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[Offbeat]: Tilanqiao Prison

Sniffing around Shanghai's huge, foreboding Tilanqiao Prison, which sits in a surprisingly pleasant, historical area.
Aug 29, 2012 | 15:44 Wed
"Offbeat" is a SmartShanghai column about stuff to look at or do in Shanghai that's interesting or weird (relatively, of course), that doesn't fit anywhere else. It appears weekly, monthly, or maybe even annually, when we're not busy working on other superfluous column ideas.

This is Tilanqiao Prison.

It was built in the early 1900s and holds local and foreign criminals, from violent offenders to prisoners of conscience. It’s a 70,000 square meter microcosm that includes six prison blocks, a hospital and an execution chamber, with a unique trapdoor system under the gallows that allows criminals who have just been hanged to fall directly into the prison morgue. Nice... It was once thought of as the prison with the harshest conditions in the world, with guards who could strike at will and enforced all day silence.

You're not allowed inside, but it’s in a really historical part of Hongkou, surrounded by early 20th century architecture, the former Jewish ghetto and Xiahai Temple. It’s worth having a walk around the prison and the area it’s in if you want to break up a summer of pool high jinks and outdoor drinking with something a bit different.

This is what the prison looks like from the outside.

This is the small backdoor used by visitors. They start lining up around two in the afternoon to go inside and visit prisoners. Most inmates are only allowed a single half-hour visit each month.

Taking pictures is a no no. We had a go but were spotted by one of the look-out guards who started blowing on his whistle and pointing at us. It was a bit scary. Intrepid investigators that we are, we got in a cab and asked the cabbie to drive round the prison while we took stealth photos.

Also, if you're in the area, Zhoushan Lu, which is opposite the front of the prison, has a lovely block of residential housing built in the 1940s and 1950s, all red brick and arched doorways. The houses have been broken up into small living spaces for Chinese families.

At the south end of Zhoushan Lu is tiny Huoshan Park, where a bamboo hut has ingeniously been built around this tree. Why? We don’t know. There are no signs explaining this feat of engineering.

On Kunming Lu, behind the prison is the Buddhist Xiahai Temple. The present structure only dates back to 1941 because the original structure was burned down by the Japanese, but there's been a temple on the site since the Qian Long period of Qing dynasty (1723–1735). Entry is free.

There is also the Jewish Refugees' Museum just down the road. It has small temporary exhibitions about the history of Jews living in Shanghai. The building is beautiful. Costs 50rmb to get in.

We got to the prison by cab from the center of town for about 30rmb. You can also get there by taking line four on the underground and getting off at Dalian Lu station and leaving by the third exit. The prison is number 147 on Changyang Lu.