They twirled across the parquet dance floor, a waltzing stream of smart suits and sashaying dresses. From up high on the Cin Cin balcony, once home to Joseph Ullstein’s
orchestra, the sounds of the jazz quintet drifted downwards; a mellifluous mix of trumpets and saxophones that washed over the gentle chinks of china of those enjoying afternoon tea. They sipped mocktails of lemongrass and fresh mint, nibbled on crumbly cookies and baby pink macarons and devoured the blue crab and mango tiramisu.
Here, in the Jasmine Lounge, deep within Shanghai’s historic Fairmont Peace Hotel, the 1930s live on. Once an important social engagement during the city’s colonial era, the weekly Tea Dance, held every Saturday, was abandoned as war and communism took hold. It was reintroduced earlier this year, much to the delight of many. “We had an elderly couple in their 90s here recently,” my server tells me, while delivering a silver tiered tea stand filled with buttermilk scones and fruit tartlets. “It was their first time back in China after fleeing in 1949. They wiped away the tears and danced all afternoon. It was very emotional.”
Glimpses of bygone traditions are reassuring in a place as fast moving as Shanghai, a city of space-age skyscrapers and neon-lit avenues. Beyond its modern façade, however, history stands at the foundations. The Bund—the art deco promenade on the western banks of the Huangpu River—remains the central focal point. Many of the heritage buildings, built by wealthy Europeans in the early 20th century, now house modern establishments—hotels, trendy restaurants and bars that cater for 21st century tastes.
Chief among them is M on the Bund, the first restaurant along this historic strip. Located on the top floor of the Nissin Shipping Building, which took shape in 1921, chef Hamish Pollitt has created a menu that blends European-inspired dishes with Chinese ingredients. Try the ravioli filled with smoked ricotta, served with sautéed Yunnan mushrooms washed down with a chardonnay from the Tasya Reserve in Shanxi Province. When it comes to accommodation, the obvious choice is the Fairmont’s splendid Peace Hotel, filled with white Italian marble and famed for the Old Jazz Band that play nightly. The property has welcomed the world’s glitterati and literati since 1929 (Charlie Chaplin stayed in room 568) and many regard it as the jewel of the Bund.
Another option is The Waterhouse at South Bund. Boasting artwork by Tracey Emin, this minimalist hotel is housed in a 1930s warehouse and has just 19 contemporary and design-led suites. The rooftop bar with views of Pudong is an added bonus.
The Waterhouse at South Bund is also the home of British chef Jason Atherton’s Shanghai outpost, with his restaurant Table No. 1. Futuristic Pudong is an area that divides opinion. Rising from the land that 20 years ago was nothing but marshes and farms are the tallest of skyscrapers: glass beacons that symbolise China’s growing power and might. Among the high-rises is the Shanghai World Financial Centre, occupied partly by the Park Hyatt Hotel. Not only a heavenly place to stay, with 174 luxurious rooms and a 20-metre infinity pool high up in the clouds, it’s also a wonderful spot for non-guests to wine and dine. The dedicated Chinese menu at the 100 Century Avenue restaurant includes a Shanghai seafood soup and tiger prawn dumplings with sea urchins— local delicacies enjoyed alongside twinkling and unrivalled views of the city some 90 floors below.
Ying to Pudong’s yang, purists may prefer the temples and teahouses of the Old Town neighbourhood, located back across the river near The Bund. Despite the crowds that descend on the pretty Ming Dynasty Yuyuan Garden (go early to avoid the masses), the area retains a nostalgic feeling of yesteryear.
Nearby is the Taoist Temple of the Old City God, adorned with red lanterns and wooden carvings. Down the road, squeezed in among the handicraft stands, is the Old Shanghai Teahouse (385 Fangbang Rd). Choose from 23 varieties of homegrown leaves, from Jiangsu province green tea to ‘sentimental’ jasmine, surrounded by dusty old antiques and domino-playing locals.
Arguably the most charming of Shanghai’s neighbourhoods is the French Concession, with its long streets lined with cafes, galleries, boutiques and London plane trees. Take a stroll down Changle Road for Chinese-style qipao dresses from Hanyi at No.217 and contemporary threads by young local designers at nearby Dong Liang (184 Fumin Road). Alternatively, browse the thought-provoking Art Labor gallery, which displays pieces pondering Shanghai’s evolving identity. Restore flagging energy levels with some seriously delicious dumplings. You’ll find some of the best dim sum in all of Shanghai in the French Concession. Harbin Dumpling House (645 Jianguo Xi Lu) may be no-frills but their juicy xiaolongbao pork dumplings, dipped in vinegar poured from chipped white teapots, are considered among the best in town.
At the very other end of the culinary spectrum is Ultraviolet, Shanghai’s most revolutionary dining experience: one that ‘unites food with multi-sensorial technologies’. The fun takes place in an undisclosed location (diners are picked up and dropped off) and involves 20 themed courses. For the ‘Ocean Scene’, French chef Paul Pairet serves oysters and crab with whisky and iced tea alongside the sound of crashing waves and the smell of seaweed and vaporised salt water. But with a waiting list of more than three months and one table seating just 10, advance reservations are essential.
To the west is Jing An, fast emerging as a district to lure travellers away from the river. The star attraction is the gilded and teak Jing’an Temple, the original of which dates back to 247AD. Inside stands a striking Buddha statue made from 15 tonnes of silver.
Designs of a more contemporary nature await at M50, a growing art complex consisting of dozens of galleries, working studios and cafes in converted redbrick cotton mills. It’s a fascinating place to while away an afternoon, browsing the ceramics and discovering rising Chinese artisans.
Even the hotels of Jing’an have jumped on the arty bandwagon. Hanging on the tall walls of the upmarket PuLi Hotel’s lobby are linear drawings of the female form by native artist Li Jing Bin. Curious yet erotic, it’s best to contemplate her work while sat at the 32m Long Bar that overlooks the terrace of trees and bamboo shoots where live DJs play each Thursday evening.
At the entrance of the 229-room hotel are seven antique pillars with the heads of lions carved into the sturdy stone columns, a tradition that goes back to the days of the
Shanghai may represent all that’s big and bold about China in the 21st century but it’s nice to see that traditions continue to run deep.
Little Black Book
Fairmont Peace Hotel (fairmont.com/peace-hotel-shanghai); M on the Bund (waterhouseshanghai.com); Park Hyatt (shanghai.park.hyatt.com); Art Labor (artlaborgallery.com); Ultraviolet (uvbypp.cc); M50 (m50.com.cn); The PuLi Hotel (thepuli.com); The Waterhouse At South Bund Hotel (waterhouseshanghai.com);
Table No. 1 (tableno-1.com); Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com)
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