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 THREE | Today you’ll be exploring one of the water towns near Shanghai—which, given their arrays of arched bridges and gondolas, compete for the title of “Venice of the East.” First, though, you pop into the Waldorf’s Grand Brasserie, where you are presented with expertly poached eggs royale with smoked salmon, salmon roe, bok choy and brioche.
A 45-minute drive brings you to Zhujiajiao, one of the area’s vying Venices. After a short trip along the main canal, you wander the waterways and back alleys, past stalls selling panda hats and lucky red rope knots, along with local snacks like pig trotters and glutinous rice cakes. Stepping around a Chinese tourist fiercely bargaining with a fisherman, you follow your nose to a stand where a man is making onion-seed flatbreads on a hot plate.
Before leaving this lively little town, you walk to Kezhi Garden, a patchwork of adjacent courtyards filled with cherry trees and koi ponds. You buy an iced tea from a small kiosk and sit under a pavilion, listening to the breeze brush through the bamboo.
Back in Shanghai, you lunch at Lao Kele, whose name comes from a term used to describe a new and cosmopolitan breed of intelligentsia in the early 1900s. The doorman greets you in black tails and there are silver service bells on the table, but the food is all Shanghai: dumplings filled with soup and crabmeat, plus sweet-and-sour ribs that have you licking your lips for more.
From here, you walk up Nanjing Road and into People’s Square, a vast expanse of manicured flowerbeds and patches of bamboo. Soon you happen across a marriage market, a traditional gathering in which parents attempt to pair off their offspring by exchanging notes on their vital statistics (height, age, education).
Deeper into the park, you arrive at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Not long ago, Chinese contemporary art was focused on the political, playing with images of the Cultural Revolution, but the new generation seems intent on tackling more universal themes. You are transfixed in particular by Gao Mingyan’s strange but beautiful repurposed objects: a footbath turned into a pirate ship, a high-heeled shoe given shark fins.
At the adjacent Shanghai Art Museum, you head up to the rooftop restaurant Kathleen’s 5. There, you look down on the treetops while sipping a Racetrack, an elderflower gin cocktail whose name pays homage to the People’s Square horse races, a popular event during the days of foreign concessions.
Dinner is at Mr & Mrs Bund, a bright and colorful restaurant whose excellent chef, Paul Pairet, serves modern French food in the Chinese style (i.e., dishes intended to be shared among several diners). You order an arugula truffle salad, too-tender-to-be-true chicken with aioli, lemongrass and vanilla lobster, followed by a giant teriyaki beef rib.
You end your evening at the Jazz Bar at Fairmont Peace Hotel. From the time that it opened in 1929, The Cathay, as the art deco hotel was formerly known, became synonymous with Shanghai’s raucous jazz age. Nowadays a band of mostly octogenarians dressed in suits and bow ties—musicians who first played together here in 1980—bears the standard.
Outside, the city is awash in the glow of its neon signs and the roar of its never-ending rush hour. But there are occasional pockets of the old life here. And once you’ve found them, it’s only with great reluctance that you can bring yourself to leave.
Hemispheres contributor GABRIELLE JAFFE would appreciate having a silver service bell on her table whenever she dines out.