Shanghailander… Cafe and bakery

The famous cafe

Having lived for years on former Route Kaufmann (today Anting Lu), my daily routine took me to the Zhao Jia Bang lu metro station, at the intersection of Route Dufour (today Wulumuqi Nan Lu) and Route de Ziccawei (today Zhao Jia Bang Lu). This area is also the location of Shanghailander Cafe & bakery.

Route Dufour in Chinese

Having spent a lot of time in cafes in many places in the World, opening my own would surely be quite some fun. Although the name can be misleading, I have no link with this establishment, as a number of friends and readers have asked. Since I pass in front of this place nearly every day, I tried it and can recommend both the pastry and the coffee. The link with Old Shanghai does not stop with the Shanghailander name, as the Chinese name 聚付 is also significant, as it was the Chinese name of Route Dufour, former name of Wulumuqi Nan Lu.

Former Shanghai Nursing Home

Route Dufour was constructed between 1918 and 1921 and was named after a French employee of the Standard Oil who was killed in WWI. Most buildings in the bottom stretch of the street are not original, but they kept the right style. A notable building not far on the same street is the former Shanghai Nursing Home, that is now hidden in the trees and hosting many families. Much more visible is the Dufour apartment building, one of the lesser known Art Deco wonders of Shanghai.

Dufour Apartment, Art Deco in Shanghai

The location of Shanghailander Cafe has only become popular for cafes and bars in the last few years, with the transformation of parts of the Former French Concession in a trendy area.  Starting to be inhabited in the 1920s and 1930s, this area was residential and quiet, considered like the suburb of Shanghai. The proximity to the end of the French concession, the Zhao Jia Bang Creek (where the main road is now located) was surely not a good location for a cafe.

JingAn Coffee House

As show on this advertising for the long gone Jing An Cafe House, Cafe culture is nothing new to Shanghai, and coffe have spread everywhere in the last few years. When I wrote the post “Shanghai Coffee Culture” in 2010, Shanghai Coffee drinking was all about coffee chains and some old timers like Deda Cafe. In the meantime, independent coffee shops have opened up everywhere… and some have already disappeared (see Boona Cafe and Citron Cafe post for more details) in the fast pace of Shanghai business. In new Shanghai, cafes have become trendy again, just like in Old Shanghai.

Shanghai Coffee Culture

Having lived a number of years in Central Europe, I developed an acquired taste for coffee houses. Long gloomy winters make them the ideal place to spend a nice afternoon in Budapest, Prague, Vienna and many other cities. They are the place to meet friends and chat for hours.  Coming to Shanghai in 2004, a nice coffee house is what I missed the most. My first coffee place was Starbucks in Xin Tian Di, which was one of the few available then. Other coffee chains had not yet entered the market and there was little alternatives apart from hotels. The opening of Vienna Cafe in late 2004 was just what the doctor ordered. This Viennese coffee house was just like a smaller version of the Budapest coffee houses that I used to go to, making me feel instantly familiar and in love with this place. 5 years later, it is still one of my favorite coffee place in Shanghai (update 2023: Vienna Café closed around 2016 has sadly never been replaced).

Vienna Cafe Shanghai
Vienna Cafe Shanghai

Old Shanghai had numerous cafes and coffee houses.  Many of them where located on or near Avenue Joffre (today Huaihai Lu), operated by French or Russian immigrants, often coupled with bakeries. One of the well known place for coffee was the Bianchi Store (See post Bianchi Pastry and Chocolate for more info). About the only surviving coffee house of old Shanghai is Deda Cafe.

Coffee drinking was brought by foreigners and started to become a symbol of fashion and modernity among Shanghainese. Just like in Europe with Parisian writers meeting and working in cafes, the new groups of Shanghai writers would meet in coffee houses to live the Bohemian live of artists. Cafes were much warmer than the small tinzidians during the arch winters and groups of friends would just make the coffee last long hours to save money.

I really became interested in Shanghai coffee houses when I found the document on the left side in an flee market. This is a advertising for the Royal Cafe, that was probably standing on the tables just like in many Shanghai cafes today. Maxwell Coffee was already very famous in the USA and made it to Shanghai from America. The most interesting is the name of the coffee house in Chinese: Jing An Coffee house. Like there are many modern coffee houses in Shanghai located around JingAn Temple, there must have been a few of them in old Shanghai, probably on Bubbling Well Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu) or the surrounding streets. I have searched for the precise location of the Royal Cafe in old directories, but could not find it. The ad is both in Chinese and in English, so I guess this coffee house was mostly frequented by Chinese people.

Coffee Ads
Maxwell Coffee Ads

In 1938 Shanghai had 60 foreign cafes listed in the phone book. 9 companies were importing coffee including German trading firm Melchers and 11 companies where selling coffee in retail including Lane Crawford on Nanking Road (today Nanjing Dong Lu). Our friends at Mobfa wrote a great article about the biggest local coffee brand in Old Shanghai.

Coffee was also imported in large quantity. “The trade of China” 1934 shows that 186,095 Gold Units of Coffee was imported to China in 1933, and 170978 in 1934. Nearly 40% was imported from America and I guess a lot of if was Maxwell coffee that is advertised above. About 20% came form “Netherlands India” i.e. today’s Indonesia, being the famous Java Coffee. About 8% from “Straits Settlements” i.e. Malaysia where the tradition of white coffee drinking is still very strong.

Just like today, coffee drinking was the symbol of western habits and of modernity. Starbucks and the coffee chains of today found the right location to start operations here. No wonder Shanghainese took coffee and coffee house by storm… they already had experienced it in Old Shanghai.

Update 2023: Independant coffee shop have sprung all over Shanghai in the last few years. It’s a long was from the time when long gone Boona coffee was about the only one in town. One of my favorite in Shanghailander coffee store. Nothing to do with this blog but nice owner, great coffee and a love for Old Shanghai.

Boonna Cafe (Xin Le Lu)

On a small street, at the heart of the French Concession, there is this cafe that a friend mentionned over diner, Boonna Cafe. It’s not a bar, nor a French Grand Cafe type, but definitely kind of a Manhattan inspired coffee joint. About 10 meters by 5, with 9 tables and 25 seats, it’s not the biggest Cafe I know in Shanghai but it’s really friendly. Yellow and Red walls, giving light when the Shanghai suns goes away (i.e. most of the days). Lot’s of books, black and white pictures on the wall… even a ganja leaf somewhere in a corner. Some blues notes playing in the background. This place has a slightly artistic, alternative touch.

It’s not really Chinese, but these kind of places are so needed in Shanghai to make it more international. I love the atmosphere of a small place owned and run by a couple of friends. It’s just the opposite of big chains, the opposite of standardisation, though globalisation and media overexposure gives it an air of deja-vu. Starbucks has opened the way, now it’s time for more intimate places with a real atmosphere. Great place for a date, for starting a relationship, for closing one or meeting this friend perdu de vue since a few months… and last but not least, they have no smoking policy today… Definitely recommended for frequent visits.