CLAIRE LOCKING finds Shanghai’s top ten must-do activties and gets a taste of the city’s alluring mix of fast-paced modernity and yesteryear.
|1.||Enjoy a cocktail from an authentic 1930s cut-glass tumbler at the Glamour Bar on the Bund.|
|2.||Join the queues for Shanghai’s famous dumplings, xiaolongbao.|
|3.||Step into the future at the Urban Planning Museum where a 10,000-square-foot model shows the Shanghai of tomorrow.|
|4.||Wander round the tree-lined avenues of the old French Concession.|
|5.||Stock up on kitsch Mao memorabilia at the Dongtai Road Antiques Market.|
|6.||Marvel at the gravity-defying tricks of the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe.|
|7.||Ride on a futuristic underground capsule in the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.|
|8.||Travel at 430km an hour on the Maglev (magnetic levitation train).|
|9.||Get out and walk; unlike some other Asian cities, Shanghai is a walker’s paradise.|
|10.||Take an early morning stroll along the Bund to watch the daily ballroom dancing ritual.|
On arrival at Shanghai airport, visitors are asked to complete an immigration card. Nothing strange there, I hear you say; yet under the section “Purpose of Visit” is the option “To Settle”. Recent tourists to this bustling metropolis will know that it is not a place for settling down, taking it easy or putting your feet up. This is a city on steroids! New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai doesn’t even stop long enough to take a nap.
From the Pudong district, where paddy fields have been replaced with dizzying skyscrapers, to Nanjing Road, where enormous Gap billboards look down on flocks of young Shanghainese indulging their love of all things techy in the new Apple Store, this is a city on a mission.
In the past decade, 4,000 new high-rise buildings, two airport terminals, 1,500 extra miles of road and a couple of high-speed train lines have been added to the city’s impressive infrastructure. The younger generation – Shanghai’s students are said to be better educated in mathematics and science than those in any other country – are embracing the old and the new, and the East and the West, and are relishing their role in the transformation of their home into one of the mega-cities of the world.
Thankfully, though, despite this headlong rush into modernity, Shanghai now seems to be embracing more of its past, rather than attempting to bury it. Expo 2010 saw the architectural glories of the Bund rejuvenated; unsightly blemishes were removed and concrete pavements replaced with 12-metre-wide marble walkways.
One of the most visited neighbourhoods of this new, improved Shanghai is Xintiandi, an award-winning, sympathetic restoration of old Shanghai-style shikumen houses into a neighbourhood of pedestrianised streets and alleyways housing galleries, boutiques, bars and restaurants.
On arriving in Shanghai in 1929, Noël Coward described the Bund as “a cross between Huddersfield and Brussels”. Most viewed it, however, through slightly more romantic eyes and it quickly became known as the “Paris of the Orient”. Today, this century-old thoroughfare still stands proudly overlooking the Huangpu River and retains an air of romance and glamour that has sadly been all but lost from many of the other great trading ports across the region. The grand heritage buildings of various architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to Art Deco, now house some of the city’s most renowned hotels, glamorous restaurants and luxury brand flagship stores.
Welcome to the Waldorf
If you want to experience a sedate slice of yesteryear, try the new Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, currently at the top of Tripadvisor’s Shanghai list; impressive when you consider that the hotel officially opened its doors less than a year ago.
The hotel, like its namesake in New York, is housed in two buildings and linked by the evocatively named Peacock Alley. Its 237 rooms and spacious suites, swimming pool, gym and library are all located in the Waldorf Astoria tower, offering 180-degree views up and down the Bund and across to the futuristic marvels of Pudong.
Wining & Dining
In the hotel’s Long Bar you can really pretend you have been transported back to the Downton Abbey era. The 110-foot bar is still the longest in Shanghai, but back in 1911 this mahogany gem was claimed to be the longest in the world and was the preferred hangout of the high-fliers of expat society. Today, you can enjoy gin cocktails, select fresh seafood from the oyster bar and enjoy the resident jazz band. On Sundays, the scene is transformed into a champagne brunch venue where expats and local families kick back with a Bucks Fizz and gourmet extravaganza.
Along with trying to recreate a little bit of old Shanghai, the hotel also nods to the New York heritage of the Waldorf Astoria brand itself. The Sunday brunch buffet at the Grand Brasserie is presided over by Canadian chef Brian Chan, who worked at the New York Waldorf and has brought with him some of its signature dishes, including the famed Waldorf salad and a novel take on its Red Velvet cupcake in the form of Red Velvet buttermilk pancakes.
Pelham’s Restaurant claims to offer a New York dining experience, too, but the phrase does not do justice to the genius of the current young chef, Clément Pellerin, who combines his French heritage with the experience he gained from L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and the two-Michelin-starred La Tour d’Argent and L’Astor in Paris. His unusual concept menu allows diners to choose between four and twelve courses presented in a tasting-menu format.
If you’re in the mood for authentic Chinese cuisine, head for the famed Wing Jing Ge restaurant on the top floor of the building, helmed by Hong Kong-born chef to the stars Sam Yuen. Chinese reproduction antiques, latticework, art displays and an open-rafter ceiling combine to create one of the most stunning dining rooms in the whole city.
As in any huge city, it’s better to do your sightseeing in the company of a local; but if you are not fortunate enough to have a long-lost friend residing in Shanghai, then seasoned expat Spencer Dodington is happy to adopt you as one of his own through his company Luxury Concierge.
Spencer’s appetite for adventure and love of Asia – he was an Asian history major back home in Texas – brought him to Shanghai in 1992. Two decades and several different careers on, he is now very much a Shanghai local and also a renowned architectural historian called on by local and international homeowners for his expertise on Shanghai’s architectural legacy and sympathetic restorations.
Spencer runs Luxury Concierge with fellow expat and Shanghai enthusiast Jonathan Hasson; together they aim to “pass the passion that they have for Shanghai to every visitor that comes through”. This is no follow-the-leader, flag-waving type of tour, either, but a totally bespoke experience that will take your interests, likes and dislikes fully into consideration. If, like a previous client, you have a fascination with Art Deco teapots, then Spencer will track down every museum piece and every retail opportunity in every corner of this expansive city. If you want to sample the culinary delights of Shanghai or get a behind-the-scenes view of the Bund, then Spencer and his team of experts will create an itinerary that does exactly that.
A City with Style
Along with the city’s economic growth, Shanghai has also thrown off its dreary communist-era aesthetic; the new generation of Shanghainese are a design-savvy, artistic bunch. Take a visit to Tian Zi Fang, where you’ll find a maze of laneways housing the studios of photographers, accessory designers, up-and-coming fashion labels and contemporary artists.
For lovers of Chinese contemporary art, Shanghai is the perfect place to browse. Unlike in Hong Kong, where you’ll often find incredibly inflated prices, in Shanghai it’s still possible to buy the work of contemporary artists straight from their studios in the once-deserted warehouses on Moganshan Road. The area is internationally recognised as the nerve centre of Shanghai’s buzzing art scene; several top artists including Zhou Tiehai and Ding Yi keep studios here.
Back in the glamorous heydays of the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai was among the ten largest cities of the world. However, its gracious mansions, tree-lined avenues and gentlemen’s clubs projected European, not Chinese, tastes and aspirations. Today the city is again one of the most influential in the world, but now it does things very much on its own terms, celebrating its past at the same time as carving out its own uniquely Shanghainese place in modern history.
Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund
No. 2 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road
+86 21 6322 9988
Luxury Concierge China
+86 1350 166 2908
Singapore Airlines flies several times a day to Shanghai, with return tickets starting at around $590. The flight takes 5 hours and 20 minutes.