“Paris of the Orient” The Shanghai French Concession (1849-1946)

b y D . C a m u s , F r a n c e

Dominique CAMUS, Journalist
6, rue du Porche
76590 Manéhouville, FRANCE
(e-mail: docamus@yahoo.fr)

The foreign concessions
It has often been said that the presence of the foreign nations who were granted settlements and concessions in Shanghai by the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing contributed to jumpstart its transformation, within less than a century, from a fishing village to one of Asia’s greatest metropolises. Yet with its two to three hundred thousand inhabitants, mid-19th century Shanghai was already a thriving port, whose junks sailed up and down the coast and across the East China Sea to Japan. However, the opening of the foreign concessions did prompt Chinese and Westerners alike to pursue a whole host of activities that propelled Shanghai into the 20th century.
Shanghai occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Yangzi River, which the foreign nations were quick to perceive as ideal for trade. In 1845, Intendant Gong, a well-read Confucian, drew up Land Regulations, which allocated the representatives of the French, British, and Americans agricultural land and swamps north of the fortified town (several buildings of which still exist, even though drastically renovated, in what is known as the “Old City,” surrounded by a circular avenue that has replaced the walls). In 1949, an agreement was drafted by the Taotai (city official appointed by the Qing dynasty) Lin-Kuei, who allowed the French to settle on land situated between the walls of the Chinese town and the Yangjingbang Creek.

Shanghai, one of the world’s largest and most vibrant metropolises, with a population of over 20 million people, boasts a skyline that since the 1990s has undergone such dramatic changes that frequent travelers to the city are constantly disoriented by the disappearance of old landmarks and the practically overnight springing up of new skyscrapers vying with each other for world records of height, avant-gardism, environmental sophistication, and sheer breathtaking beauty. Probably the most symbolic example is the “Pudong New Area,” built on former farmland on the east side of the Huangpu River, which has become China’s new financial hub, with its famous Shanghai World Financial Center (492 meters), Oriental Pearl Tower, with its 11 spheres, and Jin Mao building housing the Grand Hyatt Hotel on the 36 uppermost of its 88 floors. Although sizeable areas of Old Shanghai have been irretrievably lost in the process, much has been done to preserve major vestiges of the past. Most conspicuous among the escapees of the wrecking ball are two historical districts that bear the architectural stamp of the foreign nations that were granted extraterritorial settlements and concessions in the wake of the Nanjing Treaty, in 1842, which opened various ports, including that of Shanghai, to international trade. One is the “Bund,” which runs along one mile of the western bank of the Huangpu River and is still lined by over 50 former British, Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and US banks, trading houses, consulates, etc, of various styles. The other is the “French Concession,” where plane tree–lined streets featuring many typically French mansions have been carefully preserved, and where a whiff of the “Paris of the Orient,” as the district was called, still pervades the air.
Medicographia. 2009;31:205-211. (see French abstract on page 211)

View of Shanghai around 1860. Ink and watercolor on paper. Detail. © Bridgeman Art Library.

During the turmoil of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), notably when the Small Swords Society occupied the Chinese city in 1853, over 20 000 locals sought safety in the concessions, creating a social mix that transformed the concessions into Sino-Western towns. One- or two-storey lilong houses (li means communities and long signifies lanes, whence lane-and-community–based urban dwellings) were put up everywhere and rented to local Chinese. Because of the increased demand for administrative services resulting from this sudden population upsurge, the British, French, and American consuls together drew up municipal regulations in 1854, authorizing the foreign communities, represented by property owners, to run the concessions. The resulting Shanghai Municipal Council fixed taxes, for foreigners and Chinese, to fund urban projects and set up a police force. The French had misgivings about this creation of a single administration, and in 1861 refused to ratify the new municipal regulations. The French Concession then went it alone with an independent municipal council placed under the authority of the consul, in other words, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. In 1863, the British and American concessions fused and took the name of the Shanghai International Settlement. This division of Shanghai and the concomitant existence of rival authorities, jealously guarding their own prerogatives, contributed to the emergence of a unique social and political space within the urban center destined to become the most influential metropolis of Asia in the years before World War II.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Western trading interests had spread beyond Shanghai through a network of towns and ports around the coast and upcountry along the Yangzi River. Shanghai naturally was the prime beneficiary of this growth. Through its port passed over half of all Chinese imports and exports. Trading firms and transport companies abounded and expansion in international and waterborne trade opened up new markets. Driven mainly by private business, stores and artisans’ workshops sprang up across the city: the 1909 Shanghai guide listed 430 shops; the number had risen to 520 in 1910, and tripled by 1914.
The effectiveness of international trade was much dependent on rapid access to information. With the advent of the telegraph (1865), information from London or Paris could reach China in a few hours rather than thirty days, and the Chinese quickly seized the opportunities offered by this new means of communication.
The building of new roads to convey merchandise to Shanghai’s warehouses also stimulated growth, as did the rail link between Shanghai and Nanking (1902), which heralded the building of tramways in the concessions and in the Chinese town.

Agreement instituting the French Concession, issued on 6 April 1849 by Lin-Kuei, the highranking Chinese official in charge of Shanghai (Taotai), granting French Consul Charles de Montigny territorial, building, and administrative rights. Diplomatic Archives of the French Foreign Affairs Ministry. © Archives du MAE.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 shortened to two months or less the sea voyage to China, lent new impetus to the freight between Europe and Asia, and spurred devel- opment of newer steamships, since the narrow waterway was difficult for clippers to navigate. Shanghai was upgraded to one of the world’s foremost ports thanks to dredging work by the Chinese administration from 1906 to 1910, with the help of foreign engineers.

The French Concession
When he arrived in Shanghai in early 1848 as the first French Consul, Charles de Montigny’s mission was to look after the interests of the French community, at this time little more than a handful of tradesmen and missionaries. Anxious to fix the geographical limits of the French Concession, de Montigny negotiated an area of 66 hectares, bordered to the east by the Huangpu River, and to the north by the much larger British Concession (199 hectares).

Public works
From the creation of the municipal council (1862), a series of public works took shape. One of the first projects was the building of new roads, followed by work on drainage, paving, and sewers, funded by mandatory contributions from property owners. From 1887, the French Concession was the first to start a land register in order to raise local and land taxes. Constructions were regulated and subject to approval by the municipal council. Perspectives were defined, which doesn’t seem to have been the case for the International Settlement, whence the difficulty of joint realization of infrastructure work, such as the filling in of the Yangjingbang Creek, which had become an open sewer. Common projects were, nonetheless, completed, such as the slaughterhouse, the cemetery, and a fire department water tank, and traffic and police rules were decided jointly.
Created in 1906, the French Shanghai tram company fared well and by the 1930s had 100 trams, 60 buses, and 38 trolleybuses, and supplied countless households with electricity and water. Although its salaries were somewhat lower than those of its rivals, the company was forward-looking and offered better welfare benefits: housing, relief funds, cost of hospitalization and treatment, school funds.

Map of Shanghai, dated 1931 showing the French Concession (south), the International Settlement (north) resulting from the merging of the British and American Concessions. The Chinese City is recognizable by its circular boundary, still marked today by the circular road enclosing it, and the areas in maroon north and east of the Chinese city, labeled “Public buildings, banks, and offices” correspond to part of the Bund, on the eastern bank of the Huangpu (Whangpoo) River. Map featured in “Mapping Urban Infrastructure—Shanghai’s New Concessions,” by B. Lai and K. Tse. All rights reserved.

The arrival in Shanghai of the in 1860 launched French banking in China. When it opened its Shanghai branch in 1898, the Banque de l’Indochine became the leading French bank in China and led efforts to counter the hegemony of the British Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Company Limited (HSBC), one of the oldest banking groups ever founded.
Back home in France, silk production could not meet the demand for luxury silk goods, long craved by the French nobility and later by the middle classes that emerged during the industrial revolution. The French State therefore decided to buy directly from China, and from 1848 to 1873 fifteen French silk merchants set up in Shanghai. Around 1900, Shanghai had sixteen silk mills, and the industry attracted more foreign investors than any other.

Public health and welfare
Public health issues in Shanghai were addressed on the arrival of Westerners, no doubt impelled by the dangers of unwholesome surroundings (swamps, canals) and a climate conducive to contagion. Improving public health was also a way for Westerners to win hearts and minds in the Chinese community. In 1844, English missionaries set up the Shanghai Hospital, the first in the foreign concessions, and a few years later French missionaries opened the General Shanghai Hospital and American missionaries the Hongkew Hospital. As modern medicine was gradually put in place, health care establishments multiplied on the initiative of foreign and Chinese doctors. Shanghai soon had the highest concentration of doctors in the land, particularly those trained overseas (22%) or in foreign universities in China. In the 1930s, 1300 physicians trained in Western medicine and 5600 doctors of Chinese medicine tended the sick of Shanghai. No other city in China could boast such a health care infrastructure.

French schools
The French Jesuits founded the Collège Saint Ignace, the first Catholic school in China, in 1847, and ten years later it had 82 pupils, who studied Chinese characters, French, music, and drawing. Saint Ignatius Cathedral was built between 1905 and 1910. Children of Christian families received both a religious education and literary training to enable them to sit the exams for the Chinese baccalaureate. In 1886, the French municipality created and financed the Franco-Chinese municipal school, the first of its kind. Teaching was entrusted to the Jesuits and then to the Marist Brothers. Young Chinese from the working classes received instruction and often went on to work in business, the administration, or the railways. Chinese pupils on scholarships were sent to France to achieve mastery of French language and culture so that they would create businesses on their return to their homeland. In addition to the cathedral, the French Jesuits also built orphanages, monasteries, schools, libraries, and an observatory.

Interior of Saint Ignatius-Xujiahui Cathedral, the largest Catholic cathedral in the Far East at the time of its construction in 1905-1910 in the French Concession. The Church is being restored for the Shanghai Expo 2010 World Fair. © AKG-Images/Bruce Conolly.

Aurore University
Ma Xiangbo, a Jesuit catholic priest and man of letters, founded Aurore University, the jewel of French educational establishments in China, in 1902. This Franco-Chinese institution included departments of literature, philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences, to which were added in 1914 faculties of arts-law, civil engineering, and medicine. Upon completion of a six-year course, Aurore medical graduates were eligible to enter the fifth year of medical school at Paris University. After a civil engineering degree (five years), awarded on presentation of a technical project, a graduate could enter the National College of Electrical Engineering in Paris.
Following differences of opinion with the French Fathers, Ma Xiangbo in 1905 created Fudan University, whose diplomas were recognized by both the French and Chinese governments, and which admitted its first female students in 1937.

The arts
The emergence of a Chinese bourgeoisie in Shanghai led to the creation of a school of guohua painting that produced great painters and calligraphers at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and during the Republic (1912-1949). The Jesuits at Zikawei ran an orphanage, a printing works, the site of China’s first lithographic press (1876), and a center of Western arts and crafts, where Chinese artists could take classes in drawing and anatomy, thus breaking with their artistic tradition. Zhou Xiang, a functionary of the tenth Qing Emperor, who had spent several years in France, established a school that pioneered Occidentalism in Shanghai, particularly in the illustrated press. In 1912 one of its students, Liu Haisu, founded in the French Concession the veritable forerunner of modern schools of fine arts, a mixed academy whose revolutionary teaching methods drew inspiration from those of the Parisian academies, where thirty or more future Chinese masters studied fine arts between 1910 and 1930. Sartorial inspiration too was to be seen in the concession’s “little Montmartre” where, after the manner of French artists, floppy neckties were all the rage.
Lin Fengmian, studied in Dijon, Paris, and Berlin from 1918 to 1926, married the French sculptress Alice Vattant, and on his return to China was appointed director of the Peking Institute of the Arts. Later he ran the new National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, where, influenced by impression- ism, he taught oil painting. This prestigious school became the center of Chinese modernism from which other remarkable painters were later to emerge, notably the Frenchmen Zao Wou-ki (who exhibited in 2008 at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris) and Chu Teh-Chun, and the Americans Chao Chung-Hsiang and Wu Guanzhong.
Pang Xunqin, who studied medicine at Aurore University and music in France, presented his canvasses at the 1925 Paris Exhibition. On his return to Shanghai in 1930, he created the Société des Deux Mondes, later known as “The Storm Society,” which organized four milestone exhibitions in the French Concession. André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto was translated into Chinese in 1935 on the occasion of the first surrealist exhibition organized by the French Concession for Independent Chinese Artists.

Father Chevalier in 1919 at Zikawei (Xujiahui) Observatory, founded by the French Jesuits in 1872. © Ed. Belin, Paris.

Architectural styles
In the 1920s, along the Bund, the urban waterfront on the Huangpu River, foreign wealth and power were incarnate in elegant, even vainglorious, monumental buildings. This craze for ever higher edifices was not shared by the French, whose architectural legacy can be seen to this day in fine buildings like the Chung Wai Bank, as well as the Gascogne, the Béarn, and the Picardie, all three classified as historic buildings by the Shanghai Municipality, whose Art Deco charm, like that of the Normandie (1937-1938), has not faded with the passing of the years.

Cultural life and leisure activities
The foreign presence in Shanghai galvanized the newspaper business and publishing. First published in 1850, the British weekly North China Herald included a supplement in Chinese from 1861, was renamed three years later as the North China Daily News, and became the most influential foreign newspaper of its time. Le Journal de Shanghai catered for the French community, and , first published in 1872 and written entirely in Chinese, was soon the most powerful newspaper in China and remained so until 1949. In the concessions there were 2487 bookstores in 1938, compared with 136 in Peking and 40 in Nanking. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that between 1920 and 1945 Shanghai counted the largest number of intellectuals of any city in China.

A view of the famous, still extant Bund (Huangpo River Embankment) and
its European-style buildings. © Bettmann/Corbis.

Leafy archway of plane trees in today’s French Concession in Shanghai. “Quiet Streets,” photo by Alan Levine. With kind permission.

Shanghai had long enjoyed a nightlife worthy of a port and commercial hub, and by the 1920s its range of distractions was unrivaled in China. From 1912, the Grand Monde, one of the main centers of entertainment, hosted a panoply of distractions—theater, cafés, restaurants, gaming rooms, and cinema (by 1940 there were 57 film theaters in Shanghai). Gambling, one of the great Chinese passions, flourished in the concessions despite its prohibition under the Qing Dynasty and then under the Republic. The social life of Westerners in the concessions centered on their clubs. Each nationality had its own and the archetype was the British residents’ Shanghai Club, famous for its marbles, paneling, and bar of over 30 meters—the “longest in the world.” The price of admission though was beyond the means of ordinary residents. The French Sports Club, with its fine ballroom and covered swimming pool, was the most popular venue.

Normandy-style cottage in the French Concession now housing the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies (SIAS). Photo by Eecc. With kind permission.

The curtain falls… and rises again
In the 1940s, after close to a century, the end of the concessions drew near. When the Imperial Japanese Army occupied Shanghai in 1941, hundreds of thousands of displaced Chinese poured into the concessions, which became foreign islands in a sea of invading Japanese forces. The Sino-British Friendship Treaty of February 1943 returned the International Settlement to Chinese control, and on 30 July 1943 the Consul General Roland de Margerie officially handed over the keys of the French Concession to the Mayor of Shanghai.
Another 50 years later, what is left of the French Concession? Has anything survived the wrecking ball?
The first thing that jumps to the eye is the plane trees that liberally line the streets and avenues of the former French district. This “greenery” in the modern city of steel, concrete, and glass is a welcome reminder of less hectic days and of the French way of life. Ironically what the French planted were “London planes,” but these trees immediately took the fancy of the Chinese who rechristened them “French planes.” The French Concession remained largely untouched until the 1980s, when Shanghai started its drive to develop into the megalopolis of today.
French names of streets have given way to Chinese names, many buildings have been torn down, and even the trees planted by the French on the former Avenue Joffre were removed—only for new trees to be hastily planted back to placate an angry neighborhood population. Plane trees have become so popular that they spill out in Shanghai beyond the bounds of the former French Concession and are even now found as roadside trees throughout China. Since the 2000s, the municipality of Shanghai has been taking active measures to preserve as much as possible of the vestiges of the French presence and is restoring old buildings and even some of the “lilongs” of the French Concession. The French Concession is, today, one of Shanghai’s major tourist attractions and the atmosphere of the “Paris of the Orient” is still palpable. But the story doesn’t stop there, and the “Touch of France” (to allude to the title of the cultural section of this journal) has come back in the form of a spate of French architects who have been or are being commissioned by the municipality of present-day Shanghai to leave their imprint on the city.
Jean-Marie Charpentier designed the Shanghai Grand Theater (“Opera”) situated near People’s Square in 1998; he landscaped a section of Nanjing Avenue (Nanjing Donglu) in 1999, which has become Shanghai’s bustling main pedestrian restaurant and shopping avenue, as well as the 4.5-km Century Avenue, the major thoroughfare destined to structure the 520 km2 of the financial and commercial hub of Pudong and become Shanghai’s “Champs-Élysées” (2000); he built the General Motors Headquarters on the same Century Avenue (2004); the Shanghai Entry and Exit Visa Administration Bureau in Pudong (2005); and the Saint-Gobain (glass manufacturer) R&D Center, in the Minhang Development Zone (2007). Jean-Marie Charpentier has also been commissioned to rehabilitate an area of 50 000 m2 in the French Concession to be completed in 2010. Paul Andreu designed Shanghai International Airport in 1999; the Oriental Arts Center in Pudong, in 2004 (as well as the National Opera House in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 2006). Jean-Marie Duthilleul designed the Shanghai South Railway Station in 2006. And to end this (nonexhaustive) list of major projects, Antoine Grumbach was commissioned in February 2008 to renovate 150 000 m2 of Shanghai’s 19thcentury historic center, on time for the Shanghai Expo 2010 World Fair.
Thus the French presence in Shanghai is not only a nostalgic thing of the past, but is even today actively contributing to shape the world’s most superlative city. _

Crescent-roofed Shanghai Grand Theater in People’s Square, designed by French architect Jean-Marie Charpentier. © Jon Hicks/Corbis.

Concourse windows at Pudong International Airport, designed by French
architect Paul Andreu. © Yang Liu/Corbis.

– Bergère MC. Histoire de Shanghai. Paris, France: Fayard; 2002.
La France en Chine (1843-1943). Nantes, France: Archives diplomatiques.
– Henriot C, Roux A. Le Shanghai des années 30, plaisirs et violences. Paris, France: L’Harmattan; 1998.
Le Paris de l’Orient (1849-1846), Présence Française à Shanghai, catalogue de l’exhibition musée Albert Khan, 2002.
– Brossollet G. Les Français de Shanghai. Paris, France: Belin; 1999.
– Henriot C. Atlas de Shanghai. France CNRS; 1999.
– Roux A. Le Shanghai Ouvrier des Années 30. Paris, France: L’Harmattan; 1993.

From fishing village to vibrant megalopolis: impressionistic sunrise in Pudong,
Shanghai, that could have been painted by Monet. © Paul Hardy, Corbis.


Shanghai, une des métropoles les plus gigantesques et animées du monde avec ses plus de 20 millions d’habitants, a subi depuis 1990 des changements si spectaculaires que les voyageurs s’y rendant fréquemment sont à chaque fois désorientés par la disparition de leurs points de repère et l’apparition du jour au lendemain de nouveaux gratte-ciel rivalisant les uns avec les autres pour établir des records mondiaux de hauteur, d’avant-gardisme, de sophistication environnementale et de beauté à couper le souffle. L’exemple probablement le plus symbolique est celui de la zone nouvelle de Pudong, construite sur d’anciennes terres cultivées de la rive orientale de la rivière Huangpu, et devenue le nouveau coeur financier chinois, avec son célèbre « Shanghai World Financial Center » (492 m), la Perle de l’Orient avec ses 11 sphères et la tour Jin Mao accueillant l’hôtel Grand Hyatt aux 36 derniers de ses 88 étages. Bien que de vastes étendues du Vieux Shanghai aient irrémédiablement disparu au cours des réaménagements urbains successifs, nombre de vestiges du passé ont pu être sauvegardés. Ont ainsi échappé au rouleau compresseur des démolitions deux quartiers historiques portant l’empreinte architecturale des nations étrangères à qui le traité de Nanjing de 1842, qui ouvrit plusieurs ports au commerce international dont Shanghai, octroya des enclaves territoriales, les « concessions ». L’un de ces quartiers est le « Bund », qui s’étend sur un kilomètre sur la rive occidentale de la rivière Huangpu et qui est toujours jalonné de plus de 50 banques, sièges de sociétés, consulats, etc., allemandes, américaines, anglaises, françaises, japonaises, néerlandaises et russes, aux styles les plus variés. L’autre est la « Concession Française », où de nombreuses habitations typiquement françaises soigneusement préservées s’élèvent au milieu de rues bordées de platanes et où flotte encore une atmosphère du « Paris de l’Orient »d’autrefois.