Around the World in Shanghai

Shanghai Chocolaterie

In Shanghai’s French Concession…or la France profonde?

Since the first World’s Fair opened in London in 1851, the event has remade cities, bestowing lasting landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle, and introducing the styles, modes, and technologies that would come to dominate urban life: City Beautiful neoclassicism made its debut at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair was a celebration of the car as the transportation of the future.

It’s still unclear what the 2010 Shanghai Expo will do for the future of cities — even Shanghai itself. The fair’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” points toward a focus on urbanization, but no single great idea has of yet emerged from the event. And while Shanghai has spruced itself up, it’s done so at a cost — including mass evictions — that hardly justifies the result: mostly stylistic hyperbole, including LED light strips attached to highway bridges.

Even the architecture of the fair’s pavilions is as hit-or-miss as it is temporary; most is slated to be swept away for another round of redevelopment soon after the fair closes in October. But Shanghai’s cityscape evinced cosmopolitan flair well before the world assembled Expo’s theme park of architectural amusements.

Of course, the city’s history may not have encompassed as many cultural traditions as there are token national pavilions at the fair. But because of its colonial past — it rose as a trading port divided into concessions ruled by the British, Americans, and French — Shanghai is filled with streetscapes that sometimes conjure the precise look and feel of London, Paris, or New York.

Greenwich Village, Shanghai?

A very Greenwich Village-like streetscape in the French Concession


Hinting at Manhattan on West Nanjing Road

This may not come as much of a surprise to anyone vaguely familiar with Shanghai. After all, the Bund, the city’s showpiece waterfront stretch of neoclassical banks and hotels, has symbolized the Western colonial legacy in the city for nearly a century. But there are far more interesting colonial streetscapes tucked behind the flashy glass behemoths of modern Shanghai, or among the back lanes of the former concessions.

There’s not much rhyme or reason to the distribution of Western styles around the city; there are streets that resemble Greenwich Village in the French Concession, and Parisian office buildings in the former British and American zone. Part of the intermingling is a result of the way the city was administered — the concessions officially merged into an International Settlement in the 1850s, although the French dropped out and went their own way ten years later — but it is also undoubtedly a testament to how little boundaries, administrative and otherwise, mattered for Westerners in concessionary Shanghai (colonial law and attitudes generally meant that the intermingling was much more restricted for Shanghai’s Chinese).

But while some of the city’s colonial architecture almost uncannily replicated models in metropolitan Britain, France, or the United States, like some stretches of shady avenue in the French Concession that could be in Avignon or Aix, others did mix and match local and colonial styles. A group of Tudor shikumen off West Nanjing Road, for example, fuse the sort of urban alley architecture common in central-eastern China with the style that was used frequently for London’s interwar-period suburban duplexes.

Tudor Shikumen

Clockwork Orange cafe

Tudor Shikumen

Little England off People's Square

British architectural influence in Shanghai. From top: A Tudor shikumen juxtaposed against a modern building; the Clockwork Orange cafe and a Tudor courtyard off W. Nanjing Road; the shikumen; a Tudor building and brick sidewalk alongside People’s Square

Evidence of specific foreign influences begins to wane in the architecture of the years leading up to the Japanese occupation, when art deco, popular among all three of Shanghai’s colonial overlords, briefly ruled the day. And the city’s colonial past hardly survived the Cultural Revolution or the redevelopment pressures of China’s economic reopening unscathed — until recently, preservation efforts were fitful. Avenue Joffre, once the elegant showpiece of the French Concession, became Central Huaihai Road — lined, toward its western end, by a succession of banal concrete malls.

Of course, a good portion of colonial architecture — shabby, almost romantically unkempt — survived. And a surprising amount of the city’s street furniture and landscaping has been held over from the concessionary period or passed down to contemporary equivalents. There are red, albeit modern phone booths on West Nanjing Road, and the dense, Hausmannian alleés of trees along the avenues of the French Concession, while actually London planes, are known as “French planes” in China, where they’ve been widely embraced.

And as it has been cast in the international spotlight during the Expo, the city’s history, particularly the ghetto that housed thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe during the Second World War, is becoming openly acknowledged in educational campaigns and preservation efforts. In the last few years, strict planning guidelines have been imposed in the French Concession, and although its atmosphere is poisoned — sometimes, it feels, literally — by an overabundance of construction dust, it’s more likely to be the product of an old house’s renovation than its destruction. Shanghai’s authorities appear to be awakening to the idea that the city’s colonial streetscapes offer a testament not only to a period of exploitation and discrimination, but also demonstrate a long tradition of worldliness in a city that’s once again trying to become a hub of international trade.

Brunch at Xintiandi

Expats brunch at Xintiandi

Intentionally or otherwise, this transformation might not always send the right message. Xintiandi, a web of shikumen at the far eastern edge of the French Concession, was “restored” to an antiseptic level of cleanliness and given over to luxury stores that cater to a mostly expatriate clientele. It has a “festival marketplace” vibe, somewhat reminiscent of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace — if the Midwestern tourists were replaced by brunching business elites. Ironically, it abuts the first meeting place of the Chinese Communist Party, which draws a dramatically different crowd. The ensuing dichotomy is awkwardly reminiscent of the social hierarchies prevalent in the city when Xintiandi was built. But a broader restoration of the city’s colonial relics is bound to make its history less rare and precious, and more an integral part of life for a far larger number of Shanghainese.

In fact, if the city’s concessionary streetscapes are the more durable legacy left to Shanghai by the world, their preservation may be Expo’s most durable contribution to Shanghai — not to mention the future of cities in the developing world. Their dual temptation to cut the umbilical cord to colonialism and to modernize often means both a loss of character and of connection — of windows on other parts of the world, portals Shanghai may yet keep open.

Parisian Shanghai

Parisian buildings sit under the shadow of modern Shanghai

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Thursday May 13 2010at 05:05 pm , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Around the World in Shanghai”

  • A very interesting appreciation of Shanghai. I was there five years ago, when destruction was ramping up. The French Concession looked, if you squinted, like it did in Empire of th Sun, and the former Cercle français club had become the Garden Hotel, set amid lovely formal French gardens. The fact that the place was run by a Japanese chain was a bit ironic, since the Japanese were so disliked during WWII. Almost as ironic as Xintiandu being right beside the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party.

    What would Mao say?

  • Together with many changes around the world, we should have to expect that every modern city will copy something from their Great Examples. People are simply adopting all influence because of their natural way to survive not being different. Who knows, one day it can go the opposite way: The East go to The West…