Motorbike drivers in plastic ponchos squint through a morning shower and a bright mosaic of umbrellas hovers like a cloud above sidewalk pedestrians.
A block away, the tiled roofs, dormers, and upstairs terraces of the Tianzifang neighborhood seem to be huddled together against the rain.
Beneath them is a squat collection of buildings separated only by occasional entrances to narrow lanes. These are among the few authentic remains of Shanghai’s former French Concession.
It was established seven years after the British first arrived in 1842, and occupied a strip of land between the British Concession and Old Shanghai. It was later expanded to stretch further inland.
The French at first joined the merger of British and American interests that became the International Settlement, but soon withdrew from the consortium. One result is that the French Concession developed its own unique style.
Beginning in the 1920s, resident British and American merchants began to build more spacious houses in the newer part of the French Concession.
Already the center of Catholicism in Shanghai, the area soon developed into the city’s premier residential and retail district.
It also began to attract residents of other nationalities, among which Russians were among the most prominent.
The first émigrés arrived in the wake of Russia’s 1917 revolution and another wave followed the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931.
The Russians presence in Shanghai was large enough that two of their Orthodox churches remain standing.
Invading Japanese forces at first declined to occupy the foreign settlements, and nearly a million Chinese fled to the protection of the French Concession. Their refuge was short-lived.
In 1943, the Vichy French signed the territory over to the Japanese puppet government in Nanking, a transfer reaffirmed by France’s post-war government in 1946.
The Concession remained largely unchanged during the early decades of Communist rule, but unregulated redevelopment in the late 1980s and early 1990s tore many of its old neighborhoods apart.
The former French Club and its gardens were gutted to make room for the high-rise Okura Garden Hotel. It was not until early in this millennium that the government began to enforce more stringent development and planning controls.
Today, fewer than ten per cent of the Concession’s original structures remain. That the Tianzifang neighborhood has survived at all is due to efforts of local business owners, residents, and artisans to block demolition plans.
This part of the Concession was built in the 1930s as a residential district in an architectural style called Shikumen that originated in Shanghai.
It’s crisscrossed by intimate lanes that are today lined with art galleries, craft stores, and design studios.
Despite the trendy foreign goods displayed many of their shelves, this place retains much of its original look and feel. There’s an eclectic collection of cafés, tea houses, bars, and restaurants which serve almost every Asian cuisine, as well as European and American foods.
Wandering this maze is like taking a walk through the Kasbah. There are no through walkways and every lane seems to end in yet another. It’s hard to get lost, though, because nothing is more than a few blocks from a main street.
Just when it seems that there’s nothing more to see, the entrance to the local farmers’ market appears and even from the street it begs to be explored… but that’s for the next post.
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