The hardscrabble streets of Shanghai's Old City
“People visit Yu Garden and think they have explored the Old City,” says Insiders Experience guide Arthur Humeau. But as he coaxes his vintage black and white Chang Jiang 750 sidecar motorcycle into motion, he assures us that an authentic taste of the Old City is waiting to be discovered.
Arthur’s assortment of silver chains and leather wristbands provide a highly Instagramable shot at eye-level from the sidecar. In just over five minutes, we navigate through vastly different urban environments, from high-end residential suburbs and multi-lane freeways to desolate construction sites and shantytown-like alleys. We end up on what was once a much-loved Shanghai food street.
Fangbang Lu is now bordered by a walled construction zone on one side, and on the other, dusty shacks living on borrowed time. Displaying the type of community kindness that often gets lost in the process of gentrification, a resident lets us park by the doorway of her humble abode and we head into the narrow lanes on foot. The Old City was once Shanghai’s original walled fishing village beside the Huangpu River. After the city was carved into Concessions in the mid-19th century, the area was designated as the Chinese settlement. By the early 20th century it became a rather dark and dangerous place to live.
Our first stop is the former home of a particularly nasty character named Kohinata. He worked all sides—the Communists, Nationalists and Japanese—during the chaotic lead-up to World War II. It is said that screams could be heard echoing through these lanes as he tortured people for intelligence to trade with his various cohorts.
Electricity meters mark the many households that now call Kohinata's villa home
Through a brick archway, his courtyard house is now home to around 20 families (count the electricity meters!). Its central quadrangle is clustered with improvised kitchens and storage space, but you can still glimpse the beautiful original architecture with traditional carved wood screen doorways and decorative second-floor paneling.
The next residence is even more intriguing. The stylish villa fronted by a circular stone terrace and rotundas was the home of a wealthy Japanese-educated merchant and socialite who was a friend of Albert Einstein. Apparently, he was visiting this very house in 1922 when he received official word that he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. The family has a photograph commemorating the occasion in their living room.
After 1949, the villa’s beautiful gardens were converted into a factory that, along with its red star-emblazoned gates, can still be seen. The property’s original temple and pavilions are also visible on a neighboring block.
The red star at the factory gates
Back in the sidecar, we cruise through streets where chamber pots still get scrubbed and shirtless old men keep cool by eating ice pops on tiny stools. Protective city walls once encircled this neighborhood to keep out pirates. Those same walls later protected the surrounding Concessions from the squalor within.
Even though only a tiny section of wall remains, it took until recent times to devastatingly penetrate this atmospheric pocket of Shanghai. Yet distinctive hints of dark alley intrigue remain to be explored in the deepest corners of Chinatown.
Insiders Experience operates sidecare motorcycle tours of Shanghai as well as other adventurous expeditions further afield in places like Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai and Guizhou. This week, they're giving away to one lucky winner a one-hour bespoke tour of a side of the hidden side of the Old City, valued at RMB800.
1. Scan the QR code at the bottom of the page, and, if you don't already, follow our official City Weekend account.
2. In WeChat, send us the text message "I want to tour Old City by Sidecar" along with your name, email address and phone number.
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