The first chapter of Stella Dong’s Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City is called ‘The Ugly Daughter Rises’. The second line of her novel goes:
‘At the peak of its spectacular career, the swamp-ridden metropolis surely ranked as the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid and decadent city in the world.’
Standing on the balcony of newly redesigned, bronze-and-gold, turbo-luxe shopping mall Plaza 66, on Nanjing Xi Lu in Shanghai’s Jing’an district, watching David LaChapelle take photos, pâtissier Pierre Marcolini swoon over a pile of macarons, pastry chef Janice Wong create an ‘edible art installation’ and Alicia Keys belt out Empire State of Mind during her 15-minute set, Shanghai still lives up to two of those adjectives: pleasure-mad and decadent.
I mean, this mall isn’t even opening – it’s been operating for 16 years. It’s just had a very expensive facelift – that involved installing a Very Important Customer lounge for fancy clientele – and thrown the mother of all parties to celebrate it. (The toilets even have paper with the end folded into a little triangle, like in hotels.) There’s a new hashtag – #HomeToLuxury – to talk about it.
At Plaza 66’s opening night, a red carpet welcomes influencers, celebrities and most of Shanghai high society to watch the proverbial ribbon-cutting. Despite the well-publicised tax on luxury goods in China, consumerism – and confidence – in China’s most populous and bombastic city has had a gigantic shot in the arm. But don’t just take Plaza 66’s word for it.
Shanghai is in the midst of a new wave of building: new architecture, new creative zones, new neighbourhoods. Not forgetting new hotels. Sexy, sleek and cosmopolitan hotel brands are again sprouting everywhere.
This is 2017. Welcome to Shanghai’s third boom.
Over the past two years, Shanghai’s seen a handful of landmark new towers topped out: the curved, copper-fronted Bund Finance Centre, designed by Foster + Partners and Heatherwick Studios; and the very serious, businessy New Bund Trade Centre. The most significant of the city’s new clutch of supertalls is the twisty, vitreous Shanghai Tower. At 632 metres tall, it’s China’s tallest and most ambitious building.
Need to Know
This 160,000-square-foot Plaza 66, from Hang Lung Properties, is entirely dedicated to luxury brands, with a one-of-a-kind VIC lounge designed by Ilse Crawford (also behind the elegant designs of the the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong lounges) with exclusive items and experiences. plaza66.com
Bespoke Travel leads a new ‘history vs highrise’ tour of Shanghai, from the city’s English-style country cottages to some of the world’s most impressive mega-tall skyscrapers, with a European architect as your guide. bespoketravelcompany.com
I zipped up in a super-fast lift, paying 180RMB (HK$210) for the privilege, to peer down at the world from the 119th-floor viewing deck. It was a clearish day in Shanghai. I looked down at the curve of the Huangpu river and across to the Bund, where the colonial art deco buildings sat upright like the furniture of a doll’s house. The skyscrapers of futuristic Lujiazui beneath – which rise higher than London’s Shard, New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Willis Tower – looked like matchsticks.
Closer to earth, I went on to explore Shanghai’s gentrifying low-rise areas, with the help of Sam Braybon of tour operator Bespoke Travel.
‘When the Shanghai Tower opened, that was the last piece in Shanghai’s puzzle,’ Sam tells me. ‘Almost all of the new subway lines are finished. The next stage is to improve what’s already here.’
We’re in Egg, a tiny coffee shop just off Wulumuqi Lu in the tree-flecked French Concession. Shanghainese and imported creatives are tapping away on Macbooks. While everywhere else in Shanghai has become glassier and edgier, not much has changed in the golden square enveloping Wulumuqi Lu, Anfu Lu and Wuyuan Lu. The tiny cabin selling Feiyue trainers, where I bought my now battered shoes seven years ago, is still here. Expats and families are zipping around on rented Mobikes, buying cheap bunches of jasmine from roadside sellers and checking into the area’s massage parlours. (Need a hangover cure? Grab coffee at Anfu Lu’s Amokka followed by a treatment at Zen Massage on Wuyuan Lu.)
Where Shanghai is changing is where it all began: the Bund.
It’s no longer just the strip of art deco former embassies staring down the boiled-sweet-wrapped Oriental Pearl Tower – it’s gone up, down, east and west.
I bypass the gritty South Bund – which in 2010 welcomed the design-friendly Waterhouse hotel with a tall lobby, Kafka quotes tattooed onto the stone walls and one of the city’s unexpectedly good roof terraces; as well as the Power Station of Art, a concrete leviathan of a gallery, filled with obscure contemporary installations.
The ‘new’ Bund is further west: Shanghai’s latest creative zone. Critics might argue that China’s ‘build galleries, add artists’ formula is inorganic, but on a soupy Saturday afternoon the families, photography crews and dog-walking couples zipping around on orange Mobikes didn’t seem to care.
The riverside Longhua Dadao links galleries YUZ, West Bund Art Centre and the Shanghai Centre of Photography, but the most high profile is the newish Long Museum. Atelier Deshaus’ concrete hangar has attracted some big-name artists since it opened last year. This month, British artist Sir Antony Gormley’s embryonic bodies are hanging and lounging in his Still Moving exhibition (running until 26 November), its first outing into the Chinese mainland.
Then there’s the North Bund in Hongkou, home to the Chinese mainland’s newest W Hotel (and the first rooftop pool overlooking glittery Pudong – see below) as well as Shanghai’s new cruise terminal.
The regenerated Bund will have a job dragging people away from Nanjing Xi Lu, the buzzy commercial road that’s always had one eye on a good time. Home to Plaza 66, the neighbourhood is also where, earlier this year, Swire (also owners of Cathay Pacific) opened its HKRI Taikoo Hui shopping and entertainment complex. The mall is also art-friendly, with exhibitions such as the V&A London’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (until 5 November).
Soon to join HKRI Taikoo Hui’s mix of high-end retail and fun restaurants and bars is The Middle House, the new urban retreat from Swire Hotels’ House Collective – and in my opinion, the most exciting hotel (soon to open) in the city. It’s both contemporary and classically Shanghainese: Milanese architect Piero Lissoni’s exterior design incorporates round aluminium slats; while inside, traditional Chinese furniture overlooks generous windows. Jessica Wang, head of press for The Middle House, tells me over lunch at American bistro Highline, just off South Huangpi Road, that the new property will be ‘sexy and moody’ and have a standout spa. It’ll also incorporate some of the elements of Shanghai’s renowned nightlife scene.
Back to the nightlife.
Tonight, it involves five floors of Shanghai’s not-even-newest shopping mall on Nanjing Xi Lu. There’s a Cartier champagne vending machine, a troupe of bellboys dancing by the escalators and free-flow champagne and a DJ on the roof.
China’s ‘mongrel princess’ is back to its blinding, blaring, brilliant Babylon best.
The city that does sleep (sometimes)
This year is a bumper one for Shanghai hotel openings. Here’s a round-up of the best.
W Shanghai (opened June 2017)
W’s splashy entrance on North Bund sets it apart from the area’s art deco buildings and colonial mansions. Rooms (and the rooftop pool) come with uninterrupted views over the Huangpu river and Pudong skyline. Expect cheeky design cues like xiaolongbao cushions. starwoodhotels.com/whotels
Amanyangyun (opened October 2017)
The new hotel, meaning ‘nourishing cloud’, is a forest village of historic Ming and Qing dynasty buildings. A decade in the making, the new luxury hotel was brought piece by piece (including 1,000 camphor trees) from Jiangxi province. aman.com/amanyangyun
Capella Shanghai (opened September 2017)
This French Concession all-villa property is housed in historical shikumen buildings, originally constructed in the 1930s. Includes an outpost of restaurant Comptoir Pierre Gagnaire. capellahotels.com/shanghai
The Sukhothai Shanghai (opening March 2018)
An ‘urban oasis’ (clean, contemporary brushed wood and metal) on busy Nanjing Xi Lu. An annexe, a heritage building known as the ‘Cha House’, provides a historical counterpoint. sukhothaishanghai.com
Edition Shanghai (opening early 2018)
Boutique hotel godfather Ian Schrager’s Shanghai outpost of Edition will open on Nanjing Dong Lu, just five minutes from the Bund. True to its clubby roots, the sexy hotel will include a nightclub, two rooftop bars and plenty of drinking options. editionhotels.com/shanghai
Bulgari (opening late 2017)
Attached to the 1916 Shanghai Chamber of Commerce is the Bulgari Hotel Shanghai, set back from the Bund in the Suhe Creek development. The pitch: a landmark, 21,500-square-foot spa and eyewatering views of Pudong. bulgarihotels.com/shanghai
The Middle House (opening early 2018)
Swire Hotels’ House Collective unveils its latest project – The Middle House, part of the buzzy HKRI Taikoo Hui shopping district – on Nanjing Xi Lu. It brings with it a Shanghai outpost of Café Gray Deluxe, from Hong Kong’s The Upper House. the-house-collective.com
Cathay Pacific flies to Shanghai from Hong Kong 112 times a week.