Yong Le Gong cinema was where Food Central and the neighboring stores are now. The entrance of the Dragonfly Retreat spa was once the door to the cinema. ”

House 3, 288 Wuyuan Lu, near Yongfu Lu 五原路288号3号, 近永福路

Stop 4

Children’s Palace (上海市少年宫)

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourAn upgrade for Sir Elly's former mansion? It had better be grander.

Directions: Walk east on Wuyuan Lu, make a left on Wulumuqi Lu and walk north until you hit Yan’an elevated roadway.

On the north side of Yan’an, halfway down the block from Wulumuqi you’ll find the entrance to the Children’s Palace.

The site: “This is full of memories for so many Shanghainese children,” says Chen. “This is where we went to watch films, play games and learn singing, dancing and painting.

“A few years ago, I went to a fashion show there and it was such a different feeling.”

The core structure of the Children’s Palace is the former residence of Jewish entrepreneur Sir Elly Kadoorie, founder of Peninsula Hotel’s mother company, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.

The 14,400-square-meter building was built purely with marble and is the only one of its kind in Shanghai.

64 Yan’an Xi Lu, near Wulumuqi Bei Lu 延安西路64号, 近乌鲁木齐北路

Stop 5

Shanghai Theatre Academy (上海戏剧学院)

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourA chance to bump into the future Zhang Ziyi?

Directions: One block south of the Children’s Palace is the Shanghai Theatre Academy complex, a mishmash of new construction and restored buildings dating to the 1940s.

The site: “This is a famous film school and the buildings are old and beautiful,” Chen says. He suggests walking around the school grounds and “just observing the students’ lives.”

“The big, old buildings, the grass and the trees make it a very peaceful place,” Chen adds.

630 Huashan Lu, near Wulumuqi Bei Lu 华山路630号, 近乌鲁木齐北路

Stop 6

Jinjiang Hotel (锦江饭店)

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourOne of the best heritage buildings in Shanghai.

Moving south from Shanghai Theatre Academy, walk down Wulumuqi Lu toward Changle Lu and then make a right, moving east toward Maoming Lu.

Just south of Changle, on the east side of Maoming, is the Jinjiang Hotel compound.

The site: Not to be confused with the nearby New Jinjiang Hotel, which was built in 1988, Jinjiang Hotel comprises the former Cathay Mansion, a 13-story complex built by Sir Victor Sassoon.

“The original Jinjiang Hotel is in an old building from the 1930s, and the hotel has very traditional restaurants and is a favorite of the old Shanghainese,” says Chen.

“In the 1980s, if you ate dinner at the Jinjiang Hotel, you felt very proud. There are a lot of new hotels now, but in the 1980s, it was just the Jinjiang. I also used to go to the hotel to watch films.”

59 Maoming Nan Lu, near Changle Lu 茂名南路59号, 近长乐路

Stop 7

Cathay Theatre (国泰电影院)

Shanghai former French Concession -- walking tourWrap up your walking tour with a movie at Cathay Theatre.

Half a block from the Jinjiang Hotel is the Cathay Theater, the last stop on Chen’s former French Concession walking tour.

The site: The theater opened in 1932 and was owned by Victor Sassoon, who also owned the Peace Hotel.

“It’s a beautiful theater, very art deco,” Chen says. “It's a favorite of famous Shanghainese author Eileen Chang (张爱玲), who’s written about it in her works.”

Chang is best known for her novel "Lust, Caution," which was turned into an award-winning and highly erotic

film by Ang Lee (李安) in 2007. Like The Normandie and Shanghai Theater Academy’s older buildings, the Cathay Theatre has been restored.

“I do think a lot of the places in the former French Concession have been protected very well, especially when compared to Beijing, where the hutongs have been absolutely destroyed," says Chen.

“Because foreigners like this place, the government protects it, and I think that’s OK.”

870 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Maoming Nan Lu 淮海中路870号, 近茂名南路

Several agencies in Shanghai also provide multi-lingual tours around the former French Concession. Contact Luxury Concierge China or Newman Tours for more information.

Sophie Friedman is an exiled New Yorker living in Shanghai. 

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