Shanghai, those tall buildings, that modernity, those big brands everywhere and this constant rush. Who would think about Shanghai’s history once there? If there is one thing I thought when I made it to Shanghai, it was that I would never live there. Not only did the city seem too big for me, but it also lacked of something I love and need: a soul. I’ve always seen this town as a big, modern place with no history, that exists solely for the purpose of providing be-suited business types with surroundings in which to go about their be-suited business. In short, it appealed to me as much as Hong Kong did (and a few of you might know that I’m not the biggest fan of that town), so that’s why I decided to not stay too long in town and maybe just do a short tour or two to see if this glass and steel jungle could do anything to change my preconceptions.
I needed something different from the usual whistle-stop carousel of the tourist hotspots, and a little online research threw up the name of Shanghai Pathways. They sounded perfect for me: offering unusual, cultural and ‘off the beaten path’ tours of Shanghai. After getting in contact with them I was booked for a tour of Shanghai’s Jewish Ghettos… Wait… What? Jewish Ghettos? In Shanghai? In China?
When Janny (founder of Shanghai’s Pathways) proposed that I join this tour I had to look at the name a few times, as well as briefly backtrack to ensure that I had indeed typed ‘Shanghai’ and not mistakenly booked myself for a guided tour of ‘Stanislau’, for example. Jewish Ghettos? I had simply no idea… I guess as a European your vision of history is usually firmly rooted in your home continent, with the occasional digression towards the USA, but our influence on other countries is not a subject we hear much about. I had no idea how our wars and our colonial eras had deeply influenced the town of Shanghai and so, apparently, I could stand to be educated a little on the subject. Rather than read up in advance, I decided to simply place my ignorant self in their hands and see just what knowledge the guides could impart to me in the space of 150 minutes. I still believe that was one of the best decisions I made.
I got to the tour site easily (I’m still amazed at how efficient the metro lines are in Shanghai, that’s not something we see much in Europe) and met with their lovely guide, together with a family from Israel who were also undertaking said tour. That day being Chinese New Year and therefore, National Holiday in China, we had to pass on a few attractions (the Museum for example, was closed) and the next couple of hours flew by so quickly that I barely realised I was back at the starting point and the tour was over.
What is the tour about? And how does it work?
Well, the tour is about the Jewish community and their history in Shanghai (you’ve probably guessed that part). Your guide takes you around the Hongkou District, place where Jewish and Chinese families use to live, in what is now called the Jewish Ghetto. Jewish families initially moved to Shanghai for business and trade, and latterly, to escape persecution at home, sadly Shanghai was taken by the Japanese and they were stranded in this area. You get a great insight on their influence on the local community, and a lasting impression of what daily life was like at a time when thousands of Jewish and Chinese families lived side by side.
You’ve got to walk for a bit during that tour but it’s not hard and shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. Since your group is small you get the time to look around and stop if you fancy.
And what were my favourite moments?
I loved wandering around the old ghetto, listening to our guide detailing how this particular building used to be a hospital, and who once lived in this place. All the while observing Chinese families putting their laundry out or relaxing outside.
The local park was also a clear highlight. Between old men playing Chinese Chess, families doing their daily walk, it’s a beautiful insight into modern Chinese life.
The end of our walk took us in front of a Buddhist temple in Hongkou where people were queueing for hours to go and burn incense for the New Year. So close to the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, this place was buzzing with life, bringing to mind that maybe there is a sudden revival of religion in China.
Should you pick Shanghai’s Pathways? And why?
Yes you should. I came home wanting to know more about the subject, I felt part of the group and our guide was accessible (which is rarely true in bigger groups) and if you don’t want to know about that particular subject then pick one of their other 71 tours! This company is not about the numbers, they just want to get people involved with their surroundings, their town, the local culture and that’s what I love about them.
They have so many options, so many tours that covers local markets, artisans, history and museum. You can even spend some time with monks (I’ve bookmarked this one for my next visit and the Fighting cricket trainer too) or do a retreat on Sun Island, even if you are picky there will be something for you there.
Who are those tours really for?
Anyone that wants to learn about the local culture and wants to do something different. Tourist or expatriate, there is something for you. And if, like me, big towns aren’t your cup of tea, they might also change your mind about Shanghai!
Where is the Jewish Ghetto located?
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I would like to thank Shanghai’s Pathways for taking me on their Shanghai’s Jewish Ghetto tour. Please note that, as always, all opinions expressed in this review are our own and have not been influenced in any way.