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!



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