Exploring HongKou, ‘Shanghai’s Ark’

Last weekend I joined my friend Miki for a guided city walk around Shanghai’s Hongkou district (虹口区). The event was organised by a local tour operator and promised to delve into the cultural history of the area, including it’s Jewish heritage and status as home to one of the world’s most notorious prisons…

When I arrived at the meeting spot outside Tilanqiao metro station the organiser approached me with a worried expression and asked if I spoke Chinese… After 11 months in Shanghai I’m now quite accustomed to being the only Western blonde in a sea of Asian brunettes; however, other people are not always accustomed to me! I explained that my translator was on her way… after taking a small detour four metro stops in the wrong direction (well, it was early morning! haha)

When Miki arrived we joined a smaller group of around ten and stood in a circle on the streetcorner to introduce ourselves. I learned that this bunch of 20-somethings were largely born & bred Shanghainese, who had never explored this part of their city before and wanted to learn more about the Jewish migration here in the early 20th Century. Having stereotyped the sort of people interested in taking city walks on a weekend (middle-aged tourists), I was a little surprised at the demographics of our little cohort, but when you consider that there isn’t so much of a heavy Friday night drinking culture in young Chinese compared to their Western peers, I guess there is no reason not to jump out of bed on a Saturday!

Xiahai Temple

Hongkou is on the Puxi side of the Huangpu, river just North of the Bund. Our first was a few metres up the street from Tilanqiao metro station: Xihai Temple. The grand temple building was quite incongruous with it’s grimy neighbourhood surrounding, although if my wanderings around Shanghai in the last 12 months have taught me nothing else, its to expect the unexpected – you often find a beautiful architectural gems hidden in the most unlikely of places!


The rest of the street looked something like this:


Tilanqiao prison

A few meters down the road from Xiahai temple we came across another large building, although this one didn’t look quite so inviting…

Tilanqiao prison was opened in 1903 to house those convicted of crimes in Shanghai’s international settlement. It was once the largest prison in the world, and earned the nickname ‘Alcatraz of the Orient’ as in it’s 110 year history no-one has ever escaped.

The hustle and bustle of locals going about their daily business wasn’t quite enough to disguise the eerie silence which permeated from the prison grounds – the place looked devoid of life, although apparently it houses around 8500 prisoners at the moment. Our guide described some of the gory details, such as the three-story execution chamber designed for death by hanging, complete with a trapdoor which allowed the body to drop directly into the prison hospital’s morgue. Lovely.



The ‘Shanghai Ghetto’

In the early 20th Century around 23,000 Jews sought asylum in Shanghai. The first wave arrived from Russia having fled the 1917 Revolution, and many more came from Europe throughout the 1930’s and 40’s seeking a safe refuge from the Holocaust in one of the only destinations still open to them.

The new residents may have been safe from anti-semitic persecution, but they soon found themselves entangled in another conflict. Following the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 the Japanese Army took control of the city and between 1943 and 1945, around 18,000 Jews from all over Shanghai were forced to relocate to a 3/4 square mile of the Hongkou district- which was already home to 100,000 local Shanghainese. This area was formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, but informally known as the ‘Shanghai Ghetto’.

The Jewish residents of the Hongkou restricted area may not have been fenced in literally, but Japanese military patrols secured the area and enforced a strict curfew. Many refugees lived in group homes with as many as people sharing a single room. It was one of the poorest and overcrowded areas of the city; unsurprisingly, starvation and disease were rife.


This monument stood in the grounds of the Jewish Refugee’s Museum. We didn’t go inside the museum, but I plan to go back with Matt to take a look.


The White Horse Inn & Art-Deco Architecture

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the Jewish refugees established a thriving community which included cafe’s, bakery’s, shops and theaters. In 1939 Rudolf Mossberg – who had moved to Shanghai with his family – bought a three-story building at the corner of Changyang Road and Lintong Road where he set up and ran a cafe which he called the White Horse Inn. Those who had been bakers and bartenders in a previous life found themselves re-employed in at Mossberg’s cafe, which quickly became the centre of social gatherings for the Jewish refugees.

As is the fate of many buildings in this fast-evolving city, the White Horse Inn was demolished in 2009 when Changyang road was widened, but was re-built in 2015 as part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, using some of the original features such as the doors, windows and staircase handrails. I love the rounded balconies on the second and third floor; so romantic!

The White Horse Inn

Some of the original architecture in this area was incredible; Art deco style red-&-grey brick three story row houses with handsome arched windows. The metal rails sticking out horizontally from window frames are for hanging out washing to dry as there isn’t much room to do this inside the apartments.



Continuing the Art Deco theme was the Roy Roof Garden Restaurant on Huoshan Road (below), built in 1928 the plaque outside confessed it to be “the largest place to avoid summer heat in the Jewish isolated zone during the World War II”. Having experienced one sizzling, sweaty summer in Shanghai, I can vouch for the absolute necessity of somewhere to escape the heat.


I took lots of photos during our walk around Hongkou and really like how the black and white ones turned out. It was a chilly morning and the sky was quite bleak. I love the web of overhead wires in this next photo, separating the older houses from the modern towering apartment blocks.


Ayi Milk Tea

As out tour group wandered along Huoshan Road (and past more of those beautiful red and grey brick houses) we came across a group of people huddled around a hole-in-the-wall, and Miki explained that it was a famous milk tea; Did I want to try? she asked. Of course! I said.

Milk tea is a warm drink made from black tea and milk (usually evaporated or condensed milk, as opposed to fresh), and comes with various fillings; we went for the sticky rice one which was just on the right side of sweet, very creamy and so delicious! Filling too.

Ayi milk tea

Refugee Camp

Warmed up from the milk tea we continued the tour, which took us down an alleyway off Changyang road to see what used to be the largest refugee camp in the Jewish isolated zone of Shanghai during WW2. The ghetto was officially liberated in September 1945, and by 1950 almost all of the Shangahi-based Jews had left China. The tiny apartments are still occupied, but today their residents are local Chinese.



A typical lane in the Hongkou district

The opportunity to explore first hand the last vestiges of Hongkou’s Jewish heritage was fascinating (especially for someone who walked away from history class aged 14 and now finds herself hopelessly and embarrassingly uninformed about some of the most significant historical milestones!).

It was even better to explore with Miki, my translator and the lovely person who introduced me to milk tea with sticky rice!



Chengkan Ancient Village, Huangshan

On the last day of our Huangshan trip, a few hours before catching the midday train back to Shangahi, Matt and I stopped to take a look around Chengkan (呈坎) Ancient Village  which is around 30km from downtown Tunxi.

Our first glimpse of the village is captured in the photo below; white walled, grey roofed houses bedded into the hilly countryside. A view which has, remarkably, remained largely unchanged since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.).

First look

At the entrance to the village a heavy brass bell hung from a red rope tied to a leafless branch was pointed out to us by an eager security guard who – using hand gestures – encouraged us to use the bell to announce our arrival to no-one in particular…


Decorative red and gold silk lanterns signify and celebrate the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations, and were hung from buildings and trees throughout the village

Making our way into the village our tour guide explained that each building, alleyway and bridge had been oriented according to the ancient Chinese philosophical system of feng-shui, which was believed to ensure good energy flow and bring harmony and good fortune to those who lived there. According to this philosophy, even the components of the village’s name are auspicious, with Cheng representing ‘yang’ (阳) and Kan representing ‘yin’ (阴) – seemingly opposite but also complimentary and interconnected elements, which form two parts of an indivisible and balanced whole.

The dividing line between yin and yang is also seen in the s-shaped Zhongchuan River which divides Chengkan village into two halves, one residential and the other agricultural. This layout has remained largely unchanged for the last 1800 years, despite feng-shui being suppressed during the cultural revolution.

One of the ninety-nine alleyways, paved with elongated flagstones

Harmonious architectural intentions aside, the village itself unfolds as an intricate maze of three main streets, criss-crossed by ninety-nine lanes and alleyways and lined by around 700 residences, a large number of which are still occupied today.

The absence of souvenir shops and Starbucks was significant; in fact, the table of carved wooden ornaments (below) was about as commercial as things got, which added a sense of credibility to the ‘authentic’ tagline. While undoubtedly marketed at tourists, Chengkan hasn’t – yet – sold out to them.

Wood carving – the local craft

The village’s 2000 or so residents predominantly descend from a single family, sustained by a custom whereby daughter-in-laws move in to the village (usually to live with the parents of her new husband) while daughters marry men from outside the village and leave the family home.

The occupied houses are distinguishable from their empty neighbours by the extent to which they have been preserved. Twenty-one of the houses in Chengkan are protected by the state due to their historical significance and a couple are open to the public – one house that we explored was in the throws of being converted into a boutique hotel for visitors who want to experience authentic authentic village-life!


The houses themselves give a glimpse into what life would be like for residents over the centuries. Made from wood, brick and stone with an open-top roof you couldn’t exactly describe the living conditions as ‘homely’, but what the houses lacked in comfort, they made up for in savvy practicality… particularly from the perspective of fire-prevention. For example, a huge urn placed below the skylight collected rainwater which could be used to extinguish small fires; a heavy stone base adhered to each wooden pillar helped ensure structural integrity should the place be set alight, and one house we saw had a triple-decker roof constructed using layers of wood and sand… if the inner layer of wood was incinerated, the sandy filling would drop to the floor and dampen any flames. Genius!

The house pictured below would have belonged to a fairly wealthy family; the ground floor with it’s lofty ceiling and beautifully carved features would have belonged to the father and contain space for entertaining guests, sleeping and prayer; children would be stored on the second floor out of harm’s way and staff would live on the top floor – more exposed to the elements and probably a little cramped.


Continuing to explore, we came an ancestral temple built by the descendants of Luo Dongshu – a noted scholar of the Song Dynasty – to celebrate and worship him.

The temple consisted of a number of interlinking rooms and courtyards, spacious and bright in spite of the wooden-paneled interior. The pièce de résistance at the back of the temple is Baolun Hall; sitting on a raised platform, Greco-Roman columns support the beautifully engraved timber frame. The complex geometric patterns etched into the wooden crossbeams overhead and painted in the earthy teraccotta tones of the Middle East were a curious compliment to the fantastical Chinese-style carvings of flora and fauna. The roof has never been restored and the natural preservation of vivid colour remains a mystery… it was certainly a magical place.

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As in Tunxi (and perhaps somewhat less surprising, in this rural setting), the traditional way of life prevails in Chengkan; we watch women wash clothes and gut fish into the fresh running water just as their mothers and grandmothers would have done. We walked past one women lathering shampoo into her hair while talking to two friends by the side of the river, a bucket of water at her feet ready to rinse. They smiled at us, the strange foreigners, and then carried on their conversation.


Some of the houses, which are still occupied today


If you are lucky enough to visit Huangshan, I would strongly recommend that you also make time to see one of the Ancient Villages, either Chengkan, Xidi or Hongcun. The latter two are more popular and well-developed, so we opted for Chengkan in the hope of avoiding the crowds and were not disappointed – a truly fascinating place of living breathing history.



Tunxi, at the foot of the Yellow Mountains

With achy legs (the aftershock of hiking up and down a million or so stone steps at the summit of Mt. Huangshan – which you can read about here), Matt and I arrived in downtown Tunxi in need of a bit of R&R, or at the least a cold beer (it had gone 12pm, honest!).

Tunxi District (屯溪区) is in the urban centre of Huangshan City in Anhui Province and is – in Chinese terms – a ‘relatively small countryside town’, despite being home to around 200,000 people: to put this in perspective, there are the same number of people living in York in the UK.

Tunxi straddles the banks of the Xin’an river and is a popular gateway or base-camp for people visiting Mt. Huangshan given it’s only an hour’s drive away. Our riverside hotel was a 1980’s style whitewashed behemoth with creeping ivy and an atmosphere of formal indifference. Ostensibly 5* (the star rating is a relative concept- we are learning), the toilet seat was broken and the carpet was stained so we quickly dropped our bags and headed out into the crisp afternoon sunshine.

Walking along the river we saw a woman bent double washing leafy green vegetables in the water and another hanging them over a railing to dry. A few metres downstream another group of women crouched washing their clothes, as a man on a rusty barge passed by fishing debris out of the water with a net. Out guide Ellen explained that a lot of the older generation preferred the traditional ways of washing clothes and food and so this was just an example of normal daily chores.





Having washed your laundry in the river, hanging it out to dry in the street doesn’t seem so strange.


Especially when juxtaposed with this:


Yes, that is various parts of a pig strung up from a bamboo pole at the side of a main road. And yes, it really did make me think twice about what I was eating for the remainder of the trip!

Tunxi Old Street

Tunxi Old Street (or Ancient Street, depending on who you speak to) is at the heart of Tunxi and dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). A long and gently winding pedestrian street with wooden-framed shops flanking each side of the flagstone paving, at first glance it was comparable to the Old Town streets we had seen during our visits Yunnan and Guilin; however, Matt and I agreed that it was the most genuine example we had come across. Unlike some of the others which had been destroyed over time by fire and then rebuilt – albeit in a very sympathetic way – Tunxi Old Street was the real deal.


The buildings are designed in the ‘Hui’ style of architecture – typical of the Anhui province – and are constructed from brick, wood and stone over two or three floors. The rooftops were my favourite feature, cutting a jagged cubist silhouette against the sky and into the distance.

Apparently most of these buildings are still occupied, with the living quarters behind and above the open-plan shop areas. Being occupied increases the likelihood of them being preserved from threats such as falling into disrepair, vandalism and Jackie Chan (apparently Jackie Chan had some houses in the area dismantled and rebuilt in Singapore).



The shops spilled with typical produce and crafts of the local area; deep black ink stones, bright yellow chrysanthemum tea, beautiful calligraphy brushes and ink paintings. Every so often the rich and distinctive smell of sesame would drift from a shop selling various cakes, biscuits and paste made from the seed. There were also a lot of nick-nack or antique stores like the one pictured below.



Whenever Matt and I visit a new place we try to find a small hanging ornament for our Christmas tree as a reminder of our travels. I think our Huangshan ornament is one of my favourite to date – a piece of polished grey and reddish-brown stone with our names (in Chinese) etched into the flat surface. These stones are traditionally used by artists to stamp their signature in red ink into a finished piece.

Reaching the end of the Old Street and feeling peckish, we ducked through some brightly coloured, heavy-duty plastic curtains into a dim-sum restaurant which had been recommended by our guide Ellen. We picked out a handful of delicious looking dishes from the counter and then guessed what they might be as we tasted each one – a familiar experience when eating outside of the city and English translations of the menu are less common!

The flaky pastry was my favourite – it was apple-pie flavour!

After lunch we wandered into the New Town on the opposite side of the river to Old Street and found a cafe in which to hunker down for the afternoon and sample the local chrysanthemum tea. It was the first place we’d been in that had central heating – most other restaurants, cafes and bars relied on the customers keeping their thick coats on while inside. It was also one of the  more modern places we came across, so after the tea we had a beer… and another!


Walking back to the hotel later that evening we were met with brilliant fireworks from every direction; a celebration of the end of the Chinese New Year. Fireworks are banned in Shanghai in an attempt to control the noise pollution, so these were the first ones we had seen.

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We tried to get some nice wine or whiskey to accompany the fireworks but it didn’t seem like the locals necessarily went in for that (and we’ve been warned off certain brands of whiskey due to an apparently thriving replica market!), so Matt ended up buying some local ‘Mi Jiu’ (Rice Wine). It was a lot nicer than my previous expereince with rice-derived alcohol (seriously, if someone offers you ‘Rice Beer’ just say no!) but that’s not to say I particularly enjoyed it. On the bright side, it saved us a hangover and we were up early to explore some more of the sights…