Making concessions in Shanghai
Look behind the skyscrapers to the city’s historic French quarter
THE prevailing image of Shanghai is of the host of implausibly tall tower blocks in the riverside district of Pudong. Yet, across the other side of the Huangpu River, the city’s French Concession is a wonderfully pretty, lowrise area of elegant colonial-era houses and narrow streets lined with plane trees. It’s the most atmospheric and captivating quarter of China’s most populous urban development — and it’s become fabulously ritzy. I have come to explore the collision of old and new worlds here: red-flag republic and retail luxury, cheek by jowl.
The French Concession was a territory within Shanghai ceded to France during the colonial era. Between the 1850s and World War II, it was an alluring pocket of adventurers, emigres, tycoons and racketeers. In the anything-goes mood of the early 1900s, it became a hotbed of revolutionary plotting and politics. Some of the most important sites of the development of post-imperial China are here. Yet the French Concession now contains much of Shanghai’s prime real estate.
I head first to Xintiandi, the city’s most conspicuously affluent development. It’s a striking complex of 19thcentury shikumen houses — all old brickwork, big stone doorways and courtyards — that since 2001 has been revamped into a pedestrian zone of upscale bars, cafes