A tram in Shanghai during the 1920s.

Early Days Of Shanghai Tram

Once upon a time, there was a popular nursery song in Shanghai:

There is an old uncle aged eighty plus eight, who took Tram Route 8 to Eight Immortals Bridge, bought eight bowls of Eight Treasures rice, which cost him eight yuans plus eighty-eight fens.


Old uncle is the term by which Chinese address an old man, and Eight Treasures Rice is a popular snack in Shanghai that is made of sticky rice mingled with layers of red bean paste and topped with pumpkin seeds and various other nuts then to be steamed and served as a side dish.

As for Eight Immortals Bridge, it has long gone. But in the old days, it was one of the nine most famous bridges striding across a river flowing through today’s Yan’an Road, now a major commercial street parallel to Nanjing Road. In the early 20th century, there was no street there but a stream branched out from the Huangpu River and stretched towards today’s People’s Park. This very river was called Yangjingbang (洋泾浜), the source of the term Chinglish, originally referred to the broken English spoken by Shanghainese living along this waterway. Also long gone is the Tram Route 8 that took the old uncle to the Eight Immortals Bridge to purchase Eight Treasures Rice.

Shanghai Nanjing Road in the 1920s

Tram Route 8 was not the first tram line in Shanghai. The first one is Tram Route 1 (understandably) that appeared as early as in 1908 – by then China was ruled by an emperor; and by then Chinese men were still forced by the Manchu emperor to fashion a pigtail-style hairdo, very much like the wire on the top of a tram. The Route 1 ran from the terminus at Jing’ansi Temple to The Bund alongside the Huangpu River, passing through Beijing Road and Nanjing Road on its way, with a total length of over 6 km.


Before the big box stores ruined the main street you could go downtown and buy anything and the stores weren’t carbon copies of each other. It’s hard to find anything unique anymore.

All Things Chinese
Carbon copying the houses, shops, streets and cities is the epidemic called modernization with mass production by machines as the leading cause.

A song written by Carole King and performed by the Monkees called Pleasant Valley Sunday forewarned of this in 1966.

All Things Chinese
European Modernist architect le Corbusier famously claimed a house is a machine for living in, so we see the collections of machines with no connection to history, culture and environment replacing the old cities.

Months later, the British colonists who ruled the area where the tram was running issued monthly tram pass, but to the Westerners only – the local Chinese were excluded from this privilege. A year later, the monthly pass became available to Chinese but with a condition that the locals could only board the second carriage which was lower in grade than the first car.

In the following decades, nearly two dozen more tram lines were built to cover the entire downtown area of Shanghai, extending to Yangshupu (杨树浦, today’s Yangpu District) in the east, Hongkou Park (虹口公园) and old train station in the north, Xujiahui (徐家汇) in the west and Lujiawan (卢家湾) in the south, with the average daily number of tram passengers reaching almost half million (486,000). Of 22 tram lines, 11 were owned by British companies, 7 ran by French merchants, with only 4 belonged to Chinese.


This is when I wish I was a time traveller. I know the idea of living in the past is more romantic than if you actually had to live then (image life without computers). Still, it would be great to visit.

All Things Chinese
I think many would love to time travel to the present era – being a witness to a great turning point in human history.

Good point, since the future has not yet arrived making impossible to go to, what about someone from 50 years ago travelling to the present time which would have been their future then. Mind blows!

Yes, Eric. Never go anywhere without the essentials. Plus I have a theory that time is circular all this will be destroyed then reborn again. Once I prove this and get my Nobel Peace prize………

All Things Chinese
The future of humanity as a whole has not yet been fully shaped unless nobody attempts to do something different from the past on a global scale.

There are countless worlds out there. Although the vast majority of them are very different from our world, there are still numerous quite similar to ours, of which some are akin to the past of the human world on earth, others far ahead in time.

The different worlds are not really situated in different locations but overlapped with each other. Since all the worlds are by essence the products of our imagination, which world you might see and dwell in is very much determined by your perspective. Just like when viewing a painting: some may discover a landscape, others find a man’s profile.

Therefore, if you can be totally detached from any “reality”, be it past, current or future, and gain the capacity to freely shift your perspective, you’ll be able to travel between worlds and times.

And if further, you have eventually included all elements in the universe in your scope, you can be in all worlds and all times at once without shifting your perspective which means without travelling.

However, before you reach that stage, as a human being, there is only one of you that exists in this universe since you chiefly rely on your mind to experience the world while the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, therefore no such a thing called parallel worlds with many of you living simultaneously without your knowledge. Anything that you don’t know does not exist in your world, as all existence in your world is solely shaped by your imagination. 

The Heyday Of Shanghai Tram

The heyday of the Shanghai tram was between the early 30s and the late 50s when it became the most favourite public transport for the residents and the most distinctive streetscape of downtown Shanghai both in visual and in audio senses. In the morning the residents with bedrooms near the main streets woke up by the crispy sound of tram bells, and at night they drifted into dreams in the cosy echo of the chimes.

A tram in the 1930s picking up passengers in Nanjing Road

There are quite a few online posts recounting personal experiences with Shanghai trams, and the following are two of them.

The Memories of Shanghai Trams from 金陵人

Shanghai resident self-addressed as 金陵人 was born and grew up in a house situated on Sichuan Road (四川路) with the door right in the front of a Route 1 stop.

In the 1950s, there was no shelter at the bus or tram stations in Shanghai, so from his balcony, he could easily spot a tram pulling into the stop. Sometimes when he was late for school, he would check if there was a tram coming; and when there was one, he would race down the stairs and dash out the door and jump on board.

It cost him 3 fens (3% of a yuan) to take the trip, a price which could afford him a baked sesame pie (大饼) for his breakfast or 3 low-quality pencils for his homework. The conductor would tear an appropriate ticket from a timber clipboard she was holding in her arm and punch a tiny hole in the ticket with a copper pincer to indicate how far a passenger was allowed to travel with his fare.

The following described in detail about 金陵人’s riding experience:

Tram drivers stood for the whole trip behind the handles for direction and speed (only in the late years they were offered a tall stool), and the bell sound was caused by the driver’s foot pressing down on a metal treadle that hit against a metal device and produced clapping sounds. I often stood behind the driver observing with great amazement how wonderfully he was able to utilize all his arms and legs at the same time.

The interior of the carriage was exclusively made of timber, even the floor, with small ornaments all around; when looking back, I realized how artistic these tiny ornaments were. The tram normally progressed at a leisurely speed, while carriages kept rocking and swaying, a motion that became the backdrop throughout my entire high school years.



A tram driver checking the situation at the front door, Shanghai, 1936

The Memories of Shanghai Trams from 食砚无田

Another native Shanghai resident pen named 食砚无田 also narrated on his blog about his childhood memories of the trams.

When I was a little boy my family lived in a shared Stone Gate Terrace House in Merry Alley (#646 Lane) at Tiantong Road (near Henan Zhong Road), where Tram Route 8 from Yangshupu to East New Bridge passed through with fare starting at 3 fens. At the time my family’s financial situation was rather tight and I seldom got any pocket money. I would love to take for a ride to Nanjing Road, but I could not afford the fare so often stood at the entrance of the alleyway watching trams disappearing in the direction of the downtown centre and fancied what I might experience if I were on board.

It was until I started attending primary school that my mother began to give me 2 fens each week as my pocket money. I saved all of them in a clay coin saver. The sound of a coin falling into the saver would make me so thrilled, as I pictured with these coins how many sweet tram trips I would be able to take.

You know, the most delightful experience in riding trams was to stand next to the driver who also stood there while driving the vehicle.

My family moved to Wuning Road in 1968 to live in a flat with a proper kitchen and a bathroom with a flushing toilet, leaving behind the allay, the Stone-Gate Terrace House and trams, which somehow made me feel as if I lost a part of my life. The chinking sound of tram bells that had accompanied my entire childhood is so unforgettable.





Dying Days & Resurrection of Shanghai Trams

But the good time for anything that is artistic and leisurely was over.

Entering the 60s, it was machine and speed that ruled the day due to many reasons – some are quite reasonable and some are not so reasonable – in the West and then in the East, including in China.

At 17 minutes past midnight on August 15, 1963, the last tram departed the terminus in Jing’ansi; as soon as the tram wheels rolled past the rails, the workers and the PLA soldiers previously waited at both sides with equipment quickly demolished the rails behind the tram.

By 3:52 am, Tram Route 1 left Nanjing Road and arrived in The Bund, and it was the moment that after 55 years of being the indispensable feature of the commercial heart of Shanghai, Tram Route 1 eventually rolled into history.

Yet it was until 12 years later that all traces of the trams were wiped away from Shanghai’s ground.

Tram Route 2 in Shanghai

In the early 1970s, on each Saturday afternoon (except during the school holidays), one could witness a group of girls and boys at the station of Great Eight Temples (大八寺) jumping onto Tram Route 3 that ran between Hongkou Park and Pentagon Square (五角场) in the northeast of Shanghai. They were the students from the High School Affiliated with Jiaotong University, one of a handful of top prestigious boarding highs in Shanghai that only took in students selected from primary schools all over Shanghai.

By then the driver was no longer standing but sitting on a high stool, but the sound of bells was still produced by the driver’s foot when the tram approached a stop or when one or two pedestrians walked across the rails in front of the approaching tram, conductor lady was still punching a hole on tickets, the fare was still started at 3 fens, the exterior of trams was still painted in muted green, the rails under trams were still glistening in the sun, the carriage floors were still paved with timbers, the benches were still made of wood, the windows behind the benches could still be opened and closed at passengers’ will, the folding doors of the carriages were still made with metal bars and measured about a meter in height, the boys and the girls heading home once a week still loved to stand around the driver monitoring his navigating performance, and trams still progressed in a leisurely speed, rocking and swaying.

Then on December 1, 1975, all the tinkling and jingling, all the swaying and swinging came to a full stop – Tram Route 3 was replaced by Bus Route 93. From that day on in the next thirty years plus, urban Shanghai had no more sight of rails no more sound of bells.

An old Shanghai tram displayed on Shanghai street

Then on National Day 2009, the tram re-emerged in Shanghai, but with a twist. It lost one leg becoming a monorail, it runs fast than buses, it rings no bells, it opens no windows, it operates orderly, it moves steadily, its conductors are no longer casually ambling around and punching a hole in the ticket but all pose graciously like flight attendants, its drivers no longer allow you to monitor their performance from behind but position themselves stately as if were flight pilots.

Tram in Shanghai, 2009

The old Shanghai tram used to be the favourite urban transportation for the local residents from all walks of life, in particular the folks at the grassroots level, due to its high frequency, its low cost and its easiness to leap on and jump off the board, while the reincarnated tram is more like to be designed for a planned VIP trip. It gains speed, gains efficiency, gains order, gains stability, but the lively dynamism, social inclusion and human touch seem to be somewhat missing.

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