WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME
Rumors pervading Shanghai’s expat F&B community for the past year claim that the street will be bulldozed. The gossip was sparked after a local officia said in a September media report that each establishment located along Laowaijie has in fact been operating with invalid and outdated permits since 2005.
An anonymous local official confirmed with the Global Times that all existing commercial buildings along Laowaijie are technically “illegal” according to city planning, which originally intended the spot as a green space. But hope is still in the air, as it has not yet been formally decided whether Laowaijie will remain standing or get leveled. He Fengchen, director of the marketing department of the street’s management company, told the Global Times that he has not received any official word about the dismantlement of Laowaijie.
But as Laowaijie is also the source of numerous complaints by local residents in neighboring residential complexes, the odds are stacked against it. In a letter shared in August on the official government website of Minhang district, a resident complained that locals were being “tortured” by the noise and fumes of the foreigners patronizing Hongmei Road’s F&B establishments. According to He, to better maintain a harmonious neighborhood relationship and meet the rectification requirements from authorities, his company took immediate measures, such as organizing restaurants and bars to install soundproof windows, encouraging fume control, decreasing light pollution and setting up decibel detection devices. “We care about the well-being of neighboring residents, so we have been active about rectification and upgrades,” said He. He admitted that his company also often receives complaints from local residents. For instance, some drunken foreign customers, after an evening of drinking at Laowaijie, tend to be especially noisy. “We respond to all complaints and then get feedback from the residents,” said He, adding that due to his measures, the number of complaints has dropped about 20 percent compared to last year.
According to He, Laowaijie used to be a train station for the private railroad of China’s late leader Mao Zedong. It was disused and deserted for several years until 2002, when it was transformed by developers into a commercial promenade. Around 2010 it was officially named Laowaijie to target foreigners. He believes that Hongmei Road has become the prefered place for people of different cultures in Shanghai to gather and integrate, thus making it a valuable landmark. The street is now home to 35 restaurants and bars providing cuisines and beverages from over 10 countries and regions including China, Japan, the US, Greece, Italy, France and Spain.
He said that about 70 percent of the street’s F&B owners are expatriates, 70 percent of their customers are expats and 70 percent of their patrons are “regulars.”
The street also hosts many holiday activities for foreigners, including a Halloween event and a Christmas party. “Via these activities, visitors can feel the cultural diversity of this place,” He said, naming the annual beer festival held by a German restaurant there as one of its most popular events.
This year, Laowaijie was also listed as one of Shanghai’s nine featured night consumption areas which excel at international cuisine, tourism value, sound management, convenient transportation and night consumption. Thus, He believes that its future is still promising.
A good nature
Several F&B staff working on Laowaijie shared with the Global Times their stories and experiences. An Italian chef named Albenio said he likes the street simply for its abundant choices of food and drink. “When people finish work, they can come to have a relaxing evening with friends and family,” he said, adding that he personally prefers Germany food and beer because it is “good in quality and taste.” Albenio also confided that he hopes to open his own restaurant in China someday, “but not in Shanghai, because there are a lot of similar restaurants here. China is big. I want people to know my food, traditions and family values.” Dave from the Philippines came to Shanghai for a vacation last January, but after falling in love with the city he returned to work at a Mexican restaurant on Laowaijie. According to Dave, 80 percent of his restaurant’s guests are expats from the US, Canada or European countries. He said Laowaijie’s diversity makes him feel happy. “I am also a foreigner, so I would like to talk with foreigners as well,” he said.
But Dave is not concerned about the rumors of Laowaijie’s dismantlement. “I read some articles. I will just go with the flow; what will happen will happen,” he said.
Yu knows Laowaijie very well, as he has been working in a Chinese restaurant there for over seven years. His establishment provides Anhui Province-style cuisine and is one of only four Chinese restaurants in the area.
“I like this place because it has a strong atmosphere. There are many interesting activities, like live music bands. And unlike other scenic spots in Shanghai, the food prices here are reasonable,” said Yu.
Yu contends that, compared to, say, shopping malls, Hongmei Road is wide open due to it being outdoors, which is why so many foreigners enjoy it. “Some details need to be improved, like parking trouble, but I think this place is promising,” he said.
Yu said he has noticed all the efforts each restaurant and bar has made to avoid disturbing local residents. “I don’t think this place should be closed down, because it is already integrated with the surroundings,” Yu added.
“On weekends, children from international schools come here and hold charity sales. There are also adoption events for stray cats and dogs, which does good to the surrounding area,” Yu said. “This place has a good nature.”
(Main) A road sign for Laowaijie; (Clockwise from top right) A sign dissuading visitors from making noise; Locomotive installation outside Laowaijie; Restaurants decorated in a variety of styles from different countries and regions