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The Lanes Behind Yuyuan:
A Walking Tour of Shanghai's Old Chinese City

by Lisa Movius, Shanghai Editor

To the casual eye, Shanghai is a city obsessed modernity, from the stark space of People's Square to Huaihai Lu, where all the old buildings have been razed to make way for department stores or covered in green glass and converted into boutiques. The sense of timeless and tranquility that can be found in China's older and more "Chinese" cities seems to be lacking in the midst of Shanghai's fast-paced bustle. Unless, of course, you know where to look.

Beyond the tourist theme parks of Yuyuan and the "Shanghai Old Street" lies a little known treasure trove of living history. In Old Shanghai, as foreign ways and architecture dominated the rest of the city, its "Chinatown" was a crowded place of winding streets, vibrant markets, entrenched customs and a lifestyle that remained relatively unaltered despite the rapid pace of change around it. That description still holds true today, and the little back lanes of the Old City remain an intriguing anachronism of the way life was lived a century ago. The chaos, history, decay, and picturesque squalor are an anthropologist's dream and a city planner's nightmare.

The area was once enclosed by a city wall, built in 1555 and torn down in 1911. Its boundaries are now represented by Renmin Lu at its northern half and Zhonghua Lu around the southern portion. Along these two streets, and within their depths, can be found a fascinating slice of Shanghai and the oldest buildings within the city proper. The old city is chock full of interesting spots, often easy to miss while meandering down old lanes with names like "Second Eastern Horse Path."

Numerous buses that crowd their way down Huaihai Lu have their terminus at "Lao Xi Men," or the old West Gate of the City. Little remains of the old gate but the bus stop and a motley assortment of little shops. But just a little north of Lao Xi Men sits the sole surviving remnant of the wall that once protected Shanghai from Japanese pirates. The Dajing Tower, an unassuming stone structure in the traditional southeastern Chinese style, provides the perfect place to begin an exploration of Shanghai's Old City. Along with some traditional art of questionable quality, Dajing Tower contains an extensive exhibition of photographs depicting the customs and demographics of life once upon a time within these walls. Religion, festivals, operas and markets are covered by the collection, and a model shows the previous layout of the Old City in its original form. Descriptions are almost all in Chinese, but even without a translator you will leave enlightened and ready to discover this place for yourself.

Head south down Renmin Lu, which soon turns into Zhonghua Lu. To your right, bamboo scaffolding wrapped in green canvas belies the fate and future of Luwan District, while to your left, stone archways with half chipped away dates lead into longtang dwellings. The further south you go, though, the more the construction gives way to the utilitarian boxes that sprouted up in fits of development between the 1950s to the 1980s. Before long, you're at Fuxing Dong Lu, a stretch wildly different from its more frequented Central and Western incarnations. The intersection of Zhonghua Lu and Fuxing Dong Lu, adjacent to the stairs leading up to the overpass, contains a Junk Market with a truly bizarre array of, well, junk, from second-hand appliances to used clothing to a variety of creatively shaped if crudely made bongs.

Continue south on Zhonghua Lu for a few blocks, with eyes still trained to the right, and soon, over the tops of the red-tiled roofs of 1920s shikumen, you'll catch sight of flourishes more characteristic of Qing Dynasty constructions: gray tiles, stacked horizontally, and curling dragons' heads snorting carved smoke. Welcome to the Wenmiao Confucian Temple, which is most scenically entered the back way by Menghua Jie, past old buildings emblazoned with faded declarations of "10,000 years to Comrade Mao!" (The main entrance, via Wenmiao Lu a block further south, is sanitized past the point of interest.) At the back gate of the temple sits one of two Wenmiao Book Markets. This one specializes in new, surplus books and magazines, stacked high and selling by the jin for a song. Ubiquitous signs loudly prohibit smoking in this, Shanghai's largest fire hazard. Cut south down a side street to Wenmiao Lu, lined by book vendors, and head to the Temple's main entrance.

The Wenmiao Temple is the only extant Confucian Temple in Shanghai. It originated during the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271-1368) as the Zitong Clan Temple, but was reconstructed in its current form in 1855. Like the Yuyuan, it housed the Small Swords Society when they took over the city during the Taiping Uprising. The Kuixing Tower, standing 20 meters high, once offered a panoramic view of the Old City. The temple was targeted by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, so many of its buildings and most of their contents are reproductions. The front courtyard of the temple houses another book market, this one a sprawling used book market; the pedantic Master Kong would be pleased. The offerings include many antique English books, as well as bargain copies of coffee tables on Shanghai and on China. Blow your book budget, then head into the quiet sanctuary of the ponds and gardens of the inner temple for a good read.

From Wenmiao, wander due east, either back along Fuxing Dong Lu or via an alleyway of your choice. Off Fuxing Lu, a stone's-throw east of its intersection with Henan Nan Lu, is Xiaotaoyuan Lu, home to the Xiaotaoyuan Mosque, Shanghai's most distinctive piece of Islamic architecture. Still an actively used mosque, its congregation is not comprised of minority groups like the Uighurs, but rather by Hui, or Chinese Muslims. Built in 1917, the ornately beautiful building is known for the four huge green globes adorning its roof. The architectural style is an interesting blend of Islamic, Western, and Chinese influences. Unfortunately, as the neighboring longtang buildings hedge it in very closely, it is difficult to get a full view of building. It is not the oldest mosque in Shanghai; that distinction goes to the Fuyou Lu Mosque, hidden behind mobs of trinket vendors in the heart of Yuyuan, which was built in 1868 and is much more sinicized in design than the Western-influenced Xiaotaoyuan.

From Xiaotaoyuan, there are two options. You can head north on Henan Lu to the "Shanghai Old Street" and the familiar territory of Yu Gardens, or continue deeper into the southern reaches of the city. It's a bit of a hike, but eventually Henan Lu connects to the southern stretch of Zhonghua Zhong Lu. Go east along Zhonghua Lu and continue east on Dongjiadu Lu to reach the Dongjiadu Cathedral, which, while not part of the Old City proper, is part of the old "Chinese Bund" that was just as much a part of "native" life in the old days. Shanghai's oldest church, Dongjiadu dates from 1853 and was built by the same Spanish Jesuits who constructed the Bund Observatory Tower, now the Bund Museum of Moon-Watching Party fame. Recently restored to its full glory, the Dongjiadu Cathedral is a gorgeous example of Spanish Colonial architecture, and would be more at home in Mexico than in Shanghai. Whether or not as part of an Old City itinerary, the Dongjiadu Cathedral is among those little-known gems of Shanghai that are very, very worth a vist.

If, however, you prefer to pass on the delights of Dongjiadu and head back north, add to the list of stops the bustling markets along the northern stretch of Renmin Lu, especially east of Henan Lu. Stores renting wedding dresses hang them outside from trees, whether to air them or to advertise is unclear. Further down, little shops offer a delightful array of cloth and unusual materials, including one great ribbon shop and another specializing in full, fluffy feather boas.

Of course, if you haven't done so before, a swing by Yu Gardens, the "Shanghai Old Street," and the Fuyou Lu Antique Market is requisite. But while at it, be sure to sample their lesser known offerings, including the Fuyou Lu Mosque mentioned earlier. The Fuyou Lu bric-a-brac markets are great fun, especially if you're a clutterbug or have a fondness for really tiny bottles of nail polish. On the "Shanghai Old Street," which is about as old as Pudong, check out the Old Shanghai Teahouse and the antique shop below it for the best collection of Old Shanghai memorabilia this side of the someday-to-be-opened Shanghai History Museum. Beyond these, however, why endure tour groups in matching caps and megaphones blasting in your ears when, just around the corner, you can wander in a reverie of history down old streets where, through the cackle of chickens and the laughter of children, these cracked walls may whisper some of their secrets to you.

Dajing Tower
Address: 269 Dajing Lu, at Renmin Lu
Tel: 6385-2443
Price: ? for adults, ?.50 for students
Hours: 8:30am-4pm

Wenmiao Confucian Temple
Address: 215 Wenmiao Lu, east off the southwest section of Zhonghua Lu
Hours: 9am-5:15pm
Price: ?0

Xiaotaoyuan Mosque
Address: 52 Xiaotaoyuan Jie, off Fuxing Dong Lu by Henan Nan Lu
Hours: 8AM-7PM
Tel: 6377-5442

Fuyou Lu Mosque
Address: 378 Fuyou Lu, Yuyuan

Dongjiadu Cathedral
Address: 175 Dongjiadu Lu, southeast of the Old City

Old Street
Address: Fangbang Zhong Lu, between Henan Nan Lu and Zhonghua Lu

Old Shanghai Teahouse
385 Fangbang Zhong Lu
Tel: 5382-1202
Hours: M-F 8:30AM-11PM, Sat-Sun 7AM-11PM

Yu Gardens
Tel: 6328-3251
Hours: 8am-12pm, 1-5pm
Price: ?5

City God Temple
Hours: 8:30am-4pm
Price: ?

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