by Simon Rowe and Masami Hamada
Photos by Simon Rowe

Simon Rowe and Masami Hamada explore Shanghai' vanashing old city

"Ho-cha" means "tastes good" in Shanghai dialect. In Tang Shong Di Jiu Jia liquor store, on the corner of Dengfeng and Fangbang Streets in Shanghai's Old City, you're unlikely to use those words. The house speciality is mao tai, a powerful rice liquor reminiscent of musty plum and molasses, served by the ladle from torpedo-sized ceramic kegs. A bowl, at 15 yuan (JY221), costs the same as a packet of Double Happiness cigarettes, though as you empty the dregs you realize someone got the names mixed up.

          Business at Tang Shong Di Jiu Jia is as sluggish as its customers. In one hour I count only two: a wily old fellow with a Ho Chi Minh goatee and a bow-legged peddycart driver who order two bowls each and toddle off into the afternoon tiddled. Nearby, passersby ebb and flow around the Temple of the City God, a shrine to the working class folk of Old City, and if it weren't for an enormous pair of men's underpants swinging from a hanger across the liquor shop window, my view of a timeless Shanghai street scene would be complete.

          Elsewhere in the city, that "timelessness" is disappearing at light speed. On both sides of the mighty Huangpu River construction projects are running day and night as urban planners race to transform Shanghai into the New York of the East. Their showpiece is the Special Economic Zone across the river in Pudong, where the rocket-like Oriental Pearl TV Tower is located and the 430-meter-high Grand Hyatt Hotel serves the People's Republic's highest martini.

          Forget the olive and head south on foot from the central business district, down either Sichuan or Henan Streets, until you reach Renmin Road, the original site of the Old City walls and less than 200 meters from the river and the imposing British colonial facades of the Bund. From here fish and poultry markets choke the alleys and bicycles outnumber cars ten to one. The excess weight of rust does little to hamper the determined men and women who ride them out of the early-morning haze and into the dimly-lit nights each day. Peddy cart drivers high on mao tai keep up rigorous schedules, hauling oranges and lingerie, rice crackers and firecrackers, delivering anything - even school kids - from the Bund to Fangbang Street in the Old City's heart. It's not surprising that the most popular model goes by the brand name Forever.

          From 13th century onwards, Nanshi district, as it was called, thrived as Shanghai's center of trade and commerce. Cargo arrived hourly up the Huangpu River and was whisked directly through the east gate to be hocked in the markets. These days, the restored Ming Dynasty buildings along Fangbang Street house traditional medicine shops, tea houses and curio stalls where you can pick up a "waving hand" Mao Zedong watch (JY960), ĀE0s propaganda posters (JY280 each) or a Russian war medal (negotiable). Centuries-old houses, many with cracked roof tiles and French shutters clinging stubbornly to rusty hinges, will fare lesser fortunes. The approaching sky cranes and pile drivers are sounding the death knell for the old neighborhoods.

          Chun Feng De Yi Lou Teahouse, at 337 Middle Fangbang Street, affords one of the best (and probably last) views of the Old City. It takes its name from the Tang Dynasty poem, "House of Spring Breezes and Glee," and its wide terrace and louvered windows mean those namesake winds are never in short supply.

          During the late 1800s, it was a popular haunt of shipping merchants and silk traders, but when business dropped off during the 1940s it ceased to be a king of the Old City tea heap. Development of Old Shanghai Street and the Yu Yuan tourist precinct in 1997, however, has revived the Chun Feng De Yi Lou legacy.

Off Renmin Road, street chefs cook up a storm

Nanjing Lu, Shanghai's main drag

Pudong is home to Jin Mao Tower, China's tallest building

Today it's hard to miss: red lanterns bob from its eves and a flag bearing the Chinese character for "tea" flaps lazily over a doorway where green tea leaves are dry-roasted daily on charcoal burners. Upstairs, the decor is typical Yangtze River style with rough wood tables and bench seating scattered about an airy, well-lit room. Retired men with buzz cuts and pastel safari shirts bring their birds for a "walk," read newspapers, sip tea, and build piles of sunflower seed husks beneath the envious eyes of their pets. By lunchtime, it could be a scene out of a Hitchcock movie.

          "It's a small pocket of calm in a big noisy city", says Su Fong Wong, a retired Shanghai train station clerk with tired eyes. He drops by the teahouse with his wife once a month to enjoy the tranquility, tea and resident bird life. A large "tiger" stove, the kind which once supplied neighborhoods with hot water on chilly mornings, stands in the corner; though now it's waiters in red jackets who skim across the polished floor with steaming copper pots that keep up a constant supply to customer's glasses.

          The Old City's tea houses serve a wide array of teas: qi men black, long ding, rose, lotus, and the menu rolls on. At Old Shanghai Teahouse, 385 Middle Fangbang Street, orders arrive on laquered-wood trays with sid dishes of quail eggs and sour plums. Pots are topped off by dreamy-eyed waitresses in silk qipao (traditional Chinese dress) and dim sum dishes, including muskmelon seeds, "amorous" peanuts, "lucky" beans and Shanghai olives (sour plums), are available. Household bric-a-brac from the old neighborhoods is on display, and photos of the Bund jammed with rickshaws and trolley buses plaster the wall.

          The teahouse/museum concept is a popular one in the Yu Yuan area, though Shong Zhi Ming doesn't go for the "ye olde Cathay" look. At Amon's House, 452 Fangbang Street, he wants his customers to enjoy tea in uncluttered ambience. Shong was a garden designer in Beijing for four years before he threw in the towel and traveled south with his 20-year collection of books and magazines to open a teahouse in the Old City. Now he fills his days discussing books, authors and their philosophies with his customers, most of whom work in nearby curio shops.

          Amon's House is an authentic local joint: businessmen swing deals behind the beaded curtains in a private salon at the rear while students slouch in cane chairs, sip their long ding, and contentedly smoke their way through celebrity magazines out front. Yet in the daily confusion to catch their departing buses, tourists rush by oblivious.

Getting there:
Many airlines, inluding JAL, ANA and Air China, offer daily flights from Narita to Shanghai's Hongqiao airport, which is 18km from downtown. More romantic options include taking a ferry from Osaka up the Huangpu River (two days sailing, JY16,093) or a train from Hong Kong (30 hours, deluxe sleeper twin birth: JY9904 one way). Visas, train and air tickets and hotel bookings can all be made through the very helpful China Travel Service in Hong Kong.

Around town:
Bicycles are supposedly for rental, but as for driving, forget it. Walk, take a taxi or jump aboard the new cross-city subway system (JY4 for a five-section ticket).

Places to stay:
The Peace Hotel. 20 Nanjing Donglu (tel: [86-21] 6321-1244; fax: 6329 - 0300). The grand old dame of Shanghai's hotels and host to the 1909 International Opium Commission. Rooms from JY12,000, more for a river view.
The Metropole Hotel. 180 Jiang Xi Road (behind the Bund) (tel: [86-21] 6321-3030; fax: 6321-7365). Superb 1930s architecture, spacious rooms and central location are its drawing cards. Deluxe double room costs JY4654 per night. Seasonal discounts of up to 30% available. English spoken.
Grand Hyatt Shanghai. 177 Lujiazui Road, Pudong New Area (tel: [86-21] 5049-1234; fax: 5049-1111). Rooms from JY15,845 per night.

More Information: 

Check out the excellent Rough Guides website on Shanghai at 

JY100 (JPY) = Y6,78 (China Yuan Renminbi)

A packet of Double Happiness cigarettes: JY15
Tsing Tao beer (can) JY5
Shanghai Daily newspaper JY2
Chicken noodle soup (restaurant) JY5.5
A standard room (double bed) at the Metropole JY350
An espresso coffee JY15
30 minutes Internet use (cybercafe) JY20
Five dish (incl. meat or fish) meal with drinks for two people JY125
Five section subway ticket JY4
Across city taxi ride (The Bund to Maoming Nan Street night club zone): JY25
That's Shanghai (English), local entertainment magazine: free


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