Most people think that Shanghai has only a short history, starting with the Opium Wars in the 1840’s. However, Shanghai has a much longer history, with its beginnings as a small fishing village. The more you explore the history of Shanghai, the more you will find it fascinating, as this city has a special power to attract interesting people from all over the world.
To explore these hidden parts of the city, I love to walk around the old town and try to reveal some of the lost stories.
The oldest Shanghai city corner, known as Qiao Family Road, dates back to this amazing city’s origins. This small street is now only 539 meters long, but in the very beginning, it was a small river creek with traditional Chinese houses along both its sides. This area was the heart and soul of Shanghai where temples for the Medicine God and the first local government were located. You can still find 700-year old trees and some century-old family houses here.
On Qiao Family Road, there are amazing stories of some of the richest Chinese families in Shanghai. One of the most famous is the well-respected Qiao Family, former governors of Shanghai.
During the Ming dynasty, in 1618, thirty year old Shanghai-born Qiao Yiqi took the national military examination, in which he won first place and became the best warrior in China. Later in life, he was promoted to one of the highest ranking generals. He was also famous for his contributions to classic poetry and traditional Chinese painting. At the age of forty-nine, he lead the battle against intruders from the Jing kingdom. Qiao’s army lost the battle. In the end, he committed ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff as a form of protest against the intruders. You can still find the residential compound of this well-known general on Qiao Family Road. He is the most famous member of the Qiao family.
Qiao Yiqi became established as a heroic example, as his action evolved into a standard epitome of loyalty in Chinese culture. His descendants were forever granted governorship status in Shanghai.
Wang Yiting (also known as Wang Zhen) was born in 1867 and lived in this area as well. He was a celebrated modern Chinese artist of the Shanghai School. Wang Zhen was a master calligrapher, as well as a painter of flowers, birds, personages and Buddhist subjects. He was closely associated with and considered the disciple of the painter Wu Changshuo. Numerous people believe that many of his teacher’s paintings were from Wang Zhen himself.
Apart from being a well-known artist, Wang Zhen had also achieved a very successful business career. From a poor kid working as an apprentice at a local Shanghai framing workshop, he later on become the chief representative for the Japan & China Trading Co. Many Western people, including Einstein, visited his beautiful house in Shanghai.
In 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake occurred in Japan. It was the deadliest earthquake in Japanese history, and at the time, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the region. Wang Zhen represented China and donated tons of food and huge amounts of money. The ship he sent was the first one to arrive in Japan to help. He was called “Wang Buddha” by the Japanese. Later, the Japanese emperor sent his best architect to Shanghai and built Wang Zhen the most beautiful Japanese roof on top of his Western-style garden house on Qiao Family Road.
However, Wang Zhen’s association with the Japanese has led to his undeserved lack of respect from his countrymen. When Japan started the war with China, Wang Zhen left everything behind and went to Hong Kong, as he did not wish to work for the Japanese government. He became a monk instead.
The most amazing thing is to walk on Heavenly Light Lane, the very first street where Shanghai set up electric street lights. In the very beginning, it was called Bamboo Palace Street. Later, locals regarded the light as sent from heaven that guided people safely home and changed the name of the street. During the Qing Dynasty, this street was very close to the local Chinese government building. It was also near one of the top three gardens in Shanghai, Ri She Garden. Therefore, it was a very important location, once the paradise of the rich and famous.
The Secret Garden
In the end of the Heavenly Light Lane, there is a secret garden house. In the past, it was known as the Secluded Library, the remnant of a lavish garden complex built in the 16th century by a famous scholar. He lived alone in his vast mansion, surrounded by literary treasures. He named his garden house the Secluded Library because he treasured all his books so much. A 12-meter wall separated the house from the outside and was built in a way to deter any fires. The house covered 2,272 square meters and many locals think that it has a total of 99 rooms because its large size.
During the 1900s, the rich Guo family from Fujian, China moved to Shanghai for trading and business. They bought this garden house and made it their home for over 100 years. During the Cultural Revolution, a toy factory, a metal factory and workers’ dormitories came to occupy this once regal courtyard. Many amazing stories have happened inside this house.
Every time I guide people around this neighbouhood, they end up asking me how long this area will be there, as none of them could believe such places still exist in Shanghai. Honestly, I don’t know how to answer such a question, as the old Shanghai has been disappearing everyday and we can only wish and hope for the best.