Shanghai's well on its way to becoming another Manhattan or Hong Kong - so you’d better be quick if you want to catch the more historic side of the city
Few cities conjure up such evocative images as Shanghai. For much of the 19th century it embodied the beating heart of Asia, divided into a series of extraordinary concessions by the international powers and, architecturally, became a global exponent of Art Deco.
Today’s visitor would be forgiven for thinking that the remnants of Shanghai’s past have been extinguished by the city’s recent economic and physical regeneration. True enough, much history has been bulldozed and replaced by the futuristic high-rise office towers that have sprung up in the past 15 years. But Shanghai’s unique architectural and cultural heritage clings on.
“Some developers in this city would like to see everything old disappear within five years,” said Peter Hibbard, a Briton who has made Shanghai his home. “Although I don’t think that will happen.” Peter offers highly informative tours to small groups of visitors, exploring the old quarters of Shanghai, and is a member of Save Shanghai Heritage, an informal association of locals and foreigners, which aims to promote the understanding and protection of the old Shanghai.
The casual tourist can see the city’s historical legacy along the Bund, the array of solid and often magnificent architectural gems that line the banks of the Huangpu River. But the intrigue continues further afield, particularly in the former French and International concessions. For today’s visitor, this makes for an extraordinary experience, with age-old streets where the “real China” is manifest, sitting cheek by jowl with the newest of clear-cut glass architecture that would have Sir Richard Rogers purring.
The buildings are indelibly linked with the extraordinary years of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the heart of Shanghai was essentially a city-state ruled by foreign powers. Following China’s defeat in the Opium War of the early 1840s, the British, followed by the Americans and the French, established independent administrative areas where their nationals traded freely and answered only to the laws of their respective nations. In 1863 the British and American areas became one, and the ‘International Settlement’ was born; by the 1930s, more than 70,000 Westerners occupied the concessions in a city of 3.5 million.
The irony is that these buildings survive today only thanks to the predilection of Communist China’s early leaders for Western comforts. There are almost no checks and balances to prevent demolition orders being issued; no National Trust to argue the case for a building earmarked to be mown down; and no planning process through which appeals can be made. “There’s really very little attention being paid to the merits of heritage,” explained Peter. “There are many portholes to the past but the Chinese want things to be Western, modern and new – that’s always been a facet of Shanghai’s culture. The irony is that the top people in the [Communist] party always loved their Western luxuries. They’ve inherited them; they didn’t destroy them. They just kept them under wraps and out of view of everybody else.”
The Old French Concession area, demarcated by French plane trees along a road once known both as Avenue Edward VII or Avenue Foch, illustrates this point well. Walk along Maoming Road South and the ghost of Margot Fonteyn all but dances on the steps of the old Lyceum Theatre, where she performed in 1931. Nearby stand the Tudor-style Jinjiang Hotel and the stridently Art Deco Grosvenor House. Across the road is the Okura Garden Hotel, built in 1926 as the French Club, which boasts a truly overwhelming Art Deco interior. “The key is to look up and peak through entrances,” said Peter. “A lot is hidden, but a lot of old Shanghai is also public space.” Accordingly, we found ourselves walking through local health clinics and dingy stairways to discover dusty, forgotten gems, from swirling pillars, almost Moorish in style, to apartment facades bearing graceful embellishments.
Further north lies the former International Settlement, on Nanjing Road West. This was once home to the “Shanghailanders” or foreigners, who gave the street the classically colonial moniker of Bubbling Well Road, after a spring. Other old names have been replaced: Shimen No 1 Road, for example, was once home to the city’s lingerie shops and known to the British as “The Street of a Thousand Nighties” and to the Americans as ”Pants Alley”. Close by is Wujiang Road, formerly Love Lane. Further back, it was a cotton field: while Shanghai has made its own great leap forward from rural outpost to one of the world’s most dynamic 21st cities in just a few generations, its links with the past will not be broken lightly.
- Peter Hibbard, a Briton who has made Shanghai his home, is a member of Save Shanghai Heritage, a conservation group, and offers informal private tours for small groups.