Behind the Bund

I’ve been fortunate to have met some brilliant people during my almost-three-years in Shanghai, and build friendships which I’m certain will far outlast the duration of my work assignment. Most of my friends are, perhaps naturally, in a similar boat to me – expats who are living here for a defined period while completing an international work assignment; however, the two friends I want to introduce here were both born and raised in Shanghai. 

I met Miki and Lian through work, and while they now follow wildly different career paths (Lian works in corporate HR and Miki is a tattoo artist and entrepreneur), they share many traits, including a positive attitude, a creative spirit, and a deep passion for the city they grew up in. The latter was even more evident when, over brunch a few weeks ago, they disclosed to me with excitement their new business idea – to design and host city walks for foreigners who would like to explore Shanghai “off the tourist-track”, and get insights from a local perspective. They had completed their first itinerary – Behind the Bund – and wanted a guinea-pig: I accepted immediately!

But first… coffee

We met mid-morning at % Arabica, a chic Japanese coffee shop on Yuanmingyuan Road (apparently opening soon in UK). Here, while we sipped our sweet Spanish coffee, Miki better acquainted me with the story of Shanghai’s international settlements around the Bund area of the Huangpu river delta; how they were established and developed through the defining periods of the Opium wars in the mid-19th Century and through the second world war.

While we drank our coffee the cobbled street outside formed a proxy catwalk for waif-like Chinese girls with flawless skin, red lips and bare legs, surrounded by a posse who perfected their make-up and handed them new clothes to wear while a photographer (invariably dressed head-to-toe in black) snapped their every move. These girls are the stars of TaoBao – essentially clothes horses for online retailers who use a similar influencer-led business model to that seen on Instagram; as you can see below, they start young! Apparently Yunnmingyuan street is prime photo-back-drop real estate, and became so crowded at one point that the local government banned photo-shoots here, but have relaxed this particular rule more recently.


Caffeinated, we began our walk at No.1 Waitanyuan – the former HQ of the British Consulate (est. 1849) and now owned by the Peninsula Hotel – a beautiful and iconic European-style building which, painstakingly restored along with those surrounding it, gives a glimpse into what life might have been like in early 20th Century  Shanghai. 

Waitanyuan literally means “source of the Bund” and it was this area which British settlers chose to develop as their residential quarters after the conclusion of the First Opium War. As a Yīngguó rén (British person) I was genuinely interested in learning more about this period of history and I fully embraced my role of guinea-pig by asking lots of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions!

Over the course of the morning Miki and Lian ushered me around some of the most historically significant buildings of the former British concession, some of which I’ve captured in the photos below. While all were undoubtedly stunning, my favourite has to be the China Baptist Publication Building, designed by Hungarian-Slovak architect Lázló Hudec in his characteristic style; Art-Deco with a hint of Gothic.  Hudec had a significant influence on the architectural character of the Bund area and also in the former French Concession, where I lived during my first 2 years in Shanghai, and I love the serious yet elegant presence of his work (google the Park Hotel, Shanghai for another great example).

Miki, Lian and I continued our walk down less famous streets, but with no less magnificent buildings. As I mentioned in my last blog, one of my favourite things about Shanghai is that every time I turn my head I’m presented with another scene or moment that I want to capture – motley rows of mopeds and Mobikes spread neatly along the pavement; serpentine loops of black electric cable stretching overhead; wild foliage burgeoning indiscriminately from brickwork and gutters, a fragment of green against the earthy reds and browns.

And it wouldn’t be a walk through Shanghai without coming across a meticulously staged wedding photo shoot… albeit the first one I’ve seen featuring Chanel shopping bags!

It was a great to spend this time learning more about Shanghai from Miki and Lian, who are proud to show off their city – the facts and stories they had collated kept us busy until our stomachs told us to stop for lunch! If you find yourself in Shanghai with a few hours to spare and would like to explore the city with some lovely locals then check them out on Air Bnb Experiences.

And if you don’t plan to visit Shanghai anytime soon, then I recommend you to follow Miki on Instagram (mikijing0225) and experience city life through her eyes – she is a fabulous photographer.

Lian, me & Miki (L-R)… we are in fancy dress here, just to be clear!


Autumn in December

Having spent the latter two weeks of November in England – where the frigid arctic wind seeped into my bones while I scraped a stubborn layer of frost off the car windscreen – the autumnal weather that we’ve experienced in Shanghai today has been lovely.

Wandering down Yongkang Lu on my way to lunch, a clement breeze whipped golden-brown leaves from swaying tree branches and cradled them to the ground where they crunched underfoot. On the pavement a huddle of men thirty-or-so strong craned their necks jostled position to watch a mahjong game unfold on a beat-up plywood table. Fleecy bed-covers flapped and floated alongside well-worn bras and knickers on roadside washing lines, and everyone had opted for two-wheels rather than four.

My last visit to England was in May earlier this year; a fleeting catch-up with family and friends. This time my primary purpose was for work and it was the first time I’d set foot in the UK office for 18 months. It was lovely to meet with colleagues face-to-face after so long; everyone was keen to know whether I was still happy living in China, and also whether I was looking forward to moving back to the UK (my repatriation is on the horizon now, as I’ll complete my 3-year assignment in April next year). Honestly, I found it hard to give a neat answer. Shanghai isn’t a new adventure anymore, or a work assignment – it’s my home.

I love the rich juxtaposition of familiarity and foreignness, whereby I have a favorite coffee shop and preferred dumpling vendor (yes, really), but stare wide-eyed (in amusement, or curiosity, or horror) at various culture-specific and previously unseen scenarios on most days.

I love that everything around me is worthy of a photograph. Case in point: a few hours ago, while cutting through an alleyway off Nanchang Lu close to my apartment, I glanced past the coffee shop on the corner, noted the new nail place (“trouble girl”), and settled my gaze on the festive display outside Kym’s Flower shop – bright red poinsettia and colour-matched Christmas baubles. So far so normal, but look a little to the left, and you will find five fish fillets strung to a wooden pole, gutted, cleaned and drying with the aid of a rusty old fan propped up on a battered plastic cool-box. Every Shanghai street coaxes you to look closer, to be present, and pay attention (especially because these little glimpses of old-school China are becoming rarer, as the lane-house-lined streets are swept away to make room for the new and modern and shiny).

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I also love my friends in Shanghai – albeit the merry-go-round of expat assignments means that they won’t be here forever either; I was gutted when one friend moved back to Australia in September.

So am I looking forward to moving home? Well, not in the sense that the UK doesn’t really feel like home at this moment. The prospect of moving into a rental apartment in Warwickshire, learning to fit back into a routine that is now unfamiliar, and turning on the radio to relentless updates on Brexit doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. But still, there is a lot that I am looking forward to; the prospect of a new challenge at work… accepting birthday and wedding and Sunday dinner invitations… being in close proximity to Marks & Spencers food hall… fresh air on a crisp winters morning (yes, even if it does mean scraping ice off the car windscreen!), because let’s be honest, my autumn-in-December experience today was a bit of an anomaly; let’s take last Thursday as a comparative:

So in sum, I spent most of my week in the office explaining my feelings as “pretty mixed”. When Matt and I did our expat immersion training shortly before moving to China, we were advised that the culture shock experienced by people on return to their home country can far exceed that of the initial relocation, as you grow and develop over the three years in a completely different context and culture to friends, family and colleagues back home. I intend to write more about this as I prepare to go back.

It goes without saying, but I’ve been a bit crap at blogging of late. I have at least 8 half-written drafts which nag at me when I find myself binge-watching Mad Men after a long day/week at work. With only a few months left in China in which to tackle a bucket-list as long as the Huangpu River, my job, a plethora of seasonal social commitments (Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year) and a predilection for at least 8 hours sleep, it may be a stretch that I’ll finish all 8, but I’ll try for at least a couple more!

– Em

Shanghai friends