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A sq km sandwiched between a hip shopping district and a dour commercial one, still retains a bit of 1930s Shanghai. Shi Junqian reports
If there is such a thing as a "hamlet" in Shanghai, it must be that "sleepy triangle", a square kilometer of tree-lined streets and low-rise houses tucked between the hip shopping district of Xujiahui and the button-down commercial strip of Huaihai.
Although sitting on one of the most valuable tracts of real estate in Shanghai, the old buildings, some dating back to the golden era of the 1930s, have escaped the wrecker's ball. There is a refreshing absence of monstrous housing complexes, crowd-drawing shopping malls or glass-and-steel office buildings that are common sights almost anywhere else in this city.
The few signs of progress are denoted by a number of elegant restaurants, chic cafes, an Irish pub and an up-market kitchenware shop. The latest addition to this collection of genteel indulgence is a fashion boutique that caters to, as its owner says, the "refined" taste of those young Shanghai elites who have newly discovered this "cool" enclave.
The best place to start exploring is the junction of Taojianglu, Dongpinglu and Yueyanglu. This was the heart of the French concession in the pre-war colonial days when Shanghai was known as "Paris of the Orient". On these streets, the French colonialists planted neat rows of French phoenix trees that stand to this day.
Among the former villa residences and low-rise apartment blocks lived some of the most famous and powerful figures of those turbulent times of civil strife and foreign invasion.
A quaint old house that is now a music school used to bear the romantic name "Love Mansion" when it was the Shanghai residence of the late Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his newly-wed bride Soong Mei-ling.
These colorful people have long gone. But the place has changed little from how it was when Wang Yong moved there with his parents some 60 years ago. They lived in the outhouse of a mansion where his father worked as the housekeeper. Now Wang lives with his family in a unit of one of the apartment blocks where he works as a caretaker.
He lives the life of a hermit, hardly ever venturing out of his enclave as he cannot stand the crowd and noise of the outside world. Repeatedly sweeping the already clean walkway in the front yard of the compound, Wang describes his life as uneventful.
Then he recalls that some years ago, the district authority ordered the dismantling of all the walls surrounding the gardens and yards of the houses and apartment buildings in the area, ostensibly to create a more open environment for visitors.
Wang still remembers the nagging anxiety it triggered not because he had something to hide but because of the rude disruption it threatened to the routine of his universe.
Nodding toward the newly opened fashion boutique down the street, Wang says that changes are inevitable. But "I wish there won't be too many intruders at least in my lifetime", he says.
Sara Villareal, who owns the boutique, though, doesn't consider herself an intruder. Instead, she believes that people like her are adding color and charm to this beautiful and secluded neighborhood, says Cathy Chen, manager of the boutique, called the Villa.
The young entrepreneur in her late 20s, from Texas, with a background in finance, discovered this area quite by accident while on a morning jog from her home in nearby Hengshanlu.
She knew immediately that this was the perfect location for her "dream" shop.
"We have a loyal clientele of young professionals who frequent the restaurants and cafes around here," Villareal says.
Just a short walk from the Villa is Pantry Magic which stocks one of the widest collections of designer kitchenware from around the world, ranging from a 20,000 yuan ($2,930) stove from the United States to a 20 yuan hand-made wooden spoon from Thailand. Obviously, the shop's 700 yuan stainless steel woks are meant for well-to-do young couples and their occasional cooking in multi-million dollar apartments.
Pax Teng, Pantry Magic's manager, says the business is owned by an American lawyer who lives and works in Hong Kong, but travels frequently to Shanghai to oversee his private business. The 3-year-old shop "has helped attract many high-income expatriates and local executives to this neighborhood", Teng says.
Different from the owners of the fashion boutique and the kitchenware store, who are selling a more fabulous lifestyle, Kazu Koikeda, a Japanese lady who has been in Shanghai for more than 10 years, runs her vegetarian caf on Taojiang Road. The idea, she says, is to help an increasingly materialistic society find a more humane and balanced lifestyle that follows the law of nature.
The accounts director of an American advertising agency in Shanghai says she too once lived the unhealthy, luxurious life of a high profile executive, but a trip to India motivated her to go vegetarian. She turned the place, which previously was an Italian restaurant also owned by her, into a caf that offers no meat and no fish.
Named "Anamaya", meaning "free from disease" in Sanskrit, the caf hopes to attract more non-vegetarians to rediscover life's balance.
Interestingly, the caf attracts not just diners, but also a number of newly married couples who want to take their pictures against the backdrop of the caf's yellow paint that is similar to that on the facade of a temple.
Although few may have the ability to turn a property in this idyllic hamlet into one's own, many, especially foreigners, have shown their interest in this place by renting an apartment here.
Chen Hao, a real estate agent in the area, says that with its convenient location between Huaihai Road and Xujiahui, and a serene living environment, the neighborhood has become a top choice of people working in Xintiandi or nearby.