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Shanghai escapades

From stunning Art Deco buildings dotting the Bund to hip cafes in heritage buildings, the Paris of the East has it all

Juliana Loh on 21 Oct 2018

The Straits Times


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Shanghai's futuristic cityscape - dominated by gleaming new skyscrapers - has been the backdrop of Hollywood blockbusters like James Bond flick Skyfall (2012) and science-fiction film Blade Runner 2049 (2017).


But the city is also home to well-preserved Art Deco buildings and shikumen, preserved 19th-century colonial alleylane houses.


While new concepts and restaurants are popping up everywhere, many older restaurants, bars and other businesses have enjoyed longevity and success and continue to thrive alongside their new competitors.


Historic buildings have been given new life and put to creative uses.


The blend of old and new has always been part of the Chinese metropolis' appeal for me.


While every trip back - I lived in Beijing for five years and regularly travelled to Shanghai for work in the past 10 years - is always a surprise, with the coolest new openings, I find it equally comforting to visit the usual haunts.


Shanghai was a port of call with an influx of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Its melting pot of cultures and influences is echoed in areas like architecture and fashion.


For instance, the city's Belle Epoque in the 1920s saw the Chinese qipao come in vogue, with slits on the sides of the dress tailored higher to accommodate the vigorous moves of swing dancing that was popular during the period.


Shanghai tailors make well-fitting cheongsams.


At the fabric market (399 Lujiabang Road, Huangpu Qu) south of the Bund , you can pick your fabric and have your outfit made in 48 hours.




There is perhaps nothing more visually striking in the city than the contrasting architecture.


Since hosting the 2010 World Exposition, Shanghai has continued its lightning speed development of adding more shiny new buildings to Pudong, a special economic zone east of the Huangpu River.


Here, you will find skyscrapers like the 128-storey and 632m-tall Shanghai Tower - China's tallest building and second tallest in the world for now - and the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower.


Across the river, the city's famous waterfront area, the Bund, is lined with charming Art Deco buildings built in the 1920s, like the Peace Hotel.


I recommend diving into the underbelly of the city with Historic Shanghai Tours (www.historic-shanghai.com/historic-shanghai-tours), which offers different types of tours from Art Deco to Jewish Shanghai. The private tours (3,000 yuan or S$597 for two) are typically three to four hours long and catered to your interests.


Alternatively, there are monthly tours (250 yuan a person, www.shanghaiartdeco.net) that give you an in-depth look at the iconic Art Deco buildings along the Bund and in Puxi, Shanghai's historic centre, west of the river.


Mr Patrick Cranley, an old China hand and founder of Historic Shanghai, says: "Shanghai's rapid development over the past 30 years has, of course, taken a toll on the city's rich built heritage.


"But because it was such a big city 80 years ago and because very little was changed between 1950 and 1990, there are still a lot of wonderful historic lane neighbourhoods, apartment houses and commercial buildings. Shanghai remains a city of beautiful surprises."


If you are short on time and prefer a whirlwind tour covering many districts, go for a sidecar tour with Shanghai Insiders (www.shanghaiinsiders.com). You can pick a one-, two-or four-hour tour tailored to your interests.


I enjoyed a two-hour tour (1,800 yuan, with the option to enjoy a bottle of champagne for 400 yuan at the Bund), which included a visit to the local wet market, shikumen and 1933, a stunning building with Brutalist-style architecture that used to be an abattoir and is now a retail space.




Many heritage buildings across the city have been turned into spaces for arts, culture and fashion.


Italian luxury fashion brand Prada restored Rong Zhai Villa (www.prada.com/en/a-future-archive/projects/rong-zhai.html) - a Western-style garden villa embellished with Art Nouveau and Art Deco details - and transformed it into an exhibition space.


Entry is by appointment only.


There is no shortage of good art museums. Moca Shanghai (www.mocashanghai.org), Rockbund Art Museum (www.rockbundartmuseum.org/en) and Power Station of Art (powerstationofart.com/en) showcase both contemporary Chinese and international art.


For more art, venture a little farther to 50 Mogenshan Lu, an art district with galleries housed in converted factories and warehouses.


Finally, get your spot of shopping done in the hipster Tianzifang area - the former French Concession and home to many shikumen. You can get local designs, crafts and artworks here.


A more edgy alternative is 10 Corso Como (www.10corsocomo.com/location-shanghai), a Milanese multi-storey concept store where you can also peruse books and check out pop-up exhibitions.




Shanghai's food scene spans the gamut from street food to a burgeoning gastronomic scene. The Michelin Guide was launched in the city last year.


As you explore the local neighbourhoods, try the streetside traditional breakfast called the "Four Heavenly Kings" - soya bean milk, fried dough fritters, Chinese scallion pancakes and fried glutinous rice cakes.


Jia Jia Tangbao (90 Huanghe Road, Huangpu Qu) - once a hole-in-the-wall for some of the best xiaolongbao in the city - now has eight branches across the city. Try the shengjianbao, or pan-fried bun with minced pork, as well.


Vegetarians will love Fu He Hui (No. 19 on Asia's 50 Best restaurants list, 1037 Yuyuan Road, Changning District), where they will get acquainted with China's vast variety of mushrooms. Set menus start from 580 yuan. My favourites are the lotus seed, honey pea, black fungus and smokey grilled porcini mushrooms.


In the evening, enjoy pre-dinner drinks - reasonably priced sochu and cocktails - at Mokkos (1245 Wuding W Road, Changning District), a quirky laid-back bar that plays reggae. You might want to start with a chuhai cocktail - sochu mixed with soda water and fruit juice.


Then join the hipsters who congregate at the Bund at celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Mercato (www.jean-georges.com/restaurants/china/shanghai/mercato) for gastropub food and drinks.


Bar Rouge (www.bar-rouge-shanghai.com) and Unico (www.unico shanghai.com/home) are where the beautiful and well-heeled go for after-hours fun.


While the night is still young, check out the Cuban-inspired Revolucion Cocktail bar (www.revolucion-cocktail.com), which putson a daredevil spectacle where the bar counter is literally set on fire while cocktails are being mixed. Order its signature Revolucion cocktail, made with rum, rosemary, passionfruit and apple juice.


Start the weekend with a relaxed brunch at Liquid Laundry (2/F 1028 Huaihai Middle Road, near Donghu Road, Xuhui District), where the cool cats hang out in the evenings over pub grub and cocktails with a live DJ.


For gastronomes, the exclusive $800 dinner experience at immersive three Michelin-starred restaurant Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet (uvbypp.cc) is a once-in-a-lifetime visit.


The perfectly executed French dinner will engage all five senses. Only 10 seats at a single table are available.


Shanghai is also home to the world's largest Starbucks Roastery (Taikoo Hui, 789 Nanjing Xi Lu), which spans 30,000 sq ft in the bustling Nanjing Lu, the city's main shopping street.


If Starbucks is not your cup of tea, check out one of the 14 Seesaw cafes (www.seesawcoffee.com). The company first brought speciality coffee to Shanghai in 2012 and introduced single-origin coffee to China.


Its first cafe on Yuyuan Lu remains the most charming outlet.


If you prefer a little more ambience, you may like The Press by Inno Coffee (309 Hankou Lu, The Press, Room A1-03, near Shandong Zhong), a cafe in a late 17th-century heritage building, the former home of Shanghai's oldest and longest-running newspaper, Shen Bao.


• Juliana Loh is a Singaporean freelance lifestyle writer based in Macau.

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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