White Hot Shanghai

48 hours in the ‘Paris of the Orient’

By: Gary Bowerman

Trees glinting with festive lights, store assistants wearing Santa hats and carols sung in Mandarin weren’t what I had expected of Christmas in Shanghai. Cantonese restaurants offering Yuletide menu specials never even figured. People had told me it would be a non-event, falling as it does between the Chinese Mid-Autumn and New Year festivals. But I should have known better if Shanghai teaches you one lesson, it’s not to make summary judgments.

Shanghai had good reason to celebrate Christmas 2004, the figurative ending of the year in which it re-emerged as a white-hot urban destination. Champagne flowed in the new Tongren Lu bar street and fireworks fizzed in the skies above Xintiandi. Another thing Shanghai teaches you: It loves to party.

For clients in search of a pulsing city experience 48 hours that transport you from the past to the future and back to the present few places currently match Shanghai. Time recently named it “the world’s most happening city” and 4 million overseas visitors came to experience China’s 21st-century city last year.

What they discovered was a futuristic skyline, world-class hotels, bustling convention centers and varied tourism sites. The world’s first magnetic levitation passenger train (running at 260 mph!) runs between the airport and the outskirts of town, and a major new cruise port, the world’s longest bridge and largest Ferris wheel are all coming soon. All that and its fashionable restaurants and nightlife are the hottest in Asia. Clients new to Shanghai will find its fascination framed by its rich history, fast-paced present and white-knuckle ride into the future

48 Hours to the Future
There’s a lot to pack in during 48 hours, so clients should be prepared for a tight schedule. Making the most of Shanghai means plenty of street time and very little downtime.

Many visitors (not unreasonably) make straight for the Bund. But why not soak up some classic Old Shanghai first?

Famous in the go-go 1920s and ’30s as Asia’s capital of hedonism, Shanghai thrived as the “Paris of the Orient.” During this time, its hotels were centerpieces of high society, and you can still visit some of them. Standing in the lobbies of the Peace, Metropole and Pujiang hotels, the time-warp ambience makes it easy to imagine oneself as a cigar-chewing gangster or martini-sipping movie star of yore. This era was the inspiration for Merchant/Ivory’s latest period film “The White Countess,” shot around Shanghai’s historic back streets this fall.

During that colonial period, Shanghai was carved into self-governed settlements by the British, French and American powers. The French created the most architecturally alluring “concession” and today the atmospheric streets in the former French Concession, such as Shaanxi Lu, Gao’an Lu, Yongjia Lu, Changle Lu, Huangpi Nan Lu and Fuxing Lu, are brimming with life and photo opportunities.

There is no end to the entertaining cityscapes found here. Tricycle delivery riders and taxis compete for road space, as motorcyclists revert to the sidewalks. All day, people congregate around glass cabinets nailed to the walls to read the posted daily newspaper, while fruit sellers slouch in deckchairs in front of their kiosks. On seemingly every corner there is a card or domino game.

Pajamas and Dumplings
While exploring this area, it’s worth looking out for Shanghai’s daytime “pajama culture” a fallback to a more communal-based living environment whereby elder citizens wear their night clothes while going about their daily shopping, porch sweeping and, sometimes, cycling duties.

Returning from past to present, midday means one thing: lunchtime. This is my favorite time of the Shanghai day, as its culinary street theater is an absorbing, and zealously guarded, ritual. Clients should grab their camera and hit the labyrinthine streets behind the Bund, a mile-long strip of 23 colonial-era mansions (note the Chinese flag atop each one). Time it right, and long lines will be forming outside the steamed bun and dumpling stalls, noodle stands and food kiosks. Braver clients might want to join in and sample the local specialties, such as xiaolongbao steamed dumplings filled with pork and scalding soup or stinky tofu, whose name really is no mistake.

Fully refreshed, the afternoon should begin with a stroll along the famous Bund, which faces off against the space-age skyline of Pudong on the opposite bank of the Huangpu, home to the world’s highest hotel and hotel bar (both at the Grand Hyatt in the Jinmao Tower) and the emblematic Oriental Pearl Tower. Clearly visible also is the construction site of the world’s tallest building, due for completion by the end of 2007.

An elevated pedestrian walkway offers good photo angles and the Bund Museum at the north end provides some photographic history. A ferry traverses the Huangpu in summer or you can take a metro or cab to the other side.

Clients should explore the Bund both by day and at night, when the contrast between the old (Bund) and new (Pudong) Shanghai is exaggerated by the nighttime lighting. Several inexpensive cruise boats offer short river trips until mid-evening.

Dine in Style
Visitors can finish up the day by experiencing Shanghai’s restaurant scene, which is attracting global acclaim backed up by the new Zagat’s Survey, its first publication in China.

Three Michelin-starred chefs opened stylish restaurants in 2004: Jean Georges at Three on the Bund, the Pourcel brothers’ Sens et Bund at Bund 18 and Stefan Stiller’s Club Shanghai at the Shanghai Concert Hall. Elsewhere, esteemed eateries M on the Bund, T8, Whampoa Club and classy newcomers Casanova (Italian) and Thai Gallery offer world-class dining experiences.

Xintiandi, a restaurant and bar district housed in renovated shikumen (stone gate) houses remains Shanghai’s most popular night out, particularly during summer for al fresco eating. The waterfront Bund is fast transforming itself into Shanghai’s most chic nightlife and entertainment district. As well as Shanghai’s best international food, it is home to Club Rouge, Shanghai’s hottest cocktail lounge. Glamour Bar, an adjunct to M on the Bund restaurant, retains its pre-eminent status for pre-dinner drinks.

For after-dinner drinks, the choice is vast. In late December, a glitzy new strip of late-night bars and clubs was opened on Tongren Lu. New wine lounges, such as Senses and Zin, reveal a previously dormant passion for the vine, while Face and Sasha’s are smart lounge bars in restored mansions.

Several new clubs opened in 2004, many attracting guest spots from international superstar DJs. Hot spots include La Fabrique, Mint, Madame Zung and Guandii local hero Yao Ming’s favored spot for a hometown night out.

Day Two: Model City
Perhaps, the Urban Planning Museum wouldn’t be the first Day Two stop on many tourists’ itineraries, but trust me, it’s the best place to grasp modern Shanghai’s sheer vastness. And clients will adore its gigantic scale model of Shanghai circa 2010. A laser show pinpoints Shanghai’s architectural highlights and ongoing city landscaping due for completion before Shanghai hosts World Expo 2010 (note the countdown clock at the museum’s entrance).

A short hop away is the idiosyncratic Shanghai Museum, housing China’s finest collection of historical treasures, paintings, ceramics and traditional clothing, plus a fine souvenir and bookshop. Both museums sit in the middle of People’s Park, originally created as a crescent-shaped horse racetrack in the early 20th century.

Take time here to contrast Shanghai’s classic and modernist architectural mix in the buildings ringing the square the brooding art deco masterpiece of the Park Hotel (officially the geographic center of Shanghai), the brash futurism of the JW Marriott hotel, the neo-classical Shanghai Art Museum (previously the Shanghai Jockey Club), and the updated classic style of the Shanghai Grand Theatre. Across the park, technical ingenuity was at play during 2004, when the Shanghai Concert Hall was physically lifted about 10 feet up and moved 218 feet southeast, to its new location.

Taking a different historical turn, the Propaganda Poster Art Center offers a fascinating insight to life in post-WWII Shanghai. This tiny basement gallery exhibits hundreds of colorful and, occasionally, bizarre posters and street paintings utilized by Mao Zedong’s government to cajole national pride and allegiance to the motherland.

The next stop takes you further back to gain some understanding of Maoism’s Shanghai roots. The place where Mao and China’s Communist Party first secretly convened in July 1921 is now a museum at 321 Huangpi Nan Lu (next to Xintiandi).

Hit the Shops
With the history, culture, architecture and urban planning boxes neatly ticked, I suggest a grand finale of offloading some Chinese currency on gifts and souvenirs.

Shanghai can rate against most world cities when it comes to shopping. Nanjing Lu and Huaihai Lu are the central shopping thoroughfares, both featuring national and international stores and malls. The pedestrianized eastern end of Nanjing Lu is most atmospheric in early evening, when locals come out to shop beneath the neon lights after work.

Brand devotees should head to the Plaza 66 mall, where, among others, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and Ermenegildo Zegna lie in wait. Other up-market plazas include Three on the Bund, Bund 18 and Lane Crawford.

If handcrafted products are your clients’ thing, direct them to the former artists’ colony of Taikang Lu, whose boutiques and workshops now sell Shanghai’s most inventive range of jewelry, fashions and household accessories. Changle Lu, Fuxing Lu, Hunan Lu and Xinle Lu also have neat clothing and accessory boutiques owned by local designers. Clients seeking something to adorn the fireplace back home might try Spin, an innovative pottery studio on Julu Lu, or the Yu Yuan Bazaar in old Shanghai, where traditional tea sets and textiles are a good value. Xiangyang Market is the place to bargain for fake designer goods (and even golf clubs!).

After 48 hours of bargain hunting and fine dining, historic hotels and futuristic skyscrapers, river cruises, street food, double-taking cyclists and pajama-wearing market vendors, I’m sure your clients will agree: Shanghai is a city of the future and the future looks quite wild indeed.


Champion Holidays

China Travel Service


Nearly every tour to China stops in Shanghai, which is just as it should be according to Steve Xu, president of Champion Holidays.

“A tour is not complete if it doesn’t stop in Shanghai,” he said. “Most of our tours spend at least two nights in Shanghai. A lot of other tour companies only spend one night, but we believe you really need two nights.”

Christina Liadis, sales and marketing manager for San Francisco-based China Travel Service, agreed.

“The good thing is that Shanghai often is the last stop on a set itinerary, so it’s easy to add on nights there,” Liadis said.

In fact, there’s plenty to see even for clients who have been there before, as the city is constantly evolving.

“We have repeat visitors that go back after a year or even less,” Xu said, “and they can’t believe how much the city has changed. It feels like skyscrapers go up every day.” Both operators said Shanghai can look forward to even more growth.

“The expectation is that it will rival Hong Kong for business travel before too long,” Liadis said. “And we do a lot of FIT business there also with personal guides, drivers and itineraries.”

Xu agreed that Shanghai is a good destination for FIT clients.

“Shanghai is an easy-going and convenient city, many of the street signs are in English and the local people are often well educated and speak English,” he said. “Therefore it’s a good choice for FIT.”

When asked, Xu had many must-see attractions in the city including the Shanghai Museum, which he described as “probably the best in all of China” but Yu Gardens is one of his favorite spots.

“Yu Gardens is fascinating for visitors,” he said. “They are not like the Imperial-style gardens in Beijing. They are delicately designed and good for wandering.”

Liadis also mentioned Yu Gardens, along with strolling along the Bund and taking an evening cruise on the Huangpu. She suggested Shanghai’s world-famous acrobatic troupe as well.

“The acrobats do all sorts of incredible things,” she said. “The show is 80 minutes long and it takes place every night. It’s perfect when combined with a dinner out.” Kenneth Shapiro


It was a good year for Shanghai: Convention centers were booked months in advance and hotel rooms were full. In addition, Shanghai’s emergence as the darling of the glossy travel magazines reaped a new harvest of leisure travelers. Sustained demand for rooms also pushed up rates, with hikes of 20 percent not uncommon.

Most international hotel brands are here, and Ritz-Carlton recently became Shanghai’s first upscale hotel to manage a luxury cruise boat on the Huangpu River. (All hotels listed here offer agent commission, and add on a 15 percent service charge to room rates.)

JW Marriott Tomorrow Square (Puxi): Now into its second year, this iconic 60-floor skyscraper is Marriott’s China flagship. Centrally located on People’s Park, it combines 342 rooms and suites with 255 serviced apartments. The 360-degree city views from the 38th floor lobby are unbeatable and the Mandara Spa is divine.
Rates run from $144 per night.

Portman Ritz-Carlton (Puxi): Established luxury favorite at the Shanghai Center restaurant and shopping complex on busy Nanjing Road. Impeccable service and attention to detail have garnered several awards. The 578 rooms are divided into several categories. Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti and Bill Clinton have tested out the suites. Rates range from $370 per night.

Pudong Shangri-La: Riverfront location in Pudong with great views of the Bund. A major player in the corporate meetings market, the 606 rooms, including 31 suites, will be bolstered in mid-2005 by the addition of a second tower. The resulting 981-room hotel will be Shanghai’s largest. A new signature Fook Lam Moon Cantonese restaurant opened in October 2004.
From $168 per night.

Grand Hyatt (Pudong): Located on the 53rd to 87th floors of Pudong’s emblematic 88-story Jin Mao Tower, the Grand Hyatt’s rooms are among Shanghai’s most coveted. Several bars and restaurants are topped off by the 87th-floor Cloud 9 lounge bar, the highest bar in the world.
Rates vary depending on time of year.

St. Regis (Pudong): Mainland China’s only entrant on the 2004 Travel + Leisure Best Hotels in the World list. It offers 318 rooms, including 48 suites, each with complimentary broadband Internet access, BOSE music system and rainforest shower. The lobby area is designed to replicate an opera, and two floors have dedicated ladies’ guestrooms.
From $190 per night.