Notre Dame is a five-story white house among the skyscrapers in the southwest of Shanghai, within the area of Xujiahui (Zi-Ka-Wei) district. It is as an outstanding historical building in Shanghai. And in 2014, it has become a cultural heritage site under municipal protection. There is a plaque on the wall outside of the building indicating its special status. In fact, there are hundreds of historic buildings having the similar status in Xujiahui district, for example, the Normandie Apartments in the former French Concession.
The history of the Notre Dame in Shanghai
Notre Dame was initiated by Xue Kongzhao, French missionary of Jesuit. Originally, in 1843, the building was in Hengtang Village of today’s Qingpu District. Later in 1864, Notre Dame was relocated to the Wangjiatang, close to the Xujiahui. In the following years, the Society of Jesus built their monasteries around it. Thus, the original building became a large monastery complex. Originally, Notre Dame covered an area of more than 6000 square metres. It included 14 buildings. And, each building could host up to 300 persons.
The architecture of the Notre Dame
The existing white building has a cement mortar wall. The exterior windows on the wall are long and narrow wooden shutters, while the inner layer of windows is the colored grid glass. Those mosaic tiles on the ground floor are still in solid shapes. The vibrant and exotic colors are a main feature of the interior design.
But, what is the hidden secret inside the building today?
The Shanghai Old Station Restaurant (上海老站餐厅)
The first secret is the hidden restaurant. From the outside looking, visitors would not expect it to be a restaurant. But yes, the ground floor is a restaurant which offers fine Shanghainese cuisine. The long entrance hall, the gramophones, an old typewriter, old phones, everything within the restaurant will take the visitors to the old days. Besides, precious collections, the retro-style of decoration, and photos of the old Shanghai demonstrate the history of Shanghai.
The restaurant offers Shanghai dishes which were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Dishes such as stir-fried peeled prawns, crisp cashew nut cakes, and steamed duck in lotus leaf are very appreciated by the international guests.
From the main room of the restaurant, visitors can discover the next secret. The two stairs on each side of the main dining room lead the way to two historic train carriages. Each carriage has train-style seats and long tables.
The two historic train carriages
97318 Official Car (97316 公务车)
This carriage was produced by the Hanover Vehicle Manufacturer in Germany in 1899. It arrived in China in the same year. The red-brown and black-colored train carriage served as the private train for the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) from the Qing Dynasty.
However, at that time, the railroad tracks of Cixi’s trains were specially built only in the inner court of the Imperial Palace. In fact, the Empress Dowager Cixi had never taken the train outside of her palace. She had only used for merely a year and escaped from her palace in 1900 when the allied troops from eight countries invaded the Imperial city.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, however, the Harbin Railway Bureau used it for propaganda and education purpose. Now, it has become part of the retro style restaurant, the Shanghai Old Station Restaurant (上海老站餐厅).
97431 Special Vehicle (97431特种车)
The 97431 Special Vehicle was built by the Russian Yekaterina Vehicle Factory in 1919. But it arrived in China in 1922 and was used as an official train by the government at that time. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, it became the VIP train which was only used by Madame Song Qingling, the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the honorary president of the People’s Republic of China.
Later, it was transferred to the Jiamusi Railway Sub-bureau and used as camping vehicle during the rescue activities. It became the collection piece at the current premise after its retirement. The carriage is also part of the Shanghai Old Station Restaurant (上海老站餐厅). There some photos of scenes showing celebrities in Shanghai between the 1920s and 1930s on the walls of both carriages.
C4 narrow-gauge locomotive (C4窄轨蒸汽机车)
The last secret is the black locomotive standing elegantly between the two trains. This is a narrow-gauge steam locomotive weighing more than 70 tons. With a gauge of only 765 mm, it is 670 mm narrower than the 1435 mm gauge of China’s standard railway track. It was specially developed to cope with the steep terrain at the southwestern border of China. Therefore, it is a rare collection piece as well.
Xujiahui literally means “Xu family junction”, or “property of Xu family at the junction of two rivers”. The “Xu family” refers to the family of Xu Guangqi, China’s most notable Catholic convert. Most parts of today’s Xujiahui was once the ancestral home of the Xu family. Baptized by Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, Xu’s family donated large plots of land to the Catholic Church, including the site of the St. Ignatius Cathedral. The Notre Dame was also on Xu’s family land, at the opposite of the St. Ignatius Cathedral. The cathedral was in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg‘s 1987 film Empire of the Sun.
The Society of Jesus established not only a grand cathedral but also a complex that covers most of today’s Xujiahui. In addition to the cathedral, the French Jesuits also built orphanages, monasteries, schools, libraries and the Xujiahui observatory.
To learn more about the area, visitors can book a private Shanghai Church and Jesuits walking tour. This walk takes you to an area that has a rich and rather different history from other areas of Shanghai, the home to both the former Jesuit community and to a famous Chinese man of science, Xu Guangqi.
Or, visitors can join a full-day Shanghai tour which includes not only the visit to the Xujiahui Catholic Church, but also the visit to Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, the historical Jewish Memorial Church within the settlement, and Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. You can find both tours at Viator.com.
How to get there
This is an interesting site in Shanghai. It is, by all means, a place where the visitors can experience the past of Shanghai and learn the history and the culture of the old Shanghai. And, the Notre Dame in Shanghai is free to visit. To reach there, just walk out at the No.5 exit of the Xujiahui Subway Station. The address is No. 201 North Caoxi Road (漕溪北路201号).