The former French Concession (Fǎ Zūjiè, 法租界) is, for many visitors, the highlight of a visit to Shanghai, delivering much of what this fabled city promises. It's also become the city's hottest and hippest neighborhood, where trendy bars and clubs multiply like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Shanghai's idiosyncratic push-pull between new and old, development and preservation, takes a special form in the French Concession, making it an absolutely unique urban experience.
The area still holds something of the alluring mix of scrappy Shanghainese street life, shopworn European colonial charm, Art Deco edifices, hidden brick courtyards and film noir intrigue that have, along with the proud stone edifices of the Bund and the twisting alleys of Shanghai's Old City, long defined "Shanghai" in the Western popular imagination.
Some of the French Concession's delapidated villas and crowded shikumen (stone gate) warrens have fallen to the wrecking ball, others have been renovated and reimagined, creating vibrant new streets full of restaurants, boutiques and galleries where only a few years ago metal-working shops and local produce markets did their business.
The good news for tourists is that the trend has been as much toward renovation as toward demolition and new construction, allowing entrepreneur-driven hives of nascent hip like Tianzifang in the south to develop as a solid alternative to the glitz of Middle Huaihai Road running through the heart of the area, the mega-mall mania of Xujiahui in the west and the theme-park historicism of Xintiandi at the eastern end of the old French Concession.
In between the above-mentioned points on the French Concession compass, numerous small streets hold surprises for the strolling urban explorer, from the cafés on Shaoxing Road to the shady nooks of Fuxing Park; from the Art Deco grand dames standing watch over Fuxing Road (Fùxīng Lù, 复兴路) as it heads west to meet Huashan Road (Huàshān Lù, 华山路) to remaining shikumen like Cité Bourgogne.
Covering what are now Xuhui (Xúhuì Qū, 徐汇区) and the western part of Huangpu (Huángpǔ Qū 黄浦区)—formerly Luwan (Lúwān Qū, 卢湾区)—districts, the French Concession was established in 1848, following the establishment of a British and later an American settlement after the opening of Shanghai as one of the treaty ports named in the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) that ended the First Opium War. The puppet government of Vichy France signed the area over to the Empire of Japan in 1943. The area returned to Chinese control after the end of World War II.
Photo © Andrew K. Smith
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