A Brief History of Shanghai: In Conversation With… Patrick Cranley

WildChina > WildChina On-Air > A Brief History of Shanghai: In Conversation With… Patrick Cranley

Here at WildChina, we’re not just a travel company. We go beyond just showing people a destination by fostering a deeper understanding and perception of a place and the people we find there. In the time of COVID-19, we’re doing that through a brand-new online series, WildChina On-Air. These talks and discussions are a forum for us to share with you a different side of China than may be expressed through mainstream media or in the news.

We’re going to take you beyond the headlines to discover the food, culture, history, language, and reality of life in China. We’re going to encourage you to ask questions, to read something new, and to hear a different perspective on what may seem like a well-known topic.

Last week, we kicked off the launch of WildChina On-Air with a very special chat with our Shanghai history expert, Patrick Cranley. Patrick joined our founder, Mei Zhang, for the inaugural In Conversation With… to talk architecture, history, development, and his favorite street eats in Shanghai.

While you can sit back anytime you like and re-listen to Mei’s conversation with Patrick, we’ve recapped and pulled out some of our favorite parts below to give you some reading (and all-important links) on the history and development of China’s dichotomous super city. Watch the full YouTube video for more interesting insights into the streets of Shanghai and discover where those plane trees really came from.

To start with, let’s talk about Patrick. Patrick grew up in Baltimore. After receiving numerous degrees from universities across America (and France), Patrick eventually moved to China to study and work in Nanjing and Beijing before settling in Shanghai in 1997. Once in Shanghai, Patrick, along with his wife Tina Kanagaratnam and former American diplomat Tess Johnston, founded Historic Shanghai.

“Tina and I arrived in Shanghai from Beijing. I had studied in Nanjing before that and I had studied China for many, many years, but that still didn’t prepare us for what we found in Shanghai. As we walked around and saw all these beautiful buildings, we asked people about them and we did not get very good answers. In part because the Chinese have been told that the Western buildings in Shanghai, that are so ubiquitous here, are reminders of a humiliating period in Chinese history. So, over the years, many of the stories had been lost and we wanted to find out more. We collected resources that we referred to when we did research, we talked to people in the neighbourhoods that we walked through, and eventually worked up enough stories to share them with other people we met in Shanghai who were equally interested.”

Mei: So why Shanghai? Imperial Beijing has so much richness, dazzling Hong Kong has so much glamour to it, why Shanghai?

Patrick: Beijing was the imperial capital for many centuries, but Shanghai is where imperial China first encountered, intimately, the rest of the world after many centuries of self-isolation (a very current term!). It was in Shanghai that modern businesses developed, as well as modern cultural traditions if you will. Very quickly, Shanghai [became] one of the largest cities in the world by population, and for many years it was, and is again, one of the world’s great cities.

You don’t feel the same way in Beijing that you do in Shanghai. People in New York, for instance, when they get off a plane and start to explore Shanghai, they get it right away, because they feel that energy in the streets. It’s something that’s very difficult to put into words – what that energy is – but there’s a thrill to Shanghai that’s unlike, shall we say, Beijing.

Patrick Cranley, Tess Johnston, and Tina Kanagaratnam – Founders of Historic Shanghai

Patrick Cranley, Tess Johnston, and Tina Kanagaratnam – Founders of Historic Shanghai

M: You moved to Shanghai in 1997. So the Shanghai that you’ve experienced must have changed tremendously. Was there Pudong back then?

P: Unfortunately, many of the guidebooks say that Pudong was just rice fields. But that’s just not the case. Even 100 years ago, Pudong, along the riverside, had many warehouses, ship’s chandlers, factories. So it was not just agricultural. But, just a little way past the river, yes there were villages and farms all the way to the coast.

When we arrived, the redevelopment of the area of Pudong closest to the old part of Shanghai was already underway. In 1990, the Shanghai Municipal Government announced that they were going to conduct an international competition for the design of a new urban center in Pudong, and by the early ’90s, the selected program was underway. I think the Pearl Tower was completed in 1995. The other tall buildings followed.

M: The Bund — the most famous Bund. Why is it called such a strange name?

P: Well that’s a good story. First of all, the Bund is that waterfront boulevard along the Huangpu River, famous for its line of beautiful Western-style buildings. Where did the word ‘bund’ come from? Well, it’s like a lot of words in the English language that we use all the time and don’t realize: they were borrowed by the British when they were the colonial masters in India. You put on your khakis or your pajamas and sit on the veranda of your bungalow, these were all Indian words. So ‘bund’ was an Indian word that means the embankment of a river. And it’s a generic word, there are other bunds in the world. But the most famous one is the Shanghai Bund.

The Shanghai Bund at night

To hear more about the buildings of the Bund, and about what Art Deco means and how it’s represented throughout Shanghai, watch the full discussion here.

M: A friend of mine once said that the best way to explore Shanghai is by walking because Shanghai is a city cut to human size. Is that your preferred way of exploring?

P: Oh yes. And it is one of the great things about Shanghai – it is a very walkable city. It also happens to have the largest and newest subway system in the world. You can get anywhere in the city very quickly and easily.

M: Give us a little brief history of the French Concession and your favorite way to visit. What are the must-sees?

P: Let’s go back to the time when the British fought the first Opium War and came to Shanghai – they opened the port as a British port. Well, the other major maritime powers in the world did not want to see the British have a monopoly on trade with China in these so-called ‘treaty ports’. And so, these other nations sent representatives to China to sign bilateral treaties with the Qing imperial government, allowing their citizens to live and work in treaty ports.

The second country to arrive in Shanghai, just after the British, was the United States of America. They set up shop just north of the British Bund area. And then the French arrived and they set up their operations just south of the Bund, along the riverside – the French bund, as the British people called it – and that was the beginning of the French Concession, down by the river.

But these people were all sailors; they didn’t know the first thing about running a colony. So in 1863, 20 years after the British arrived, all of the foreigners got together and formed a multi-national government whereby any foreigner who owned a certain amount of property here could vote for representation on the Shanghai Municipal Council: A committee of businessmen who ran the affairs of the foreign parts of the city. And all the nations in Shanghai went in together on this except for the French. They felt that they should keep their own part of Shanghai, and they started their own municipal council.

The French Concession and the International Settlement developed together, alongside each other. The French Concession, just like the International Settlement, moved west. By the 1920s, both of them were much much larger than they had been in the 19th century and the western part of French Concession was the last part of the foreign settlements to be developed after WW1. And that’s the area we most frequently walk in to see the lovely houses and beautiful Art Deco apartment buildings and residences, in the leafy part of the western French Concession.

The French Concession, Shanghai

But the French Concession is not just one place. The main street that goes East and West is today called Huaihai Road. Almost all the names of the streets in the French concession were changed, of course, from French names to Chinese names after the Second World War, and then they were changed again after the revolution of 1949. So that complicates our research a little bit. There’s also Fuxing Road, another lovely road to walk on, that used to be called Rue Laffeyte, after a French general. Those are the two main streets, but of course, a lot of the fun is wandering off the main drag and just exploring in some of the smaller and lesser-known streets.

Interested in the Jewish history of Shanghai? Get in touch with us today to talk about future walking tours with Patrick. Or, listen here for more details as well.


M: Now, for the best part. Tell us your favorite places to eat in Shanghai!

P: This is the world’s city! And so it depends on what you’re interested in eating. In terms of Shanghai food – there’s a couple of places. There’s a lovely restaurant which is just a neighborhood joint. It’s got all of your classics, served in a nice way.

Shanghai, like most of the great cities of the world, is a city of immigrants. There are people from all over China who have made Shanghai their home, and in the early days and still, to some extent, the largest groups were from the two neighboring provinces – Jiangsu and Zhejiang. There’s a Ningbo restaurant which is wonderful! The cuisine is heavier on the use of pickled vegetables and different cooking techniques. That’s right off of Yunnan Road, a nice place to go. Plus, the owner likes to tell you all about each dish. Fortunately, not in the Ningbo dialect, which is impossible to understand.

In true historian fashion, Patrick then went away and found all the details for his favorite restaurants to share with you wonderful readers.

Here are just a few of his favorites:

  1. Mr. Willis (contemporary international; Australian chef, Craig Willis), Anfu Rd
  2. Jiu Kuan Ningbo Restaurant, 旧款宁波饭店, 660 Yan’an West Rd | Reservations recommended
  3. Ruifu Yuan 瑞福园, Shanghai cuisine, 132 Maoming South Road
  4. Fu 1088, 375 Zhenning Road | Shanghai cuisine in a well-restored house off Yuyuan Road, where many well-heeled residents lived back in the day
  5. Colca, 199 Hengshan Road | There’s also a large branch in the mall near the W Hotel and the International Cruise Terminal | Peruvian-inspired contemporary cuisine

And, no good academic could go away without recommending something to read as well. For Patrick’s recommended reading of Shanghai, check out his full list here. For hot topics now, he suggests:

  1. Remembering Shanghai by Claire Chao
  2. Shanghai Faithful by Jennifer Lin
  3. Shanghai Boy, Shanghai Girl: Lives in Parallel by George Wang

Now, Patrick said a lot more than we’ve had the space to summarize for you here, so if you’d like to hear more about the inner workings of Shanghai, and to hear the follow-up Q&A sessions with listeners to In Conversation With… watch the recording here. His fascinating insights into Shanghai’s history and development have captivated our guests for years. If you’d like to learn more about arranging a (future) walking tour with Patrick himself, email us today.

Join us for our next WildChina On-Air discussion next week, when we sit down with bestselling author Amy Chua to discuss her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

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