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Established in the mid-nineteenth century, the former French Concession (法租界, făzūjiè) lay to the south and west of the International Settlement, abutting the Chinese City. Despite its name, it was never particularly French: before 1949, in fact, it was a low-rent district mainly inhabited by Chinese and White Russians. Other Westerners looked down on the latter as they were obliged to take jobs that, it was felt, should have been left to the Chinese.
The French Concession was notorious for its lawlessness and the ease with which police and French officials could be bribed, in contrast to the well-governed areas dominated by the British. This made it ideal territory for gangsters, including the king of all Shanghai mobsters, Du Yuesheng, the right-hand man of Huang Jinrong. For similar reasons, political activists also operated in this sector – the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party took place here in 1921, and both Zhou Enlai and Sun Yatsen, the first provisional President of the Republic of China after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, lived here. The preserved former homes of these two in particular are worth visiting simply because, better than anywhere else in modern Shanghai, they give a sense of how the Westerners, and the Westernized, used to live.
Certain French characteristics have lingered here, in the local chic and in a taste for bread and sweet cakes – exemplified in Huaihai Lu, the main street running through the heart of the area. Not as crowded as Nanjing Lu, Huaihai Lu is considerably more upmarket, particularly in the area around Maoming Lu and Shanxi Lu, where fashion boutiques, extremely expensive department stores and excellent cake shops abound.Read More
Taikang Lu (Tianzifang)
Taikang Lu (Tianzifang)
Walking south to the end of Sinan Lu then turning right onto Taikang Lu (泰康路, tàikāng lù) will bring you to the latest fashionably artsy shopping and lunching quarter, Tianzifang (田子坊, tiánzifāng). You’ll have to look hard to find the unassuming entrance, an arch over alley 210, which stretches north off Taikang Lu. It leads onto Taikang Art Street, a narrow north–south alleyway that is the central artery for an expanding web of alleys filling up with trendy boutiques, coffee shops, handmade jewellery stores, art galleries, interior design consultancies and the like, all housed in converted shikumen houses. At its northern end, it comes out at Sinan Lu, but don’t even try to come in from there – the entrance is really tough to find.
Inevitably, the place gets compared with Xintiandi; but whereas the architecture there is modern pastiche, this is a set of real, warts-and-all longtangs, with the result that it’s quainter, shabbier and more charming. There are still plenty of local families around, who continue, boutiques or no boutiques, to hang their woolly underwear out to dry, and old folk shuffle round in their pyjamas, studiously ignored by the chic ladies who lunch. If you’re looking for an artsy knick-knack or accessory, quirky souvenir, tasteful homeware or a designer original, this is the place to come; an emphasis on local design and creativity rather than brands makes this the best shopping experience in the city. There’s a tourist information booth just inside the entrance and next to that, a map shop; you might balk at paying ¥5 for a glossy sheet of paper, but really the map is invaluable as the alleys are something of a warren.