Wulumuqi Lu (pronounced WUL-u-MU-chi, or more authentically, UL-u-MU-chi) is the heart and soul of Shanghai’s Former French Concession. Linguistically speaking Wulumuqi is without question the best road name I’ve ever heard. If you say the word aloud—and you should—it will be instantly clear that this is another one of those words that grants pure phonetic joy.
As streets in Shanghai go, Wulumuqi is also home to the most interesting four-block stretch in the FFC. But as a word, it’s pure poetry. It has two trochees, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed, which is why it rolls around in your mouth like a marble.
Chinese tonemes often sound harsh to English ears, yet this word is more fun than bamboo. It sounds less Asian and more Latin-based than other Chinese street names. In Italy, for example, the same word could be a kind of shout-out: “Ei, tu, woolamoochi!” Add a hand gesture and it could easily be Italian for screw you. The Spanish might use this word to name a dance: the Flamenco, the Cachucha, the Wulumuchi. It could be an English word too, part of the Dr. Seuss lexicon alongside the Lorax and the Once-ler. When I’m feeling pessimistic, Wulumuqi calls to mind a certain vulgar but fleeting White House Communications Director.
As it turns out Wulumuqi is not actually a Mandarin word. It’s a Mongolian word meaning beautiful farm, a variation on the word Urumqi, which happens to be the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur “Autonomous” Region. This huge semi-province in western China borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia and is home to a large Turkic population. I add quotation marks around the word autonomous since Xinjiang is actually a police state (as opposed to Shanghai which is a minor cog in the wider wheel of the surveillance society). China views the sizable Muslim population of Uyghurs, and Xinjiang’s proximity to the Middle East, as a security risk that needs to be tightly controlled. Think of autonomous as an alternative fact.
In addition to its poetic and autocratic associations, Wulumuqi also gets a blue ribbon in the game of Best Name Change. Back when the FFC was just the French Concession (1849-1943), this road was called . . . Route Alfred Magy.
This is arguably the worst road name ever bestowed upon gravel, dirt, or pavement, and that fact alone makes the rhythm and meter of Wulumuqi all the better. Around the corner, there is a well-known art deco building also named for Monsieur Magy (creatively called the Alfred Magy Apartment Building), yet virtually nothing about its namesake has been discoverable during my many torpid, China-filtered Google searches.
The Shanghai A-Z guide identifies him as Francois Leonard Alfred Magy, a dignitary who died in WWI. Apparently, he made less of an impression upon history than he did upon municipal engineering. After the French abandoned the area, and after Japanese invaders were defeated, China gleefully swapped out the French street names for tongue-rolling Chinese names, many of which are equipped with lovely U sounds: Julu, Fuxing, Donghu and Fuming to name a few. Thankfully, Route Alfred Magy was likewise transfigured.
The actual road, in addition to the word, is a favorite of mine as well. The one-mile stretch of Wulumuqi between Fuxing Lu and Huashan Lu is the liveliest and most interesting urban patch of shops in the FFC. If you have only one day in Shanghai, ditch Nanjing Road and spend some time in this little neighborhood.
These four blocks are teeming with people, machines, sights, sounds, and smells worth smelling. The surrounding area is leafy and residential, filled with high-rise apartment buildings and narrow walled-off alleys with lane houses for the wealthy and not-so-wealthy alike, and that means you will see every slice of life here. Wulumuqi Lu is as real as it gets in downtown Shanghai.
Mornings on Wulumuqui have a completely different vibe than late afternoons and evenings. By 7:00 a.m. the road is crackling with street food vendors, a few noodle houses, and some early-bird fruit shops. If you’re hankering for street food you can find churro-like fried dough, Chinese crepes with scallions (jianbing), pork buns (baozi), sesame balls, pork dumplings (jiaozi), and kebabs.
The Chicken Man is one of my favorite vendors. He opens early when the ayis come to shop and closes by noon when he’s sold out of birds. I buy his chickens for 45 kuai—not exactly a hygienic shopping experience—but I’m pretty certain the nearby grocery vendors also get their one-bird-a-day allotment from him, add plastic and styrofoam and sell it for twice the price.
The famous Avocado Lady opens her shop early, too (pictured below). She established herself here years ago when avocados were impossible to find. Now she occupies a double storefront at number 274, which is stocked with the most diverse items in the area: lentils, nan, produce, capers, imported meats, cheeses, chickpeas, and so on. She’s become a living urban legend that harkens back to Shanghai’s black market days—if you want something impossible to find, go to the Avocado Lady (and she will charge you accordingly).
By mid-afternoon and early evening, every shop except the Chicken Man is humming. What can you find on Wulumuqi? Well, there are upscale cafes (Turkish, French, Chinese), coffee huts, convenience stores, live crab vendors (four!), clothing boutiques, butchers, salons, a small, fish wet market, massages, herbal vendors, specialty tea shops, medical supplies, pharmacies, travel agents, real estate agencies, bakeries, custom drapes, shoe shops, framing, opticians, a diversity of Chinese restaurants with cuisines like Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Cantonese, cigarette vendors, flower shops, fruit sellers, pizza, kebabs, specialty crafts, a couple small western groceries and the You Can’t Buy Happiness coffee shop.
Crucially, there are also two wine shops, which give me good reason to walk that length of Wulumuqi daily. Highbrow and lowbrow shops alike are crammed together in tight spaces. The road is crowded, noisy, and alive with a diversity of people—Chinese and expat; young and old; professional and working class; wealthy and poor; residents and visitors; stylish and not. People are riding every conceivable bike, cart, scooter, car, or adapted contraption, and they are walking, weaving, bobbing and looking for exactly what they need on Wulumuqi Lu.