Though Shanghai is China’s largest city by official population, it feels much smaller than Beijing. Shanghai feels like New York City to Beijing’s sprawling L.A., minus the beaches and the Kardashians. I attribute this to the fact that Shanghai is divided into distinct neighborhoods, each with a unique identity, and doesn’t have the huge tribute buildings and roadways that Mao imposed on his capital city.
I didn’t have a chance to explore much and spent most of my time walking up and down the Bund. This area is often called an international architectural museum. It felt like stepping back in time, that is, as long as you can ignore the tourists. There’s nothing quite like hoards of pasty overweight westerners in skimpy summer clothes to make me wish I could pass as native. But, alas, no one ever asks me for local directions!
When the Europeans and Americans won the First Opium War in 1841, they forced the Chinese to open ports and to trade with the West. Shanghai was the most important of these newly opened ports and the British, French and Americans set up concessions outside the old walled city. While the old city remained under the control of the Chinese, the foreigners ruled the new areas. And, no different than the investment bankers and private equity barons of today, it was all about commerce.
While the great Hongs, or trading companies, diversified into many industries and some even survive to this day (think Jardine Matheson) they financed their empires on the profits of the opium trade. By 1910 Shanghai was on fire, people were flocking to the city, searching for and often finding huge riches. It was lawless, decadent and hedonistic. You could buy anyone and do anything. One missionary said “ If God lets Shanghai endure, he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
The Bund was originally the British Concession and evolved into the financial hub of Shanghai. It was also an important social centre. Banks, hotels, clubs, newspapers and head offices commissioned building along this strip. All in western styles and constructed before 1930. 26 remain.
While the exteriors haven’t changed much, the interiors have not been as fortunate. When the Japanese took over Shanghai during WWII they abused the western décor. And when the Communists gained control in 1949, these buildings were considered the epitome of western decadence. They were invariably looted, stripped and converted into charmless government offices.
Luckily, the current government sees things differently and has been actively promoting the return of this area to its glory days. Wonderful art deco details are being uncovered and amazing interiors restored. When the sun goes down, the party begins. The magic of the Bund explodes with nightclubs, restaurants and bars. Dandy people stroll the avenue like the boulevardiers of Paris or Barcelona.
My favorite spot was the Long Bar at the Waldorf Hotel. I walked in the door and stepped back to the 1930s. The singer sounded like Billy Holiday and sang Cole Porter classics. I knew the words. The sax player was amazing and the cocktails divine. It seemed as if nothing had changed since the building was constructed in 1910 to house the very prestigious Shanghai Club.
The Shanghai Club was the most famous and exclusive club in town and the Long Bar was known throughout the world. Not surprisingly the bar itself was said to be the longest in the world and, as legend would have it, Noel Coward once lay his head down on its surface and exclaimed he could see the curvature of the earth. It was 110 feet long and, though I doubt it can still claim to be the world’s longest, it is very impressive nonetheless.
As with so much of modern China, the Long Bar had to be rescued from its ignominious recent past. Temporarily sacrificed in the 1990s for that beacon of high cultural – KFC – the property was closed and derelict until the economic boom brought the Hilton Group in 2009. Ironically, the room that evoked such nostalgia has only been open since October. Hilton has done the most incredible job in restoring the building and, more particularly, the Long Bar. The bar was meticulously recreated based on old documentation and photos and, while it is a replica, it feels wonderfully authentic. .
In 1911, the journalist, Carl Crow wrote of the Shanghai Club “there were probably few places in the world where per capita consumption of alcoholic drinks was greater.” As you might have anticipated, we did not want to depart from history and did our best to sample much of the impressive cocktail menu. I can enthusiastically recommend the Peach cocktail (rum, lemon juice, mint and peach puree). It was particularly delicious!
Of course, while I was enthralled by the stylish retro feel, I am very pleased that Shanghai society has evolved to allow women into such places. After all, what good is a cocktail bar if it has the social maturity of a men’s locker-room? Wallis Simpson, before she was the Duchess of Windsor, said of her time in this city, “No doubt about it, life in Shanghai was good, very good; and in fact, almost too good for a woman.” I felt a bit that way myself.