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Shanghai walking tour: The former French Concession

Foreigners in Shanghai speak of the former French Concession which should not be missed for your affordable China tourslike it’s sacred ground, akin to the windy streets of Montmartre.

Ask locals and they’ll tell you that the neighborhood -- roughly bounded by Ruijin Lu to the East, Yan’an Lu to the North, Zhaojiabang Lu to the South and Huashan Lu to the West -- is quiet, tree-lined and teeming with boutiques, bars and restaurants for Shanghai’s hedonists.

China tourwith a local

Shanghai native Eheart Chen lived in the neighborhood for the first 20 years of his life. He grew up on Wuyuan Lu, a two-block stretch in the heart of the former French Concession, before moving to Hengshan Lu and Xiangyang Nan Lu.

A daytime office executive and nighttime singer, composer and director, 35-year-old Chen says he loves the neighborhood because its streets are filled with memories.

“Shanghai was one of the first true world cities,” Chen says.

“The former French Concession neighborhood is very beautiful -- the buildings, the trees. The curve of Fuxing Xi Lu especially reminds me of Paris.”

We hit the pavement with Chen to map out the best route to tour his home neighborhood.

Stop 1

Little Red House

Directions: The walking tour kicks off from the edge of Xujiahui Park, at the southern tip of the neighborhood.

The site: Built in 1921, this is the former headquarters of British recording label EMI, which held court until 1949, after which a government-owned music group took over.

Chen says this is where a number of then-famous Chinese singers recorded, such as Zhou Xuan and Li Xianglan.

The building, known colloquially as “Little Red House,” is now home to Restaurant Martin, run by three-star Spanish Michelin chef Martin Berasategui.

Stop 2

The Normandie

Directions: Walk east along Hengshan Lu, turn north on Tianping Lu and walk up toward Huaihai Zhong Lu.

The site: Designed in 1924 by Hungarian architect László Hudec, who designed several buildings around Shanghai which is listed as one of top 10 China tours, The Normandie is a beautifully restored, eight-story apartment building with a rich architectural history.

Chen remembers visiting his artist friends here and says, “Looking at the building is like going back to the 1930s and seeing how the Shanghainese lived then.”

Stop 3

Former residence of Zhang Leping

Directions: Walk north on Wukang Lu and make a right onto Wuyuan Lu.

The site: Halfway down the block is the former home of Zhang Leping , the lauded animator and creator of the Sanmao (“Three Hairs”) cartoon series and title character of the same name.

Zhang started drawing Sanmao in 1935 as a way to portray the Second Sino-Japanese War’s youngest victims, and Sanmao’s three hairs represent malnutrition.

The blocks surrounding Wuyuan Lu have experienced enormous growth and gentrification, especially Anfu Lu, one block north.

“I have mixed emotions about the development,” Chen says.

“I like that it’s returning Shanghai to a world city, but I hate that some of my good memories are being destroyed.

“When I was growing up, Yong Le Gong cinema was where Food Central and the neighboring stores are now. The entrance of the Dragonfly Retreat spa was once the door to the cinema. ”

Stop 4

Children’s Palace

Directions: Walk east on Wuyuan Lu, make a left on Wulumuqi Lu and walk north until you hit Yan’an elevated roadway.

On the north side of Yan’an, halfway down the block from Wulumuqi you’ll find the entrance to the Children’s Palace.

The site: “This is full of memories for so many Shanghainese children,” says Chen. “This is where we went to watch films, play games and learn singing, dancing and painting.

“A few years ago, I went to a fashion show there and it was such a different feeling.”

The core structure of the Children’s Palace is the former residence of Jewish entrepreneur Sir Elly Kadoorie, founder of Peninsula Hotel’s mother company, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.

The 14,400-square-meter building was built purely with marble and is the only one of its kind in Shanghai.

Stop 5

Shanghai Theatre Academy

Directions: One block south of the Children’s Palace is the Shanghai Theatre Academy complex, a mishmash of new construction and restored buildings dating to the 1940s. You can consider it for your popular China travel package.

The site: “This is a famous film school and the buildings are old and beautiful,” Chen says. He suggests walking around the school grounds and “just observing the students’ lives.”

“The big, old buildings, the grass and the trees make it a very peaceful place,” Chen adds.

Stop 7

Cathay Theatre

Directions: Half a block from the Jinjiang Hotel is the Cathay Theater, the last stop on Chen’s former French Concession walking tour.

The site: The theater opened in 1932 and was owned by Victor Sassoon, who also owned the Peace Hotel.

“It’s a beautiful theater, very art deco,” Chen says. “It's a favorite of famous Shanghainese author Eileen Chang, who’s written about it in her works.”

Chang is best known for her novel "Lust, Caution," which was turned into an award-winning and highly erotic

film by Ang Lee in 2007. Like The Normandie and Shanghai Theater Academy’s older buildings, the Cathay Theatre has been restored.

“I do think a lot of the places in the former French Concession have been protected very well, especially when compared to Beijing (a destintaion for your China tour packages), where the hutongs have been absolutely destroyed," says Chen.

“Because foreigners like this place, the government protects it, and I think that’s OK.”

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