Aldous Huxley, writing in the 1930s, called Shanghai “life itself”. These days, the famed opium dens have gone, along with the colourful gangsters, White Russian émigrés, sing-song bar girls and fugitives from justice who made Shanghai one of the most disreputable places on Earth in the 1920s and 1930s.
Huge tracts of the old city have been pulled down, replaced by wave upon wave of high-rise apartments – constructed to house a population heading towards 30 million – and fantasy skyscrapers that resemble gargantuan robots or hovering spaceships. Yet, in many ways, the city is unchanged; a glitzy boom town for opportunists,
a place of unimaginable excess and humble poverty, where every corner you turn offers something in stark contrast to the one before and traces of the past linger like the smoke of joss sticks in the yellow, polluted air.
It’s still possible to experience historic Shanghai in the French Concession, its lane houses and beautiful streets canopied with plane trees. Get your bearings with Shanghai Insiders on an exhilarating ride in the sidecar of a vintage motorbike. Ask your guide to stop at Xiangyang Lu, to taste the city’s heralded street food, such as the famous soup dumplings, xiaolongbao.
The fashion-conscious Shanghainese are extreme shoppers. As with everything else here, retail is a contrast between the gleaming high-end emporiums that have shot up on every corner and the tawdry malls selling cheap handbags and prescription glasses. Han Feng, a couturier with a lovely atelier in the French Concession, is the designer to visit for flamboyant accessories and bespoke tailoring. Or delve into South Bund Fabric Market and have a favourite garment copied – it’s almost mandatory.
Suitably fuelled and shopped out, it’s time to experience the city’s art. Collecting is now a national sport. Long Museum, on the banks of the Huangpu River, perfectly exemplifies Shanghai’s obsession with old and new. Built to incorporate an old industrial wharf, the spectacular cantilevered concrete gallery houses the largest private art collection in China and hosts world-class exhibitions.
Opt for a stroll along the Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverfront boulevard, with its splendid Art Deco buildings, floral displays and views of dazzling Pudong. The Fairmont Peace Hotel still hosts the Old Jazz Band, which first played there in 1947. Two original band members remain and the six veteran musicians average a sprightly 82 years of age. You can catch them in The Jazz Bar from 6.30pm.
Back in the French Concession, a taste of Shanghai’s storied decadence can be found at Yongfoo Elite (200 Yongfu Road, Xuhui), a club and restaurant in an atmospheric 1930s villa, once the British consulate. But if you prefer Shanghai’s futuristic face, French chef Paul Pairet’s avant-garde restaurant, Ultraviolet, employs multisensory technology to create an immersive and theatrical dining experience. It seats only 10 and is hidden away in an obscure car park.
A quick trip across the river and a heady elevator ride will deliver you to the 58th floor of The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong and the glamorous Flair Rooftop Restaurant & Bar, China’s highest alfresco dining venue. All of Shanghai is laid out before you. Life itself.