Pairing sophistication and eccentricity, a French time capsule rests inside the pearl of the orient, inspiring a charming atmosphere of international creativity alongside a flourishing local community.
Adjacent to the international settlement zone above Shanghai’s Huangpu River are the neat, romantic streets of the city’s Former French Concession. In 1849, the French consulate office was granted permission to make 66 hectares of land their own to improve Franco-Chinese relations, and aid the consulate’s expansion. The area was drastically regenerated to make its French inhabitants feel as much at home in the orient as possible.
Spacious, detached European-style homes and an abundance of French restaurants and cafes were added to the streets, as well as art galleries and tram lines. The eclectic streets of the French Concession are still lined with London plane trees brought over by the consulate. The trees often have sparse leaves, adding character to the streets through the odd shapes of their skeletons.
Plots of land put aside for French properties in the concession were far larger than those reserved for the average Shanghai home. Once the lease for the concession ceased to be renewed in 1943, it became home to the city’s wealthier inhabitants.
Over time, the French Concession’s atmosphere began to rediscover its Chinese roots and the European exoticness began to fade. More typically Chinese features were added like blocks of basic residential housing, catering to a growing population. A mix of Shanghai-style town-houses can be found added to the mix, with European-style balconies, along roads lined with a webbing of overhead power cables.
Today, the Former French Concession is brimming with art galleries, trendy bars, international cuisine, antique stores and boutique shops, setting a stage for creatives, budding entrepreneurs and inquisitive diners to gather.
Being one of the most luxurious areas in Shanghai, it’s only fitting that the French Concession is also home to some of the finest hotels in the city. The InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin (118 Ruijin 2nd Road) stands out in Shanghai, acting as a realistic imitation of a French consulate building, with beautiful, spacious and manicured gardens filled with statues and water fountains. The hotel even has a gated entrance with its own uniformed guards keeping watch 24/7.
Providing more European finesse, the Mansion Hotel (82 Xin Le Road) is notable for its imitated European-style architecture, collecting its design inspiration from French countryside mansions. The hotel is filled with antique trinkets, framed vintage photographs and winding staircases.
Lane Boutique Inn & Café (House 1A, Lane No. 9, Gao’an Road) has a more upbeat feel inside, keeping to monochrome backdrops brightened up by simple, quirky and colourful features. The inn is centred around an open courtyard and has a good reputation for serving excellent coffee at its café.
It can be hard to stay in this area on a budget, and there are very few quality hostels. A cheaper option in the Concession is a ‘homestay’, which isn’t exactly what it says on the tin. Many B&B type apartments in Shanghai fall under the category of ‘homestays’, although they are essentially studio rooms in a townhouse, kitted-out with a reception areas and other hospitality services. R’s Wanghong Dian De Yu Centre (No. 22, Lane 103, Middle Jianguo Road) is a good example of such a homestay, located near popular shopping location Xintiandi, with rustic brick walls and imperfect, yet characteristic, wooden furnishings.
Restaurants, Bars & Cafés
Despite being all the way out in Asia, Café Montmartre (66 Wulumuqi Middle Road) is a fitting place to enjoy an alfresco French breakfast of croissants, orange juice, coffee and eggs. The café has an all-day menu and has been highly commended for having authentic French evening cuisine, too.
To taste classic Shanghai, head over to hotspot Baoluo (271 Fumin Rd), located in a small French style building and often found with queues leading around the corner. Think fried noodles, grilled meats and sticky sauces, served up on communal Chinese style round tables in an atmosphere that has the elegance of a French restaurant with the amiability of a Shanghai community.
Strong minded adventurers with even stronger stomachs may dare to try the Southern Barbarian (56 Maoming South Road) Yunnan-style bug platters of deep fried wood bugs, bamboo worms, grasshoppers and honeybees. The brave can sample appetisers of seasoned and grilled scorpions, but rice, noodle and dumpling based dishes are available for fainter hearted guests.
After a long day of exploring the cultural blend of the French Concession, more fusion can be found at Taste Buds Cocktail Palace (2/F, 368 Wukang Lu), where Chinese floral herbs are mixed with French liqueurs to create fresh and elegant cocktails, including combinations of Sichuan spices, various petals, rums and malts. The title of ‘palace’ is well played upon, with drinks served in utensils ranging from teacups to goblets, vibrantly painted garish red and blue walls framing the bar’s interior, and an eccentric choice of vintage velvet sofas and arm chairs inside.
For a chance to delve deeper into the political history of China, the French Concession is home to the Former Residence of Sun Yat Sen (7 Xiangshan Rd) and his wife, at the Soong Ching Ling’s Memorial Residence (1843 Huaihai Zhong Lu). Dr Sun Yat Sen was a writer, a physician, and a philosopher, who was involved in the creation of the People’s Republic of China as it is known today, and has been titled the ‘Father of China’. His name can be found scattered across the globe, with many roads, parks and gardens named in his memory. At both his and his wife’s former residences, old scriptures and photographs can be found, as well as information on his involvement in paving the way to China’s future.
The French taste in art is globally renowned and the French Concession has become a hub of international artistic growth in Shanghai. Two popular galleries include the Rebecca Fu Fine Art Gallery (2nd Floor, 110 Fen Yang Lu) and the Leo Xu Projects Gallery (Lane 49, Building 3, Fuxing Xi Road), both of which regularly update their schedules with contemporary exhibitions, encompassing art through mediums of photography, painting and sculpture.
Classical music lovers and cultural explorers can visit the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (1380 Fuxing Zhong Lu) to experience how Shanghai presents itself on the classical music scene. Tickets may sell out ahead of time, so it’s best to book well in advance.
A surprising hub of culture in the French Concession can be discovered at Fuxing Park (516 Fuxing Middle Rd). Whatever the politics of the world may be, the politics of the park remain the same. Whether it’s to enjoy a stroll beneath the flowering overhead canopies, or admire the statues, the paths of Fuxing Park have a lot to offer. Here, locals can be found taking a walk around the garden areas, engaging in group dancing sessions, tai chi classes, and playing different card and board games. They won’t mind if you join in, either.
Contemporary hot spot Xintiandi is the place to be for modern malls, international brands and popular chain restaurants. Xintiandi is a modern complex of old town houses filled with businesses where monochrome bricks and black European street lamps line the paths, and designer stores with shiny large glass windows give definition to the term window shopping. The Xintiandi Style Mall (245 Madang Road) houses most of the area’s designer clothing stores, including both international and local name brands and boutiques.
Shanghai is often referred to as the pearl of the orient, and Xintiandi’s jewels are hidden at Amy Lin’s Pearls (168 Yu Yuan Road). Visited by the likes of the Bill Clinton and Tony Blair whilst choosing gifts for their wives, Amy’s have a prominent international clientele list, and it’s no wonder why with the display of delicate pearl designs on offer, ranging from elaborate vintage designs to simple beaded ropes.
The streets of Tianzifang are filled to the brim with unique arts and craft stores, boutique shops and plenty of alfresco cafes at which to stop and rest. The winding, cobbled streets are picturesque and charming throughout all seasons, and the stores make for a pleasant day of browsing handmade trinkets and artsy fashion made by locals, regardless of whether money is spent or not.
To take a little piece of the orient home, Holymood (248 Taikang Lu) in Tianzifang has the ideal souvenir: bespoke chopsticks. Each pair is uniquely designed, and best of all, eco-friendly compared to their plastic counterparts, as they are all delicately carved from sourced bamboo.