Shanghai marches to a distinctly modern tune. Buildings are tall and shiny, locals tote the latest in designer gear, mobile devices are an entrenched addiction and sleek, new-model cars clog the roads. The city has witnessed incredible development; as recently as 1990, Pudong, which has one of the world’s most arresting skylines, was nothing more than marshy farmland. At breakneck pace, Shanghai has shrugged off communist-era back water-ism and joined the ranks of the great metropolises. But for those seeking to glimpse a slower-paced city, where Chinese culture and traditions still reign and a sense of history hangs in the air, it happily doesn't take a lot. Here’s how, and where, to get your Old Shanghai on.
1. Take tea at the historic Huxinting Teahouse (257 Yuyuan Lu). Yeah, yeah, this place is on every tourist’s hit-list; it’s the most picturesque teahouse in all of China. It seriously looks like it fell straight off a willow-pattern plate. There’s a way to avoid the crazy crowds and enjoy it empty of all but tea drinking locals. Go early. 7.30am does the trick; it’s blissfully atmospheric. Be warned though as it’s quite OK to smoke in here and most everyone does.
2. Visit Soong Qing-ling’s Former Residence (1843 Huaihai Lu). Wife of Sun Yat-Sen and the co-called “mother of modern China”, Soong Qing-ling kept a divine garden villa. This was not only her home but the scene of important political meetings (and swish garden parties) during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Even without a grasp of her true historical significance, which is immense, the house is a fascinating place to visit.
3. Walk pretty Luxun Park (146 Jiangwan Dong Lu, Hongkou) on a Saturday morning when it bursts with activity. People sing opera, play Chinese instruments, write calligraphy using water, dance, walk backwards, stand upside down and indulge in all manner of weird and wonderful forms of exercise. Old guys hoist their caged birds onto tree branches and happy warbling fills the air. The Ti Li Ming Tea House inside the park is a cool place to chill, local style, and there’s a simple canteen next door for noodles, dumplings and the like.
4. Speaking of Luxun... check out this revered writers’ apartment (No 9, Lane 132, Shanyin Lu, Hongkou), a time-warp still in original condition, 80 years on. Even with zip interest in Chinese literature (Luxun was a novelist, editor, literary critic, poet and champion of the left wing too) it provides a rare glimpse into how the educated class lived, in 1930’s Shanghai.
5. In fact, while you’re at it... spend a whole day in Hongkou, the city’s untouristed north. You’ll discover remnants of the Jewish ghetto, great swathes of historic apartment buildings, fantastic street life, tucked away parks and the occasional temple. Snack along Jiangxi Bei Lu, admittedly a little tatty but filled with great street-eats. Wander lanes around the Ohel Moishe Synagogue (now a museum) and walk up main drag Sichuan Bei Lu, diving off it into abutting streets and parks as the mood strikes you.
6. Eat the best lion’s head meatballs in town at Hongqilin (727 Anyuan Lu), near the Jade Buddha Temple. Mmmmmm.... lion's heads. This family-run place makes a veritable meat-eorite of a ball, lightened with crunchy water chestnuts and doused in lip-smackingly sweet/salty sauce. It’s a defining dish of Shanghainese cuisine.
7. Check out the Friday Muslim Market at 1328 Changde Lu, also near(ish) the Jade Buddha Temple. Uighur and Hui (ethnic Chinese) Muslims gather around street stalls selling hand-pulled noodles, naan breads, cumin-scented lamb skewers, carrot, sultana and lamb polo and the best roasted lamb you’ll taste this side of Xinjiang. It’s lamb-o-rama-ding-dong.
8. Join the pet-loving fray at the Flower, Fish and Insect Market (Xizang Nan Lu). Yep, you read right... insect. Crickets, to be exact. Prized for their chirping, this place hums with the sound of a gazillion critters singing. Outside, men congregate and compare birds - the bamboo cages are rather lovely. You can purchase one here if you fancy a particularly bulky souvenir.
9. Stroll the Former French Concession, a large historical area in Shanghai's south- west. Grand mansions, art deco apartment blocks, tree-lined streets and some of town’s more interesting retail will be your reward. The area around Changle Lu, Anfu Lu and Wuyuan Lu makes for a good amble, with precincts around Fuxing Lu, Julu Lu and Nanchang Lu, not far behind. Cafe del Volcan (80 Yongkang Lu) makes seriously good coffee and Xian Yue Hien (849 Huashan Lu), tucked into the corner of an old garden, is a restful place for a dim sum lunch.
10. Amble around the Old Town (see our separate photo essay). Hurl yourself into the streets south of the Yuyuan Tourist Bazaar and you’ll enter another world entirely. One where people wash in basins outside, still empty their chamber pots each morning and hang washing to dry alongside narrow, twisting streets. This is how much of Shanghai lived, until recent decades. Respect.
11. Propaganda Poster Art Centre (Basement, Building B, 868 Huashan Lu, Xuhui. Entrance via Zhenning Lu). In 1966, 1 million Red Guards rallied in People’s Square and the rest, as they say, is history. That history has been collected over the years by Yang Peiming in the form of over 5,000 posters from the era - and earlier. His hidden little museum is fascinating and you can even buy posters (genuine and reproduction) if you fancy one for home.
12. Light a joss stick at the Jade Buddha Temple (corner Anyuan Lu and Jiangning Lu, Jing’an), festooned with red lanterns and by far Shanghai’s loveliest temple. The building dates from 1918 and there is indeed a Burmese jade Buddha. Pay an extra 10 RMB to see it, up on the second floor. At the temples’ eastern edge is a public restaurant where, for a measly 5 RMB, you can score a bowl of their famous “double mushroom noodles.’
13. Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant (378 Fuyou Lu, Yuyuan Bazaar). Another place that’s hardly a well-kept secret; as per #1, get here early to enjoy the light-filled rooms of this venerable old diner before chaos descends. No one speaks English so order via pointing and sign language if your putonghua isn't any chop. Xiao long bao (pork and crab-filled soup dumplings) with a side of shredded ginger, are the thing to eat.
14. Yuyuan Garden (Anren Jie) is a highly subscribed tourist draw but utterly gorgeous all the same. Rock up before tickets go on sale at 8.30am, be the first through the gates, sprint ahead of the pack and have this masterpiece of Ming-era garden design, for 20 minutes at least, pretty much to yourself.
15. Walk Ningbo Lu on a Saturday morning and take in a local food market. Dive in around where the street crosses Shanxi Nan Lu and see live poultry, frogs, fish, tofu and fresh vegetables galore for sale, street side. Some sights could be confronting; this isn't exactly Woolworths. There’s plenty of snack food for breakfast, making the early rise (it winds down by 7.30am) worth your while.