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History buffs reveal old Shanghai's hidden charm on walking tours

HISTORIC Shanghai shows the city is a great place to explore with all of its nooks, crannies and old lanes just out of sight from main streets. Sam Riley takes a stroll.

While many people may walk around Luwan District and marvel at the historic architecture, few know the stories behind some of the buildings and the marvelous array of characters that have helped shape Shanghai.

A group of history buffs is determined to take people behind Shanghai's architecture and delve into the history that is much more than just bricks and mortar.

Historic Shanghai holds monthly historic walks, and despite the searing heat, they were busy exploring the various fascinating nooks and crannies of the city last Sunday.

Led by two of the organization's founders and long-term residents Wm Patrick Cranley and Tina Kanagaratnam, 17 history enthusiasts wandered through the downtown discovering some of the people and buildings that have become icons of the city.

Originally called the Shanghai Historic House Association, the organization was founded in 1997 by Kanagaratnam, Cranley and historical architectural expert and novelist Tess Johnston.

Renamed in 2007 to reflect the organizations' broader focus on not just the buildings but the people and stories behind the architecture, Historic Shanghai holds regular talks and events as well as its monthly walking tours.

Historic Shanghai now has more than 300 people on its mailing list.

It also has ambitious plans to turn a global spotlight on the city's outstanding Art Deco architecture and is set to bid for Shanghai to host the next World Art Deco Conference after Brazil in 2011.

"Part of the reason for holding these walks is to raise awareness of the Art Deco heritage of Shanghai within the city itself," Kanagaratnam says.

For participants of the walks, many of them residents of Shanghai, it is a chance to look at the city with new eyes.

"There are things that people miss that are like little relics," she says.

"For example, many of the manhole covers read CMF (Concession Municipale Francaise) and are dated 1937 or 1939, just look down they are littered throughout the district," she says. "There are old fire hydrants and things like that, which people may not have noticed."

The most recent walk also involved several landmark buildings by major architects who helped shape the city.

Key stops included the Normandie Apartments designed by Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec and the Picardie Apartments by Swiss architect Rene Minutti.

Hudec became one of the most prolific and celebrated architects in Shanghai during the 1930s and his work includes numerous hospitals, the Chapei Power Station and the Grand Theater on Nanjing Road.

Minutti also designed the Chapoo (Zhapu) Road Bridge and the Savoy Apartments.

Many of the buildings visited also have a fascinating history, which used to be mansions or luxury apartments and are now schools, hospitals or government buildings.

As well as their regular walks, the association also does specific events that focus on a particular part of Shanghai or its history.

The events included the highly successful Behind the Bund walk looking at the streets behind the Bund and visits to the Ruijin Hotel and Xujiahui Cathedral, where they spoke to one of the elderly priests.

Walks take around two hours and cost 100 yuan (US$14.7). They are typically led by one of the organization's three founders who have extensive knowledge of Shanghai's history and who have lived in Shanghai for more than 13 years.

"People walk past these buildings all the time and maybe don't know what they are or who once lived there, so we want to peel back the layers of Shanghai's history," Kanagaratnam says.

Anyone wanting more information can visit Historic Shanghai's Website ( The next walk is scheduled for mid-August and people can keep informed of upcoming events by joining their free mailing list at


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