A neighborhood with gangsters, crooked cops, and Russian bodyguards sounds like something out of a movie.

Yet, imagine the scene not in New York or Chicago but in Shanghai, and more specifically in the neighborhood called  the Former French Concession. This section of the massive, sprawling metropolis feels a little different and has a story to tell.

I embarked on this Shanghai walking tour with Noodle Tours, a private tour company based in the city. They offer tours in a variety of areas, but the Former French Concession (FFC) jumped out at me. I’ve walked its streets before, but knew little about its history.

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

My tour guide for the three hour tour was Lily, who I met outside of the Okura Garden Hotel. This Art Deco masterpiece was built in the early 1920s by French expats, who turned it into the French Club. It quickly became the place for expat socialites to meet, drink, and dine.

Across from Okura Garden Hotel is another hotel and event center. While not particularly beautiful (see the brick behemouth three photos down), this hotel and complex was the only one in Shanghai after the rise of Communism. There, US President Richard Nixon met with Chairman Mao during his visit to China in 1972 to normalize relations between the two countries. There, the Shanghai Communiqué was signed.

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Lily dove deep into the history of both Shanghai and the FFC, starting with the Opium Wars in the mid-1850s. These conflicts brought foreigners – British, French and Americans among others – who wanted to take advantage of trading in the Far East. Back then, the compact Old Town of Shanghai – then a walled city – was not suitable for the prosperous merchant traders settling there. The FFC, with plenty of open land, become the place for expats to build larger homes away from the cramped quarters of the Old Town.

European-style single family row houses began to spring up across the FFC, flanked by larger estates for the wealthy elite.

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Lily and I continued our walk through the neighborhood, shaded by the large Sycamore trees that line almost every street.

I learned that the story of the Former French Concession is not actually about the French, who never settled in big numbers, but the mixing of nationalities and religions. Thousands of Russians fled to Shanghai and entered the mix after the Russian Revolution in 1917. That resulted in a boom of retail stores and commercial areas, and the opening of Russian Orthodox churches alongside existing synagogues and Catholic churches.

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

The bustling merchant business meant that a whole host of foreign companies needed to move goods from Shanghai to all over the world.

It is here that organized crime enters the story, and not a moment too soon.

Crooked shipping experts promised to ensure that goods made it onto ships on time, for a healthy cut of the profits. The gang flourished thanks to Huang Jinrong, the highest ranked Chinese official in the French Concession Police. He and his wife ran a criminal empire for years in the FFC, running gambling dens, prostitution rings, the opium trade, and protection rackets.

Huang Jinrong’s dealings led him to become associated with the notorious “Green Gang” and one of their gangsters, Du Yuesheng, better known as “Big Eared Du.” Eventually, Huang turned over his empire to Du in the mid-1920s, who diversified the business by setting up legitimate shipping companies and his very own bank.

Below is The Mansion Hotel, the former headquarters of the gang. It was here that “Big Eared Du” conducted his business. At one point, his crew controlled a vast majority of the world’s opium trade and is rumoured to have sent $20 million per year to French officials as a payoff so he could continue his business in the FFC.

Shanghai walking tour

Within a few years, Du became one of the wealthiest businessmen in Shanghai, complete with Russian bodyguards (obviously) and a mansion.

The home, now a luxury hotel (below), is massive, allowing for plenty of room for Du’s numerous wives, who each received their own floor. He even built a temple in the corner of the property, and had the audacity to paint it purple and yellow. At the time, those colors were reserved solely for the Imperial Palace in Beijing and could not be repeated.

Things got political when Du became aligned with Chiang Kai-shek. Du and his Green Gang was tasked with removing Communist Party leaders (the future Chairman Mao attended his very first Communist Party meeting in the FFC). This relationship benefited both parties, as Du provided troops and munitions to Chiang, and in return, Du was allowed to conduct his illegal business dealings without fear of reprisal.

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

After the Communist Party defeated Chiang’s Kuomintang government during the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang went into exile in Taiwan. Du and his big ears were forced to flee Shanghai as well, and he settled in Hong Kong where he died.

The Green Gang disbanded, their businesses seized by The Party.

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

Shanghai walking tour

While the tale of Shanghai organized crime might make for exciting reading, the rest of my walking tour was filled with other interesting stories, like how the statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was the first statue of a foreigner erected in Shanghai.

I always love it when a place can be described as having a ‘storied past’ and now I can with confidence that Shanghai’s FFC is solidly on that list.

Noodle Tours brought the FFC to life, and made me understand the beauty of a private tour experience. Lily and I walked at our own speed, and I never for a second had to strain to hear what she was saying above a small crowd of other people. No ill feelings to the many other tours I’ve taken in my life, but the one-on-one experience does wonders for knowledge retention.

For anyone interested in history, Noodle Walking Tours and their guides are a great resource for a fantastic introduction into Shanghai history. They cover a wide range of topics and neighborhoods, and I have a long list of topics I want to cover in future visits. I can’t wait for my next Shanghai walking tour!

Thank you to Noodle Tours for hosting me on this tour. It was such a unique experience. As always, we only share our true feelings about our travel experiences, but this one was special for sure. To see their list of private tours, check here.

Want to read more about Shanghai? Check out our most recent post: The Shanghai Nightlife Guide to Rooftop Bars! You deserve a tasty cocktail after a walking tour.

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  • September 16, 2017

    Thanks, that’s a really interesting insight into Shanghai. We’re big fans of tours here too, you learn so much more than by just wandering independently.

  • September 16, 2017

    Oh how lovely! Didn’t even know that there is such a thing as the Former French Concession there. Love the history of the neighborhood. It’s always amazing what a mixture of different nationalities and cultures can create, right! 🙂 Love your photos. 🙂

  • September 16, 2017

    We visited Shanghai back in 2012, but I had no idea that the Former French Concession was even there. It looks beautiful – it reminds me of a little slice of Europe.

    • September 26, 2017

      It does feel very, very different than the rest of Shanghai. Love the tree-lined streets.

  • September 16, 2017

    Wow, I was in Shanghai years ago but I don’t believe we visited the Former French Concession. It has such a crazy past I’ll have to check it out when I make it back. Though I can’t say a name like ‘Big Eared Du’ would really strike fear into anyone’s heart. Thanks for a great read!

  • September 18, 2017

    This is beautiful photography, and not at all what I picture when I think of Shanghai! I love walking tours because they allow you to learn so much about a city and actually see places where historical events happened, which I think is much more interesting than just reading about it.

  • September 19, 2017

    That walking tour was really interesting and full of history. We too like such tours as they make you learn so much and also let you see interesting architecture. Your pictures are really amazing.

  • September 19, 2017

    Interesting guy, that Du! And the FFC looks like an interesting area to explore. I would like to know more about the Opium Wars, I will check if Noddle tours have more specific tour about this subject.

    • September 26, 2017

      They talk pretty extensive about the Opium Wars. Pretty interesting, since I knew very little about it. In fact, that is how Hong Kong became a British colony.

  • September 20, 2017
    Megan Jerrard

    Noodle Tours sounds like a great company – it’s always great to have the insight of a local tour guide because I find you have a different appreciation for the sites of a city when you have the history and sometimes legends behind it. You can definitely see the Russian influences throughout the city, though also that there’s been a very big diverse mix of cultures / religions / ethnicities. the tale of Shanghai organized crime definitely makes for interesting reading!! Sounds like your tour guide really brought the history of the city to life 🙂

  • September 20, 2017

    Oooooh, your walking tour sounded awesome, I am all about the walking tours, its fun to imagine yourself standing right there where stories and legends were created. I mean Big Eared Du, right?! I am sure every place on the planet has some sort of story like this organised crime, but it isn’t often you get one as ‘Hollywood’ as that.
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