Unveiling the Hidden Gems of Shanghai’s WuYuan Road: A Walking Tour Guide

In this article, I’m going to walk you through one of my favorite streets in Shanghai – Wuyuan Road.

This is a small road in the French Concession that is stretching from Changshu Road in the east and ending at Wukang Road in the west. It is only 820 meters long and 15 to 17 meters wide. Wuyaun may be short, but this unique Shanghainese street harbors more than 20 unique houses built at the beginning of the 20th century, during the French Concession. Most of these are lane houses, but you will also find apartment buildings and garden houses from the beginning of the last century. Moreover, almost every building on Wuyuan road has a unique style and most of them are protected historic buildings under the current laws for the protection and preservation of national relics.

As a result of this, Wuyuan road offers a mixture of different architectural styles, and every house has its unique design and history. Most of the buildings on WuYuan are still used as residential or administrative buildings, and if you are visiting Shanghai, you could even stay in an Airbnb in this area.

History of Shanghai’s Wuyuan Road

Wuyuan was built in 1925 by the Board of Directors of the French Concession. It was originally called Rue Maresca, named after the Catholic bishop of Nanking – Bishop Zhao Fangji, and it was home to a community of priests. The name was changed in 1943 by the Wang regime.

Wuyuan Road is one of the few roads in Shanghai that is not accessible by public transport, and one of the 64 Shanghai streets that will never be widened. Many celebrities were among the old residents on Wuyuan Road, including the famous cartoonist Zhang Leping, the traditional opera artist Yu Zhenfei, the famous translator Cao Ying, female writer Wang Xiaoying and many, many more.

So, in this article, let’s take a look at these old houses where they once lived!

Huaidi Lane

  • Address: No. 72 to 84, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese:五原路72、74、80、82、86、88号、76弄、84弄

You can start your Wuyuan Road walking tour by visiting the lane houses located in lanes 72弄 and 83弄. This housing complex was built in 1937, by Guohua Bank and it is a representative of the new modern-style lane house architecture that you find in most of the Former French Concession.

Shanghai’s lane houses, also called “shikumen” are small clusters of three-story houses that were built around the former concessions in the early 20th century. They incorporated both Chinese and Western influences, but overall, they were perceived as a new, modern style of housing construction and are the result of the international influence in Shanghai at the time. Each lane house has one or two gates from the central street (Wuyuan Road), and the houses inside the complex are organized in central lanes that are only about 3-4 meters wide. As you walk down the center lane from the street-side entrance, there are smaller, narrower lanes that house the entrance doors to the apartments.

You can enter Huaidi Lane, from Wuyuan Road at 76弄、84弄 and have a quick stroll in the small lanes inside. Don’t be surprised if you see fish dying out in the sun, or as it was in my case – some pig heads!

House at No. 175, Wuyuan Road

  • Address: No. 175, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese:五原路175弄

Continue walking down Wuyuan road, direction west. You can stop at number 175 and take a quick photo at this residential building or at its small street shops and coffees.

Residence No. 251, Wuyuan Road

  • Address: No. 251 Wuyuan Road, No. 1 Yongfu Road
  • Address in Chinese: 五原路251号,永福路1号

This beautiful Garden Residence was built in 1939 in British style. It’s located at the crossroad of Wuyuan Road and Yongfu Road. The house has 3 floors and it’s constructed in bricks and concrete. The shape is simple with smooth sloping roofs, emphasizing the composition and proportion of the mountainside. The red-brick façade may remind you of a lot of the garden houses in Sinan Mansion. The exterior walls in light red bricks hide the garden and the first floor from the street. The building is currently used by the Shanghai Office of the Ministry of Commerce.

Datong Villa

  • Address: No. 11, Lane 252, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese: 五原路252弄11号

This lane was formerly known as Datong Villa. It was built in 1938, in a typical modern style for Shanghai of the 20th century.

The houses/apartments located at No. 11 and 12 together with No. 13 and 14 forms two residential buildings with exactly the same appearance and structure. The two buildings are arranged side by side in the east-west direction.

Bao Dasan, a famous industrialist and revolutionist, lived in No. 11 from 1946 to 1948. Bao Dasan was born in Ningbo, Zhejiang. In 1906, he studied in Japan and joined Tongmenghui. In 1920, he participated in the establishment of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, later established a real estate company, and served as a director of the Shanghai Ningshang Association. In 1941, he founded Yongda Pharmaceutical Factory and Leishi Chemical Company. He had a long career after he joined the China Democratic National Construction Association. He successively served as a member of the Financial and Economic Committee of the Central People’s Government, a member of the East China Military and Political Committee, the Vice Chairman and Vice Governor of the Zhejiang Provincial People’s Government, and a member of the Central Standing Committee of the Democratic National Construction Association. In 1952, he donated this residence and his personal property to the country and it is now a residential building separated in many apartments.

Xiefa Apartment

  • Address: Lane 253-267, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese:五原路253-267弄

Just a few meters away from Datong villa, you’ll see one of the first modern apartment buildings built in the Former French concession – Xiafa apartments.

Built-in 1933, this is a modernist apartment complex, designed by the Chinese architect Fan Wenzhao. Xiefa Apartment is one of the early works of Fan Wenzhao’s design style described from “classical” and “eclectic” to “modern”. The building was originally designed as a three-story brick-concrete structure, which was later extended to a four-story building. The building layout is divided into two wings with the stairwell in the middle. The architect adopts a complete geometry to meet the functional requirements of the house, which is clean and pure without wasting any area. Each apartment unit has one ladder and one household. In 1933 this was a high-end apartment-style residence. Each household was a four-bedroom apartment, and most of the bedrooms were suites. Each household had a private kitchen, a servant room, and a guest room on the other side facing the street. The living room opens onto a balcony with six French windows, allowing for plenty of sunlight and ventilation. And there is a patio at the joint of the units to improve indoor light and provide a source and ventilation. These were some very fancy apartments for that time!

The original building plans were published in “China Architecture” No. 24 in 1936 and can be seen here.

In Xiafa Apartments you can find some Key Elements of Bauhaus Architecture: straight geometry Lines, plain walls, rounded stairwells, etc. The design focus on simple geometric forms and symmetry. The goal of architect Fan Wenzhao was to design a modern building, with a clear façade and a “neat image”. The arc staircase inside is equipped with large glass windows, the outer wall is in cement painted in light yellow, and the decorative elements are close to none. Fan Wenzhao’s own description of Xiefa Apartment is: “The residence is international style. The appearance is solid, simple, and beautiful, there are many windows, and the light and air are sufficient. There is a large platform in front of the living room, which is very useful. It can be fully equipped and meets the needs of families in “the new era”. The architect was not only looking to achieve a modern style in form, but he also wanted to modernize the apartments’ layouts and living spaces.

The suites on the east side of the third floor of this building were the former residence of Yu Zhenfei, the master of Kunqu Opera. Yu Zhenfei (1902-1993), a performer of Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. He also served as the principal of the Shanghai Opera School, the head of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, the president of the Shanghai Peking Opera Theater, the vice chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 1957.

Liberty Apartments

  • Address: No. 258, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese: 五原路258号

Just a few meters down the road from Xiafa Apartments, you will find another interesting apartment complex from the beginning of the last century – Liberty Apartments, located at No. 258 Wuyuan Road. This apartment building was designed by the Chinese architect Xi Fuquan in 1933 in a very distinctive modern art deco style. Compared to other apartment buildings in Shanghai, from that time, Liberty Apartments can be described as a “pocket-sized” complex, because the apartment units are rather small.

Liberty Apartments was built in 1933. This is a nine-story reinforced concrete structure with a modern, simple and elegant exterior design. It has a symmetrical façade decorated with simple vertical lines and a rough stone base on the ground floor. The window frames and corner windows are decorated with cement mortar in contrast with the brown brick wall. The window casings in the middle of the building and the lower panels on both sides of the building are white, and there is a white vertical decorative belt in the center of the facade, which becomes the center of the composition. The whole building is designed in a typical modern art deco style. The original building plans can be seen here.

Yu Zhenfei, a performing artist of Kunqu Opera, used to live in Liberty Apartment.

Garden House at No. 2, Lane 262, Wuyuan Road

  • Address: No. 2, Lane 262, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese: 五原路262弄2号

Right next to Liberty Apartments, located at No. 2, Lane 262, Wuyuan Road, you will find another interesting house that deserves a stop. Built in 1932, this is a detached garden house with Spanish elements, covering an area of around 550 square meters.

The design of this house is really unique: it is big in size, has a spacious garden, and two three-story buildings in brick and wood structure, with red tile sloping roofs. On the east side, there is a rectangular balcony with an iron floral fence and thick cement support at the bottom. Below the balcony, you can see the triple arch windows of the ground-floor rooms. A circular arch leads to the garden in the southeast corner, and the base is laid with mosaic and small terracotta floor tiles.

The history of the house is also interesting. In the 1930s it was used as a Russian Orthodox mental hospital, called the “Russian Orthodox Confraternity Hospital”.

After the October Revolution in Russia, many Belarusians fled to Shanghai. By the 1920s, the number of Russian immigrants in Shanghai skyrocketed. It is believed that the political situation in Russia, the subjugation, and the hard life they were experiencing, affected the spirits of many Russian immigrants, and mental diseases and weakness rose sharply among this population. By October 1923, the Russian Orthodox Brotherhood initiated the establishment of a free religious hospital in order to offer free medical care to the Russian immigrant community in Shanghai. The hospital was first located at Yan’an Middle Road (formerly Fuxu Road), but in January 1933, due to the increase in patients, it moved to two independent garden houses at No. 260 and 262, WuYuan Road. This was the first professional psychiatric hospital in Shanghai and by 1937, it had admitted 5,000 patients.

Garden House at No. 273, Wuyuan Road

  • Address: No. 2, Lane 262, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese: 五原路273号

Built in 1938, this is another Spanish-style garden residence with a three-story brick and wood structure. It has square windows, yellow cement exterior walls, red tile topped windows, and a circular tube tile roof.

Zhang Leping’s Former Residence

  • Address: No. 3, Lane 288, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese:五原路288弄3号

At No. 3, Lane 288, Wuyuan Road you can visit the former residence of Zhang Leping – one of the most renowned contemporary Chinese cartoonists. Zhang Leping (1910-1992), born in Haiyan, Zhejiang Province, has been working on cartoons and comic creation all his life. He pioneered children’s comic books in China by creating a series of cartoons about a young boy called Sanmao. Today, the Sanmao series is well known to all Chinese kids and adults, and Zhang Leping is known as the “Father of Sanmao”.

This house, where he lived from June 1950 to September 1992, is now transformed into a small museum that displays some of his works and personal belongings. This residence was built in the 1930s. Originally, most of the rooms on the first floor of the former residence were occupied by other residents, but today, the entire house is turned into a museum/exhibition hall. On the first floor, you can see some of his works from different periods: from his earliest cartoons, through the creation of the Sanmao series. On the second floor, you can visit the actual rooms he occupied, restored to their original appearance, including his studio, master bedroom, and children’s room.

The museum is free to visit.

Garden Houses at No. 1-2, 3-4 Lane 289, Wuyuan Road

  • Address: No. 1-2, 3-4, Lane 289, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese:五原路289弄1-2、3-4号

On WuYuan Road, lane 289 you’ll see another two interesting houses with a design that stands out.

Designed by Gonghe Foreign Firm, these two garden houses were completed in 1933. These two houses are designed in typical Tudor style and carry the hallmarks of Tudor style architecture: steeply pitched gable roofs, brick exteriors, hand-hewn half-timbering, masonry and stonework, and glass windows.

These are now private residences.

The old site of the nursery school of the China Welfare Foundation

  • Address: No. 314, Wuyuan Road
  • Address in Chinese:五原路314号

And now we’ve almost reached the end of WuYuan road! The last historical building, that deserves a stop (and maybe a photo) is located at number 314. This is another garden house, which was constructed in 1932 in Gothic Revival style. The main building is three-story with a double-sloped roof. It has a wide porch at the entrance, with pillars, arches, and a stone lion in front of the door.

This Gothic Revival architecture style began in the late 1740s in England and developed rapidly in the early 19th century. It is also called “Victorian Gothic” or “neo-Gothic”. It drew its inspiration from medieval architecture and competed with the Neoclassical style. The Gothic Revival borrowed details such as pointed arches, pointed arch windows, ornamentation, cornice moldings, and drizzle stones from medieval Gothic architecture.

The garden house at No. 314, Wuyuan Road incorporates many of these elements: the façade adopts arc arches and flat arches, surrounded by white moldings, the walls are painted with light gray paint, and there are geometric patterns under the windows on the second floor. The interior and exterior details reflect the characteristics of Art Deco.

This is the former site of the China Welfare Foundation’s Nursery School. You can read more about the history of this building here. Today it’s used as an administration building by the Soong Ching Ling Foundation.

Final stop

You can finish your WuYuan Road walking tour here, and by now, you would have seen most of the notorious buildings on this small, charming street. If you want to continue exploring the architecture and hidden gems in Shanghai’s Former French Concession, head to Wukang Road, which hides even more impressive historical buildings. If you are running out of time and you want to focus on the highlights, go directly to see one of the most iconic buildings in Shanghai: WuKang Mansion. Or you can simply have a coffee and relax in one of the many small coffee shops in this area.

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