Stretching west from the Bund through the heart of Shanghai lie the main commercial streets of the city, among them one of the two premier shopping streets, Nanjing Lu (南京路, nánjīng lù), with its two major parallel arteries, Fuzhou Lu (福州路, fúzhōu lù) and Yan’an Lu (延安路, yán’ān lù). In the days of the foreign concessions, expatriates described Nanjing Lu as a cross between Broadway and Oxford Street. It was also at this time that Nanjing Lu and Fuzhou Lu housed numerous teahouses that functioned as the city’s most exclusive brothels. Geisha-like shuyu (singer/storyteller girls) would saunter from teahouse to teahouse, performing classical plays and scenes from operas, and host banquets for guests. In a juxtaposition symbolic of prewar Shanghai’s extremes, strings of the lowest form of brothel, nicknamed dingpeng (“nail sheds” because the sex, at ¥0.3, was “as quick as driving nails”), lay just two blocks north of Nanjing Dong Lu, along Suzhou Creek. The street was dubbed “Blood Alley” for the nightly fights between sailors on leave who congregated here.
On its eastern stretch, the garish neon lights and window displays of Nanjing Dong Lu (南京东路, nángjīng dōng lù) are iconic; come here in the evening to appreciate the lightshow in its full tacky splendour. But the shopping is not what it once was, with the emphasis now firmly on cheap rather than chic.
Number 635 was once the glorious Wing On emporium, and diagonally opposite was the Sincere. These were not just stores: inside, there were restaurants, rooftop gardens, cabarets and even hotels. The Shanghai Department Store near Guizhou Lu at no. 800, once the largest in China, is still going, and is still a place of pilgrimage for out-of-towners, but it’s not as spectacular as it once was. Off the circular overhead walkway at the junction between Nanjing Dong Lu and Xizang Zhong Lu, just northeast of Renmin Park, is the grandest of the district’s department stores, the venerable Shanghai No. 1 Store.
If you’re looking for cheap clothes, you’ll be spoilt for choice, but for something distinctly Chinese you’ll have to look a bit harder. Your best bet for curiosities is to head to the Shanghai First Food Store at the west end of the street, at no. 720. The Chinese often buy food as a souvenir, and this busy store sells all kinds of locally made gift-wrapped sweets, cakes and preserves, as well as tea and tasty pastries.