What Recession, Comrade? Shanghai Flies High

November 2, 2009 at 9:17 am | Posted in Asia, China | 1 Comment
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by Eric Hiss

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

Recently back from China’s largest metropolis, my head’s still spinning — while many world cities are still in a slump, Shanghai buzzes 24/7. Orbs, obelisks, rectangles and other geometries take form hundreds of feet above ground while billboards proclaim in Chinglish: “Shanghai: With Luck and Brilliancy.” After sundown, things turn even more electric, as tour boats plying the Huangpu River and shimmering towers create a neon nightscape as brash as any Vegas strip.

Gearing up for next May’s World Expo, it seems all 22 million denizens are seeing this not only as a coming-out party for Shanghai, but a point of national pride — like the Olympics, a defining moment for China’s arrival as a superpower (another billboard: “Greeting the Expo with Civilization!”). Certainly the raw materials are present: superb cuisine and hotels, cool nightlife, and seemingly unlimited shopping. A shortlist to help you dive in:

A dramatic 950-room pair of towers, the Pudong Shangri-La (from 1550 RMB/$227 double):  delivers five-star service and amenities like an award-winning spa. One tower features chandeliers, original Chinese oils, and Queen Anne-style furnishings, the other sleek, contemporary, high-gloss rosewood, leather, and silk. Floor-to-ceiling windows over the river afford among the best views in town.

As China’s first carbon-neutral property, the 26-room Urbn Hotel Shanghai (from 1,300 RMB/$190),  right next to the French Concession (see below), offers luxury with a conscience, plus minimalist-mod sunken lounges, slate-lined bathrooms, raised platform beds, and rooftop garden.

Finally, for affordability and historic appeal, 12-room Old House (from 720 RMB/US$103) is an excellent, central choice in the charming French Concession neighborhood.

Foodwise, FU 1039, in a grand former residence off shopping thoroughfare Yuyuan Lu, is the real Shanghainese deal: oily, sweet and savory dishes like chilled jellyfish with spring onion oil, sweet lotus root, and slow-cooked sweet river eel in soy sauce. It’s tricky to find (down a long, unmarked lane), the antique furnishings are a tad musty, and few staffers speak English. But it’ll be one of your visit’s most memorable meals.

M On The Bund is a Deco-era gem on the historic riverside Bund promenade where you can tap into the romanticized Shanghai of the 1920’s over excellent European and North African specialties. Fantastic views across the Huangpu River and of neighboring buildings with swirling Deco adornments.

Haute Japanese is on the menu at the Shanghai outpost of Tokyo’s famed Nadaman. A striking minimalist decor of granite, natural woods and modernist lanterns set the backdrop for impeccable fare served by kimono-clad staff. The traditional kaiseki meals are especially memorable.

After dinner, hit Bar Rouge, another Bund spot that evokes retro Shanghai — albeit with decidedly modern twists: recessed red lights, sleek surfaces and a party-ready crowd of expats and locals. The scene’s pretty high-octane, but for a true Shanghai experience, head out to the expansive open-air patio and take in the glittering lights of the city and river below.

While Bar Rouge is predominately peopled by expats, the two-story JZ Club is where a bohemian, mostly local bunch sips moderately-priced cocktails and takes in live jazz. A neighborhood vibe predominates, fusing boho-chic with neighborhood-bar ambiance. Weekends are popular; go early to get a good seat (especially the cozy tables upstairs).

Now for shopping. Though America created consumerism, China plays the game as well or better — and always more cheaply. To not shop here would be like missing Paris’ Louvre or a Hawaii sunset. While the quality (and prices) of housewares, silk-lined jackets, leather furnishings and other merch at sleek boutique Shanghai Tang of match New York’s or London’s, at the “South Bund Soft Spinning Fabric Market” south of Old Shanghai, they’re as wide as the China/U.S. trade deficit. For the savvy, it’s a shopping nirvana where you can score $100 custom-made wool suits and $70 tailored silk cheongsams. With hundreds of stalls, the four-floor complex can be daunting, so stick to the first two, which have the best outlets. (Tip: local hotels like the Pudong Shangri-La can arrange for a tailor to escort you, negotiate the best deal, then tailor your design. In my case, I spotted a mandarin-style leather jacket in Shanghai Tang for US$1,000. I later described it to a shop owner and tailor in the Fabric Market who had it ready for me the next day, perfectly executed, for all of 1,000 RMB — about US$130).

In contrast to the concrete, steel and glass of most of the city, the historic French Concession, the 19th-century French merchant quarter, is an inviting respite. Among tree-lined streets and Continental-style brick-and-stone manses, shops both quirky and trendy purvey everything from hip fashion to vintage Mao-mentos. Fashionistas should check out eno on Changle Lu with its designs by young locals, while Madame Mao’s Dowry is filled with wry riffs on Mao gear and propaganda. (Note: while bartering is expected at the Fabric Market, most of these shops are no-haggle zones.)

Final note: love ‘em or hate ‘em, counterfeit goods are a reality; you can’t avoid ’em. More than a few expats and visitors were spotted recently at the A.P Shopping Center (aka the “Fake Market”) near the Shanghai Science Museum, where copies of name-brand bags, watches and luggage are on display, and Da Gu Lu (aka “DVD Street”), where knockoffs of every category are sold at dirt-cheap prices.

More info: Meet-in-Shanghai.net.


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  1. […] didn’t intend to visit the “water town” of Zhujiajiao when we were in Shanghai this past summer. Instead, we’d planned on taking a side trip to Suzhou, famous for its silk […]

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