Pockets of the past that eluded the bulldozers
Thirty years ago, the Pudong New Area on the east bank of the Huangpu River was an expanse of small farming villages and rice paddies, accessible to downtown only by ferry. Today it hosts Shanghai’s financial center, sports stadiums, convention sites, skyscrapers, industrial zones and residential complexes. But amid the forest of concrete, some of its pre-urbanization past can be found in pockets along Metro Line 6.
South Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone Station
With a history of more than 500 years, the only Buddhist nunnery in Gaoqiao area was originally built to protect local people from a “water monster” that later turned out to be a giant fish.
All the stone steles, scriptures and inscribed boards of the nunnery were destroyed during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), and its buildings were once turned into factories and workshops.
But it doesn’t mean that the site is not worth a visit. Many people who chance upon it almost by accident say it is one of the solemnest Buddhist sites they have ever seen. Unlike other temples filled with smoke and people, this site is quiet and clean. The nunnery doesn’t allow visitors to burn joss sticks.
Address: No. 36, Jiefang Village, Jingting Donggou Village
Where to grab a bite nearby:
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In the Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, many office workers choose the Noon Party Food Square for lunch.
They call it the “public canteen of the free trade zone.” Anyway, there aren’t many other choices around. Spicy hotpot is the most popular fare here. People choose their favorite meat and vegetables for a Hunan-style hotpot.
In the summer, the chilies in the dish will make you sweat all over, but that helps the body cool down.
Address: South Wing, 2 Huajing Rd
North Yangjing Station
In Shanghai dialect, yangjingbang means “pidgin English.” The word originated from Yangjing Creek, which once flowed through Pudong but has since been filled in. Some of the areas it passed have kept the old name.
One of them, the Yangjing Subdistrict, has a history of about 150 years. A few markers from the past have survived urban development. The residence of the Li family is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Built in the 1930s, it once belonged to Li Shushan (1885-1945), a Yangjing local businessman. The two-story building has Western-style decor but a Chinese-style yard.
Li was born into a poor family in Pudong but managed to make a fortune from ship repair.
Nearby, a similar building called Ren’s Residence was built in the same era. It is believed the mansion once belonged to Wan Molin, butler to Shanghai mob boss Du Yuesheng (1888-1951). At the pinnacle of his power, Du’s tentacles reached into almost every industry and corner of old Shanghai, and his henchmen also profited from crime and corruption. Wan was a favorite because of his undying loyalty and excellent memory. After Wan died, the residence was turned into a branch of the Agricultural Bank of China for a while.
Residence of the Li family
Address: 50 Jingnan Rd
Address: Bldg 4, 202 Boshan Rd
Where to grab a bite nearby:
Despite its name, Biaoxiang Shanghai Cuisine also serves Cantonese dishes. The owner said he has two chefs, one local and one from Guangdong Province in the south.
Siu mei, or Cantonese-style barbecue, is the most recommended. Steamed rice in a clay pot with toppings is another favorite. The free turnip soup served with the rice is a house specialty.
Address: 63 Miaopu Rd
North Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone Station
Gaoqiao Old Town
The old town, according to local people, is disappearing.
Nowadays, only East Street and West Street retain their original look.
The wooden houses, flagstone roads, old shops and dearth of visitors are a magnet for people tired of the crassness of commercialized “ancient” towns around China.
Apart from a dozen 100-year-old residences, there are free museums along the two streets that document some of the town’s nearly 1,000-year history.
The Gaoqiao Family Gallery is one of them. It is located in the residence of a family surnamed Ling. First built in 1918, the residence has been restored to its original look, down to interior decor and furniture. It gives visitors a glimpse of how people lived in a bygone era.
Yangxian Hall is a gallery that displays the history and culture of the town.
In old Shanghai, Gaoqiao people were known for making a living with “three knives and a needle.” The reference was to construction work, cooking, tailoring and woolen embroidery. The museum shows how ordinary people became masters in their own domain.
Shen Jinfu, owner of the hall, was an example himself. Born in 1886 to a poor family, Shen saved up some money with the help of his wife, who was a tailor. With the money, he opened a grocery store and became one of the richest people in Gaoqiao.
When the hall was under construction, he became so stressed about the engineering quality that he died before it was completed in 1933. Although he never had the chance to live in his new home, the residence is a tribute to him and the entire town nearly a century later.
Where to grab a bite nearby:
Gaoqiao pastries, officially called Gaoqiao songbing, resembles the meat mooncakes of downtown Shanghai, but the filling is made of adzuki bean paste.
The pastry wrapping is flaky and crispy, and the filling is soft, moist and rich.
The pastry has a history of nearly 400 years, but the name songbing, which means “fluffy cake,” is only about 100 years old.
It is said that a housewife surnamed Zhao was really good at making the pastry, and her wrappings were always fluffy.
The snack was once served only on big occasions in Gaoqiao Town, such as the Chinese New Year, traditional holidays and weddings, but nowadays it’s a specialty popular with locals and visitors alike. On the old street, several pastry shops serve songbing and all have good reviews from visitors.