The revival of Gulangyu

Gulangyu beach
Gulanyu beach in the fog

Our third trip to the Gulangyu Island near Xiamen is making it a bit of a yearly pilgrimage.  Xiamen is about 800 km south from Shanghai and the 1 hour flight is enough to transport from Shanghai winter to Xiamen spring. Just like Shanghai,  Xiamen was one of the treaty port open by the Treaty of Nanjing from 1842. Although it did not turn into a metropolis, it became an important trade city. A number of old buildings are still visible on the shore front, including the “Lujian Harbour View Hotel”. As our taxi driver proudly pointed out, “these buildings are as old as the ones on the Bund in Shanghai”. Like in Shanghai, they are being rediscovered and transformed into tourist attractions.

We have walked the streets of GuLanYu many times before, but this year’s visit was a little bit of a surprise. Since the closure of our beloved Night Lilly guest house in 2006, accommodation on the island was quite limited. Choice was basically between a few state owned hotels (with the delights of the Karaokes and low quality Chinese breakfast) and small chinese hostels that can be really friendly, but not that comfortable like the Boat House hotel where we stayed last year (

Leeming hotel
Leeinn hotel at night

We were really excited to find out that a real private hotel had opened on the island. Leeing hotel ( is located in an old mansion on 38 Zhangzhou lu.  The building has been renovated, meaning that only the walls were kept and all orginal fixtures have been removed. The interior is very modern with design bathrooms and LCD TV screens in each room. Like in many Chinese hotels, the beds are hard and the noise insulation is not the greatest point but it makes a comfortable stay. The hotel also has a coffee bar and restaurant, great place to sit and relax with a bottle of wine. It is located in side street of Zong Hua lu, the main walk through the island, making it quite but of short distance to many of the interesting places to visit like the Catholic church, the Huai Jiu Gulangyu museum (, High Heaven complex and the beach.

Glass window in Gulanyu
Glass window in Gulanyu

The other interesting place we discovered was the Reminiscence hotel, behind the Huai Jiu Gulangyu Museum on 38 Huangyan lu (tel: 0592-2065000). It is probably less comfortable and modern than the Leeinn, but all furniture are antics and the renovation has left most of the inside fixtures in place creating a really nice atmosphere. This is a great place for history lovers like us and we will surely try it next year.

The most visible change from last year was the opening of many coffee shops on the island. Until last year, the only places to get descent coffee on a terrace after walking around the island was Naya hotel and Cafe, in the former German consulate (12 Lujiao Road, near the harbor), and slowly Cafe (An Hai lu 36). Coffee shops have sprung up around the island, particularly around Zhong Hua lu. Gulanyu is quickly transforming into a new version of Yangshuo or LiJiang with backpackers hotels and small “western restaurants” everywhere. Quite a number of houses are under renovation, showing that more of these places will open soon. Tourists were also in a much higher number than the year. The quite little island is transforming to become a mass tourism destination. It definitely makes a stay there more comfortable… but a little less private and exclusive. It’s probably best to enjoy it soon before the nice and quiet feeling disappears under the coming wave of KTV and tourist masses.

For more pictures about Gulangyu, click here.

Plaza 353 ruinovation

Plaza 363 outsideWatching the renovation of the “Dong Hai building” on Nanjing Dong Lu was a mixed joy and disappointment… just like the final result. The Continental department store building from 1933 is a fine piece of Shanghai architecture. Although not as extravagant as other Shanghai building from this period, it had an interesting “zig zag” façade representative of the geometrical motives used in Art Deco.
Seeing this building surrounded by scaffoldings was scary as always in Shanghai. One is never sure whether the next step will be destruction or renovation. The prime location on Nanjing Lu and previous demolition of neighboring buildings did not give much hope … but it survived. The facades have been well preserved, even if the ground floor is just not the same as it was before. At least, it keeps a consistent look with the building’s style and keeps the atmosphere around this part of Nanjing Lu… the less nice part of the story is the inside.
Plaza 363 insideThe building had an inside courtyard that has been covered to create indoor space inside. I have seen this feature many times in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s a great way to develop such a construction. Having seen many early 20th century buildings being carefully restored and transformed into office buildings or high class shopping malls… I was expecting more. As in most “ruinovation” in Shanghai, nothing remains from the original interior. Some (like Central Plaza on Huai Hai Lu) managed to keep use the original volume, giving a special feeling to their store… but this was not the aim of the developer of Plaza 353. The inside looks and feels like a cheap copy of CITIC Square and could be just in any concrete building in any suburb of Shanghai… not a high class shopping center on the busiest shopping street of Shanghai. Best advice for old Shanghai lovers… enjoy it from the outside but don’t get inside. At least the facades were preserved, that is already not so bad.

All about (old) Shanghai

Cover all about ShanghaiI had read parts of this book over the internet before, as it is available on the Tales of old China website, but having it on paper is a much nicer experience. Recently republished by EarnShaw books, “All about Shanghai and its environs” is a time travel. A reprint of an actual 1934 guide book about Shanghai, it catches the city at its highest point, just before the 1937 Japanese invasion that altered the course of history. While Europe and the US were struggling in the great depression, the guidebook shows a city full of energy and hopes, the most important city in Asia at the time.
Well known old Shanghai expert Peter Hibbard brings his contribution in a great introduction to the original guide. What is striking is how much tourist expectations and reactions over the city remain unchanged after so much political turmoil and redevelopment. Exactly like today, Shanghai was the entry point of many tourists visiting China. Landing on the Bund, they would come looking for the “eternal China” with pagodas, blue porcelain and incense like they always dreamed it. The first mostly found disappointment with Shanghai being a modern western city. They would then try to get a glimpse of their China dream visiting temples and garden (like Yu Yuan garden, Jing An Temple, Jade Buddha Temple or Long Hua Pagoda) before finally seeking refuge in the familiar environment on hotels and bars in the city center.
Just like today, night life was one of the high point of Shanghai with places of all levels catering for every taste. Nightly China encounter was one of the major attraction of Shanghai, from the English Club (#2 on the Bund), the bar of the Cathay hotel (today Peace Hotel) or the French Club (Today’s Garden hotel) to cabarets and male-only establishment on Blood Alley or the back streets of Broadway’s Hong Kou district,
Today’s Shanghai is a shopper’s paradise, just as was old Shanghai. Shopping streets offered a mix of shops bringing foreign goods to China (just like current department stores or City Shop nowadays). Nanking Road (Nanjing Dong Lu) was famous for its department stores as it is today for many Chinese shoppers, Avenue Joffre (Huai Hai Zhong Lu) was famous for its many French and Russian dressmakers as well as cafes, restaurants and bakeries (just like today). Ward Road (current Shi Men Yi lu) was famous for lady’s underwear shops. Some of today’s famous brands such as retailers Wing On and Lane Crawford already had outlets in the city. Bayer chemicals and pharmaceuticals, GE electric products, OTIS lifts and French Champagne already were famous brands in the old Shanghai.
Just like today, tourists and foreign residents were looking for “typical” China products. Tea, silk and jade were offered in many places… with a big warning for jade as its many shapes and colors require an expert eye in order to pay the right price. Hotels had many curios and antics shops… often selling brand new antics to gullible tourists of the time (just like today). This 1934 guidebook is full of warnings about the buying so-called antics that are just brand new. A short visit to today’s Yu Yuan garden shows that not much as changed on this front either.
I usually don’t spend most times reading guidebooks, but reading every details of this one was a great to a trip to Old Shanghai. With the amount of information involved, it is probably not for the old Shanghai beginner. However, with a bit of back ground knowledge it is an extremely enjoyable read about Old Shanghai. After “The Unaltered diary of a Shanghai baby”, the republication of “All about Shanghai” is a great achievement from EarnShaw books.

Looking at Sydney

As described in a previous post, the corner or Nanjing Lu and Shi Men lu is on for a massive reconstruction. All old buildings in the area will be destroyed and surely replaced by the usual skyscraper with a mix of shopping center, office building and hotel or serviced apartments. The aim here is probably not create a nice livable environment but to make an architecture that will look great on brochures, a copy of Singapore or Hong Kong… most importantly maximizing profit from the real estate operation with little regard for urban design or preservation of historic architecture.

Coming back from a long vacation in Australia, the difference between urban development in Sydney or Shanghai is striking. The center of both cities was created in the 1910’s to 1930’s leaving a mix of various styles from the period, from sandstone beaux-arts to innovative Art Deco. Both of them had to re-deploy there city center to accommodate needs of the early 21st century into architecture from the early 20th century. Both cities are facing a very strong increase of population and demand for offices and residential buildings (though the pressure was much higher in Shanghai until recently). Despite these similarities, the difference in development is striking. Sydney’s goal seems to preserve as much as possible and to continue using old buildings that can be kept, creating a mix of old and new keeping the heritage while modernizing the city. Developments such as Queen Victoria Building, arcades on Georges Street (picture above) and the Rock’s area are probably the most well known examples.

Shanghai is still in the process of transforming the city, though after years of work we can surely have an idea about the result by now. The emphasis has been on keeping “troffee” old buildings in the middle of a concrete forest, NOT actually using and preserving heritage buildings at the same time. Although preservation seems to get more attention nowadays, we are still far from the great balance achieved by Australia’s main city into keeping the old while adapting for the new. Visiting Sydney gives a great idea of how Shanghai could have been transformed. Hopefully, it’s not too late for the remaining parts.

Lights on HuaiHai Lu

Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai lu) was the focal point of the Shanghai French Concession. Marechal Joffre was a hero of French World War I and many cities in France have a street named after him. The street got its current name from the battle of Huai Hai (1948), that was the decisive point toward the communist victory, the take of Shanghai and the establishment of the people’s republic of China in 1949.

The French municipality was located on Avenue Joffre (currently the Central Plaza shopping mall, at the corner of HuaiHai lu and Madang Lu, that is interestingly hosts a Delifrance shop). Although many of the old buildings have gone, the section from Maoming lu to the North South Elevated motorways still looks like the old time.  In the 1930’s, many dress makers, hat shops and tailors were located on that stretch of the street, making it the main fashion shopping center for elegant wealthy citizens of the French concession. Shops were mostly operated by Russians as well as cafe’s, restaurant and bakeries giving to this area the nickname of little Russia. In the same area is located Brooklyn Court and the Cathay Apartments. Most of the old buildings of Huaihai lu have been destroyed to leave space to bright and new skyscrapers, but the above stretch has been more or less left like before. Facades have been renewed, and new additions fit relatively well in the background. Anchor buildings such as the Cathay theater (still a cinema today) and the opposite shop (today selling lingerie) can still be recognized on the pictures down though trees has grown a little since then. The return of high street clothing brands as well as coffee houses just adds to the atmosphere. Like everywhere in Shanghai, cars now drive on the right-hand side, as opposed to the left-hand side in old Shanghai.
The really unfortunate bit of Huai Hai lu are the horrible metal archs and lights crossing over the street. As they are hidden by the trees during the day it is somewhat easy to disregard them. At night, they just kill the atmosphere. I have seen similar kind of lighting in other Chinese cities, so they must be part of a fashion here. On the background of  trees and old buildings of Avenue Joffre, they are just out of place and I have hoped for their removal every time I have passed by them. This is when a recent radio announcement attracted my attention. Apparently, the horrible lights will be removed in the near future. I will only believe it when I see the horrible lights gone, but this already makes my day.

Gare du Sud, Kunming

Treaty ports in China were mostly on the seaside (like Shanghai or Tianjin) or on rivers (like Hankou, Wuhan today). However, some were not even near any large water, like Kunming. The city is best known as the gateway to Yunnan touristic areas such as Lijiang, Dali, Shangri-la or  Xishuangbanna, but few people have heard about the old French presence in  Kunming.
Based in neighbouring Indochina, the French started to look at a railroad from Kunming to Haiphong (port of Hanoi) in 1885.They got the right to build the link from Kunming to Laocai (north Vietnam) in 1898. The Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan (CIY) was in charge of building and running the railway service. France never actually attempted to attach Yunnan to Indochina but the “Transindochinois” railroad was open in 1910 . Conveniently, Kunming became a treaty port in 1908. The train from Kunming to Vietnam still runs today, but apparently only for goods. I had the opportunity to travel on the Vietnam part of the track in 1998, from Hanoi to Laocai and back.
It’s by random that we discovered the remain of Kunming South Station (Garedu Sud, both photos up). The station buildings have become a fancy restaurant, but the building shape is still clearly visible, as well as the art deco motives on entrance wall. The station building is now hidden between ugly apartment buildings and difficult to find. Although the only one shown in the guidebook, it’s not the only reminder of the French presence in Kunming. Located next to the river, the mini French area also encloses a few private villas of western style (photos left and right) next to the station, very similar to some found in Shanghai or in Xiamen. A little hidden between the trees, they also have been turned into restaurant, but are worth a visit. Guards there are a little surprised to see westerns taking pictures having a look is no problem. Those buildings all wear a plate from Kunming municipality, so one can hope that they will be preserved.

It’s while walking in the surrounding area that we got the biggest surprise. A colonial building is hidden behind the brand new Kunming hospital.  Like in Shanghai’s Ruijin hospital, building #1 of Kunming people hospital was probably the original French hospital of Kunming.

The front side in today’s hospital’s courtyard has been re-painted, but the backside (picture down) has not seen any renovation since a long time. Fortunately the inside rot iron decoration, round staircases and terrazzo’s floors are still there. Despite the age, the building still has some character. Since it also has a preservation plate, one can hope it will be kept.

Dancing in the bank

The Bund was the center of business in Old Shanghai. Major banks and companies had their headquarters on the riverside or in the streets behind. A number of these buildings are finally being renovated in turned once again into greatness, though mostly into fancy bars and restaurants. One of the most popular one is Bund 18, open in late 2004, the old building of the “Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China”. Renovation of this old lady was run by Italian experts in old building renovation. Thanks to their work, this dilapidated piece of art has been turned into a luxury shopping mall and an entertainment complex. Bar Rouge on the 7th Floor opened in late 2004 along with restaurant Sens & Bund. Bar Rouge was the undisputed star of Shanghai nightlife (see my post “Decadence on the Bund“) and has been joined by Lounge 18 (4th floor) in late 2007.

Bar Rouge is all about modern design, using very little of the original building’s features, apart from the incredible terrace with the fantastic view on the Pudong. Lounge 18’s decor really uses the building much more, as the 4th Floor was originally dedicated to be an art gallery. The careful restoration of the windows, ceiling and interior adds a lot to the atmosphere, giving real feeling of history in the building. The most breathtaking part certainly is the staircase seen by most people on their way to the bars.

The original owner, the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China was founded in 1853 in London, following the grant of a royal charter from Queen Victoria. The Shanghai branch opened in 1858. It developed in the city, financing trade between India, China and other parts the British Empire. Business must have been good, as the bank built its headquarter on the Bund in 1923. The building was remarkable, competing in style with others along the river… but at the end of the day, it was a bank. In here, like in any bank, people would come in to deposit and take out money, collect their salaries and make investment. Exactly like in today’s Bank of China, people would have a little booklet listing all operations executed on the account. I happened to find one of these booklets from 1940 (picture up and left). The last operation is from September 1941, as probably the client left Shanghai then. Everything was handwritten at the time and very well kept. The Chartered Bank merged with the Standard Bank in 1969 to become “Standard Chartered bank”. After leaving the country in the 1950’s, it has come back many years later as one of the main foreign banks now operating in China. Bund 18 is not a bank anymore, but I think about the booklet every time I go there and the building still is one of the jewel of the Bund.

Last serving on Wujiang Lu

Wujiang lu is one of the most popular and peculiar streets of Shanghai. It’s a restaurant street. My office moved on this street about 4 years ago, before it was actually pedestrianized. Their was not many cars crossing, but every now and then a Shanghai driver would force his way through the crowd. The street was blocked for cars last year, and is full every night with people eating small snacks on sale in the many shops.
When we moved in the tower (in the background of picture left below), the owner of the office proudly told me “All these horrible old buildings will be destroyed in 3 months and they will create a nice park instead”. It was so true that although the building is physically on WuJiang Lu, there is also a postal address on Nanjing Xi Lu… for the time when these buildings will not exist anymore. This was more than 4 years ago and the buildings still stand although the neighborhood has already been destroyed (Click here to see post “Another one bites the dust“). Unfortunately, this is all about to change.

Restaurants are still serving, but shops on the Shi Men Yi Lu side of the blockare already closed down and walled up. Soon will come the last serving on Wu Jiang Lu. The city will loose one it noisiest but also most popular street. This part of Shanghai will become more shiny, more modern and more sterile. Like in other areas, the renovation is a great excuse to destroy very nice old buildings that could be renovated. It surely will make much more money for the developers, but will also greatly alter the landscape of this part of Shanghai.

The block separating Wujiang lu from Nanjing Xi lu is one single building. Like many of the old Shanghai, it is a combination of several styles (art deco mixed with beaux-arts and neoclassical columns). Still there is something really nice about the round shape espousing the street corners (see pictures below). To judge form the construction details and location, this was once a luxury apartments and high class shops building. Renovation could have made a great small boutique shopping center out of it, keeping the corner’s historical view while creating high street shopping… just like this was done on Huai Hai lu. Unfortunately, this is not what will happen and soon this building will be gone.  I particularly like the balconies, the columns, the shape of the building and the white shape repeating itself all along the facade. They are detailed on the pictures below. Adieu little building on the corner of Bubbling well road and Yates road.

Royal Asiatic Society Shanghai Branch

The Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai was an association created to promote “science, literature and art” in relation to Asia and China”. Born in 1857 it grew so much that it had a building near the Bund (picture left), that hosted a museum and a library. A large part of the museum collection (mostly stuffed birds and animals) is today in the Shanghai museum of natural history and most of the library ended up in Xu Jia Hui library along with the Bibliotheca Zikawei from the Jesuits fathers… but the RAS building still stands (picture left). The society published a journal 4 times a year, publishing articles related to Asia and China. In the city of money and trade, a small group of people was working hard to develop culture and intellectual activities.
The Shanghai association was a branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Although the activity of the society stopped in Shanghai in the late 1940’s, it continued in London, HongKong, Korea, Malaysia and other locations.

A group of (mainly) British people resurrected the society in 2007 and got the accreditation from the RAS in London. Since last year, there is again a Branch of the RAS in Shanghai. Although its membership is still small, it is constantly growing. Like its ancestor, the RAS organise conferences, talks, exhibitions as well as events linked to culture in the city. With its root firmly in the old Shanghai, the city’s history and heritage conservation is high on the agenda but the society’s scope is far from limited to this topic. I had the privilege to be recently elected member of the council governing the society in Shanghai.

On 22nd November, the society will organise its annual event, the RAS “soiree” in the ballroom of the Astor House hotel. This will be an opportunity to celebrate the society’s resurrection, hearing a number of highly interesting speakers about the history of Shanghai and meet representatives of the HongKong Branch of the RAS. If you are interested in becoming a fellow of the RAS or attending the Soiree on 22nd November, please email me:

Visit Shanghai in a vintage sidecar

visit Shanghai in a SidecarOld side cars driven by foreigners are a common sight in Shanghai streets on weekend.  In good weather, they are a cool way to cruise the tree lined streets of the old French Concession.  Looking like 1930’s motorbike, they fit perfectly in the art deco surroundings.

The side cars are from the right period, but they were not available in 1930’s Shanghai. Made for the German army in the 1930’s the original model was only available in Europe. It was a fixture of the German army during World War II and is seen in many movies about this period. It’s only after the war that the Soviet army transported the plant over to USSR, renaming it Ural. Sometimes in the 1950’s, USSR helped creating a copy of the factory near Beijing, to equip the Chinese army. Many years later, the bike caught the eye of a few expats first in Beijing, then in Shanghai. The mechanics has been little changed from the 1930’s original, so these side cars are a piece of the European 1930’s in 1930’s Shanghai. By a twist of history, the bike and the city are a great match, and it’s easy to imagine people cruising old Shanghai one similar bikes… but it probably never happened until a few years ago.

Driving sidecars is not such an easy task. I know a few people driving them to work everyday, but they are not many. Most owners drive them only on weekends… and most Shanghai residents would love to enjoy the fresh air but probably not dare to drive around on ths bike. This is where a new service comes in handy. Shanghai Sideways ( is the fruit of a friend and myself. The company offers tours of Shanghai, both the new Shanghai and the old city for tourists and residents. My friend Thomas is crazy about sidecars and drive people around. I have been involved in the tour design, commenting for the historic tours and marketing. For more information on the tours, visit the above website, or contact me at:

Update: I left Shanghai Sideways in 2011, but the company is still going strong. It has changed name and his now called Insiders, now expanding is Morocco.