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.”