One of the largest, most mysterious cities in the world has emerged Shanguai from a long slumber to become a major player on the global scene.
Author Laurie Werner
SHANGHAI. JUST THE WORD CONJURES IMAGES OF DECADENCE AND GLAMOUR: the Opium Wars, gambling dens, Jazz Age expats and spies from all corners trading secrets as champagne flowed. This portrait of Shanghai took hold in the popular imagination in the ’20s and ’30s as the city, then one of the most cosmopolitan in the world, gained an international reputation as the exotic Eastern hub of trade, finance, fashion and intrigue. Then World War II broke out, and the party stopped; the Communists took over in 1949 and all but shut down outside commerce in Shanghai for decades. These days, the largest city in China—and with some 19 million residents, one of the largest in the world—is once again the most vibrant. Its coming-out party is next summer’s World Expo, an extravaganza expected to make Shanghai a focus of world attention for six months. What sights will greet visitors? Vertigo-inducing, blinking skyscrapers, teeming bars and top-shelf restaurants, a thriving art scene and shop-houses filled with haute designers. Not to worry: Though Shanghai is reborn, it still seems like old times.
The Bund at night DAY ONE You wake up in Puxi, Shanghai’s swank central district, throw open the shades and take in what may be the best view in the city, from the Hyatt on the Bund 1, a modern, airy hotel overlooking the stately former European bank buildings that make up the small, well-touristed neighborhood called the Bund (an Urdu word imported by British traders). To the left you see the arc of the busy Huangpu River, and to the right the bizarro towers of the financial district known as Pudong (Puxi denizens refer to this workmanlike burg as “Pu Jersey”).
In the hotel lobby, you’re struck by the sheer breadth and depth of the grand breakfast buffet, a furious amalgam of pancakes, stir-fried Shanghai noodles and dumplings that seems to extend forever. You quickly decide not to linger and instead grab a fresh, flaky pastry and bracing coffee and meet up with Spencer Dodington, director of Luxury Concierge China, who gives you a brief overview of the city and an introductory walk.
A colonial clock towerIt’s hard to overstate the colonial opulence on display in the Bund. The buildings are referred to by number, and their architecture reflects the piles of money made by traders in the ’20s. You marvel at the gilded columns, intricate marble floors and gold-lined skylight in No. 24 2, once a Japanese bank but now the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. No. 12 3 was built in 1923 with the intention of dominating the neighborhood. Mission accomplished: The result is so stunning that Communist Party elders grabbed No. 12 as their prized local headquarters in 1955.
Elsewhere on the Bund, the swank new Chinese style is on display. No. 18 4, home to Zegna and Cartier, has enormous, glowing red Murano chandeliers. Once inside, browse the shelves of the clothes shop Younik, which stocks all the best current Chinese designers. The dramatic cuts and lush fabrics will make you question China’s reputation as the land of cheap knockoffs.
Mao notebooks at the
Dongtai Lu antiques marketNow you’re wondering, What other myths do I need to investigate? Head south to the Old City in search of Shanghai’s most delicious creation, the soup dumpling. You find the dim sum emporium, Din Tai Fung 5, and order the pork and crab dumpling. It isn’t the tidiest of meals, but they’re worth the mess. (Tip for beginners: Cradle the dumpling in the ceramic spoon and make a small incision with your teeth; as broth then burbles into the spoon, slurp it slowly before gobbling the rest.) The dumpling, you realize, is anything but a knockoff.
Walk to Yu Garden 6, a 400-year-old oasis of pebbly ponds, wisteria and ginkgo trees, jade rock formations and dozens of peaceful pavilions—some quite whimsically named, like the “Pavilion for Viewing Frolicking Fish” (yes, they frolic). Then dash through the knickknack bazaar to the newly restored 15th century Chenghuang Miao, Temple of the City God, which protects the spirits of the departed citizens of Shanghai. Light a stick of incense, and on the way out watch a medicinal healer tap a hopeful customer’s head with a bundle of herbs—an ancient remedy. You briefly consider a dose, but it’s only day one, and things are going well. So far.
Biking the streets of ShanghaiDinnertime comes at you fast. Luckily, the hotel concierge already made reservations for you at Shintori Null 2 7, a minimalist hipster mecca serving expert sushi in a neighborhood du jour known as the French Concession. Pass through a narrow grove of bamboo trees and enter the former factory space. The ceilings are high enough to hush the crowds, and the sashimi and tempura are fresh, simple and light, a perfect counterpoint to the soup dumplings. Afterward, drop into the JZ Club 8 nearby, where a swing band is firing up. The club is dark, crowded and smoky, a paean to the Prohibition era. After a couple of drinks, you’re transported back to a roaring world you thought disappeared with Louise Brooks. But it’s late, so you step outside, back to 2009, and hail a cab home.