The Street Where You Live

Now that the dust has settled from our trip around the world, it’s time to revisit my novel-in-progress, Peace Court. To be honest, I’m a little scared to venture down that street. What if my trip has caused a reality shift due to time or distance or both? What if I have to rewrite the whole damn manuscript?

Perhaps to ease my way into the world of Peace Court, I should take a stroll around the neighborhood. See what I remember. Find out what’s new. Street names are a way to order the world. Imagine what happens when those anchors shift, as they did after the Communists took over China.

Shanghai street
Shanghai street. Photo credit: Karen Kao

In the erstwhile French Concession of Shanghai, streets and boulevards were renamed for the most part after local cities and provinces rather than priests, dignitaries, consuls and writers from France.

Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (Bloomsbury 2017)

How’s a girl to make her way home if she can’t find the street where she lives?

Street History

The Shanghai Association for Science and Technology believes that some street names date back to the Ming Dynasty. There is now a city-wide project to preserve these old street names with commemorative plaques, public art or development embargoes.

The Bund, Shanghai
The Bund, Shanghai Municipal History Museum.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

When foreigners ruled parts of Shanghai, they got to name the streets. Under the Unequal Treaties, British, Americans, and French the had right to create and manage settlements. The first British roads, built in the 1860s, were called Church, Bridge or Park.

As the concessions grew, the British devised a grid system. They gave Chinese cities to the roads that ran east and west from the Bund. Chinese provinces went to the streets running north and south. After WWII, when the foreign powers officially relinquished control of the concessions, the Nationalist government began to sinify Shanghai’s street names. Why?

Many old road names smacked of insults and slights and the Nationalists addressed these — among the first to be changed in Frenchtown, Boulevard de Montigny was renamed Xizang Road South in 1946. Charles de Montigny, the man who effectively created the French Concession, was by all accounts arrogant and, much disliked, and his legacy still rankled with the Chinese.

Paul French, The Old Shanghai A-Z (Hong Kong University Press 2010)

My father once lived on Avenue Haig. In his lifetime, the Nationalists gave the street a second name, Huashan Lu, the name it bears today.


Since the wholesale alteration of Shanghai street names into Chinese ones, a cottage industry has sprung up. On TripAdvisor, former Shanghai residents ask how to navigate the city using only the Concession Era street names. There are blogs like the Shanghailander that offer conversion tables and full-on resources like French’s The Old Shanghai A-Z.

When my cousin Brenda visited Shanghai in 1984, none of these resources existed. She wanted to visit the home where her mother and my father were born and raised, their schools and favorite haunts. So her mother drew her a map.

Little did we know that, in 1953, the United States Central Intelligence Agency had already compiled an exhaustive list of Shanghai street names: the old ones, the Nationalist version, and the Communist names. The sanitized version of this conversion table was not released until 2009.

For my Old Shanghai research, I rely on The Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai by Tess Johnston and Deke Erh. In the back, there’s a handy list of Shanghai Apartment Buildings & Compounds that names the buildings, the old street address and and the new street name. That’s how I stumbled upon Peace Court located on Passage 36, Rue Massenet, now called Sinan Lu.

Going Home

The Last Look was a wonderful resource for visualizing the world of Song Anyi. I tell her story in my first novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, set in Concession Era Shanghai. But The Last Look can’t tell me how Shanghai evolved after that. When the Communists dismantled English language billboards and neon signs. When they took down the French plaques in public parks and the foreigners left the country. Shanghai was leached of all its color, save for the ubiquitous red star.

Red Army School Ruben Terlou
Ruben Terlou, Along the Yangtze, ‘The Red Army School’

That visual vacuum is food for my imagination. I see a hapless policeman sent to Shanghai on a wild goose chase, armed only with a sketch of his prey and an outdated map. I imagine the elegant shikumen compound of Peace Court now packed with families in every room. Listen to the night soil men as they clean the wooden latrine buckets. Or the first faint cries of the bean curd vendor as he plies his wares from door to door.

Song Anyi has a niece now. Her name is Li. She’s a fresh-faced girl with long braids and grey eyes. Li beckons from the door of her one-room dewlling. I think she’s calling me home.