It’s the early morning before my Far East adventure will come to an end. Although the time is only 7 a.m., I can already hear the vibrant city 18 stories below my hotel room. Our flight is not until tonight, so we have most of the day to explore Shanghai one more time.
Feelings of nostalgia envelop me. On one hand, I am really looking forward to returning home and seeing my family again, whom I’ve missed very much; on the other hand, the realization that my daily explorations in China are almost over makes me feel like I’ve run out of time. I feel like I’m leaving this amazing country with more questions than answers, although I think you could live a lifetime in China and never understand it nor its people completely.
The good news is that I’ve saved a very cool experience for our last day. My husband is definitely looking forward to it, as it involves riding around Shanghai on a vintage sidecar motorbike. It has only been on rare occasions that we have hired a guide while traveling, usually when we feel we could get a better insight from a local, like a professor of history (which we did in Beijing) or someone who could share with us an interesting point-of-view about a place. And this is the case today – our guide is an Italian guy, Luca, who has been living in Shanghai for almost 5 years. We will be exploring the city and discovering local treasures with the benefit of a foreigner’s open mind, who knows and loves his surroundings very well.
After I finished packing, we headed to the lobby and Luca was already waiting for us. I spotted him right away – wearing a biker’s leather jacket and a Shanghai Insiders (the name of the tour company) messenger bag across his chest. The first thing Luca wanted to know were our interests, so we could better plan out our day. We said history, architecture, art, and photography. In his perfect Italian accent, Luca said “Fantastic!” and pulled out a 1935 map of Shanghai. He pointed to several areas, explaining we would be checking out the three former concessions (French, British, and American) to get an overall feel of the city and to understand part of its important history. We also planned to visit Old Town – with opportunities to get off the bike and walk around whenever we felt like it.
Our ride for the day – Vintage Sidecar Motorcar, Shanghai Insiders:
It is only when you become part of the crazy Shanghai traffic that you realize moving about the city by bike is both exciting and potentially dangerous if you are not with it. Luckily, Luca was an excellent driver and he was not shy about using the (very) loud horn to warn people, cars, and other bikes that they weren’t supposed to be crossing the road right in front of us when they had the red light.
We sped off from our hotel behind The Bund, and I felt like I was part of the energy of the city as Luca maneuvered the bike around cars, other bikes, bicycles and pedestrians with an apparent death wish!
Shanghai has some of the world’s best examples of Art Deco architecture. During the 1930s, people were seeking new ideas – they wanted to be modern and fashionable; they wanted to stand up to Japanese oppression and Westernization. People believed they could stand strong if they demonstrated they were forward-thinking and up-to-date. This was also an exciting time in Shanghai – and the architecture reflects that era. Luckily, the Art Deco treasures survived World World II. And, from the time the Communist Party took control in 1949 up until the 1990s, almost no construction was going on, so relatively few buildings were demolished. Thus, different forms of architecture were preserved, as if in a time capsule.
The contrast between pre-1949 architecture and the ultra-modern new skyscrapers and buildings is quite remarkable.
Our first stop was at one of the most unusual historic buildings I’ve ever visited, the Old Millfun – a former 1933 slaughterhouse – one of the largest in China designed by the British architect Balfours. The entire building is built of pre-cast concrete shipped from the UK. Rather than being demolished, it has been repurposed taking inspiration from the Meatpacking District in New York – by making it people-friendly. Behind the impressive Art Deco façade, there’s a collection of different businesses – a coffee shop, art galleries, a wedding photographer, and even a Russian restaurant.
It was still early and the coffee shop at the Old Millfun was closed, so Luca suggested we hit one of his favorite spots for some excellent espresso. We said “Let’s go!” – I mean, if an Italian says he has a favorite coffee joint, we shall follow. As Luca negotiated the busy streets, I took photos. Below are some of the Shanghai moments I captured.
Soon we were chilling at Pain Chaud on busy Yongkang Lu – a street filled with cafés, bars, galleries and restaurants. This is a spot you may want to visit if you happen to be in Shanghai. And it definitely becomes alive at night. Over my perfect almond croissant and delicious coffee, Luca talked to us about the changes he’s seen in Shanghai in the last few years.
This city is quickly becoming a world metropolis – it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Sitting at this modern French bakery, surrounded by cosmopolitan bars and businesses evidently well acquainted with capitalism, it was easy to forget that we were in communist China. It was interesting and informative to talk to a European living in Shanghai, who gave us a captivating perspective of this rapidly-changing city and his experiences with how the Shanghainese culture is adapting to those changes, in his opinion.
Our next stop – the James Cohan Gallery. This is a well-known and respected gallery both in Shanghai and NYC. It’s located in the heart of the former French Concession in a quiet neighborhood lane. The gorgeous 1930s villa could be described as Bauhaus architecture, but it also has Art Deco and Asian influences. The building was once occupied by the Chinese military, and the painted Maoist slogan can still be seen above the door. There’s a lovely tree-shaded courtyard in front -all accessible to the public. I felt like we had stepped into an oasis in the middle of the bustling city.
After exploring the inside of the house for a bit, we walked out to the city, jumped on the bike, and resumed our exploration.
We were now headed to check out a Spanish villa – in the French Concession – in the center of Shanghai. How’s that for a mixture of culture and architecture?
We arrived at the site of a stunning chic hotel called the Fenyang Garden. We walked through the iron gates and onto the spectacular grounds of this Spanish-style villa. Below you can see the historical mansion, which is now rented out for private parties, weddings, and the like. The villa was designed by Mr. L.E. Hudec, a famous Austro-Hungarian architect in Shanghai in the 1930s. As I admired the wrought iron railings, red-tiled roofs, spiral pillars, and the fountain – I was transported for a moment to any town in southern Spain.
Shanghai’s former French Concession is sometimes referred to as “the Paris of the East.” As we traveled under canopies of trees along elegant, wide avenues, I could see why.
Soon we arrived at Suzhou Creek. This is an area that has been slow to develop, so there’s a relaxed feel here, much less rushed and chaotic, unlike other parts of Shanghai.
We parked on the road, over Suzhou Creek to admire Pudong’s stunning skyline. The sight is amazing, although for more dramatic photos, I think it is best to come here at sunset. (Pudong is actually across the Huangpu River, which you cannot see on this photo). The Waibaidu bridge you see here is the earliest steel bridge in China (1908). As we looked out from our vantage point, our guide pointed out that the Oriental Pearl TV Tower – the one with the two spheres and the pointy top – was only completed 21 years ago. In fact, none of the buildings you can see in the distance existed a mere 26 years ago!
Shanghai Culture & Customs
This area is very popular with young couples that are getting married. Everywhere I looked, there were Chinese couples posing for engagement and wedding photos with their professional photographers. Luca told us that Chinese people come to Shanghai from all over the country to have their wedding pictures taken here. I learned couples start taking their photos one year before the actual wedding! Note the red wedding dress below. Brides will wear at least three different colored gowns during their wedding ceremony, but red is the most important and traditional color, signifying prosperity and good luck/joy.
If we had stayed one more day in Shanghai, we would have had a chance to see the marriage market in action at the People’s Park. This is where parents look for eligible young men or women to be future husbands/wives to their children. More than a market, it’s a match-making custom that developed about 10 years ago. The curious thing is that, most of the time, the eligible bachelors or bachelorettes are not even present at the park! Instead, the parents show up every weekend and shop, so to speak, for a suitable partner for their offspring. Parents come armed with a piece of paper, where they’ve noted all of their children’s relevant information – height, weight, education, studies abroad, etc. That piece of paper is displayed for other parents’ perusal and hopefully approval. The most popular and coveted young men or women are those who have a car, an apartment – and a good-paying job, of course. If the parents find a suitable mate for their child and both sets of parents agree, they’ll set up the first date and hope that sparks will fly… .
Xiantiandi – New & Old.
On one side of Xiantiandi, just steps away from the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China (interesting museum recounting the CCP’s history – according to the CCP; free), you have latte-sipping people lounging about at fashionable cafés, shopping at luxurious boutiques, and sporting the latest haute couture. This entertainment enclave is located among narrow streets known as lilongs or neighborhood lanes. The restaurants, galleries, and shops are housed inside Shikumen buildings – a traditional Shanghainese architectural style dating back to the 1860s – that have been meticulously restored or recreated. The developers of this area wanted to give the visitor the feel of walking the bustling Shanghai streets of the 1920s and ’30s. You can appreciate the Shikumen architecture below.
Just a few blocks away, you’ll have a difficult time finding any trendy cafés or bars, or anyone sipping on a foamy capuccino. Instead, what you’ll experience are the original lilongs – the traditional crowded neighborhood lanes where you can still appreciate the flavor of an era that may not be around much longer the way that Shanghai is growing. Here, you will find locals engaged in their day-to-day activities – people hanging their laundry from the telephone cables that criss-cross the roads; men sitting on pews on street corners playing (betting on) mahjong; cooks getting ready for lunchtime rush at the streetside eateries. It’s not modern or chic, but this area is colorful and vibrant, giving you a feel for real Shanghai. And there’s plenty to discover: There’s a bird, cricket & flower market which is as interesting as it is quirky; a few fun streets filled with antiques (and make-believe antiques); and store after store selling a green teas, clothes, kitchenware,
At this point, our excursion was almost over, but we still had a bit of time to walk around Shanghai’s Old Town. Talk about contrasts – this area sits right below towering modern buildings, while the housing here is anything but modern. Families live practically on top of each other – the buildings do not have plumbing inside, so people share sinks where they wash themselves and the dishes. Bathrooms are public for everyone. Here, your business is everyone’s business.
As we walked the narrow lanes, we passed stall after stall of street food vendors. I was very tempted to try some of the food, but apparently I was the only one interested in eating street food.
We hurried back to the motorbike, which Luca had parked on a very colorful street – he said, “In Shanghai, a sunny day means laundry day.” As you can see below, this fact is quite evident. And, just like that- our adventure was over.
If you’re in Shanghai and it’s within your budget, I highly recommend this tour. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.
Hope you enjoyed this post and learning a bit about Shanghai. Feel free to share it on your social media. If you’d like to know about future posts, you can subscribe to Travel with G by clicking here – the sign-up line is right below the slideshow of photos.
By the way, I should point out that I’m sharing my own personal views about the tour and the company. I have not received any sort of compensation or tour discount from Shanghai Insiders for writing this post. They don’t even know I’ve written it.