Weekend in . . . Shanghai
What takes most cities aeons to build, Shanghai can do overnight. Consider this: just a decade ago, the city had four metro lines; now there are a dozen. The Jin Mao Tower was the tallest building in the neon-streaked financial centre of Pudong; it has since been surpassed by the Shanghai World Financial Center and the nearly completed Shanghai Tower, which will be the second-tallest building in the world (after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) when it’s finished next year.
Still, what fascinates about this city is how little seems to have changed in the maze of lanes that have eluded the bulldozer in the Old City or the former foreign concessions. Here, residents haggle over freshly caught fish in tiny markets or doze in lawn chairs on summer afternoons, ignoring the pounding jackhammers. Shanghai is remaking itself to become a “City of the Future,” but what’s so alluring is how much old-world character remains.
1 Model city
Start with an overview. Spanning the third floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center (admission 30 renminbi, or about €3.60) is a model of the city as it’s expected to look in 2020, with thousands of miniature buildings, elevated highways lined with yellow lights and streetlamps the size of toothpicks.
The kitsch tour of Shanghai continues in the adjacent 360-degree projection theatre, where visitors are taken on a virtual aerial tour of the city, swooping over bridges and high-speed trains as fireworks explode in the smog-free sky. It’s a paean to mass development, 21st-century Chinese style – big, brash and over the top.
2 Glamour shots
While swathes of old Shanghai have fallen, many historic buildings have been spared and refurbished in recent years, particularly around the Bund. One noteworthy project is the Rockbund Art Museum (15 renminbi), housed in an extensively renovated 1930s Art Deco building. The museum exhibits works by well-known contemporary artists like Cai Guo-Qiang and Zhang Huan and isn’t afraid to take risks: one show featured live monkeys in a cage with a robotic Confucius until the government ordered the primates removed.
Around the corner is Yuanmingyuan Road, a block of equally stunning turn-of-the century buildings that doubles as a catwalk for brides in red dresses preening for wedding photographers.
3 Party like it’s 1929
Shanghai’s historic Bund hasn’t looked this good since Noël Coward and Charlie Chaplin were party guests in the city’s glamorous pre-war years. As part of the city’s sprucing-up for the 2010 World Expo, the concession-era strip underwent a three-year restoration that moved most traffic underground and widened the riverside promenade to create a pleasant place to stroll in the evenings (minus the crowds).
Several iconic properties have also recently returned to their former splendour. Splurge on a 500-renminbi/€60 glass of Yao Ming’s cabernet sauvignon – or a more reasonably priced bottle from the extensive wine list – in the rooftop bar at the House of Roosevelt, a neo-Classical building restored by a company run by Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson Tweed.
Or drop by the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria, a 110ft-long recreation of the original Long Bar at the former Shanghai Club, an exclusive British gentleman’s club that became a KFC in the 1990s.
4 A movable feast
Jason Atherton is building quite a culinary empire in Asia. The Michelin-starred chef behind Pollen Street Social in London has opened six restaurants in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore since 2010, including the new Commune Social, a playful tapas restaurant where eating a meal feels more like bar-hopping. First, small plates of miso-grilled mackerel with wasabi avocado and cucumber chutney (88 renminbi/€10.60) and oysters with Vietnamese dressing (48 renminbi/€5.50 each) are served at the tapas bar overlooking the busy kitchen. Next, diners head to the narrow, white-tiled dessert bar to watch the South African pastry chef Kim Lyle make inventive desserts like goat’s cheese, yogurt sorbet and honeycomb frozen with liquid nitrogen (55 renminbi/€6.60). The last stop is the hidden cocktail bar upstairs for a PBJ (cognac, cherry brandy, peanut butter, strawberry jelly; 88 renminbi/€10.60), a nightcap that doubles as a midnight snack.
5 Powerful art
Shanghai could never be criticised for lack of ambition. Not content with being merely a financial hub, the city has been on a museum building spree in recent years to establish itself as a global arts centre, too.
One of the more promising institutions is the Power Station of Art, which opened last October in a late 19th-century power plant renovated for the 2010 Expo. With its industrial feel and focus on modern art, the museum feels similar to the Tate Modern, and it’s already hosted several major exhibitions, including the Shanghai Biennale and the largest collection of Andy Warhol’s art in Asia (though the Mao Zedong portraits were left out for obvious reasons). After checking out the art, take in the view of the barges chugging lazily up the Huangpu River from the expansive fifth-floor deck.
6 Healthful eats
In response to China’s mounting food safety concerns, many local restaurants are now taking a healthier approach to cooking, such as Jian Guo 328, which prides itself on using only high-quality cooking oil, filtered water and no MSG. (The Taiwanese owner also bans smoking.)
Menu standouts are all Shanghainese favourites: cong you ban mian (noodles in scallion oil; 18 renminbi/€2.17), xie fen dou fu (custard-like tofu with flakes of crab and crab roe; 32 renminbi/€3.90) and shi zi tou mian (a giant pork meatball in noodle soup; 28 renminbi/€3.40). Not only is the food deliciously authentic, it’s much lighter than in other local joints.
7 Designer district
With its charming villas and bohemian vibe, the former French Concession has become a magnet for artists and designers opening boutiques. Dong Liang Studio is the place to find rising fashion talents, such as Christopher Bu, the stylist for the Chinese “it” girl Fan Bingbing. At Brut Cake, Nicole Teng makes tote bags and upholstered furniture using old Chinese fabrics.
Down the street, stop at the Japanese designer Mayumi Sato’s shop for women’s clothes of brightly patterned organic cottons, silks and vintage kimono fabrics; and Piling Palang for Deng Bingbing’s exquisite ceramic and cloisonné pieces.
8 Dancing with the retirees
When you’re all shopped out, a respite awaits on the other side of the former French Concession in Fuxing Park, where elderly Shanghainese come for gossip – and a bit of a show.
Old men in Mao jackets chain-smoke and play cards on park benches while small troupes of musicians gather in corners to sing Peking opera classics.
The main attraction happens beneath the towering plane trees in the centre of the park where well-dressed couples show off their best ballroom-dancing moves to syrupy Chinese love songs.
9 Cinematic cuisine
If the 1960s Hong Kong diner décor at Cha’s Restaurant looks like a movie set, that’s because it is. Sort of. Charlie Hau, a Hong Kong movie producer, opened a traditional cha chaan teng (tea restaurant) in Shanghai after struggling to find authentic Cantonese food while shooting the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution. Hau’s cinematic expertise ensured that every detail was perfect, from the leather-backed booths and 1960s china patterns to a menu that includes Hong Kong staples like poached chicken in soy sauce (60 renminbi/€7.20 for a half-bird) and pineapple buns (8 renminbi/96 cent). Cha’s has become a hit with the Hong Kong diaspora, as well as trendy young Shanghainese with dyed hair and high-tops, so be prepared for a wait.
10 Spanish speakeasy
Shanghai’s cocktail scene has become competitive in recent years, with a constantly revolving door of new speakeasy-style bars and enterprising mixologists. One bar has separated itself from the pack: the Barcelona native Willy Trullás Moreno’s El Cóctel, which combines Spanish-style décor (leather ottomans, exposed brick walls, a floral ceiling) with a colourful drinks menu in town (the Late Night Tale, 84 renminbi, for instance, is made with Tennessee whisky, Canadian maple syrup, coffee – and a side of insomnia). For a night spot with more bounce, pull up a stool outside one of the shoe-box bars on Yongkang Road – a former vegetable market that has become a raucous bar street.
11 Sidewalk snacks
Breakfast is best enjoyed on the street, still piping hot from the wok or steamer. The only difficulty is deciphering a menu. UnTour Shanghai (untourshanghai.com), a street culinary tour company, simplifies the process by doing the ordering for you. The Dumplings Delights tour (400 renminbi/€48) spans the breadth of China, from cabbage-filled jiao zi eaten in wintry northeastern China to delicate shrimp almond pastries from southern China and Shanghai’s famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings) – all in a two-square-block. Fortunately, there’s enough walking between stops to justify such gluttony, though in anything-goes Shanghai, you’ll need little excuse. – The New York Times Syndicate