Shanghai: French Concession, Xujiahui, and Tianzifang

After a fascinating day in China’s Zhujiajiao ancient water town, it was back to Shanghai for a Sunday walkabout.

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I met my expat friends Andy, Nicole, and their daughter Sally just outside the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, and we set out on foot for the Former French Concession. For half a century, France governed and occupied this portion of the city with permission of the Chinese government. Britain and the United States did the same in their own sections of Shanghai. In these concessions, the citizens of each foreign power could freely live, trade, and travel, and they developed their own subcultures separate from the Chinese.

The French gave up control of their Shanghai concession in 1943, but the area still retains a distinctly European feel. Located west of the Bund, it is approximately 8 km wide and still home to a large expat population. The tree-lined streets feature sidewalk cafes, import markets, wine bars, and art galleries like you might find in Paris, Marseille, or Lyon.

The French Concession’s Wulumuqi Road is most famous for The Avocado Lady, whose tiny shop has, for the past 20 years, stocked everything expats have missed most about home. You’ll find European cheese and wines, exotic herbs, fresh produce, jams, all sorts of oils, and, of course, avocados.

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We enjoyed peeking into beautifully landscaped courtyards and taking a break at one of the neighborhood fitness parks.

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It was an afternoon of parks, since our next stop was Xujiahui. At the site of a former brick factory, you’ll find a fantastic all-ages park with a children’s playground, basketball courts, and a man-made stream modeled after the Huangpu River. There’s also a pond with several turtle families, frogs, and eels.

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Next to Xujiahui Park is the historic Red House, which once housed the Pathé China record company. It’s now a beautiful French restaurant serving classic dishes such as Baked Clams à la Maison, Onion Soup, and Coq a Vin.

After exploring a bit more, we took the metro across town to Tianzifang. In what used to be houses lining winding, narrow alleyways, you’ll now find more than 200 small businesses that include art galleries, boutiques, design studios, and dozens of cafes, bars, and restaurants.

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We snaked our way to the center, where we grabbed some stools for dinner in the crowded courtyard at Kommune. This cafe was one of the first businesses in Tianzifang 15 years ago, and it remains a favorite of locals and expats alike.

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A mural in the courtyard at Kommune Cafe in Shanghai’s Tianzifang district (image: Kommune)

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We weren’t the only Westerners dining at Kommune, but literally dozens of people took pictures of the four of us while we enjoyed our falafel, lamb, and lasagne. Some even asked if Sally would pose with them for selfies. Nicole said she’s gotten used to it over the past four years, although I don’t know if I ever would.

I met a Chinese woman on the metro who is currently living in San Francisco, and this came up in our conversation. She said despite the fact that travel is easier in both directions, Chinese still feel Westerners, especially Americans, are exotic. There’s even a phrase for it: “物以稀为贵,” which translates to, “Objects that are rare are precious.” Keep that in mind when you become an overnight celebrity when you’re in Shanghai.

Next stop: The Shanghai Botanical Garden