French Concession

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The speed with which restaurants open and close in Shanghai is unbelievably high that even residents like ourselves have a hard time keeping up.  Each week, I have to bike around our neighborhood streets to check out if there are any new store signs put up or constructions started. No wonder every time I went back to my hometown San Jose, California, I was often shocked to see venerable restaurants from my younger days still standing.

This is not to say that new shops are always better than old, but it does speak to the unprecedented number of entrepreneurs who are seizing the opportunity to make it out here in Shanghai. These aren’t the big corporate restaurant chains you see in more matured markets; these are the small guys who started with one concept/location. As the capital to start something in China is still relatively lower than in western countries, many foreigners also jump into the fray. As a result, we witnessed many experiments — some succeeded with flying colors and some crashed and burned. The consumers are (more?) fickle in Shanghai so the businesses have to work extra hard to stay relevant.

Four new additions to our neighborhood show promise and I’d like to introduce to our guests:

1. La Strada - sister cafe of Amokka on Anfu Rd and serves excellent Italian-style thin crust pizzas.  You can also order their pizzas from Amokka, which has a nice upstairs dining lounge.

2. Pho Real - deserves a mention even though it replaced our favorite hole-in-the-wall Xinjiang restaurant.  They serve a set menu which includes light appetizers like spring rolls followed by a bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

3. Bistro Burger - promises gourmet burgers and fancy milkshakes.  Putting a plug in for our Closed Cafe partner Eduardo and tried out the food at the soft opening.  Reasonable priced and tasty burgers are always welcomed by all ;-)

4. Lapis Thai on Hunan Rd - housed in an ambient villa on Hunan Rd and serving consistent quality food with nice presentation.  I personally think the setting is more beautiful than Coconut Paradise.  Lapis also has another location in Taiking Rd’s Tianzifang.

Judging from the mix, we can use more tasty and stylish Chinese restaurants too~

See more neighborhood restaurants on our Neighborhood Map here.

While the construction was taking place, I started digging into the history of so-called Old Shanghai. Shanghai went through a pretty fascinating hundred years, from the Opium War in 1840 up until end of WWII in 1945. As the resulting of a weakening Qing Dynasty, China lost a series of wars and was forced to open up Shanghai to western countries as an important international port of call. The French and British, among other European countries, set up concession zones in Shanghai and ran these areas according to their own rules.

The interesting thing about the French Concession was that the French population (no more than 2000 at the peak) was outnumbered by the Russians (who fled from the new communist Russia), British, Americans, and even the Germans. There were also a significant number of successful middle-class Chinese professionals who lived in the area. Nevertheless, the French ran their own municipal counsel and named all the streets after French generals, martyred soldiers, and other famous personalities.

By the 1930’s, Shanghai and the French Concession were at the height of their glamour and also decadence. I found this old Fortune Magazine article published in 1935 that described a day in the life of a “Taipan” (typically refers to a westerner who is a boss or an employee of a foreign trading company). It bears striking similarities to the expat life in Shanghai today (minus the dozen or so of the servants the typical old-day taipan kept) ;-)

For Quintet, I wanted to bring in names and places of that wild time in Old Shanghai; there was plenty of glitz and romance, but to be sure, there was also lots of shady business taking place, not to mention sorrow of the lost and deprived. Old Shanghai was like opium (ok, also like a beautiful woman) – you know it’s perilous to your health, yet you can’t get away from it…

The modern-day Shanghai is every bit as exciting as the old one to the rest of the world. You see the optimism and entrepreneur spirits in the eyes of every hopeful newcomer. I hope this time around, the good times are here to stay for a long time to come…