Shanghai: An Intimate Tour
Published: January 2014
By Adam Sachs
Surprises await at every turn in Shanghai; T+L explores Shanghai's high-rise hotels, sleepy French concession lanes, and chaotic night markets.
It is, conservatively, a thousand degrees in the shade of Spencer Dodington’s ten-gallon cowboy hat. So, while I’m enjoying this tall Texan expat’s learned discourse on the cross-cultural stylings of Chinese Deco architecture in 1930’s Shanghai, it’s frankly a relief when the subject turns to ice cream.
Dodington and I are standing in the empty streetscape of what will soon become a bustling complex called Rockbund: future home to boutique hotels, status-confirming condos, the kind of shops with guards in natty suits—all the nice stuff that would justify expensively gutting and reappointing a city block of handsome, historically significant buildings at the edge of the Bund. We’re a minute’s walk from Shanghai’s storied embankment and prime tourist prowl. For now, it’s quiet at Rockbund, its buildings’ well-scrubbed shells awaiting their retail reincarnation. Save for a man power-buffing the paving stones and a few genteel ladies looking lost and melting under their parasols, we’ve got Shanghai’s next great neighborhood to ourselves.
Dodington went to architecture school here but dropped out when he realized, as he puts it, “they were training students to modernize China and what I loved were the old buildings that were in the way.” Now he makes a living restoring apartments for Chinese and foreign clients in those very buildings, predominantly in the gracious Deco apartment blocks and traditional lane houses of the French Concession. He also takes guests along on meandering walks, talking architecture and history, looking for fragments of the old romantic city in the torrent of the new.
Shanghai is a city layered in symbols, shifting signs, mixed metaphors. The thing is, it can all be a little overwhelming. The sheer physical clutter of the place, its overlapping histories and real-time reinventions, conspire to make it unusually hard to get casually acquainted with. It helps to get to know seasoned observers who can separate the strata of urban archaeology.
Few of Shanghai’s expats cut quite as distinctive a figure as Dodington, six-foot-two in cargo shorts and walking shoes, looking a bit like Curious George’s Man with the Yellow Hat and barking now into his mobile phone in what I’m told is the best Shanghainese dialect spoken by a foreigner in the city. That I’m told this by Dodington himself in no way diminishes that fact. This is confirmed for me by the open-mouthed gape of the kid in the corner store where we go to buy our ice cream when the heat becomes too much. The boy and his mother praise Dodington’s small talk. They want to know, without putting it quite this way, how someone who stands out so much fits in so well. He says something to leave them laughing and we’re back in the sweltering street with our frozen treats (a sweet green-pea ice pop for me, a raisin-and-milk confection for him).
Today I’ve asked Dodington to take me around town not just to show off the buildings he loves or to translate our ice cream orders but to help interpret the city itself. Shanghai is a place of competing myths, kaleidoscopic dreams: a marshy backwater turned into a thriving metropolis, opened up by the Brits to sell opium to the Chinese, carved into international trading concessions, a busy port, a not-quite-colonial city where you didn’t need papers and the bankers and thieves and adventurers and refugees of the world came and everything went. Then the war and foreign flight. In 1949 the city was reshaped by the competing dreams of the People’s Republic liberation and later the nightmares of the Cultural Revolution. In the 90’s, the money and foreigners and building cranes abruptly returned as state planners aggressively pursued a new dream of a different kind of international city, an audacious showpiece of Chinese economic might.
“We Americans tend to think of China in terms of walls and tombs and dynasties,” Dodington says. “Shanghai doesn’t have any of that. As an international city, it’s really only about 168 years old. In China, that’s nothing.”
Leaving dormant Rockbund to its minders, we cross the street and come to the sludgy waters of Suzhou Creek near where it runs into the Huangpu River. Erupting in full view across the river is Pudong, hallucinatory megacity of super-towers. Pudong is the size of 20 Manhattans, conjured from flat farmland in as many years. Here is the Pearl of the Orient TV Tower, a retro-futuristic disco ball on stilts. It looks Soviet and 60’s but was in fact completed in 1994. Dodington recalls the feeling of exuberance at the birth of the boom. “I’d be walking along the embankment and strangers would stop me and point across the river and say, ‘This is the shape of things to come!’ And you’d look and there was nothing there. It was like, ‘Sure, whatever you say!’”
There is a tiny, crumpled piece of trash improbably clinging to the window ledge of my hotel room on the 79th floor of the Park Hyatt Shanghai. The room is impeccably, almost surreally, calming, with a long lacquered table and cream-colored daybed by the window. I’m on the Pudong side now, looking down at the bend in the Huangpu where I was standing earlier. But the exterior reality doesn’t really matter once you’re in this serene cloud city, an otherworldly place of whispered well-being. Up here, the toilet seat in my bathroom raises robotically as I approach, as if in salute. Up here is one of my new favorite places in the world. For pure city-watching thrills there aren’t many views better than the ones out of my wide-angle windows. My gaze floats out past the prickly pagoda peaks of the Jin Mao Tower and down over the blinking Pearl TV needle and the whole clamorous cluster mellows to a silent meditation on hypermodernity.
But for some reason, my eye keeps returning to this little ball of paper teetering just beyond the quiet of my happy space pod. No bigger than a gum wrapper, it looks fragile, an infinitesimal speck of the tactile world below. Then it’s blown away, returned to the great abstraction, a backdrop to be enjoyed over gin and tonics at the 87th-floor lobby bar.
When I’m down there—in the street-level world of close crowds, of beeping motorbikes and laundry hanging in the lanes—life up here in the cloud villages seems just as distant, abstract. Much of my time in Shanghai is spent shuttling between these two abstractions: elevators up and down, taxis back and forth, shifting perspectives, a chance to play up in the clouds.
One night I leave the Park Hyatt with a plan to find some of the city’s best xiao long bao, the famous soup-filled dumplings. Xiao long bao is to Shanghai what pizza is to New York. Which is to say: ubiquitous and not always very good. I’ve been warned that Jia Jia Tan Bao, in the Huangpu District, can sell out of the dumplings, so I am happy to see that the tiny shop is still open. The bad news is they are out of everything except the all-crabmeat version, and these are only available at a decadent (for Shanghai) splurge of $14 for a dozen. The good news is they are easily the best I’ve tried: thin-skinned with a deeply, sweetly crabby rich broth and meat. I don’t need 12, but the two bamboo steamers don’t last long. The place is one small room with about 30 seats, bright cafeteria lighting, linoleum floors, and a clear view into the kitchen where two girls are pinching and steaming the remaining orders of the night. A young man with a spiky New Wave haircut at the next table smiles and asks how I found the place. He is Shanghainese, he says, and this is his favorite spot. We both nod, sweating and self-satisfied like Russians after a shvitz.
I don’t mention to my new friend that the dumplings are mere warm-up for a second dinner later that night. A few days earlier I’d met up with Ming Ming Chen and Jeff Zhou, who run the modern-art gallery Around Space, housed in a bunker-like complex of studios and galleries called 696. As they showed me around the space, talk had turned from art to lunch, and they’d taken me to a restaurant at the top of a mall called One Hundred Families, One Thousand Tastes. After a great, long meal—Yellow River bamboo with ham; translucent gooey balls of summer yam with pork and scallions; lu yu, a river fish with a sour, spicy broth; and many other things, ending with a dessert of shaved ice that tasted like peanut butter turned into a cold whisper—they had suggested I meet them later in the week at their favorite night food street.
Shouning Road is lined with street-side grills, men kneeling in alleys shucking oysters and throwing shells on alleyway middens, food carts selling roast duck, dessert stalls and grill stands circled with stools and parked motorcycles, and a constant, moving, happy throng of late-night snackers. Chen and some friends of hers lead me to a tiny restaurant where we order beers and platters of crayfish and spiky, sweet boiled shrimp that rip the disposable plastic gloves you wear to tear into them.
“Spicy or very spicy?” Chen asks.
Both, please. After establishing a base and filling our bowls with shells, some of us venture into the open-air food court to order dozens of grilled oysters and clams with black-bean or garlic sauce, skewered duck tongues, charred rice cakes, and cold, crunchy pigs’ ears. Each vendor delivers the food to our “home” restaurant. More beer arrives.
Chen, stylish and funny with her gray newsboy cap and elfin grin, wants to know if New York is exactly the way it seems on Sex and the City. Precisely. I ask if this food represents a certain province. “No,” Chen says, “it is night fashion food.”
On the third floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center there’s a room-size scale model of the city in 2020. The joke about the place is that all the locals are here to see if their house will still be around a decade on, or if they should gear up for relocation to the high-rise burbs.
For a very different kind of field trip to the near future, I leave behind the grand planning dreams of the People’s Park and head south along the Bund until I come to a no-man’s-land dock area far from the touristy center. I’m headed to Waterhouse at South Bund, a new hotel that is quietly setting the bar for quirky, cool design. Actually, the mere fact that there is a quirky, intelligently designed 19-room hotel at all is a sign of maturing tastes in a city where style and luxury are more frequently associated with bigness, brand names, and bling. Inside yet another rejiggered 1930’s warehouse, the lobby soars with unfinished concrete, steel beams, patches of brick, and cryptic messages painted onto the stone floor (some in Chinese, others that might as well be: glutinous and hairy). From my room I can look down a glass shaftway and into part of the room below me. Happily for all parties, my unseen neighbors never looked up while I passed by in my robe on the way to the sleek, glassed-in concrete bathroom.
Waterhouse was designed by husband-and-wife team Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Neri & Hu Design & Research Office. “Ah, yes, room 31,” Neri says, smiling, when I ask him about the accidental exhibitionist possibilities of my glass wall.
“Traditional lane houses are phenomenal because you can see pieces of people’s living rooms,” Neri says. “From your house, you see snippets of other families’ lives. This is the voyeuristic nature of the lane house. You’re part of a community.”
Neri studied at Harvard and worked for Michael Graves for years before moving to Shanghai in 2004. The couple live by their tenets of transparency. While remodeling their traditional nongtang house in the French Concession, they added nine-foot-tall glass doors to the back. “My toilet overlooks someone’s kitchen,” Neri says, gleefully. “Every morning I see them about five feet away, cooking.
“It took a very courageous client to allow us to do what we did,” Neri says of the Singapore hotelier Loh Lik Peng. “Many people told us that this lobby doesn’t have a lot of ‘face,’” Neri says. “Meaning it’s not dignified. You walk in and there’s no chandelier, no ostentatious double stairway.”
Projects like this signal a new phase in Shanghai’s recent development. Less face, more personality. Another sign the city is developing into a more mature destination: the sheer range of interesting hotels recently opened or reopened around town. The Waterhouse is as raw and intimate as the Park Hyatt across the river is soaringly remote. But both do what they do with conviction and neither could really exist anywhere but here. That’s especially true of the Peace Hotel. The 19th-century British financier Sir Victor Sassoon’s Art Deco grand hotel, which opened as the Cathay in 1929, was known for its tea dances and Lalique fixtures and attracted all the swells, from Charlie Chaplin to Chiang Kai-shek. The hotel finally closed in 2007 after years of slow decline. Last summer, following extensive restoration, the property reopened as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. And across the street, the Palace Hotel has undergone a radical remake and will soon become the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, a multifunction, high-design space owned by the Swiss watch company and housing a gallery, luxury shops, working artists’ studios, and a seven-room boutique hotel. June also saw the arrival of the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong atop Cesar Pelli’s Shanghai IFC complex. The new Ritz sets the standard in the luxuriantly rich, Deco-inspired, modern Chinese swank department, with deep freestanding copper-clad bathtubs in the rooms and a nicely clubby, ski-lodge-in-the-sky-feeling bar called Flair on the 58th floor. At the Peninsula, the porter delivering my bags to the room suggests I might wish to watch soccer on the TV while taking a bath. It would have been a good plan if I could tear myself away from watching the brightly lit party boats floating by on the Huangpu below.
Han Feng is a fashion designer, an artist, a costume designer, a consultant for opera and film, and, if you are lucky enough to fall briefly into her orbit, a curator of perfect Shanghai moments.
“Join me later at Yongfoo Élite,” she texts me the night we are scheduled to meet. She apologizes that dinner’s gone late, explaining that she’s still out with friends but that they’re all headed for a nightcap and I should join. So I take a taxi through the dark, plane-tree–lined streets of the old French Concession and am delivered to the gate of a mansion that once served as the British consulate. I walk to the private bar in back and am about to introduce myself to her when a very familiar-looking man shakes my hand avidly and asks me if I’d like some of his wine. Han Feng forgot to mention that her dinner companion was Jackie Chan. The actor and martial-arts legend holds court with a gang of his movie pals. Han Feng, it turns out, designed the wardrobe for his Karate Kid remake. My glass is refilled several times and Chan worries that I am not eating enough peanuts.
A few days later, Han Feng invites me to see her atelier at Grosvenor House, an elegant 1934 residential building now part of the Jin Jiang Hotel. As I enter the hotel’s gardens from the streets of the French Concession, the temperature seems to drop 10 degrees. The evening air turns sweet, the frantic pace of the city fades. Han Feng started her career in New York and was at first reluctant to move back to China. She tells me about a group of women who’d come in to shop earlier that day. They were businesswomen—publishers, restaurant owners, and TV writers. What was interesting about this group, Han Feng said, wasn’t just their sophistication or willingness to spend but that they were specifically interested in a homegrown aesthetic rather than global brands. “One of the women said, ‘We never left China; China changed. We’ve tripled our salaries, we have better taste now, and we want to support Chinese designers.’ That wouldn’t have happened five years ago.”
Later that evening at Lynn, a dark, Deco-y Shanghainese restaurant, we wrap roast duck in mantou buns; eat kao fu, a warm, brown, bready, tofu-like rice-gluten substance that is very comforting; and pick the sticky flesh off a steamed fish head. We then make our way to an excellent new cocktail bar called El Cóctel and talk about Mad Men. If there were a Shanghai-based Mad Men, this would be a good bar to film it in. “I want to learn to sing jazz!” Han Feng says, apropos of pretty much nothing. In Shanghai, on the right night, in the right weather, in the right company, pretty much anything can sound like a good idea.
“You can still catch it sometimes,” Paul French says, meaning the spectral traces of the city’s romantic past. “There are streets, alleys, buildings in Frenchtown—if you catch them at the right time of day you can recapture a bit of it. But it’s going. Bits of it disappear every night.”
Originally from London, French came to Shanghai in his twenties to study and stayed on, moving around China and writing for the Economist Intelligence Unit before starting a business consultancy and trying his hand at books.
“I try to live as much as possible in 1936,” says the reluctant blogger, who recently finished a kind of A-to-Z guide to the city that uses its old street names and map. The Shanghai he writes about in his blog, China Rhyming, is the libertine city of tycoons and coolies, tea dances and opium dens, of gangland kidnappings and hidden gardens.
One of the tricky things about the past is that not everyone sees it in the same light. “Take the old Canidrome,” he says, mentioning a grand dog-racing and leisure complex. Built in 1928 by the Frenchman Félix Bouvier, it could hold 50,000 people. “For me it’s all jazz and jai alai and boxing. It’s where Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen played. But for the Chinese of a certain generation, that’s where all the big denunciation sessions were held during the Cultural Revolution—a place where people were executed. For them it’s full of ghosts.”
French is, to put it mildly, not a fan of the current forces of skyward expansion and plowing under of the past. Still, as we walk around, he allows that there’s much to like about his adopted home. As long as you know where and how to look.
“That’s the Russian Embassy,” he says. “When I first got here, the ambassador used to put his washing line out and you’d see Madame Ambassador’s massive Soviet knickers, flapping like flags, shocking the tourists on the Bund.”
For him, he says, it remains “a perfect city because it’s a perfect wandering city. You tell people, ‘Turn left, turn right, get lost up an alley, you’ll find something.’”
Shanghai sometimes feels like an overproduced musical, the kind with an exclamation point at the end of the title, with waterworks and choreographed flying machines and the latest pyrotechnics. A mythic city, caught between being and becoming. But I like the quieter numbers. The unrehearsed moments when the city just is: a morning walk down Jianguo Road, in the French Concession, where neighbors are shopping for food for the day’s cooking, a yellow birdcage hangs from a tree, and a man is disemboweling a sofa in the middle of the street. One day, bored with the foot traffic on the Bund, I turn onto Hankou Road and walk a block and a half down a quiet street. I stop in a convenience store with a pink sign that says buddies and fall into a lengthy conversation with a spry old man that consists of one word: eggs. I’d gone in for an ice cream bar (I was hooked by then) and innocently asked him about the slow cooker full of cracked tea eggs by the register. He asks me to write down the English word and then we repeat it to each other 20 times. Eggs, eggs, eggs. A quiet bit of sweet, strange human connection, just off the main tourist thoroughfare. On my last afternoon in the city, I wander the streets around Guangxi Road, another centrally located block with a lot of food stalls. I’m nosily peeking into the cramped back lanes that lead off these already small roads when a white-capped porter from the Peninsula appears. For a minute the two abstractions of the city overlap and I am struck by the sight of this man in a crisp uniform far from his post. I follow him, wondering if I can catch up with him and ask about life on this side of Shanghai. There is too much space between us. In a moment he is gone, lost in the crowd.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.
When to Go
Spring and fall—when the weather is ideal—are optimal for exploring the city on foot.
Continental Airlines (continental.com) and China Eastern Airlines (flychinaeastern.us) both offer direct service from New York and Los Angeles to Shanghai. United Airlines offers direct flights from San Francisco and Chicago.
Great Value Number 9 A quiet B&B in a lane house in the French Concession. 9 Lane 355, Jianguo Rd. W., Xuhui; 86-21/6471-9950; doubles from $118.
Eat and Drink
Din Tai Fung Ubiquitous chain with English menus and solid xiao long bao. Various locations, including Xintiandi, 123 Xingye Rd., second floor, Luwan; 86-21/6385-8378; lunch for two $35.
El Cóctel 47 Yongfu Rd., Xuhui; 86-21/6433-6511; drinks for two $20.
Flair The bar on the 58th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, with great views. 8 Century Ave., Pudong; 86-21/2020-1888; drinks for two $26.
Fu 1039 Classic Shanghainese food in a French Concession villa. 1039 Yuyuan Rd., Jingan; 86-21/5237-1878; dinner for two $60.
Jia Jia Tang Bao 90 Huanghe Rd., Huangpu; 86-21/6327-6878; lunch for two $10.
Lynn 99 Xikang Rd., Jingan; 86-21/6247-0101; dinner for two $90.
Monkey Lounge Semisecret cocktail bar off a grungy alley with a fun, well-heeled crowd. 22 Lane 56, Donghu Rd., Xuhui; 86-150/218-5992; drinks for two $20.
Mr. & Mrs. Bund Chef Paul Pairet’s lively, modern French restaurant offers all-day people-watching. 18 The Bund; 86-21/6323-9898; dinner for two $117.
Shouning Road Night Food Market Luwan; dinner for two $20.
Sichuan Citizen Fiery Sichuan food on a packed French Concession street. 30 Donghu Rd., Xuhui; 86-21/5404-1235; dinner for two $30.
Yongfoo Élite 200 Yongfu Rd., Xuhui; 86-21/5466-2727; dinner for two $235.
One Hundred Families, One Thousand Tastes 818 Nanjing Rd. W., Jingan; 86-21/6217-7793; lunch for two $35.
See and Do
Around Space Gallery Art and photography space hidden away in an old mansion turned industrial building. Bldgs. 9 & 11, 696 Weihai Rd., Jingan; 86-138/0174-3061.
Design Republic Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu’s modern design and furniture boutique. 88 Yuqing Rd., Xuhui; 86-21/6082-3788.
Plum Gallery Café/gallery in Jingan Villa. No. 37, 1025 Nanjing Rd. W., Jingan; 86-21/5213-6565.
Rockbund Art Museum New contemporary art museum steps from the Bund. 20 Huqiu Rd., Huangpu; 86-21/3310-9985.
Spin You’ll be tempted to bring everything from this ceramics shop home with you. Bldg. 3, 758 Julu Rd., Jingan; 86-21/6279-2545.