Walking through Shanghai’s Old Town

Winter weather has fallen on Shanghai. Rain, grey skies and cold temperatures have driven people to their coats. I’m enjoying the change, but it’s sudden.

J.’s bike was stolen a week ago, so on Saturday we decided to explore on foot. Our first destination was exchanging RMB into dollars. $1,000 in greenbacks later, we walked into the French Concession to get coffee. With warm paper cups in our hands, we sat outside and watched the street.

After coffee, we began an epic and wonderful walk into the Old Town section of Shanghai. We had explored this part of town on bike before, but on foot it’s a totally different experience. A lot of ground can be covered by bike at the expense of missed details. On foot, even the smallest of quirky sights gets a chance to be raped by the camera lens. Old town is how I imagined Shanghai before visiting. It’s dense, cramped, falling apart, and full of character. The amount of detail is overwhelming. Every narrow alley or doorway beckons exploring. Textures abound in wood, cloth, and stone. Everything is weathered and lived in. Old people and children pop out of unexpected places. Food and commerce spills out onto the street under tangles of electric lines. The market streets bustle, while the quiet alleys are deathly silent.

A large section of Old Town seemed in process of being dismantled. Bricks and wood seemed most desirable for salvage. New residential towers loomed around the edge of this destruction, soulless clues to the fate of the place. The rubble makes for sad photos, but it’s fascinating to walk through. It’s the closest to the feeling of an urban warzone I think I’ll ever experience. But this battle is fought between the past and progress.

Sandbags along the unfinished sidewalk near the hotel.

Pile of reclaimed wood behind a fence. During our time in Shanghai, I’ve watched the construction progress on this street. When we first arrived, you couldn’t even walk along it. Then it was just a rough, dusty sidewalk. Then road construction. The buildings still are at foundation level.

Construction wall door in patriotic color scheme.

Bright red character painted on construction wall.

A cheap and filling breakfast on the street: fried dough (or pig skin?) in a thin folded shell with egg, green onion, and sauces. 2.5RMB each.

Scaffolding, new stadium, and two construction workers.

Building a temporary wall with bricks and cement.

The department of keeping up appearances hassles a man and his sweet potatoes at an intersection. All over town, they seem to be cracking down more.

Shabby scooter and water bottles.

Grapes and hawthorne berries.

Potted paints on the edge of some old stairs.

New sidewalk tiles stacked.

Pipe in front of temporary construction worker dorms.

Rice snacks.

Stuffed breads.

Call center.

Flat of freshly made noodles on an old scale.

Ugly, fat frogs to eat.

Man gutting the same frogs on the street.

The froggy carnage.

Mobile plant seller on bike.

Shoes for sale on the sidewalk.

Fresh noodles for sale.

Wooden cart with bucket of hot coals.

Blue characters on a chipped fence.

Awning cloth held in place with wooden clothespins.


Yellow, red and blue.

Shoes drying on the line.

Custom seat cover.

Two tire pumps.

Tables and chairs at a casual restaurant.

Old textured door.

Bride and groom march down an alley towards waiting cars as fireworks and party poppers boom.


Rusted door and poor patch.

A tangle of pipes and spigots.

Decorate stonework.

A crowded market street in Old Town.

Dirty eggs.

Neatly labeled clay pots.

Colorful produce.

Half fish for sale.

Stacks of greens behind a trash can.

Streetside seamstress.

Another bustling street with truck overloaded with cardboard. The whole area was full of busy, colorful streets like this.

Most of a frozen lamb on the ground near a butcher block.

I think this looks more like a dog corpse than a lamb, judging by the feet.

After splitting the lamb carcass with a hammer and chisel, the butcher set it next to its canine friend.

Construction worker hauls a cart of reclaimed wood through an intersection full of produce.

Man in fatigues reads while waiting for a sugarcane customer.

Old man sleeping in a chair.

Workshop of unknown purpose.

One section of Old Town seemed weirdly poorer. More of the building were cobbled together from scrap wood. There was more livestock roaming around and pee smell.

Sign signaling a tire repair stand.

Dough awaiting steam.

Black skinned chickens feed on cabbage. Supposedly, it’s recommended for pregnant women to eat this black skinned chicken. Cooked, of course.

Patchwork door.

Bucket of capsules.

Bike repair in front of semi demolished homes.

Bottles in an abandoned home.

Old wall.

Lady sleeping on a chair in the middle of rubble. She appears to be holding a photo-discouraging golden reflector.

Garden amongst the rubble.

A narrow walkway.

Vine creeping up an old wall.


Nobel cat.

Sewing machine.

Large turnip-looking vegetables.

Duck on the butcher block.

Old man walks to his house down an empty alley.

Rickshaws and rubble.

Construction worker shoes drying in a nook.

A partially demolished building.

Only the boarded up window still stands.


Old cabinet and broom.

Cloth for sale in a busting intersection specializing in cloth.


Fresh roasted chestnuts. We bought a bag for 10RMB($1.5)

Key-maker’s stand.


Two men discuss what was and what will be.

A trumpeting angel statue at the gates to an orthodox church.

Cart and rubble.

The remains of an old school in the process of getting demolished.

Another view.

An empty street through an ill-fated neighborhood.

An empty alley.

For dinner, J. and I took a cab to dinner at M on the Bund. This restaurant is highly regarded amongst restaurant regarding circles, as well as tour books, and word of mouth. We had avoided the restaurant due to cost and the annoying construction in the area, but thanks to a generous thank you voucher provided by my work, we decided to go.

The view of the Bunch from the balcony of M on the Bund.

The atmosphere was less pretentious than I feared. Intimate tables in warm, dim light were stocked with bread and good views of the Bund seven floors below. It was too cold to sit on the deck. The menu was simple and full of interesting twists on traditional Western dishes. After helping ourselves to a variety of bread and butter, we placed our order: starter salad, risotto, leg of lamb with sweet potato and fennel, t-bone steak with potatoes and spinach. We shared a carafe of red wine. For dessert: apple tart and strawberry and chocolate soufflés with almond ice cream. The meal was completed by strong coffee.

Bill: 1200RMB ($179).

In the remaining days in this ever colder town, I must make the most of it. There is a lot of ground to cover still, and I hope to see more of it on foot.



beyotiful places


the sweet potato man makes me so sad.

Do so love the stuffed bread photo. Motivated me to make my own!

marietti burgers:

I loved your account of walking in the old town and taking all those beautiful pictures.i have been 3 times there and going back in 2 weeks :the east is calling,but you took the pictures i wanted too but did not dare to because i was afraid that people might be offended. so in 2 weeks time i hope to take a whole lot of picturesof the old shanghai what is disappearing very fast.You motivate me to go ahead.

I wandered by here and spent a wonderful hour trawling through your archives, both China and San Francisco. You captured Old Town very well here, straight forward yet poignant. It’s rapidly fading unfortunately. Your next visit back, only a sliver will be left.

I enjoy your bike trails documents, gives me a good idea of how to walk around too. I thought of getting an electric bike, lazy me.



Thanks for visiting Sue. I’m looking forward to seeing how much Shanghai changes, though it will be sad to see all the old stuff swept away.


Mmmm, the pics are very good quality, and you are very good photographer, but what I can not understand is how some of you can say beautiful places. I will never understand this kind of magnificence or love for those “bohemian” places. It is not called Bohemian, it is called abject poverty, dirty and disorder. as more i looked at the pictures more i could perceive how you like dirty places. i am living in Shanghai and I am from Spain. I am living here because my girlfriend is from china and she is working here. And the only thing I hope is China go on “growing up” not in economichal power, but in social conscience and moral.

You have some terrific photos on your blog, really nice


I find falling apart buildings and garbage beautiful, Jesus.

Beautiful sequence of pictures!

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November 15th, 2009. Categories / China, Shanghai

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