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Old Town Charm Can Be A Welcome Change

Pan Rongda has always been mesmerized by the old neighborhoods in Shanghai's Hongkou district, an area where alleyways intertwine, vibrant markets are bursting with life and traditional dwellings have remained largely unchanged for more than a century.

The 30-something was born and raised in the area north of Suzhou Creek, which has largely retained its old neighborhoods. With few skyscrapers and big shopping malls, thus evading throngs of tourist groups.


"I love the old feeling here," Pan says. "I grew up in a small lane in the area, and I'd like my guests to experience the localness of the city, too," she says.

Pan runs a bed-and-breakfast in Dongzhaoli, an alleyway that was once home to early Communist leader and literary translator Qu Qiubai. Opposite the entrance of the lane is the former residence of renowned writer Lu Xun.

The 500-meter Tian'ai Road, or the "Road of Sweet Love", is within a three-minute walk. Lovers go there to scrawl their names or commitment on the walls. Many couples believe that if they walk the entire route their love will be forever blessed, and they will never separate.

Duolun Road, a pedestrian cultural street lined with teahouses, art galleries and antiques shops, is just a few blocks farther. Many literary celebrities of modern China lived here in the first half of the 20th century.

The three-story guesthouse that Pan operates was built in the 1920s in shikumen style, a traditional Shanghainese architectural style combining Western elements, such as a terrace house structure, and Chinese elements of a courtyard enclosed by a stone wall.

Pan lives in the attic and has listed the four rooms in the house on Airbnb, the online short-term lodging service, since summer last year.

Pan, who worked in the office of a multinational company for eight years, decided on a whim about two years ago to become a bed-and-breakfast owner.

"I just got bored of the routine every day and wanted to try something else," Pan says.

It wasn't long before she had started her bed-and-breakfast business, which she expanded last year by renting the old three-story house from its owner in Hong Kong. "I like this old house, and it happens to stand on the same street, Yinshan Road, where my parents got married," Pan says.

She renovated the house and turned it into a popular Airbnb listing.

"I wouldn't call it a pure business because I think the spirit of bed-and-breakfast is sharing. I live in the house and interact with my guests, help them plan the trips, tell them my stories and listen to theirs."

Fu Zhiyi, who worked at an advertising company in Hong Kong, traveled to Shanghai last year and stayed in Pan's house.

Fu, a history buff, fell in love with the old house and became so obsessed with the historical aspects of Shanghai that he quit his job and went to work for Pan to run the old guesthouse.

Fu assiduously studies the history of the old lanes and the history of Shanghai, and apart from working on promoting Pan's guesthouse - which now has a name, Mani Papa - sometimes accompanies guests on walks around the city, imparting his local knowledge.

"I like the stories in the city, and the old house itself is the carrier of a lot of the culture and lore," Fu says. "Each old lane and house is a storybook, telling different local tales against the backdrop of all-the-same high-rises being built in the context of globalization."

In her guesthouse, Pan also organizes cocktail workshops, a passion she has cultivated since quitting her office job, telling people about each drink and teaching them how to make a personal signature cocktail.

She also holds cocktail parties on the 18th of every month - 18 is her house number - and a movie night every Wednesday.

The 4-year-old border collie that she adopted this year is also a reason for many guests to come back again and again.

Pan says that when she quit her office job, she thought being a bed-and-breakfast host could give her a lot of freedom to "go and see the world", but it has turned out that she can barely leave the city because of it. Her rooms are often fully booked by travelers from home and abroad, especially on weekends and during summer holidays.

"But perhaps that's not too bad. It's the world that's coming to see me."

                                                                                                   ---From China Daily

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