Shanghai swing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am

I made my first trip to Shanghai in 2003, a journey that involved a train, a bus and a boat down the Yangtze River from Kunming, Yunnan province.

Shanghai seemed quaintly charming to an English teacher living in Fujian province, yet impossibly grand and intoxicating. Eight years on - aeons in the life of the rapidly expanding mainland - and the city, particularly the historic Bund, is even more spectacular, having been reborn in a former image.

Take the Peace Hotel, which began life as the Cathay. Overlooking the Huangpu River, it was completed in 1929 by Victor Sassoon, a British citizen of Iraqi-Jewish descent who founded a Shanghai business empire built on real estate. The luxurious property epitomised the art-deco style of the day. Bouts of political upheaval took their toll on the Cathay and the rundown hotel was renamed by the communist government, after it came to power in 1949.

Last August, following a US$60 million-plus, three-year restoration, the hotel reopened under the management of international chain Fairmont Hotel & Resorts.

Through the hotel's revolving doors is the octagonal lobby, with its domed-cathedral-like feel. The stained-glass atrium roof had been hidden behind a fake ceiling, erected when the space was used as a shopping centre, but copper-tinted light once again spills down.

On the eighth floor is the Dragon Phoenix restaurant. Its decor, reminiscent of the Forbidden City, was designed to appeal to tourists. To protect the elaborate ceiling motifs from harm during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, restaurant staff covered them with plain paper. Today, guests dine under the blue and gold ceiling, among red and mint-green columns.

For some postprandial entertainment, there's the Jazz Bar, which is a bit touristy and has the ambience of an English country manor. Two members of the bar band, which has been playing together since the 1980s, were in Jimmy King's legendary 40s Shanghai jazz ensemble.

Peter Hibbard, author of The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West, sees the area's makeover as a 'lifestyle showcase' for the city. Landmarks include Three on the Bund, built in 1916 in what Hibbard says was referred to as 'free-renaissance' style. A former home of the Union Assurance Company, the building underwent a controversial renovation in the early 2000s that kept the building's exterior intact while gutting the interior to house designer stores and upmarket restaurants.

According to Hibbard, change is nothing new here - the Bund was built for the elite and wealthy and its reincarnation is true to its roots. It is, he explains, 'the front door to China'.

'A lot of trade and commerce came straight to its doorstep, as well as all these rich American tourists - their first image had no temples or pagodas in sight: it's Western faced,' he says.

Farther down the Bund, which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu, is another restored architectural jewel: the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai. Housed in the former Shanghai Club, an elite gentleman's establishment and bastion of British snobbery (Chinese were barred), it was completed in 1911.

An antique circular caged lift transports guests to the Long Bar, which has a 34-metre mahogany bar once said to be among the world's longest. According to Hibbard, a gentleman's social status could be determined from his position at the bar: established residents, known as Shanghailanders, took the prime spots close to the window; newcomers, dubbed 'griffins', a nickname he says comes from a term for wild Mongolian ponies before they are tamed, sat at the back.

Rather ingloriously, the bar was turned into the city's first KFC restaurant during the 1990s.

With reference to old photographs, it has been painstakingly rebuilt and is once again fit to host the glam crowd. This evening, for instance, a group of well-dressed party-goers bide their time ahead of a ball the hotel is hosting in honour of the Princess of Sweden.

The Waldorf's restoration is part of a gentrific- ation process that's been ongoing since the 90s, according to long-time Shanghai resident and historian Andrew Field.

'It's a way of tying in with Shanghai's eliteness and international status,' he says, 'while not recognising all the terrible problems that the city faced back then because of the colonial system, the terrible poverty and the lack of leadership.'

Glimpses of that less-sparkling side of Shanghai can be found in the Old Town, where traditional two-storey shikumen (stone gate) houses are jumbled together on tumble-down lanes known as longtang.

For the full experience, start with jasmine tea at the Old Shanghai Tea House, on Fangbang Zhong Lu. Although it is housed in an otherwise sterile 'renovated' complex, known as Yuyuan Garden, the teahouse, converted from a private home, is full of knick-knacks and serves traditional Shanghai snacks such as savoury tangyuan: balls of glutinous rice flour served in a hot broth.

The Old Town proper is a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the Bund: families live in cramped conditions, relying on public toilets and chamber pots. It does, however, shed light on another aspect of this cosmopolitan city.