Bohemian Rhapsody

Shanghai’s often overlooked district of Hongkou is a triumph in modern pastiche

By: By Gary Bowerman

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Shanghai is a city mostly focused on the future. Symbolized by its towering skyline, brash, go-getting demeanor, and insatiable urban ambition, China’s most globalized city rarely stops to look back.
This forward-thinking approach stems from the fact that, in the context of China’s several millennia of history, Shanghai is a young city. It developed from the mid-19th century onward. For clients in search of historical intrigue, this can be perplexing. Shanghai initially seems a large, modern city — albeit one with a storied modern history.

 The car-free Duolun Road holds a market daily.  // © 2009 Gary Bowerman
Some areas of historical interest are overlooked, however. One example is the fascinating but rarely visited district of Hongkou. Located northeast of the Bund, it welcomed swathes of foreign immigrants after 1854 when the American Concession in Shanghai was established. Ten years later, it merged with the British Concession to form a combined International Settlement.

While under foreign rule, parts of Hongkou that bordered the settlement developed a reputation as a bohemian quarter that magnetized Chinese philosophers, artists and intellectuals. Shanghai’s leading writers of the mid-19th century — including Mao Dun, Guo Moruo, Ye Shengtao and Rou Shi — all settled around today’s Duolun Road. In the 1930s, these forward thinkers pioneered Hongkou’s famed cafe culture, and their highbrow gatherings led to the formation of the League of Leftist Writers, which is today commemorated with a small museum.

In 1998, to honor Hongkou’s cultural heritage, the half-mile Duolun Road was restored and pedestrianized. Squeezed between a fast-changing landscape of malls, highways and urban buzz, it retains a casual village ambience and is lined with museums, galleries, teahouses, antiques stores and a daily street market.

A walk along Duolun Road is a time-shifting experience as the architecture ranges from traditional Shanghainese shikumen (stone gate) townhouses and narrow lanes to grandiose, colonnaded mansions and the Great Virtue Christian Church. Built in 1928, this eye-catching place of worship features upturned Chinese eaves, bright red pillars and
window frames.

By contrast, the most unique example of foreign-influenced architecture is the former home of a renowned banker named H.H. Kung. Built in 1924, this elegant sandstone villa is designed in southern Andalucian style with exquisite Moorish arches, intricately carved rectangular columns and blue-and-yellow wall tiles imported from Spain. If the front door is ajar, visitors can sneak a look at the magnificent Byzantine balcony that overlooks a tiny courtyard.

Duolun Road’s most hallowed resident was Lu Xun, a writer and revolutionary thinker acclaimed as the father of modern Chinese literature. He lived out his final years in Hongkou, and bronze statues of him adopting scholarly poses and communing with fellow intellectuals line the street. His simple final residence, where he died of tuberculosis in 1936, is tucked down a small lane on Shanying Road. Nearby, in the peaceful Lu Xun Park, the Lu Xun Memorial Hall exhibits his personal letters and artifacts. The park is also home to the writer’s tomb, which features a memorial calligraphy inscribed by Mao Zedong.

Adding to Duolun Road’s cherished sense of cultural eclecticism are two notable contemporary galleries. The Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art occupies an angular seven-story building near the junction with Sichuan North Road, while the edgier Osage Gallery occupies the magnificent whitewashed Palladian-style former homestead of Wang Zhao Shi, a revered intellectual.

A little further along, on Duolun Road’s curving right-hand bend, is the gloriously time-warped Old Film Cafe. There, clients can sip coffee in an old mansion with soaring arched windows while watching Chinese movies from the 1920s and 1930s. Look out also for the statue of Charlie Chaplin and the black-and-white posters of early 20th-century movie stars near the entrance.

In the mid-1930s, Hongkou’s intellectual cafe culture and literary leanings came to an abrupt halt. As Shanghai succumbed to the pre-war Japanese bombardment and invasion, Hongkou became the focus for a more sobering period of history. Largely because of its proximity to the city’s two main rivers, the Huangpu and the Wusong, which both flowed inland to large neighboring cities, Hongkou was occupied by Japanese troops in the lead-up to World War II.

What happened next has become part of Shanghai folklore. As the Nazi persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe intensified, overland escape routes across Russia and into northern China were identified. Around 12,000 stateless Jewish citizens in Austria were granted visas by the Chinese consul-general in Vienna to escape to Shanghai. Along with around 8,000 others, they comprised a community of around 20,000 Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary in Shanghai.

The occupying Japanese turned an area of a little more than a square mile, around Changyang Road and Huashan Road in Hongkou district, into a ghetto for “stateless persons.” The area subsequently became known as Little Vienna, and the interned Jewish emigres founded cafes, schools and a theater there.
Today, a small museum at the revamped Ohel Moishe Synagogue — founded in 1927 by Russian Jews — narrates the story of Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto. Nearby, in Huashan Park, a commemorative tablet, inscribed in Chinese, English and Hebrew, honors those who perished in Shanghai’s wartime Jewish ghetto. It’s a small memorial, but one that stands tall among the soaring futurism of modern Shanghai.