Within the Oriental Pearl, sophisticated and quirky French time capsules inspire a charming international creative atmosphere with a thriving local community.
In 1849, in order to improve Sino-French relations and assist in the expansion of the Consulate, the French Consulate Office was granted permission to take over 66 hectares of land for its own use. In order to make the French population feel as much at home in the East as possible, the area has been substantially renovated.
Spacious, detached European-style homes, plenty of French restaurants and cafes, as well as art galleries and tram lines, are added to the street. In the eclectic streets of the French Concession, there are still London sycamore trees brought in by the consulate. These trees often have sparse foliage and add character to the street through their oddly shaped skeletons.
The plots set aside for French property in the French Concession were much larger than the average Shanghai home, and after the French Concession ceased to renew its lease in 1943, the French Concession became the home of Shanghai’s wealthier residents.
Over time, the atmosphere of the French Concession began to rediscover its Chinese roots and the exoticism of Europe began to fade. More typical Chinese features were added to the basic residential area to meet the needs of the growing population. A mix of Shanghai-style town homes can be found here, with European-style balconies and mesh overhead power cables along the sides of the road.
Today, the former French Concession’s art galleries, trendy bars, international cuisine, antique shops and boutiques provide a stage for creatives, budding entrepreneurs and curious diners to gather.
As one of the most luxurious areas in Shanghai, the French Concession is also home to some of the best hotels in Shanghai. The InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin (118 Ruijin II Road) stands out among hotels in Shanghai, modeled after the architecture of the French Consulate, with a spacious and bright garden filled with statues and fountains in a lively setting. The hotel even has a main entrance, guarded around the clock, 24 hours a day.
Inspired by French country mansions, The Mansion Hotel (82 New Le Road) offers more European style with its faux European architecture. The hotel is filled with antique ornaments, mounted vintage photographs and winding staircases.
The design style of Little Lane Inn (No. 1A, Little Lane, No. 9 Gaoan Road) is more towards the monochromatic background wall as the tone, with simple and strange color embellishments, giving people a relaxed and chic feeling. The inn is centered on an open courtyard and the café’s café is known for serving excellent coffee.
It can be difficult to stay in this area if you’re on a budget, and there are few quality inns. One of the cheaper options in the rental world is “B&B”, which isn’t quite what it says on the tin. Many of Shanghai’s B&B type apartments fall into the “B&B” category, although they are essentially studios in townhouses with reception areas and other hospitality services.A good example of a B&B is R’s Wanghong Dian De Yu Center (22, Lane 103, Jianguo Zhong Road), located near the popular Xintiandi, with its quaint brick walls and imperfect but very distinctive wooden furniture.
Restaurants, bars and cafes
Though far away in Asia, Café Montmartre (66 Urumqi Middle Road) is well suited for an al fresco French breakfast of croissants, orange juice, coffee and eggs. This cafe has an all-day menu, as well as authentic French cuisine in the evening, which is highly regarded.
For classic Shanghai cuisine, head to the hot spot of Bao Lu (271 Fumin Road). Stir-fried noodles, grilled meats and sauces, served at communal Chinese round tables, have both the elegance of a French restaurant and the intimacy of a Shanghai neighborhood.
The more adventurous with a stronger appetite can try the Yunnan-style platter of fried woodworms, bamboo worms, grasshoppers, bees and other bugs at Nanbanzi (56 South Maoming Road). The timid ones can sample the condiments and appetizers like roasted scorpions, but there are also dishes like rice, noodles and dumplings for the timid ones.
After a day of exploring the cultural mingling of the French Concession, head to the Aroma Cocktail Palace (2/F, 368 Wukang Road) for more fusion cuisine. The “palace” designation serves its purpose well here, from teacups to wine glasses, from teacups to goblets, and the brightly patterned red and blue walls set the bar’s interior apart, as do the vintage velvet sofas and armchairs inside.
For an insight into China’s political history, the former residence of Song Qingling (No. 7 Xiangshan Road) in the French Concession is the former residence of Sun Yat-sen (No. 1843 Huaihai Zhong Road). Sun Yat-sen was a literary, medical, and philosophical man who was involved in founding the People’s Republic of China today and is known as the “Father of China”. His name is scattered around the world, with many roads, parks and gardens named after him. Old scriptures and photographs of him can be found in both his and his wife’s former homes, as well as information about his involvement in paving the way for China’s future.
The French are known worldwide for their artistic taste, and the French Concession has become the center of international artistic development in Shanghai. Two popular galleries, Rebecca Fu Fine Art Gallery (second floor, 110 Fenyang Road) and Leo Xu Projects Gallery (Lane 49, Building 3, Fuxing West Road), regularly host contemporary art exhibitions, covering art forms such as photography, painting and sculpture.
Classical music lovers and cultural explorers can experience how Shanghai presents itself on the classical music stage at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (1380 Fuxingzhong Road). Tickets may sell out early, so it’s best to book in advance.
A surprising cultural centre within the French Concession can be found at Revival Park (516 Revival Middle Road). Whatever the politics of the world, the politics of the park remain the same. Whether it’s a walk under the flourishing canopy of trees or admiring the statues, there’s plenty to see on the trails of Revival Park. Here, locals can walk around the park, do group dances, play tai chi, play cards, and play various games such as chess and cards. They won’t mind if you join them either.
Contemporary hotspot Xintiandi is a gathering place for modern malls, international brands and popular restaurant chains. Xintiandi is a modern commercial complex of old town houses, with monochrome brick and black European-style streetlights paving the pathways, and designer shops on large shiny glass windows that define the word window shopping. Xintiandi Fashion Mall (245 Madang Road) is home to most of the designer clothing stores, including international and local name brands and boutiques.
Shanghai is known as the Pearl of the Orient, and Xintiandi’s jewellery is hidden in Lin Aime (168 Yu Yuan Road). With an international customer base that ranges from exquisite vintage designs to simple strands of beads, Lin Aime’s pearl shop is the go-to place for U.S. Presidents Clinton and Tony Blair when it comes to selecting gifts for their wives.
The streets of Tianzi Place are lined with unique craft shops, boutiques and open air cafes. The winding, cobbled streets are picturesque in all seasons, and whether you spend the money or not, you can happily browse the shops for handmade jewelry and artistic fashions made by locals.
To bring the oriental touch home, Holymood (248 Taikang Road) in Tianzi Place has the perfect souvenir: custom chopsticks. The design of each pair of chopsticks is unique, and most importantly, they are carefully carved out of bamboo, which is very environmentally friendly, compared to plastic chopsticks.