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.”