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China–The French Concession

Posted by gck Sunday, April 29, 2012

I meant to start on my series of posts about China immediately after I returned, but it seems like I’m not getting around to it until now. So many photos to sort through!

Back in the 1800s, a number of foreign countries had concessions in China, areas of cities where the foreigners lived and ruled. In Shanghai, one of these was the French Concession, an area that today retails much of its foreign influence and is a lively place for both expats and Chinese people to enjoy. I spent a morning doing a self-guided walking tour around the area and then returned at night a few days later to eat dinner.

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(left: Shanghai, China; right: Provence, France)

As you can see in the pictures above, the tree-lined streets of the French Concession make it so the neighborhood could easily be mistaken for something in France. In the early morning (thanks, jetlag!), the shops were all closed, but this area would be full of people in the afternoons and evenings.

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(Fuxing Park)

One of the first places I stopped by on the walking tour, and the place I spent the most time in, was Fuxing Park. It was created by the French over 100 years ago, and now it’s probably the city’s best public park. Walking in, all the lush greenery enfolded me in a peaceful feeling… and then I nearly got hit with a birdie. There were dozens and dozens of people playing badminton in the shadow of a rather serious-looking statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel. Ah, yes… I had stumbled into one of my favorite things to see in Asia: old people exercising in public. In some instances, it’s funny, but the real reason I like it is because it’s a cultural thing that I find very beautiful. It makes me happy to see retired people living full lives. On this Saturday morning, people were singing, dancing, shaking maracas, and more. The park itself was also very beautiful, with landscaped gardens and statues all over. I combined some of my pictures and videos into the video below:

There are many beautiful buildings left behind from the concession days. Two examples are pictured below. The first is part of the Ruijin Hotel, formerly the Morriss Estate. I brazenly walked through the gates and around the property to look at the buildings, and I noticed that an employee started walking behind me and followed me nearly to the exit. Many old mansions have found new incarnations as hotels, banks, and shops. But some of them, like the former St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, haven’t fared as well. Apparently this beautiful building was used as a warehouse for washing machines at one point after it stopped being a church!

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(left: Ruijin Hotel, right: former St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church)

Things in China these days change rapidly. Some of the French Concession remains residential, with normal people going around doing normal things like buying vegetables from a sidewalk stand. But things are rapidly going upscale. It’s hard to miss the Sinan Mansions project, a redevelopment of dozens of old mansions into upscale residences, shops, restaurants, and a super expensive hotel where you can have your own personal butler if you’re willing to pay over 5,000 USD a night for a villa. Some of the project, like the hotel, is already done, but other parts (as pictured below) are still in progress. While it’s nice to see new life come into these dilapidated structures, it’s unfortunate that their replacements are things that normal people will be unable to enjoy.

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(left: vegetable stand, right: Sinan Mansions project)

One very popular area of the French Concession is called Xintiandi, which translates to “New Heaven and Earth.” It is perhaps the redevelopment that spurred the other projects. The old shikumen houses have been converted into expensive shops and restaurants. This area was full of people at night, especially foreigners. Sadly, one of the most photographed angles of Xintiandi prominently features a Starbucks.

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(left: Xintiandi, photo credit: Time Out Shanghai,
right: wealth is not subtle in China

There are many restaurants and bars that are popular with the expat crowd in this area, but I didn’t try any of them. Instead, I went for the Shanghainese favorite, Xinjishi, which I’ll probably mention if/when I get around to making a food post. On the way back to my hostel, I sighed at the giant, garishly-lit Gap store and the line of drunk foreigners waiting for cabs (pictured below).

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(left: this is China, right: line of people waiting for cabs)

One neighborhood, many faces. It’s not what I expected when I thought of Shanghai before I visited. It’s interesting to see a neighborhood that has had various cultural influences over time and how it has evolved. Hopefully not all of the past will be lost as things move forward. I’ll have to come back in ten years and see!


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