Published: April 2009
By Rebecca Mead
Communist-era tchotchkes, markets filled with crafty knockoffs, the highest of high-end stores...shopping in Shanghai offers a window on a history-rich city as it evolves into a modern metropolis
Shanghai, China's largest city, has a population of more than 13 million; countless shops, stores, malls, and street markets sprawl over the city's nearly 2,500 square miles. But it's easy enough to find the absolute epicenter of Shanghai's consumer culture: just follow the street signs pointing toward the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China, near Xingye Road.
The Chinese Communist Party, which came to power in 1949 and still governs the country without democratic elections and with a disregard for human rights sufficient to incur international reproach, was inaugurated in a two-story brick building that was once a residence and nowadays is a state-of-the-art museum. Documents and photographs demonstrate how—as an introductory note stenciled on the wall reads—"the founding of the Communist Party of China is the inevitable outcome of the development of China's modern history." Life-sized waxworks re-enact the fateful meeting at which the party came into being, with Mao Tse-tung standing at the center of a long dining table, wearing a blue robe and gazing before him with visionary insight, while a dozen or so colleagues lean forward animatedly, smoking cigarettes or sipping tea, their placement echoing da Vinci's Last Supper.
But Xingye Road is also at the heart of a 560,000-square-foot retail and dining complex called Xintiandi, which since it opened in 2000 has become a destination for affluent young Shanghainese and tourists alike, with high-end boutiques, expensive restaurants, and bars with great lighting and complicated cocktails. Xintiandi might also be described as the inevitable outcome of the development of China's modern history, though not one that Chairman Mao would have predicted or, it is safe to say, approved of.
Xintiandi covers two city blocks in the French Concession district of Shanghai, an area that was originally developed in the 1920's, during Shanghai's colonial period, when the city was a cosmopolitan, louche trading port. The French Concession is distinguished by tree-lined streets of two-story, gray-brick houses that have stone arches for doorways and terra-cotta tile roofs. Narrow alleyways intersect the streets, giving passage from one to the next. After 1949, the buildings in the French Concession were turned into communal dwellings, with as many as 10 families living in a house intended for one, and the area became known for overcrowding and poor sanitation. Much of the neighborhood still consists of multipledwellings, and a walk through its streets invariably involves navigating laundry lines strung between lampposts, ducking under flapping shirts and, in winter, dripping pairs of thermal long johns (buildings in Shanghai, as in all Chinese cities south of the Yangtze, have no central heating, and the winters are cold and damp), and skirting chairs draped with quilts that, according to Chinese custom, have been brought outside for a daily airing.
Xintiandi, however, displays none of the messiness of real lives being lived. Owned by a developer from Hong Kong and designed by the New York-based architecture firm of Wood & Zapata, it follows the festival marketplace formula established in America at Quincy Market in Boston and the South Street Seaport in New York. The façades of the most significant buildings have been preserved, and design elements from the original structures have been incorporated into the new ones. To make way for Xintiandi, hundreds of residents were compelled to relocate to suburbs or high-rise apartment blocks, the kind of housing that has proliferated in Shanghai as far as the eye can see—which, given the pollution and typically misty, moist weather, isn't very far. Xintiandi is a kind of Shanghai-land: alleys run between buildings just as they did in the old days, although rather less narrow spaces have also been opened up to allow for open-air cafés selling French pastries in an atmosphere of rather more graciousness than is historically accurate. There are boutiques selling jewelry and boutiques selling scented candles—signature objects of late capitalism. There's even a Starbucks at Xintiandi, serving grande lattes—indistinguishable from those available in the States—to a nation of tea drinkers. The only place at Xintiandi where there aren't any stores is directly opposite the museum, political sensitivities having determined it inappropriate to place commerce and Communism in such close juxtaposition. There are art galleries on that block instead—a peculiar substitution, since Mao was about as fond of artists as he was of businessmen and landlords.
One store, Layefe, is owned by one of China's best-known contemporary artists, Chen Yifei, who started out painting images of young women in traditional dress and has now become something like the Terence Conran of China, publishing his own magazine and selling clothes by local designers along with fancy items for the non-communal home. Layefe is opulent and filled with objects of desire: woven-fur scarves, your choice of rabbit or mink, and a sweeping, glamorous reversible wool coat that Rei Kawakubo might have designed. The men's department gives a clue that the clientele is not entirely local Chinese: that handsome black coat hanging on a tailor's dummy would swamp anyone shorter than six feet tall. Shopping for women's clothes in China is especially hard, unless you happen to be a size two or smaller. If you're tiny and lucky you might find an off-the-rack fur-trimmed silk dress for about $200 in one of the many stores on Maoming Road; larger Americans seeking the Suzie Wong look are advised to allow a few days for a custom job.
Around the corner from Layefe is a store—called, in English, Simply Life—that could be airlifted in its entirety to SoHo without the need to change anything but the prices, which are about a third of what they would be on West Broadway. Simply Life sells highly covetable household items such as linen sheets and silk coverlets, as well as an extensive range of fiery, red-glazed, rough-hewn ceramics that you may be able to get shipped back to the States in bulk if you can communicate your desire to the friendly but rather hapless staff. After decades of relative isolation from the outside world Shanghai aspires to be a global city once again, but its retail businesses seem to be hanging on for the inevitable day when Chinese rather than English is the default international language.
The local Chinese were initially skeptical about the Xintiandi concept, according to Delphine Yip, an architect with Wood & Zapata who was involved in the project. "Everyone said, Those are poor people's houses, they are dirty, they have no toilets—who would want to have a meal there?" Yip recalls. In fact, Xintiandi's restaurants are an even bigger draw than its boutiques. There is, for instance, Ye Shanghai, which serves high-end Chinese food on lazy Susans and features a well-meaning but deafening Shanghainese jazz band as an homage to the city's wicked past. The city's wicked present can be sampled in one of Xintiandi's several bars, or with a visit to a karaoke palace known as Cashbox, which is located in nearby Fuxing Park and is thronged until late at night with young Shanghainese all waiting for their turns to impersonate Frank Sinatra or George Michael or George Michael's Cantopop equivalent. Cashbox has dozens of private karaoke rooms, each of which is equipped not just with a karaoke machine and wraparound couch but also a private bathroom, to ensure that—karaoke often calling for the consumption of emetic quantities of alcohol—any given party can keep its vomit to itself.
When Mao died, in 1976, he left behind a China that had been largely insulated from Western-style capitalism and consumerism. While Americans, in the decades following World War II, were engaging in an unprecedented spending spree, buying cars and refrigerators and other goods, the Chinese had been undergoing the Great Leap Forward, an enforced economic modernization program that organized agricultural workers into enormous communes to disastrous effect. The subsequent Cultural Revolution saw the dismantling of the educational system, with intellectuals and artists exiled to the countryside and forced into manual labor, and dissenters executed. These days China has become an economic powerhouse, thanks to ever-increasing degrees of reform that permit private ownership and foreign investment and encourage international trade, and a new wealthy elite is belatedly discovering the allure of shopping.
In China the old is generally razed rather than restored, and glitz is appreciated far more than antique gentility. On Huaihai Road, one of the main thoroughfares in the city, there are several huge malls, including one called Shanghai Times Square, which is much more upscale than the real, cleaned-up Times Square: it houses the stores of Marina Rinaldi, Ferragamo, and Gucci, among others. At another mall, Plaza 66, shoppers can find the latest offerings from Cartier and Hermès, names that meant little in China until recently but now are charged with the glamour of modernity. The goods are pricier than they would be in New York, Paris, or London, and the customer base is drawn from that growing class of Shanghainese who want to look as if they shop in those cities, even though they can't actually get the necessary visas.
The prospect of a new population of affluent Chinese—sales, industry experts estimate, are growing by 20 to 30 percent a year—has proven enticing to all kinds of European and American luxury-goods companies, in Shanghai and beyond. Ermenegildo Zegna, which already has 42 retail stores in China—a huge photograph of Adrien Brody looms from the window of the store on Huaihai Road, directly opposite government-issued sidewalk billboards alerting passers-by to the dangers of spitting—plans to launch 16 more, plus two flagship stores. Cartier is opening more stores, and so are Prada and Louis Vuitton. The Bund, the grand riverfront parade of banks and merchant trading buildings that were built in the colonial era and permitted, in an act of ideological neglect, to languish after 1949, is being restored as a kind of upscale art and culture mall, with an emphasis on conspicuous consumption. Five years ago the Bund's first fancy restaurant, M on the Bund, opened on one floor of a building that still operates as a bank. The restaurant's terrace overlooks the spectacular vista of the Pudong, the newly developed financial district of Shanghai on the opposite side of the river that was, only a few years ago, nothing but rice paddies, and now is a showcase of architectural exuberance—bulbous spires, towering skyscrapers, and an oversized neon screen broadcasting flickering video images across the water. Not far from M on the Bund is a recent development, Three on the Bund, which houses an Evian spa, an art gallery, a branch of the restaurant Jean Georges, and an 11,800-square-foot Giorgio Armani store, the first of three that Armani plans to open in Shanghai this year.
For less-affluent Shanghainese, or for tourists who know China to be the source of the world's best knockoffs, Shanghai offers facsimiles of designer goods at a fraction of the price of the real thing. Any Westerner who walks along Shaanxi Road will be accosted every few seconds by an urgent young Chinese salesman or saleswoman muttering "Gucci, Prada" in the illicit murmur of a drug pusher, while proffering a laminated page of photographs of designer handbags, similar to the menus given to Westerners in Chinese restaurants. If you signal your wish to see the merchandise firsthand you will be led through the teeming streets—your salesperson fending off approaches from other would-be handbag peddlers—and into an alleyway behind the storefronts, up a couple of flights of dark, damp stairs, and through the hallways of what will look like someone's efficiency apartment, with perhaps a calendar on the wall and an automatic kettle plugged into a socket. Eventually you'll enter a brightly lit room where floor-to-ceiling shelving is stacked with copies of collector's items: Louis Vuitton bags designed by Takashi Murakami, complete with made in france label; Prada bags and Gucci bags and Kelly bags by Hermès. To the untrained eye the bags all look cheap and nasty, but then cheap-looking nastiness is kind of the point of genuine Murakami bags, too, and these versions are offered at an opening price of about $90—the opening price in any Shanghai street-bargaining process being, traditionally, at least double what the vendor will end up accepting. For those without an urge for leather goods there is likely to be a shelf piled with "Rolex" watches, with prices starting at around $50 a pair—about one-sixtieth the price of the real thing. Those, coincidentally, are offered in a legitimate watch shop on the street, directly beneath the fakers' lairs.
Nearby is the Xiang Yang street market, the closely packed stalls of which are filled with all manner of faux Louis Vuitton shirts and sweaters and, somewhat more convincing, fake North Face jackets that the casual onlooker might take for real North Face jackets so long as they weren't being displayed in China, where a real North Face jacket is far harder to come by than a replica. Xiang Yang market is also the place for pirated DVD's, once sold on open display but, since crackdowns by the police, now gone slightly underground. If you whisper to a North Face salesman that you're looking for DVD's you may be led into an indoor area of the marketplace, to a corner where, by a luggage display, three or four men will be playing an intense game of Chinese checkers on a countertop—a game that will be swiftly interrupted when the countertop is raised to reveal hundreds of DVD's in shrink-wrap packaging. You'll find recent releases—Master and Commander, Cold Mountain, the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy—as well as old favorites like Shakespeare in Love, with comical misspelling on the cover("a romantic comedy teiling the witty.sexy story behind the creation of the greates love story of them all"). The going rate for DVD's is $1 apiece—which explains why the movie theater at Xintiandi, wishfully incorporated into the design of a modern section of the development, remains more or less deserted.
One of the effects of globalization, and of China's rejoining the world mar-ketplace, is that it is possible to travel all the way to Shanghai and find shops stocking exactly the same kind of chinoiserie—lacquered furniture, silk-covered purses—that is sold in Nolita boutiques or mall stores across America. Folk products made by the ethnic peoples of China or imported from the countries of Southeast Asia are starting to become fashion- able among young Shanghainese. Just off Tai Kang Road there is an alleyway, formerly part of a warehouse district, with a collection of small, hip stores, including one that specializes in clothes and objets from Tibet such as fur-lined silk jackets and gorgeous cashmere wraps. Neo-Tibetan Muzak murmurs quietly in the background, although the irony of the English-language lyrics—"Land of mountains, born to be free"—seems lost on the young Chinese shoppers, whose perspective on the question of Tibetan independence is more likely to be informed by the official Chinese party line than by the advocacy of the Beastie Boys or Uma Thurman.
Because of the flood of exports from China in recent years, a search for authenticity while shopping in Shanghai can feel oddly like a trip to ABC Carpet & Home, the huge emporium in Manhattan's Flatiron District, where the exotic is brought within a yellow-cab ride from your apartment. The road leading out of Shanghai toward Hongqiao, one of the city's two currently undersubscribed international airports, is lined with Chinese-furniture warehouses, the most famous of which is called Henry Antique Warehouse. Much of Henry's stock purports to be antique and in some cases may be, though often the cabinets and sideboards, with their carvings and metal fixtures, look as if they are, at best, newly made from old wood. More intriguing are the undistinguished pieces of furniture to be found at another warehouse, Coolyah Antique Furniture, pieces that have survived from the Shanghai of the twenties and thirties and are redolent of an era when the Western influence on Asian culture did not consist of Hollywood movies or nylon tear-away basketball pants. On an upper floor of the warehouse are glass-fronted cabinets, pairs of armchairs with curved Deco armrests, and a rotating book stand for a home library, all dusty and neglected.
One characteristic of modern Shanghai that could keep an American cultural studies professor occupied for years is the way in which the legacy of Communism is already being ironized even as the Communist Party maintains tight control over the economy, the media, the educational curricula, and the birthrate. There's a fashionable boutique on Fuxing Xi Road called Madame Mao's Dowry—a peculiar homage to Jiang Qing, Mao's fourth wife, one of the Gang of Four who was held responsible for the murderous excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The store sells sleek Chinese-inspired fashions and a few pieces of antique furniture, as well as Mao memorabilia—matted propaganda photographs of happy factory workers, white ceramic busts of Mao, copies of the Little Red Book—and is run by an Englishwoman, which may help explain the transformation of demagoguery into kitsch even while the tomb of Mao, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, remains an unironic tourist destination for the Chinese.
Similar objects can be found for considerably less on Fang Bang Road, at a five-story flea market where the alleged antiques on offer are largely fake and tend to be airily described by the salesmen as coming from the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty, which began in 1644 and ended in 1912. (Peter Hessler writes in his book River Town that when Chinese people say something is from the Qing dynasty, they mean it's pretty old but not nearly as old as some of the other stuff that's around.) Here there are always dozens of Little Red Books to be had, and propaganda posters from the fifties showing exploitative landlords being cruel to peasants. There are also boxes of yellowing photographs, their surfaces beginning to crack with age: a frightened-looking bride from the thirties, daunted perhaps by the gown she is wearing, or the camera she is facing, or the marriage upon which she is about to embark; an oversized portrait of a woman in a tight frame that looks like something Richard Avedon could have shot; a young Chinese man, no more than 20, his hat tipped rakishly to one side, inscribed "Little Brother" and dated September 2, 1935. Little Brother is surely dead by now, but perhaps he once sat in his house in Xintiandi, before it became a shopping mall, in an armchair that is now relegated to a dusty warehouse near the airport, and watched the inevitable outcome of the development of China's modern history unfold around him.
'I bought seventy pairs of hand-embroidered silk slippers at Suzhou Cobblers [17-101 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-139/1818-7760] to sell in my New York shop. Next door, Blue Shanghai White [17-103 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-139/1600-4626] sells all-white porcelain printed with blue-toned photographs of old Shanghai. I also love their ceramic-and-wood chairs.'
Han Feng, fashion designer
'Every time I'm in Shanghai, I go to Dong Jia Du [Dong Jia Du Rd., near Zhong Shan Rd.; open 9-5], a wholesale silk market. It's a great way to see the real China, but you need to have the stomach for it. It's messy and loud, and you'll have to bargain. I had a Paul Smith shirt copied by a tailor on-site for ten dollars.'
Calvin Tsao, architect
'In Shanghai, all I eat is street food. The best place is Xiang Yang Road between Julu and Changle. I love the scallion pancakes with egg, the steamed buns filled with chopped greens and tofu, and the soup dumplings—so thin you can see the soup inside. I wander up and down the street at six in the morning, tasting everything. It's the best breakfast.'
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef
Serious shoppers will find a translator indispensable when it comes to bargaining (and unearthing smaller, out-of-the-way stores). Try independent translator Christine Che (86-1370/162-7314; email@example.com; from $145 per day) or Speed (86-21/6447-4185; www.speed-asia.com; from $100 per day). Shanghai's two most reputable taxi companies are Da Zhong (turquoise cars; 86-21/6258-1688) and Qiang Sheng (yellow cars; 86-21/6258-0000). Negotiate a day rate ahead of time (usually about $84 for eight hours). U.S. Customs allows U.S. residents to return with only one trademark-protected item per type (one knockoff bag, one counterfeit watch)—so don't stock up on fakes for your friends.
WHERE TO STAY
BEST VALUE Grand Hyatt Shanghai
The highest hotel in the world—located in the top part of the Jin Mao Tower—has 555 rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city and the Huang Pu River. Corner rooms on floors 60 through 65 offer the most dramatic views. Don't miss drinks in the Cloud 9 sky lounge on the 87th floor.
DOUBLES FROM $200. 88 CENTURY BLVD., PUDONG; 800/233-1234 OR 86-21/5049-1234; www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com
A 50-story skyscraper on Nanjing Xi Road, a major shopping street. The marble lobby is inset with dazzling fiber-optic lights; the rooms are more soothing. The three-story health club is among Shanghai's largest.
DOUBLES FROM $370. 1376 NANJING XI RD.; 800/241-3333 OR 86-21/6279-8888; www.ritzcarlton.com
WHERE TO EAT
Jean Georges Shanghai
Jean-Georges Vongerichten reinterprets French classics using local ingredients.
DINNER FOR TWO $181. THREE ON THE BUND, FOURTH FLOOR, 3 ZHONG SHAN DONG YI RD.; 86-21/6321-7733
M on the Bund
Freshly baked breads, house-made ice cream and desserts, and Middle Eastern- and Mediterranean-influenced dishes in an airy, Art Deco-inspired space. Reserve a spot on the roof terrace for Sunday brunch.
DINNER FOR TWO $109. 20 GUANG DONG RD., SEVENTH FLOOR; 86-21/6350-9988
Mid-Lake Pavilion Tea House
The quintessential Chinese teahouse, outside the Yuyuan Gardens in Old Shanghai.
TEA FOR TWO $12. 86-21/6355-8270
Inside a stone gatehouse, red lanterns and dark woods evoke Shanghai of the 1930's. Try the smoked egg and stir-fried river shrimp.
DINNER FOR TWO $60. 338 HUANG PI NAN RD., NORTH BLOCK, XINTIANDI; 86-21/6311-2323
WHERE TO SHOP
This stellar seamstress can whip up beautifully detailed, made-to-measure silk jackets, cheongsams (dresses), and robes in two days.
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY; WOMEN'S JACKETS START AT $34. 86-21/5465-0890
Lin Mei Chin
Custom sweaters in silk and multi-ply cashmere. Copy your favorite piece or design from scratch; allow 10 days. Bring a translator.
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY; SET OF THREE WOOL SWEATERS STARTS AT $194. 93 LING LING RD.; 86-1370/195-5249
Silk King Market
A government-sponsored fabric bazaar, more orderly (but less atmospheric) than Dong Jia Du, with English spoken on-site. Best for richly colored silk velvets, raw silk-linen blends, and colorful linings; tailors on the premises can turn things around quickly.
OPEN 9 A.M.-9 P.M. 139 TIANPING RD.; 86-21/6282-1533
Henry Antique Warehouse
359 HONGZHONG RD.; 86-21/6401-0831; www.h-antique.com
Madame Mao's Dowry
70 FUXING XI RD.; 86-21/6437-1255
Chic goods for the home.
369 ZI ZHONG RD.; 86-21/6385-5406
Shanghai Coolyah Antique Furniture
2152 WU ZHONG RD.; 86-21/3415-1009
Fang Bang Road Indoor Antique Market
NEAR YUYUAN GARDENS; NO PHONE
1266 NANJING XI RD.
Shanghai Times Square
93 HUAIHAI ZHONG RD.
Three on the Bund
The interior of this Beaux-Arts building, redesigned by Michael Graves, includes an art gallery, Evian spa, swank nightclubs, four restaurants, a Giorgio Armani store, and Han Feng's new shop (third floor).
5 ZHONG SHAN DONG YI RD.; 86-21/6323-3355; www.threeonthebund.com
Xiang Yang Clothing & Gift Market
HUAIHAI RD. AND XIANG YANG RD.; NO PHONE
The downtown shopping centerhouses restaurants and stores such as Layefe (12 North Block, 181 Lane, Tai Kang Rd.; 86-21/6326-0716) and Simply Life (123 Xingye Rd.; 86-21/6387-5100).
WHAT TO DO
First National Congress of the Communist Party of China
374 HUANG PI NAN RD.; 86-21/5383-2171
The city's best karaoke palace; locations around Shanghai. Reserve a private room (leather banquettes, big-screen TV's) at least a day in advance.
208 CHONGQING NAN RD., FUXING PARK; 86-21/5306-3888