I have mostly lived in areas of cities that hardly boast an array of facilities I can prefix with 'my local-'; Ssangmun in Seoul offering a few places to play darts and grab a wanggmandu on the cheap, Auckland's Northcote proffering 'Cool Bar', for what seemed to be an exclusively Maori clientele. When in Reykjavik, I lived so centrally that the amount of choice on offer gave me one hundred locals, and London's Notting Hill jammed up their prices to such an extent I had to walk out with my tail between my legs before I can scratch my name on the toilet wall with a compass. So with great pleasure I now pronounce thee, Dagu Road (大沽路) of Huangpu come Jing'an location, my local road. What follows is an overview.
Most roads in central Shanghai are named after a city in China. In fact most roads in Chinese cities are named so, which causes for great confusion when searching an address on Google/Baidu Maps. But the name Dagu offers a mystery which I am still yet to uncover, as everytime I mention my address to a Chinese friend or acquaintance, I can tell by their face that they have no idea what the hell it is. In England we're familiar with what roads are and aren't called, so if you were to for instance say you live on 'Boopetyboop Road' to, say, anyone, you would be met with a Manhattan-once-over (is that a Sex and the City reference? Is that a thing? Did I hear that once?). I get it all the time. But for my attachment to her, I forgive her. (I know boats and even cities are referred to as 'her', but what about roads? This is where the Chinese gender neutral pronoun 'ta' would be apt.)
This was one of the first places I came to in Shanghai as an Italian Couchsurfer promised me it had a great atmosphere for expats relaxing after a busy day at work. I sat at Dagu park sketching while I waited for her, not realising how familiar I would become with the environment. A Chinese man sat by me at that time and started a conversation about oil, as we sat facing the waterfall. With the benefit of experience on my side I now can understand that very same man is spoiled for choice selecting businessmen and women with whom to discuss such topics as oil at this location, for it is where they are drawn - a bar street in a central business district, boasting European ambience alongside Chinese hospitality.
I'm not one to be magnetically drawn to the expat areas of Asian cities - at least I tell myself that - but Dagu Road still hasn't gone full-Yongkang on us (Yongkang being - not KhaoSan of Shanghai, but something of that sort). For one, its pretty slow - the one way system mostly being advantageous to taxis and scooters rather than to a continuous stream of traffic. Also- the commercial buildings are quite large, meaning you won't often find yourself squeezed into a cluster of sweaty standing foreigners looking for some close-contact kind of parties. Instead, the emphasis is on relaxed and spacious dining and drinking, most actively outside on the tree-lined road, in the spring, summer, autumn period. (In Winter, we warmed ourselves indoors, never wishing to venture outside again). At time of writing, the go-to drinking spots are Cafe des Stagiares, of comfortable decor and French interning staff; new player Foam Heaven - a self proclaimed 'SuperBARket - where you select your bottled international craft beers from one of 12 or 13 fridges; stalwart sports bar Park '91 Pub, where you can play pool under the cheerful din of whatever hot game I don't give a damn about is playing; and my personal favourite, Gatsby Bar, styled on the Baz Luhrmann movie and offering some fancy cocktails in a cosy setting. Why am I writing as though I'm advertising these places? Because I really like them, I guess.
Otherwise, you'd probably find yourself here looking for a nice place to eat. The Spanish place is usually the busiest, but my favourite is the Shaanxi restaurant, selling jiajiangmian (茄酱面) and Shaanxi Sandwiches (肉夹馍). Since living here, I've seen other places sprouting up and encouraging me to eat vegan or have a smoothie or something. Perhaps the story of Dagu Road resonates with many a road, and gentrification generally, in that regard. Naturally, I have neglected to mention the thousands of salons, estate agents and spas which battle for supremacy in between the places foreigners notice.
Now, I actually live over the Chengdu Elevated road, on the fabled 'other side of Dagu'. I always feel it is looking apprehensively over at its Western arm and wondering when it will catch that virus. Recently, a strange Castle-shoe-shop popped up in the space of a few weeks, and I've also come to terms with some new coffee stands where I can only pay with Wechat wallet. But on the whole, this Eastern side caters to the locals, with fried bread and soya milk (油条&豆浆) being served early in the morning on the street, alongside several Baozi (包子）vendors, who always laugh patronisingly when I order a Baozi. At that moment I always wonder how funny it is, me wanting a Baozi.
It hasn't taken long at all for me to feel like Dagu Road is my home. It's duality has been essential to my acclimatisation. It is on the fringes of what is known as 'the area with lots of foreigners', and so I can access either world without exertion. Dagu is still finding its feet, with a little too much floor space for the traffic it currently attracts. In that sparsity lies opportunity for connection; I am a local there.