Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
In many ways, Shanghai epitomizes the popular image of a 21st-century city. Its emergence onto the mainstream tourism radar has made the soaring skyline and signature sights such as the Bund, Shanghai World Financial Center Tower, Yu Gardens and People’s Square well known worldwide. In addition, China’s east coast megalopolis continues to make headlines for its eclectic dining scene, pulsing nightlife and glitzy shopping options.
Shanghai’s future-focused urban structures make it a compelling destination to visit. But beyond the modernism and shifting trends, the soul of Shanghai resides in its quieter quarters. For clients seeking to scratch the surface of the real Shanghai, charming walled gardens, outsized art installations and the wartime Jewish ghetto are among the places to seek out.
All cities, especially fast-paced ones like Shanghai, require soulful retreats for slowing down mind and body. Guilin Park is that place. This peaceful enclave southeast of downtown is imbued with the natural beauty of a traditional Chinese garden. Its history is a little more rambunctious however, as the charming pavilion in the center was the residence of “Pockmarked Huang,” 1930’s Shanghai’s most notorious gangster. Today, Huang’s former home is a teahouse with a terrace overlooking shady gardens, pagodas and grottoes — all encased by an undulating “dragon-back” wall. It’s popular on weekends with families and young couples on pre-wedding photo shoots, but the prettiest time to visit is September, when gui (osmanthus) trees burst with color and fragrance.
Another historic area is Lu Xun Park in northern Hongkou district, which is dedicated to one of China’s most revered writers and philosophers, Lu Xun. Set beside a lake and pagodas is a spot where locals sing opera and practice tai chi — the Lu Xun Memorial Hall exhibits his writings and personal artifacts, while the writer’s tomb features an elegy inscribed by Mao Zedong.
Also nearby is Duolun Road, a tranquil street of 1930’s townhouses that were the hangouts of Shanghai’s pre-War literati. Some of these fine buildings have been refurbished and converted into art galleries and cafes, and there is also a red brick church in the center of the pedestrian street.
Southeast of the city is a green space with an entirely different history. Located next to the incense-scented Longhua Buddhist temple, the Longhua Martyrs Memorial Cemetery sits amid meticulously manicured parklands, replete with a bamboo garden and rockeries. The park commemorates the brutal executions of Communist revolutionaries carried out here in 1927 by the Kuomintang government.
Despite its gruesome past, this is a fascinating, rarely visited historical site. Dotted throughout the park are giant socialist-realist statues depicting propagandist revolutionary struggles against anti-Communist adversaries. Behind the memorial museum is the eye-catching Tomb of the Unknown Martyrs. Sculpted by He Pan, it depicts a motionless body half-entombed in the lawn with an arm extending upward in hope.
Another often-overlooked aspect of Shanghai history is that 20,000 Jews fled here in 1937 to avoid Nazi persecution in Europe. Their arrival coincided with the invasion by the Japanese, and the stateless refugees were forced into a cramped ghetto in Hongkou district. A stone tablet at the entrance to Huoshan Park commemorates the founding of the ghetto and those who lived here.
A short walk from Huoshan Park is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which incorporates the renovated Ohel Moshe Synagogue. Originally built in 1927, the synagogue was a focal point of life in the wartime ghetto. A small museum tells the story of Shanghai’s Jewish refugees, many of which maintain strong ties with the city. For a deeper insight into Shanghai’s Jewish history, Israeli-born documentarian Dvir Bar-Gal conducts walking tours of the old ghetto and areas of the city that were developed by Jewish financiers in the 1920s and 1930s.
Contemporary art has become an increasingly visible motif for life in 21st-century China. Shanghai and Beijing are magnets for artists who attempt to visually deconstruct the nation’s ongoing economic and societal changes. The famed heartbeat of Shanghai’s contemporary arts scene is M50, a tourist-friendly district of galleries occupying former textile mills near Suzhou Creek. Search a little harder, and you will find a new art enclave. Shanghart Taopu is housed in an old warehouse that has been painted bright red, and showcases outsized art installations and sculptural works by established and up-and-coming Chinese artists.
Wherever clients walk in Shanghai, the over-arching impression is of a city being built upward. The ever-rising skyline is cast in concrete and copious glass, which makes the Shanghai Glass Museum an intriguing attraction. Located in a former state-owned glass factory in northern Baoshan district, this design-led museum contrasts the developmental timelines of glass technology and glass art in the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
Visitors to the museum embark on a crystalized journey from ancient Egypt through China’s Tang dynasty to high-tech glass applications used in China’s space program. Glassblowing and glazing demonstrations enthrall younger visitors while the upper floor offers an international collection of ancient and contemporary glass art.