Tianzifang is an arts and crafts enclave in a renovated residential area in the French Concession. // © 2014 gubgib/Shutterstock
Shanghai may be a globalized 21st-century megacity, but it wasn’t always so. It was a mostly undeveloped riverside settlement until the Sino-British Opium War ended in 1842, forcing China to open its coastal ports to international trade. Foreign powers, including the United States and the United Kingdom, carved Shanghai into self-governing districts, called Concessions.
Not surprisingly, the French fashioned the most stylish Concession — and it remains a fine legacy of the city’s early 20th-century “Paris of the Orient” heyday. Known as the “soul of Shanghai,” the former French Concession (also known as Frenchtown) is a charmingly unhurried district characterized by winding streets lined with platane trees shipped from Paris, eye-catching Art Deco apartment buildings and Baroque mansions. Strolling aimlessly along the atmospheric streets radiating from Fuxing Road is a timeless Shanghai pleasure.
And French chic is back in style. Today, just as a century ago, an impressive selection of boutiques, bakeries and cafes are dotted along soulful streets once known by their French names such as Rue Lafayette (Fuxing Middle Road), Route Ferguson (Wukang Road) and Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Road).
For the perfect visual guide to the former French Concession, clients can stop by the Old China Hand Cafe and pick up a copy of “Frenchtown Shanghai – Western Architecture in Shanghai’s Old French Concession,” by Tess Johnston and Deke Erh. The book’s prose and photos are beautifully evocative of this fascinating part of Shanghai.
The next stop on the Frenchtown sojourn is Rouge Baiser Elise. Parisian Elise de Saint Guilhem’s hand-embroidered tableware, bedding and clothing are inspired by 18th-century patterns embellished with knotted Chinese buttons and Oriental motifs. For more French-Chinoiserie souvenirs, Platane is located in the magnificent Flatiron-style Normandie Apartment building, dating from 1924, at the junction of Huaihai and Wukang roads. The boutique’s French owner arrived in China in 1987 to study Chinese pottery, and her contemporary ceramics by local craftsmen are exquisite.
Set back from leafy Wukang Road is Ferguson Lane, a Parisian-style courtyard of cafes and bistros. The highlight is Franck Bistrot, which was acclaimed as one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants in 2014. Owned by a southern French restaurateur, its classic Parisian dishes like la cote de boeuf and la terrine de campagne are written on the menu du jour blackboard. Nearby are Franck’s sibling venues — Farine, a French bakery and cafe, and Le Petit Franck, a wine bar.
Fusing French finesse with Chinese tea traditions is Song Fang Maison de The. Created by a former French Veuve Clicquot executive, this modern teahouse occupies a three-story townhouse on Yongjia Road. Clients will enjoy sipping their choice of 40 Chinese and 20 French teas. Visitors can also purchase tea sets in 1950’s-style aquamarine tins decorated with Mao-era propaganda art.
After a day exploring Shanghai’s coolest quarter, clients can kick back with local hipsters at La Petanque. Opened by a group of French hospitality school grads that run four bars under the Cafe des Stagiaires brand, it features an open bar-kitchen, French film posters and a petanque alley. It’s a chic place to bid au revoir to the French Concession accompanied by a glass of Bordeaux and a croque monsieur.