Out of the corner of my eye I caught a commotion, the clumsy shuffling of heavy white tassel, the outstretched hand of a tuxedoed man, and the frantic flashes from a camera crew less than ten feet away. I was momentarily disoriented. I wondered who would have been more peeved: the lady in white, who found an unwelcome third wheel in her wedding photography; or me, who had my reverie unceremoniously broken into.
I raised my eyes to the backdrop, and realised the root of the problem. I was standing at one of the most photographed landmarks of “Old Shanghai”.
It was an unseasonably warm day in Shanghai, lending itself to a balmy evening. The perfect evening for a stroll. I had a couple of hours to kill in between my earlier appointment and my next obligatory family dinner. Feeling rather nostalgic that the Shanghai emblazoned in my childhood memories has more or less been overtaken by a labyrinthine concrete jungle, I set out to seek the comforts of the Old Shanghai.
Wukang Road (武康路)
And thus I found myself at the foot of Wukang Mansion, the cover girl of French Renaissance architecture in Shanghai and one of the most photographed landmarks. Bookending the southern aspect of Wukang Road, at the intersection of Huaihai Road (淮海路), the building was completed during the city’s heydays in 1920s and represents the first veranda-style apartment in Shanghai. The building is formerly known as the Normandie Apartments, a nod to the World War I-era battleship Normandie, with its structure protruding like that of a seafaring vessel.
For those of us reminiscing the times of old (or exploring the city for its true colours), Wukang Road is sure to be a sentimental favourite. I grew up in a district not too far from here. Twenty-odd years have passed and it is one part of the city where, thankfully, not much has changed.
A relatively narrow one-way road centrally located in Shanghai, it largely remains true to its former western influences (predominantly French and Spanish) and is a leisurely 30-minute stroll from one end to the other. Well-preserved architectural wonders and the many Chinese parasol trees that adorn the streetscape have long underpinned the road’s popularity as a major (free!) tourist destination and historical open-air museum.
Venturing a little further, adjacent roads such as Julu Road (巨鹿路) and Hengshan Road (衡山路) also pay homage to the city’s rich European influences. On this weekday evening, I was as much a tourist in my own hometown as the next traveller, watching throngs of men rushing home to their wives and dinners, and tiger parents toting their kids to their next extracurricular.
As if the residential streets of Old Shanghai weren’t enough to satiate, the next day dawned with explorations of lively commercial districts bearing the same cultured ambience.
Shanghai Tianzifang (上海田子坊)
Tianzifang, tucked away off Taikang Road (泰康路), is a small but vibrant, artsy precinct. Originally constructed in the 1930s with Shikumen-style (石库门) residences (an architectural style unique to Shanghai), it has been significantly revamped in the late 1990s and is now buzzing with bars, cafes and a maze of stores selling everything from traditional handiworks to DIY teddy bears…
Shanghai Xintiandi (上海新天地)
A neighbourly 1.5km away (~1 mile) on Madang Road (马当路) lies the stylish Xintiandi pedestrian / heritage / shopping / entertainment mecca. Xintiandi boldly boasts the perfect marriage of the Old Shanghai with its aspirational, modernist persona. Within the traditional walls and tiles of Shikumen-housing revealed a completely new world of internationally acclaimed galleries, boutiques and restaurants and bars.
It was the old charm that continued to draw me back to the city that reared me, and I was grateful for this journey down Shanghai’s memory lane. To remember what was, and to welcome what will be.