Above: NYU in Shanghai students at entrance gate to 惠安坊 Hui An Fang lilong compound at 88 Shaoxing Road. For more photos of the day, see the "heart of French Concession tour" photos in my "streets of Shanghai" photo gallery.
On Friday May 16, I took 20 NYU in Shanghai students on a walking tour of the heart of the old French Concession. I’d given tours of the area before, which is rich in historical buildings and neighborhoods, including the old French Park (now Fuxing Park) and the home of Sun Yat-sen. This time I decided to use the book The Streets of Changing Fortune: Six Shanghai Walks as the basis for the tour. Written by Barbara Green, Tess Johnston, Ruth Lear, and Carolyn Robertson, this is the first of a (now) two-part series of guided walking tours of the city.
We went on Tour 4, “Leafy Streets: Lilongs, small-town life” (see map). We started at the Old China Hand Reading Room, a beautiful café located on Shaoxing Road. Owned by photographer Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang), who has worked with Tess Johnston on publishing several books of text and photograph of Shanghai’s historical buildings, this café features lots of old memorabilia and antiques collected by the owner, proudly displayed in glass cases. The books that Tess Johnston and Deke Erh have published (all by Old China Hand Press, out of Hong Kong) are prominently on show near the entrance. As I told my students, if you want to take a souvenir of the city home to friends and family abroad, these books are a great choice.
Our tour took us across the street to a set of villas built in 1934. We then wound our way through a set of alleyways to the Cite Borgogne on Shaanxi Road, an exemplar of Shikumen (stone portal) row-housing from the 1930s. These brickhouse neighborhoods featured identical row-houses, often three or four stories in height, housed the majority of Shanghai residents over the 20th century. Cite Borgogne has been renovated in recent times. The arches connecting the buildings are one of its distinctive features.
We then headed northward on Shaanxi Road, passing the site of the Canidrome, the canine race track operated in the 1930s. This site was a flower market in the ‘90s-00s, and the grandstands from the old racetrack were built into the structure housing the flower market. Behind them was the old Canidrome Hotel, which Tess and I once toured in the late ‘90s. It featured one of the city’s finest ballrooms, where Buck Clayton and his all black American orchestra played in ’35. It had a wonderful caged elevator from that period and as of the ‘90s was home to the Shanghai puppet theater troupe. Unfortunately the entire area was razed to make way for a new building project, which promises to add another ugly monstrosity to the neighborhood.
We walked on, passing Shaoxing Road where we stopped in at the Luwan Library. A crew from Shanghai TV was filming there, and I ended up getting interviewed about our tour. They told us they were doing a feature for “national museum day” on May 18. The director of the unit responsible for this area, Mr. Cang, spoke with me at length about the history of the building, which isn’t included in the Six Shanghai Walks tour but ought to be. The building that now houses a local library was built in the 1920s in honor of a Chinese mathematician and scientist named Hu Mingfu, who was apparently the first Chinese to earn a PhD from Harvard in mathematics. He went on to found a scientific journal and a scientific society in Shanghai. His statue graces the small garden between the library and a very modern house, which was used by the society for meetings. Mr. Cang invited us to tour the house, which now hosts a salon for intellectuals and artists. Everything inside was beautifully arranged for elite visitors and distinguished guests. Mr. Cang showed us their collection of rare books, some dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1366-1644). The students really enjoyed this bit of the tour, which was “off the books.”
We ambled on to visit a few more old neighborhoods, including the Belden apartments built in the 1920s, once a posh, elite residence for westerners. We wove our way through alleys into the gorgeous masonry of the King Albert Apartments on Shaanxi and Fuxing Road, whose features and people were highlighted by the bright sunlight of the May day. As we wended our way through the neighborhoods, we mostly received polite greetings and smiles from the local residents, who were obviously used to tourists (though this is a bit off the beaten path of Shanghai tourism).
Our next big stop was the Joffre Terrace or Huaihai Fang on Maoming and Nanchang Roads, once home to the famous Chinese writer Ba Jin. These 200 rowhouse apartments are also typical of the shikumen-style neighborhoods of Old Shanghai. Following a glance at the then ultra-modern Astrid Apartment building (a 1930s Art Deco gem) across the street, we walked down Nanchang to Ruijin Er Road, stopping in at Y.Y., a cafe that used to hold one of the hottest late-night clubs in town. I took them down to the basement which now stores some relics from the Mao era (and an image of Chiang Kai-shek!) It was hard to imagine that this tiny space was once home to the city's most happening nightclub, back in '98-00. The students dug the vibe.
After visiting Y.Y., we headed over to Ruijin Road, where we stopped for a pizza buffet lunch at Origans on Huaihai Road—a great idea when you need to feed 20 people in a hurry for a decent price.
After lunch we headed down Ruijin Er Road to the Ruijin Guesthouse, which I visited last week with my CIEE students. We were denied entry to Building 1, but saw the stained glass windows of Building 3, then headed further down the road to the Tianzifang district where we ended our tour.
After taking this first guided tour, I’m looking forward to following the book again. This one gets an A+ for its variety and the detail the authors throw into the book. They obviously did their research and have produced an outstanding guide to the city, as future use of the book will no doubt confirm.