'Park of the Old City' full of surprises and solitude

Walking from the Bund to one of Shanghai's most famous temples takes on through an uncrowded park where the past co-mingles with the present.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Parts of the old city walls in Shanghai  have been reconstructed in Gucheng Park.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

An observation deck marks the location of the original Danfeng Tower in Gucheng Park.

Although Gucheng Park in downtown Shanghai’s Huangpu District literally translates as the “Park of the Old City,” the feel isn’t old at all.

This is a green enclave wedged between crowded tourist sites and towering modern buildings, and its lack of popularity is part of its charm.

The name probably derives from the history of the area where an old city wall was built. Nowadays, ancient walls are nowhere to be found. They were removed about a century ago to construct what is now Fuyou Road.

Located between Yuyuan Garden and the Bund, Gucheng Park connects the past and the future. Landscaping in the park reflects that theme.

Parts of old city walls were reconstructed here, and an observation deck was built on the original location of Danfeng Tower. A house that once hosted Shanghai’s first bankers’ club was relocated to the park.

Co-mingling with the past are modern fixtures, like a sunken plaza, a teahouse in a bamboo forest, a fishpond and a lawn dotted with topiary.

Visitors tend to stumble across Gucheng Park as they head off to visit Yuyuan Garden and City God Temple after touring the Bund and marveling at the stunning skyline of Lujiazui across the Huangpu River. Traversing Gucheng Park gives them a quick jolt as a time traveler.

Danfeng Tower, where Danfeng Deck now stands, was the highest point in Shanghai a few hundred years back. In a list of the “Eight Best Sites in Shanghai” compiled in the mid-19th century, one was the view from Danfeng Tower, or the Tower of the Vermilion Phoenix as it was called.

From the tower, it was said that one could see a panoramic view of the Huangpu River. At the annual Dragon Boat Festival, people would crowd onto the tower to watch the races on the river.

The tower itself was originally a Taoist temple. Built between 1265 and 1274, it was destroyed by the fire during the war about 100 years later. Three millennia on, the tower was rebuilt and expanded. At that time it comprised three stories – the top floor devoted to the worship of the Lord of Culture and Literature; the second floor dedicated to General Guan Yu; and the first floor celebrating the Lord of Thunder.

The tower was repeatedly damaged during uprisings in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was turned into an elementary school briefly in 1912 before finally being demolished that year.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

An old kitchen transplanted from a shikumen house, with cement sink, old-style taps, chamber pot and coal stove, has been preserved in the park.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Another piece of memorabilia is an old kitchen in the park. When the park was reconstructed, residents living in old shikumen (stone-gate) houses in the area were relocated. A kitchen from one house was preserved, however, and now is displayed in the park.

Shabby it might be with its cement sink, old-style taps and bluestone floor, the kitchen reminds older people of the past and gives younger generations a glimpse of a lifestyle that has largely disappeared.

“The kitchen in my old house looked just like this,” says Zhang Yuan, a local senior resident who frequents the park. “Three families lived in the house and shared the kitchen. Things sometimes got ugly because the space was too cramped, but time has washed that all away and now the memories are sweet.”

Walking from the kitchen, a visitor comes to a small bamboo copse, which might be the finest touch of the park. Bamboo is not much seen in downtown Shanghai anymore, and this grove creates a quiet corner that when you can enjoy cool solitude and a walk along a stone pathway.

Stray cats sometimes seem to outnumber people in the park. They follow visitors around, rubbing against their legs and hoping for a scrap of food. By the healthy look of them, they have charmed many a meal from passers-by.

Beyond the bamboo forest is an outdoor teahouse. Tables and chairs are surrounded by high trees, shielding patrons from excessive heat or cold. Seniors in the local area like to congregate here to drink tea and gossip. Some bring grandchildren to play.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Stray cats often follow visitors, hoping to cadge a scrap of food.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The pleasant outdoor teahouse, surrounded by high trees

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Near the bamboo forest, a dark gray-and-white traditional Chinese-style mansion is quite eye-catching. It was the mansion of the South Shanghai Bankers’ Club, first built in 1883. The first generation of bankers in Shanghai met here to talk commerce and worship the God of Fortune erected in the mansion.

Banking was a well-developed business in Shanghai, beginning in the 18th century and reaching a peak in the 1930s. Once Shanghai opened as a commercial port, local bankers learned from their Western counterparts about the value of having an exclusive place to meet, talk business and entertain themselves.

The club was originally located in the Old Town nearby. In 2000, when Shanghai began redeveloping that area, the mansion ─ then mostly in ruins ─ was moved to its current location and restored. A pair stone lions guard at its gate.

The mansion is undergoing renovation again, so visitors can only see its exterior. The delicate stone window carvings are interesting to note. Some of the carvings in the image of bats represent the bankers’ wishes for fortune because the word for “bat” is pronounced the same in Chinese as “luck.” Other carvings depict the daily lives of Shanghai people in the late 19th century.

Walking past the mansion, people would officially be entering the Old Town of Shanghai. Today it is a refreshing respite providing a sense of how Shanghai must have felt in quieter times.

If you go:

Address: 333 Renmin Rd (by Fuyou Rd)

Opening hours: October 1-March 31, 6am-7pm; April 1-September 30, 5am-8pm

How to get there: Take Metro Line 10 to Yuyuan Station. From Exit 3 there's another 10 minutes' walk.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The former home of the South Shanghai Bankers' Club, first built in 1883, is now closed for renovation.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
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