These two five-star properties hark back to very different — yet equally romantic — periods in Chinese history.
The New China, we're told, is leading the world into the 21st century, with its global infrastructure projects and planetary investment portfolios. I visit the country frequently and find the reality to be a little more complex. In fact, I'm often struck by how much the past looms over the collective imagination, and am left wondering how much of the Cultural Revolution's violent destruction of heritage has yet to be truly reckoned with. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why, over the last 30 years or so, a movement to reassemble bits and pieces of China's shattered traditions has been slowly gathering momentum. On a recent trip, I was excited to witness this reappropriation of history at play in a field where other cultures have long used it — the design of hotels.
I visited two luxury properties that have taken restoration to ambitious new heights: the Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li (doubles from $627), which has reimagined the European-Chinese architecture of the 1930s in a renovated residential complex in the French Concession; and Amanyangyun (doubles from $825), where an entire centuries-old village has been relocated to a rural suburb 17 miles outside the city. The Capella sets out to transport guests back to Shanghai's glamorous interwar heyday, while Amanyangyun's meticulously restored Ming- and Qing-era villas evoke an even more distant past. Together, the hotels open up the idea of a new kind of urban tourism — one far removed from the plate-glass modernity of Chinese cliché.
One of the first things to strike me at Amanyangyun was the trees. No fewer than 1,000 primeval camphor trees grow around the property, binding its modern and ancient elements together and offering a glimpse of the Jingxia province village they came from — now submerged underwater by a dam project. Billionaire entrepreneur Ma Dadong, the CEO of investment firm Shanghai Gu Shan and the Gu Yin real estate group, brought them here from his home village, more than 400 miles away, when a proposed reservoir threatened to drown a centuries-old forest and the village within it. The dam was completed in 2006, but not before Ma had succeeded in transplanting the ancient trees, along with 50 stone village houses, to the outskirts of Shanghai.
The trees were so large (some weighed 70 tons) that Ma had to pay for the demolition of toll gates between Jingxia and Shanghai so the trucks could get past. The transplanted forest then had to be brought back to life in its new soil — a process that took Aman's team of gardeners several years. The reconstruction of the houses was even more complex. Each of the 26 antique villas on the property consists of more than 100,000 stones — all of which had to be numbered individually before the buildings could be deconstructed and patiently reassembled like matchstick ships, with not a single stone out of place. The effect is quite remarkable: the structures feel as if they have been here for centuries.
Stepping inside these transplanted buildings, I was even more impressed. Their lofty ceilings are lined with elaborately carved wooden beams, while those with studies have antique desks worthy of a Confucian scholar. Each house is arranged around a serene central courtyard, where the layers of enveloping stone ensure minimal noise penetrates from the outside. In addition to the traditional houses, 13 of which are available to guests, there's a brand-new resort wing with 24 suites spread along silent corridors, left open to the elements along one side. This decidedly modern part of the property is arranged around little ponds and water channels that deliver an atmosphere of monastic simplicity. At daybreak, as a winter mist swept in and an outdoor fire flickered in my private courtyard, the clean, contemporary aesthetic somehow enhanced the feeling of being displaced from the present — certainly the manic present of modern-day Shanghai. This is a place where you can still practice the ancient art of solitude.
The Capella Shanghai, by contrast, occupies a former French housing complex called the Jian Ye Li estate, where narrow, two-story linked houses — until recently occupied by residential communities — are arranged along paved lanes known as longtang. It's an Art Deco – era village fully resurrected within a Chinese metropolis — specifically, the Xuhui historic district still popularly known as the French Concession. This fully fledged city hotel is Capella's first foray into the Chinese market, and the company was determined to make the property an original one. By and large, I think it has succeeded.
The original buildings embody a blend of Western and local architecture that first became popular in Shanghai in the middle of the 19th century — and which eventually characterized more than half of the city's housing. Known as "lane houses" (or lilong in Chinese), the buildings were conceived around a strong communal ethos. Each has imposing stone gates with a narrow yard or garden inside; indoors, the design is very similar to a Western town house.
The Jian Ye Li estate is the last remaining complex of its kind left intact in Shanghai — 462,000 square feet of 1930s heritage now turned into a hotel unlike any other in the city. The Capella consists of 55 villas and 40 residences with interiors that are carefully calibrated to match the theme of Shanghai nostalgia, overlaying French design elements with delicate touches of chinoiserie.
In other respects, the hotel feels more up-to-date. The restaurant, franchised to French chef Pierre Gagnaire, has a boat-shaped bar set under gabled wooden rafters. When I visited for dinner the atmosphere was suitably decadent, the room filled with Shanghai's beautiful people — some of them apparently clothed by the upscale tailors currently housed in the hotel's retail spaces. In the basement, there's now a high-tech spa, a hydrotherapy tank, and a curious meditation room encrusted with pink salt. Behind the lanes, meanwhile, there are secret gardens with floor lanterns and long, bubbling pools, which enable guests to retreat as far from modern-day Shanghai as they want to go.
My maisonette could not have been more secluded, tucked away in a private lane behind iron gates. I thought about the workers who lived here in the 30s, who lived through the Japanese occupation and the Revolution. There was no trace of them now, but I still felt their presence. In fact, at both Capella and the Aman I felt shifted subtly back into the past, though never in a way that felt obvious or kitsch.
Could history be the new luxury in China? As fragments of the nation's heritage become harder to find, their value is certainly appreciating in the eyes of a rising middle class. Whether you choose to experience this shift through a stay at the soulful, contemplative Amanyangyun or a visit to the charismatic Capella, to my mind it represents nothing but good news for the future of Chinese hotels.
Five New, Modern Shanghai Hotels
In addition to the two historic properties profiled here, Shanghai has many more hotels arriving on the scene. From low-key boutique openings to grand projects by big, international brands, here is our pick of the best.
The 374 rooms and suites in this soaring glass skyscraper on the North Bund are inspired by the concept of haipai — an eclectic, East-meets-West aesthetic native to Shanghai. Don't miss the view of Pudong and the Oriental Pearl tower from the terrace Wet Bar. doubles from $315.
Set on the banks of the central Suzhou Creek, Bellagio's first property outside Las Vegas features imports from the flagship — like a restaurant from Sin City chef Julian Serrano — as well as Shanghai-specific touches such as on-site acupuncture and Chinese Art Deco design motifs. doubles from $395.
Due to open in April, this follow-up to the beloved House Collective properties in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Chengdu is Swire Hotels' first Shanghai project. Located in the historic Dazhongli neighborhood, the hotel will have monochrome interiors and a restaurant from legendary New York chef Gray Kunz.
Part of the Foster & Partners–designed Suhe Creek development, the property, which opens later this spring, will include a Chinese fine-dining restaurant that will be housed in the iconic 1916 Shanghai Chamber of Commerce building.
Coming up this summer, the latest property from the fast-growing Edition brand will be located in two towers minutes from the Bund. The hotel will have 145 sleek guest rooms and nearly a dozen places to eat and drink — including two rooftop bars and a sprawling Cantonese restaurant.
Content in this article was produced with assistance from Amanyangyun and Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li.