Home to one of the world’s most dramatic skylines, Shanghai is a 21st-century boomtown, a glittering, nonstop celebration of economic success. Yet there are hidden pockets of the city’s former life here, made all the more precious by the neon glare around them.
Author Gabrielle Jaffe Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY TWO | After spending a fine half hour immersed in a large bathtub, you’re off to brunch at Madison, in the French Concession—an area that retains its Gallic air, its streets lined with plane trees and boulangeries. Madison’s chef-owner, Austin Hu, who cut his teeth at some of New York’s top eateries, puts his own twist on New American cuisine. You gorge on lightly spiced Scotch duck eggs and wickedly indulgent duck-fat disco fries.
A short walk along Fuxing and Huashan, a pair of leafy streets flanked by stucco villas and violin shops, brings you to the Propaganda Poster Art Center, whose collection is revealing and often unintentionally funny. In one poster from the Korean War era, Americans are shown as green-skinned monsters who must be crushed. Another, made after Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, depicts a cheery transnational pingpong match. In the museum shop you buy a textbook from the days of the Cultural Revolution, and school yourself in phrases like “Never forget class struggle.”
On nearby Anfu Road you are happy to discover Brut Cake, a boutique filled with trendy home accessories made from upcycled materials. You stop for a pot of pu’er tea in the tranquil garden at Yongfoo Elite, a restored art deco mansion with a marble-floor veranda, then make your way to Tianzifang, a hive of galleries, cafés and art studios. At the window of an apartment overlooking the complex, a bemused-looking elderly lady suspends her dumpling-making to watch the countercultural types swarm by.
A 10-minute stroll up Sinan Road takes you past the former homes of revolutionaries Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai, and then on to Fuxing Park, where you watch in fascination as tai chi practitioners perform their languid martial art. From here it’s a short cab ride to Shunxing, a Sichuan restaurant that puts a local spin on the dinner-theater concept. You eat spicy tofu and slices of pork crusted with peanuts, chilies and chives while watching costumed performers sing, dance and play with fire.
After dinner you amble along the riverbank to the second hotel of your stay, the Waldorf Astoria, which is housed in the former Shanghai Club, an exclusive gentlemen’s club during the British Concession era. You pass through the oversize doorway and into the lobby, its crystal chandeliers catching the sunlight pouring through the glass roof. Your room, with its eggshell-blue walls and Imperial furniture, gives you a sense of just how good the old-boy network had it back in the day.
That feeling is reinforced when you return downstairs to the Long Bar. Restored to its pre-WWII glory—dark timber paneling, art deco light fixtures, a 112-foot bar that was once the longest in the Far East—the place still hums with power. But where formerly only white males of a certain class were granted entrance, the people smoking cigars and making important decisions here today are predominantly Chinese, and often female.
From the considerable drinks menu you select the Waldorf Cup, a champagne cocktail devised at the original New York Waldorf Astoria circa 1897, and spend the rest of the evening chatting with your soft-spoken, impeccably attired waiter. He lets you in on a little-known fact: In the 1990s, the Long Bar was gutted and made into a KFC. That thought stays with you until you totter upstairs and fall asleep.