China’s Rising Star: Shanghai

39s007lThe city of Shanghai positively buzzes. Construction cranes compete with vaulting geometric silhouettes taking form hundreds of feet above the ground as orbs, obelisks, rectangles and other shapes take form in a building frenzy, articulated uniquely in Sino-English billboards that proclaim things like “Shanghai: With Luck and Brilliancy.” While cities in the US and other parts of the world seem at a standstill as they dig out from a global great recession, Shanghai hums 24/7. After dark , the show becomes even more electric, as tour boats plying the Huangpu River and multi-story towers glow in a neon nightscape as brash as any Vegas arcade. But there is much more to Shanghai than non-stop construction and light shows.

The city is currently preparing for the World Expo, set to kick-off in May 2010, and it seems all of Shanghai’s 22 million denizens are looking at this not only as a coming-out party for the city, but a point of national pride─a defining moment as China’s arrival as a bonafide superpower. (Related billboard: “Greeting the Expo with Civilization!”) Certainly the city possesses all the elements of a world-class destination. Superb cuisine and hotels, evocative nightlife, and seemingly unlimited shopping of both the cutting-edge and counterfeit kind make Shanghai a heady mix.

Following is a shortlist to help you dive into the frenetic, fantastic journey that is a Shanghai sojourn. Enjoy the ride…

Extreme Shopping: Buy Any Means Necessary

If America created the mass consumer market, it is now plainly obvious that China has knocked it off, sometimes making it equal or better, but always cheaper. To come to Shanghai and not shop would be a sin of omission akin to not taking in a Hawaiian sunset or traveling to Paris and not exploring the Louvre. From sleek, upmarket boutiques like Shanghai Tang to the fashion free-for-all that is the Fabric Market, there is simply no option but to partake. While the housewares, silk-lined jackets, leather furnishings and other eye candy of Shanghai Tang are of a quality (and price point) equal to what you find in LA or New York, offerings at the Fabric Market (official name: South Bund Soft Spinning Fabric Market) located south of Old Shanghai vary as widely as the China/USA trade deficit. But for the cautious and clever buyer, this is extreme-shopping nirvana─the place to get $100 custom-made wool suits and $70 tailored silk cheongsams.

Fabric Market

Fabric Market

At four floors with literally hundreds of stalls, the Fabric Market can be pretty daunting. I recommend restricting your search to the first two floors where you’ll find the best outlets. (Hot tip: local hotels like the Pudong Shangri-La can arrange for a local tailor to escort you, help negotiate the best deal and then tailor your design). In my case, I saw a mandarin-style leather jacket in Shanghai Tang for $1000, which I later described to a shop owner and tailor in the Fabric Market who had it ready for me the next day. It was done perfectly to my expectations. Price? 1,000 RMB, or about $130.

Finally, love ‘em or hate ‘em, counterfeit goods are a reality on the ground. Whether you decide to take part in this forbidden fruit or not, you will encounter them. More than a few expats and visitors were spotted recently at the A.P Shopping Center (aka the “Fake Market”) near the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum, where copies of brand name bags, watches and luggage are on display, and Da Gu Lu, aka “DVD Street,” where DVDs of every category are sold at dirt cheap prices.

French Concession

MadameMaoIn contrast to the concrete, steel and glass of most of the city, Shanghai’s French Concession, an historic area once populated by the city’s French mercantile community 150 years ago, is a welcome respite. Tree-lined streets and Continental-style brick and stone manses create an inviting district filled with trendy and quirky shops purveying everything from hip fashion to Chairman Mao mementos. (Note: although your bartering skills may have been sharpened at the Fabric Market, most of the boutiques here are a no-barter zone). Fashionistas should check out eno on Changle Lu, with its designs by young local designers, while reflecting its cheeky name, Madame Mao’s Dowry is filled with wry riffs on Mao gear and propaganda.

Shanghai Cuisine: To Dine For

M On The Bund

M On The Bund

M on the Bund: The romanticized Shanghai of the 1920’s hasn’t disappeared, you just have to seek it out now. M on the Bund is one of those gems where you can not only tap into that era, but partake in an excellent meal as well. Situated in an Art Deco-era building located on the Bund, Shanghai’s historic riverside promenade, M offers fantastic views of the city across the Huangpu River, as well as neighboring buildings dated from the same era bedecked with swirling Deco design elements that only add to the ambiance. Gracious service and an adventurous menu focused on European and North African specialties, including their savory Couscous Royale, round out the experience.

Nadaman: If you need a break from the richness of Chinese specialties, haute Japanese cuisine is on the menu at the Shanghai outpost of Tokyo’s famed Nadaman. A compelling Japanese minimalist design of granite, natural woods and modernist lanterns rendered by Tokyo design outfit Super Potato set the backdrop for impeccable meals served by a kimono-clad staff. The feeling is authentic and the food memorable, particularly the kaiseki meals.

FU 1039: Go local in a big way at this restaurant located in a grand former residence on Yuyuan Lu. This is legit Shanghainese cuisine: oily, sweet and savory dishes like chilled jellyfish with spring onion oil, sweet lotus root, and slow cooked sweet river eel in soy sauce. The venue is hard to find (you have to walk down a long, unmarked road off the main street), the musty furnishings are bonafide antiques and few of the staff speak English, but I guarantee it will be one of your most memorable meals in Shanghai.

Shanghai Entertainment: Night Moves

Bar Rouge: Another venue on the Bund that evokes retro Shanghai─albeit with a decidedly modern twist of recessed red lights, sleek surfaces and a party-ready crowd of expats and localsis Bar Rouge. The bar scene here is pretty high-octane, but for a true Shanghai experience, head out to the expansive open-air patio and take in the glittering lights of the city and river below.

JZ Club: While Bar Rouge is predominately peopled by expats, JZ Club is where a bohemian crowd of primarily locals go to sip moderately-priced cocktails and take in local jazz bands. A neighborhood vibe predominates in the two-story venue, fusing boho-chic with local bar ambiance. Weekends are popular, so go early to get a good seat, or head upstairs to chat with friends at a cozy table.

Shanghai Hotels: Best Nests

Shangri-La Suite, Grand Tower

Shangri-La Suite, Grand Tower

Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai: Striking a dramatic profile on the Pudong (east) side of the river, the two towers of the Shangri-La Hotel are a coveted address for visitors wanting a privileged taste of what five-star amenities and service in Asia are all about. The older River Wing, which just two months ago underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, features classic touches like chandeliers in all rooms, original Chinese oils and Queen Anne-style furnishings. Opened in 2005, the newer Grand Tower, a personal favorite, is the more contemporary option, with sleek surfaces of high-gloss rosewood, leather and silk predominating. Appealing as the room’s furnishings are, the closer is the floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the river, which have to be one of the best views of the city I experienced. Finally, the hotel’s award-winning Chi Spa and its Himalayan-themed treatments provide true refuge amidst the buzz and bustle of Shanghai.

Urbn Hotels Shanghai: Affordable luxury in the heart of Shanghai, the 26-room Urbn Hotel offers a green and sustainable ethos to boot. China’s first carbon neutral property, Urbn features modern, minimalist design touches like sunken lounges, slate-lined bathrooms and raised platform beds as well as a rooftop garden. A bonus is its location adjacent to the French Concession.

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