One of my favorite ‘hoods in Shanghai is the fashionable, serene French Concession. Although you won’t find the name “French Concession” written on any Chinese maps, it is easily identified by the dramatic change in scenery as the city landscape changes from traffic-heavy, congested streets full of a mismatch of style into the elegant tree-lined streets awash in art deco and old-world residential charm. It practically feels like you are stepping into France except for of course the constant reminders that you are in China.
See what I mean?
The French Concession was once home to a lot of Shanghai’s decadence. Gangsters, revolutionaries, writers, pimps and prostitutes filled the neighborhoods’ notorious venues and residences making it a rather troublesome albeit enticing place. Today, the graceful tree-lined streets encompassing the districts of Luwan, Xuhui, Changning and Jin’an are bursting with life representing the new, modern Chinese consumers who like to shop at the fancy designer boutiques and eat at the new western restaurants and cafes of the French Concession.
I could have spent hours in the French Concession wandering aimlessly among the gorgeous streets and window-shopping at the lavish boutiques. It was the first place in all of Shanghai where I didn’t feel stressed and could actually relax a bit. The streets were lovely and narrower. The horns weren’t constantly honking. You weren’t walking against a swarm of people. In fact, the French Concession felt relatively empty in parts. It made me start to wonder where all those new Chinese capitalists were hiding.
Getting to the French Concession from our hotel on the Bund required a bit of effort. Against the recommendations of the hotel staff who politely insisted that we take a cab, we walked. (For some reason, the hotel staff always recommended that we took a cab wherever we went in Shanghai. After walking there, I understood why. The traffic was crazy and it is not very pedestrian friendly except in the parts of town where they constructed the above ground sidewalks. See earlier post: Chinese Street Survival 101).
Entering the French Concession, traffic was still heavy and starting to dwindle down. But it was still a constant struggle until we got deeper inside the hidden streets and away from all the chaos and confusion of a huge, urban jungle.
The walk was long (well over an hour), confusing (trying to read a Chinese map and figure out where you were going was challenging) and stressful (loads of traffic, honking and congested sidewalks). But, all in all I’m glad we did it because getting lost and finding your way around is half the fun. Plus you sure see more on your feet than in a cab.
Like this lovely tree-lined park full of parents and their children (or shall I say child since most Chinese are allowed to have only one child since the “One Child Policy” was implemented by the regime in 1978.
Needless to say, we were tired and slightly overwhelmed when we finally reached the start of the French Concession. It was time to take a breather, have a cup of coffee and figure out of plan of attack. Luckily there were plenty of French-styled cafes to choose from.
As a French lover and someone who spent a fair amount of my idyllic youth in France, The French Concession had its fair share of French cafes where you could get a good, real cappuccino french-style.
As I mentioned before in my post called Shanghai Shopping, the French Concession is packed with row after row of designer boutiques and shops. I had never seen so many upscale, hip boutiques in all of China. It was amazing. Yet, there was not a single shopper inside. That struck me as very strange and perhaps a sign of the economy slowing.
Finding your way around the French Concession was anyone’s guess. The streets wove around like a snake and were poorly marked. You just had to follow the tree-lined streets to know you were still in this unique part of town.
The architecture was simply divine! It is the place that I would want to live if I ever lived in Shanghai.
Although the French Concession is much quieter and perhaps a bit more tame, there are still the constant reminders that you are indeed still in China and not Paris!
Of course there still was a fair share of interesting transportation methods even in the French Concession. I saw bicycles loaded with presents, boxes, merchandise, produce and even hay.
Pedestrians still had to be careful and pay attention to oncoming interference!
But if all else failed, and you needed a break from it all, there are plenty of places in the French Concession to sit down, relax and unwind. Such as this little wine bar that I would have loved to pass the rest of the afternoon at….
Yet with an hour walk back to the Bund, drinking till I was silly was not an option. For you have to take walking in urban China just as serious as driving. If you want to end up back home in one piece, then it is best to be one hundred percent with it!
Stay tuned…my next ‘hood for review will be the ultra modern, skyscraper concrete jungle known as Pudong.
It does look a lot like Europe.