The Former French Concession (FFC) is a historic neighborhood and one of the most famous spots to visit and experience in Shanghai. In my opinion, this place gives the city its unique charm and cosmopolitan atmosphere and Shanghai wouldn’t be the same without the French Concession.
The Former French Concession was one of the fourth foreign concessions established in Shanghai during the colonial period. The French Concession was established in 1849 and officially came to an end after World War II when the post-war government of France gave up all its foreign concessions in China.
Still, the former French Concession remained largely unchanged during the early decades of Communist rule in China, and it was only in the early 1990s when this started to see significant development and new constructions appeared. Many of the old buildings were torn down, but some buildings and residential houses were preserved, and they keep the colonial charm of old-days Shanghai till today.
Middle Huaihai Road
Starting Point: Middle Huaihai Road & Maoming Road intersection (淮海中路与茂名路路口)
I started my walking tour from the Middle Huaihai Road & Maoming Road intersection. It is located just next to Exit 4 of South Shaanxi Road Metro Station (陕西南路地铁站 4 号出口).
Middle Huaihai Road is an emblematic place in Shanghai and it was once the main road in the French Concession. Back in the days when the concession was established, this road was named Avenue Joffre and it was planned and constructed in a modern french style. It was a vast straight road with trees and plants lining on each side, old European style buildings and small luxury stores.
Today, Middle Huaihai Road is one of the most popular shopping streets in Shanghai. The small elegant stores were replaced by big malls and department stores. But besides the modern vitrines, the road hasn’t changed that much nor lost any of its charm. Because it is not as touristy and busy as East Nanjing Road (another major shopping street), Middle Huaihai is a preferred place for locals to meet, stroll the shopping malls and have a coffee or a tea.
The Former French Club
Address: 58, Maoming South Road
The second stop of your self-guided tour should be the Former French Club. Today, the former French Sports Club is part of Okura Garden Hotel. The building of the club was built in 1924 with a neo-Classical façade that is preserved until today.
Back in the days, the french community in Shanghai would go to the French Sports Club to attend a ball, watch sports games, or swim in the covered swimming pool (not preserved nowadays). Now, this historic building serves as an entrance to the Okura Garden Hotel and behind it, you can see the modern towers, where the hotel rooms are located.
The main highlight of the Former French Club is its Art Deco oval ballroom located on the second floor. Nowadays, the ballroom is renovated and is used for weddings and official events. It is surrounded by galleried balconies and illuminated with a beautiful stained-glass window in the ceiling.
The walls are decorated with golden mosaics, plant-shaped ironwork, and columns with reliefs adorned with nymphs.
While walking to the ballroom you will also notice the beautiful, large Art Deco staircases, the mosaic floors, and more stained-glass windows.
This is one of the few buildings in Shanghai that preserves its original Art Deco style and old-time atmosphere.
Address: 870, Middle Huaihai Road
This is another historic building in the Former French Concession that deserves a stop.
Cathay Theatre is located at No. 870 Middle Huaihai Road and is also done in the typical of its time Art Deco style. The theater was completed in 1932 and is one of the few old theaters that is still functioning today.
The 1930s was considered the first golden period of Chinese cinema, and it was also a time when people from all walks of life rushed to the theaters to watch movies for the first time. In fact, a survey found that in 1934 Shanghai had 53 cinemas, which was more than any other city in Asia, and the eighth city in the world. Cathay Teater was built at the investment of 150,000 francs by American-Cantonese Lu Gen.
Unfortunately, today these glamorous theater buildings are replaced by 4D multiplexes located on the last floor of malls and shopping centers.
Shanghai Shikumen Houses
While making your way to the next stop of your walking tours, you will notice many shikumen houses in the French Concession. They are easily distinguished by their brick facades, stone entrances, and narrow passages.
Shikumen is a traditional Shanghainese architectural style that first appeared in the 1860s. It combines Western and Chinese style elements. The traditional Shikumens were two or three-story structures built in brick walls and with a very narrow front yard. Each residence joins the neighboring and their front yards form narrow, straight alleys called “longtang” or “lane house”. The entrance to each alley is usually marked by a stylistic stone arch inspired by Western architecture. Actually, the name shikumen (石库门 in Chinese) literally translates to ‘Stone Warehouse Gate’ and refers to the stone gates to the alleys.
Shikumen quickliy became very popular architecture style and by the end of 19th century there were more than 9000 shikumen style buildings in Shanghai, comprising 60% of the total housing stock of the city. Today most of the traditional Shikumen houses
Shanghai Culture Square
Address: 36 Yongjia Road
Shanghai Culture Square is not only a theater but a place with decades of history. Today this is the most modern state-of-the-art theater in the city, but over the years this space was used for many different purposes.
This place was first opened in 1928 as the Yi Garden Canidrome: a dog gambling race in the French Concession. By 1938 the canidrome was so popular that it had 1,500 greyhounds and millions in profits.
In 1952 the new government of PRC was eager to construct a big conference hall and it was decided to transform Yi Garden into an indoor field with a capacity of 15,000 people. The was the largest stage and most advanced equipment in Shanghai. It was renamed Cultural Square.
In 1970, after a big fire, the Cultural Square was entirely rebuilt in only 83 days and nights of hard work. The new indoor auditorium was even more impressive. The stage was elevated to 19 meters without a single floor column.
In 1992, the Cultural Square became the temporary the largest
stock exchange in Shanghai but in 1997 space was transformed into the largest flower trade market in east China.
The modern theater that is located here today opened for the first time in 2011 as SAIC “Shanghai Culture Square” is until today one of the top-tier theaters for musicals in China.
Saint Peter’s Church
Address: 270 Chongqing South Road
Saint Peter’s Church is one of the oldest catholic churches in Shanghai. It was built in 1933 for the students of the first Catholic University in Shanghai (Aurora University). The church was initially built in Byzantine style with a central dome and five chapels. During the cultural revolution, it was confiscated and became the Luwan District Cultural Center. In July 1994, the building was returned to the Shanghai Diocese. In 1995 the original building was demolished and rebuilt in a more modern style.
Today, the building is open to the public. The church where the religious ceremonies take place is on the third floor. The interior and the chancel are rather simple, but the church is popular for its beautiful stained-glass windows.
China’s 1st Premier’s Former Residence
Address: 73, Sinan Road
Just near Fuxing Park, on 73 Sinan Road, you can visit the residence of Zhou Enlai: the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
This three-story house was built in the 1920s in a typical French style. Zhou Enlai lived here from 1946 until his death in 1976. The house served not only as his personal residence but also as the Shanghai Office of the Delegates of the Communist Party of China in 1946–7. That’s why you will see
The house is open daily, 9am–5pm, free of charge. This villa, as well as several others in the area, are all part of a historical neighborhood now known as Sinan Mansions.
Address: 30 Sinan Road
Sinan Mansions is a unique place in the French Concession and it’s probably the site that embodies the colonial past of Shanghai the best.
This is a vast conservation area of around 50,000-square-meter, where you can see 51 garden houses built in a traditional 1920s French style. Most of these mentions were built between 1912 and 1936 when the French Concession was expanded by the French authorities to meet the needs of the diplomats and the French nouveau-rich. Back then Sinan Road was called Rue Massenet and these elegant houses were home to many foreign and Chinese politicians, artists, and celebrities. Some famous Chinese personalities who lived here are international Peking opera star Mei Lanfang who lived in 87, Sinan Road between 1933 and 1959, and poet Liu Yazi who lived in 517 Middle Fuxing Road between 1932 and 1940.
You will notice, for example, that even though the architectural style of the buildings is the same, these houses are not all identical.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) most of the inhabitants of the Sinan mansions fled to Hong Kong. At the end of the war, Rue Massenet was renamed Sinan Road. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, rue Massenet was renamed Sinan Road and new politicians and intellectuals inhabited the beautiful residences. But during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) low-income households moved into the structures and these houses here were inhabited till 1978 when the area was declared a “historical relic”. It took twenty years for the city to decide how to manage these buildings and the zone was reopend to public in 2001 as the Sinan Open Air Museum (思南露天博物馆, 思南公馆).
Today, most of the houses are turned into bars, restaurants, and upscale cafés, but their facades were entirely preserved.
This is where you will also find the most expensive hotel in Shanghai.
Address: 210, Taikang Rd
The last part of my French Concession tour was at Tianzifang. This is another tourist area with preserved shikumen houses and old residential buildings from the time of the French concession. Today most of the houses are turned into bars and restaurants, but it looks like there are still some residents in Tianzifang.
Tianzifang was built during the first expansion of the French Concession. In the 1930s, this was an upscale neighborhood and a home to many white-collar workers, including doctors, bankers, and artists. In the middle of the 20th century, Tianzifang had transformed into an artistic area as many contemporary artists moved to live in the area and set up their painting, sculpture, and photography studios here.
Today, the artsy spirit of this area can still be felt. Tianzifang is full of small crafts shops, design studios, galleries, and antique shops.
You will also find dozens of small cafés, bars, tea houses, and restaurants here.