Besides the skyscrapers (not so interesting for the local, but serving as a good opportunity for visitors to take photo as background), the most charming characters of the city of Shanghai is its streets.
The streets in the old French Concession was lined by Phoenix trees, and villas. The villas are typically larger than those in the Silicon Valley, and walled by bricks, and high raised fences above it. There are many buildings along the edge of the streets, and you walk besides the window of the kitchen or leaving room of the residents of the building – a very unique experience only in Shanghai.
In strong contrast with the crowded, and over populated downtown Shanghai, the area at the heart of the downtown is very quiet, and lack of pedestrian. You will enjoy the lonely walk in the cave formed by the Phoenix trees for half an hour to two hours (depending how carefully you design your route) without getting back to the noisy Shanghai.
At night, if you walk along the roads near the West Fuxing Road, especially the Wu Yuan Road 五原路, you will be scared – it is just like walking in a old town with big houses that is completely dark, and there is no street lights in the lanes. That is quite a surprise . In some of the gardens, I often see people feed hens, or grow vegetables in their own place. That is maybe the most luxurious thing we can think of in this world: the house and the land can easily worth several billion RMB. That is also the funny part of this city: the residents in these most expensive, and well designed villa are often among the poorest in the city. They don’t own the house (the government owns it), but they have the rights to live there, and transfer their rights of continuing living there to their children.
The best way to explorer there streets are by walking. The area is very walkable, and surrounded by many metro atations. If it is raining, even better! The sounds on the leaves of the trees are more pleasant than orchestra. At night? It is also good time to visit, since some of the bars started to turn their lights, and open to customers. Unlike the highly restrictive building code in California, the bars, and teh residential areas, and other business facilities are mixed. So you may need to walk for few minutes to find another one.
Comparing to the street of San Francisco, I enjoy walking in Shanghai better, just because of the same reason I love San Francisco – the diversity of the buildings along the streets. They are of so many different styles from different countries. You must have a pen and a sketch book in hand to capture the moments when you encounter a Spanish window, or a French courtyard.
I’ve also noticed that poorer people will live, with several families in one villa. I’m curious about this. Can you talk more about how these people get the rights from the government to live in these villa houses?
Great topic suggestion, Joanne. I will explain it in an article later.
After the country was reborn, everyone is divided into a work unit and home unit. At that time, Shanghai has a serious lack of housing in the old chinese parts but the (formerly) colonial parts had very wide streets and big houses or appartments. So these were divided amoungst famillies with usually one room for a familly and sharing the other parts like WC, usually with a community kitchen outside because then we cooked with the coal bricks.
In many of the old houses, set in a row and very narrow, the house is designed with a staircase winding round and round as you go up with one or two rooms on one level.
I was raised in such a house and we lived in a room at the top under the roof, so our room had the slanted ceiling, very hot in the summer and windy in winter, but nice because we could see the street from our window and more safe than the bottom floor – never flooding.
So how can we pass the house from generation to generation? We have the Hukou (户口) system for assignment of the residence for each familly, a very long Chinse tradition.
This system has some bad points but a good point is for poor people, it gives them the right to occupy their familly home and if forced to move, compensation.
One special point Western people must understand, in China you cannot own land, only you have the right to use it or occupy it, a strange concept to Western people but the fact in China.
So if your family Hukou is in some place, it is the familly place and hand from generation to generation. Even in old China we had the concept of familly house or familly hall, considered to be the community property of all members, under the rule of elders, but passed to each new generation.
So Chinese take great pride in familly, it’s a typical attitude.