China’s Boutique Beauties

Design-focused and unbranded is the new trend in Shanghai

By: Gary Bowerman

Big may be beautiful, but small, design-focused and unbranded is the new trend in Shanghai’s hotel sector. While the city’s five-star corporate palaces continue to expand and thrive and the budget hotel sector continues to develop fast, Shanghai’s boutique hotel sector is starting to emerge from the shadows of the sky towers. This is great news for visitors seeking to stay in style, because as with most trends in China where Shanghai leads, the rest of the country soon follows.

Until late 2006, Shanghai’s booming tourism industry created only three boutique hotels: the 53-room suite-style 88 Xintiandi, favored by business travelers; the 12-room Old House Inn located in an old Shanghainese lane house and decorated in period style; and the even smaller The Nine, an exquisite four-room hotel in a restored French Concession villa on a quiet side street.

Leading Shanghai’s new boutique openings in late 2006 were Lapis Casa and M Suites. Located in the heart of downtown, adjacent to the popular Xintiandi dining and shopping district, Lapis Casa is a Mediterranean courtyard-themed hotel with Spanish archways, a terra-cotta terrace and heavy wooden doors. The 18 individually designed rooms, however, are dressed in period Shanghainese style, some with four-poster beds, antique-style furnishings and green jade sinks. Each has a plasma-screen TV, rainforest shower and Internet access. A Mediterranean restaurant is scheduled to open in late spring.

M Suites is situated in a converted 1930s art deco brewery beside the Suzhou River in the north of the city near the fashionable Moganshan Lu contemporary art district. Distinctly modernist and minimalist in design, the hotel has 24 rooms in contrasting styles and sizes. The most striking rooms are the river-view duplexes and the Emperor, Empress and Concubine suites, with expansive tiled bathrooms, large Jacuzzis, copper-tinted mirrored hallways and fine river views. The hotel has its own boat mooring, a rooftop terrace bar and one of the city’s most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants, Mimosa, run by Stefan Stiller, the only three-star Michelin chef cooking daily in Shanghai.

Combining classical luxury, 1930’s-style Chinese and French decor and high-tech modern amenities, Mansion Hotel is one of Shanghai’s hottest properties. Set in a beautifully restored 1930’s villa once owned by the city’s most notorious mafia boss, Du Yuesheng, it has history and character in abundance. The 32 spacious rooms are decorated in classical-period style, with art deco chandeliers, specially commissioned 1930’s French- and Chinese-styled sofas and armchairs and stone-tiled balconies. Modern amenities include wireless Internet, in-room iPod dock, rainforest shower and 42-inch plasma TV. There are two restaurants and a fifth-floor roof garden dining terrace. The owner’s vast collection of classic 1920s memorabilia including gramophones, typewriters and movie cameras and archive Shanghai photos are also on display throughout the lobby lounge.

Opening in summer 2007, Jia Shanghai will be the city’s most chic contemporary design hotel, and the first sibling (Krabi Island in Thailand is next) of the Philippe Starck-designed Jia Hong Kong. Jia means “home” in Mandarin, and this new hotel is designed for guests with an appreciation of life’s finer pleasures. The 55-room boutique property occupies a renovated 1920s building in the heart of fashionable Nanjing Xi Lu, a district boasting Shanghai’s glitziest boutiques and restaurants. Design features include timber-paneled walls, Chinese rugs, purpose-built kitchen pods and a home-theater entertainment system. The hotel also has a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

Among Shanghai’s future openings are the Pudi Hotel, a 50-room modern art deco property near Fuxing Park managed by Accor, and the city’s first gay-friendly boutique hotel, Pink Home, located in a renovated French Concession villa on Gao’an Lu.

Boutique Beijing and More
Like Shanghai, Beijing has a number of new boutique hotels expected in the coming months. Two of the capital’s most stylish bar/restaurants, Face and Green T House, are both planning to open hotels this year. In addition, a new design hotel will open inside one of the capital’s premier tourism attractions, the Summer Palace, and the developers of Shanghai’s Mansion Hotel are working on a new hotel project close to the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

Beijing’s premier boutique residence has long been the Red Capital Residence, a small courtyard hotel with five luxurious, yet quirky, rooms themed in Mao-era style and decoration. The below-ground Bomb Shelter bar and cigar humidor is unmissable. Red Capital’s American owner, Laurence J. Brahm, has recently opened a new sister boutique hotel in a traditional Tibetan courtyard house in Lhasa, Tibet, called House of Shambhala.

For a stylish stay at the foot of the Great Wall of China, Commune by the Great Wall is located in the stunning Shuiguan Valley, about 35 miles north of Beijing. This eclectic collection of high-design villas and chalets is complemented by an Anantara spa, fine-dining restaurant with deck terrace overlooking the valley and a private section for walking on the Great Wall. Commune has drawn leading global designers, architects and celebrities (Jennifer Lopez and Serena Williams have both partied here) to enjoy its views, contemporary Asian architecture and interiors and art exhibitions.

Opened last fall near the Forbidden City, Beijing’s newest boutique lodging is Hotel Kapok. Already singled out by style magazine Wallpaper as one of China’s hottest new design hotels, Kapok has 80 minimalist rooms in three categories: Fashion, Court and Suite. The rooms are dressed primarily in white, with earthy stone-gray and bamboo-green tones to infuse color. Each has a plasma-screen TV, plus high-design lamp stands and custom-made lounge chairs. There’s also a contemporary Western restaurant and bar, a small gym and a sauna.

So even as new mega-hotels go up all around the country, now could be the time to book adventurous clients in the highly designed inns of China.


88 Xintiandi

Jia Shanghai

Lapis Casa

Mansion House

M Suites (Pier One)

Old House Inn

The Nine

Commune by the Great Wall

Hotel Kapok

Red Capital Residence

House of Shambhala

Adventure Travel JDS Africa Middle East JDS Destinations