The Old City (老城, lăochéng) is that strange oval on the map, circumscribed by two roads, Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu, which follow the old path of the city walls. The Old City never formed part of the International Settlement and was known by the foreigners who lived in Shanghai, somewhat contemptuously, as the Chinese City. Based on the original walled city of Shanghai, which dated back to the eleventh century, the area was reserved in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a ghetto for vast numbers of Chinese who lived in conditions of appalling squalor, while the foreigners carved out their living space around them. The easiest approach from Nanjing Dong Lu is to walk due south along Henan Lu or Sichuan Lu; or just take the subway to the Yu Yuan stop.
Tree-lined ring roads had already replaced the original walls and moats as early as 1912, and sanitation has obviously improved vastly since the last century, but to cross the boundaries into the Old City is still to enter a different world. The twisting alleyways are a haven of free enterprise, bursting with makeshift markets selling fish, vegetables, cheap trinkets, clothing and food. Ironically, for a tourist entering the area, the feeling is like entering a Chinatown in a Western city. The centre of activity today is an area known locally as Chenghuang Miao (after a local temple), surrounding the two most famous and crowded tourist sights in the whole city, the Yu Yuan and the Huxin Ting teahouse, both located right in the middle of a new, touristy bazaar that caters to the Chinese visitors who pour into the area. “Antiques”, scrolls and kitsch souvenirs feature prominently, and there are also lots of good places to eat Shanghainese dianxin, some more reasonable than others.Read More
A classical Chinese garden featuring pools, walkways, bridges and rockeries, the Yu Yuan (豫园, yùyuán) was created in the sixteenth century by a high official in the imperial court in honour of his father. The Yu Yuan is less impressive than the gardens of nearby Suzhou, but given that it predates the relics of the International Settlement by some three hundred years, the Shanghainese are understandably proud of it. Despite fluctuating fortunes, the garden has surprisingly survived the passage of the centuries. It was spared from its greatest crisis – the Cultural Revolution – apparently because the anti-imperialist “Little Sword Society” had used it as their headquarters in 1853 during the Taiping Uprising. Garden connoisseurs today will appreciate the whitewashed walls topped by undulating dragons made of tiles, and the huge, craggy and indented rock in front of the Yuhua Tang (Hall of Jade Magnificence). During the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the traditional New Year, ten thousand lanterns (and an even larger number of spectators) brighten up the garden.
After visiting the garden, you can check out the delightful Huxin Ting (湖心亭茶馆, húxīntíng cháguăn), a two-storey teahouse on an island at the centre of an ornamental lake, reached by a zigzagging bridge. The Queen of England and Bill Clinton, among other illustrious guests, have dropped in for tea. These days it’s a bit pricey, but you’re welcome to poke about.